Encyclopaedia: Discovery Expedition

A contribution which Claire and I wrote for Antarctica and the Arctic Circle: A Geographic Encyclopedia of the Earth’s Polar Regions.

The British National Antarctic Expedition, now known as the Discovery Expedition, took place between 1901 and 1904. During this time, other expeditions from Germany, Sweden, France, and Scotland also traveled to Antarctica. The Discovery Expedition was carried out under the auspices of the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society, and was intended to renew Great Britain’s involvement in the exploration of Antarctica.

The Discovery Expedition had both exploratory and scientific objectives. Specifically, they were to forge as far south as possible and to conduct oceanographic, meteorological, magnetic, biological, and geological observations en route.

The projected cost of the expedition was £90,000, half of which was sourced from the British Government, while the balance was raised by the two royal societies. The expedition vessel, the Discovery, was a three-masted wooden sailing ship, specifically designed for research in Antarctic conditions. She was constructed in Dundee at a cost of around £51,000.

The ship’s crew was recruited from the Royal Navy, the Merchant Marine, and the civilian population. Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912) was appointed as commander of the Discovery and leader of the expedition. Other noteworthy members of the crew were Ernest Shackleton (1874–1922), Tom Crean (1877–1938), and John Robert Francis “Frank” Wild (1873–1939). The scientific team consisted of Louis Bernacchi (meteorologist and magnetic observer), Hartley Ferrar (geologist), Thomas Hodgson (marine biologist), Edward Wilson (junior doctor and zoologist), and Reginald Koettlitz (senior doctor). Of these, only Bernacchi had previous Antarctic experience.

Discovery departed from Cardiff on August 6, 1901, traveling via Cape Town to Lyttelton, New Zealand. There, she prepared for the journey into the Southern Ocean, taking on supplies that included 45 live sheep donated by local farmers. After three weeks in port, she departed, sailing south. She stopped at Cape Adare and then Cape Crozier, which was to serve as a point where messages detailing the location of the expedition could be relayed to relief ships. Discovery then proceeded eastward along the Victoria Barrier (now known as the Ross Ice Shelf), before entering McMurdo Sound on February 8, 1902. Here she dropped anchor and soon became frozen into the sea ice, where she would be trapped for two years. Huts were erected on a nearby rocky peninsula. The larger hut was intended to act as accommodation. However, it was not conducive to habitation, and the expedition personnel continued to live on the ship. Two smaller huts housed scientific instruments including magnetometers and a seismograph.

The scientists, who had made measurements on the journey south, continued to take meteorological and magnetic observations during the winter. Preparations were also made for work to be undertaken during the next summer.

The men, who had little or no experience of skiing or dog sledging, began to practice these skills. They underestimated the dangerous conditions, and on a training journey, one of the parties fell to his death during a blizzard. Two overland journeys took place during the winter. A team led by Royds traveled to Cape Crozier to leave a message for a relief ship. When they arrived, they discovered a colony of emperor penguins. Scott, Wilson, and Shackleton also set off across the ice shelf with the goal of getting as far south as possible. Due to their inexperience with polar travel, progress was slow. The conditions of men and dogs deteriorated rapidly. The weaker dogs were killed and fed to the other dogs. They reached 82º 17′S before turning back. This was the closest that anybody had got to the South Pole. After the last of the dogs died, the men were forced to haul the sleds themselves. Shackleton was unable to assist since he was overcome with scurvy. The team returned to the Discovery on February 3, 1903.

While Scott’s party was away, a relief ship arrived with supplies and a letter addressed to him authorizing the expedition to stay for a second year. A number of the men, including the ailing Shackleton, returned home with the relief ship. The Discovery spent a second winter in the ice.

In the spring of 1903, a group led by Scott once again set out, heading westward toward the South Magnetic Pole. Since there were no dogs left, it was a man-hauling journey. Their progress, however, was appreciably better than on the previous journey. After ascending a large glacier, they reached the Polar Plateau at a height of around 6,500 ft. (2,000 m). On the return journey, they discovered a valley completely free of snow. The existence of such dry valleys was not previously known.

Upon Scott’s return, the Discovery was still stuck in the ice despite extensive efforts to free her. Two relief vessels soon arrived bearing instructions to Scott to abandon the Discovery if he was not able to free her quickly. Explosives and ice saws were employed to break up the ice around the ship. When she still would not budge, the men started to transfer important items to the relief ships. However, suddenly on Valentine’s Day, 1904, the ice around the Discovery broke up, and she was free. On February 17, 1904, she began her journey home. Returning via Lyttelton, the Discovery arrived in Portsmouth on September 10, 1904, and soon sailed for London, where she docked with little fanfare.

After his return, Scott was promoted to captain and received an array of awards. A number of the officers and crew also received the Polar Medal. Among the various outcomes of the expedition, the highlights were the discovery of the Polar Plateau, a dry valley, and an emperor penguin colony; evidence suggesting that the ice barrier was not seated on land but floating on the sea; and magnetic measurements that allowed a better estimate of the location of the South Magnetic Pole. Numerous new geological and biological specimens were also found.