On this day in 1820 a Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev discovered Antarctica. They spotted an ice shelf at Princess Martha Coast that later became known as the Fimbul Ice Shelf. Bellingshausen and Lazarev therefore became the first explorers to see and officially discover the land of the continent.
It had been long theorised that a vast continent, known as Terra Australis, exist in the far south of the globe, and hypothetical versions of it often appeared on maps between the 15th and 18th centuries. The theories however actually originated in antiquity, with the term Antarctic, referring to the opposite of the Arctic Circle, coined by Marinus of Tyre in the 2nd century AD. The existence of Terra Australis, or Antarctica, was not based on any survey or direct observation, but rather on the idea that continental land in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the Southern Hemisphere. This theory of balancing land has been documented as early as the 5th century on maps by Macrobius, who uses the term Australis on his maps.
The rounding of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn in the 15th and 16th centuries proved that Terra Australis Incognita ("Unknown Southern Land"), if it existed, was a continent in its own right. In 1773 James Cook and his crew crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time but although they discovered nearby islands, they did not catch sight of Antarctica itself. It is believed he was as close as 240 km (150 mi) from the mainland.
So it would not be until January 27th 1820 and the expedition of Von Bellingshausen and Lazarev that the existence of a landmass was confirmed. It is certain that the expedition’ ships, the Vostok and Mirny, reached on January 28th 1820 a point within 32 km (20 mi) from Princess Martha Coast and recorded the sight of an ice shelf at 69°21′28″S 2°14′50″W. The expedition also discovered Peter I Island and Alexander I Island, the first islands to be discovered south of the circle.
Three days later, on January 30th, a British expedition captained by Irishman Edward Bransfield sighted Trinity Peninsula, and ten months later an American sealer Nathaniel Palmer sighted Antarctica on November 17th. The first landing was probably just over a year later when American Captain John Davis, a sealer, set foot on the ice on February 7th 1821. The exploration of the continent commenced, although for most of the 19th century it would be confined to the coastal areas and not penetrate the interior. This would take place in what is known as The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which began at the end of the 19th century, and ended after the First World War, with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s expedition reaching the South Pole on December 14th 1911.
This map was built by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on exploration. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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