Antarctica & Us – The Human History of a Unique Continent

Learn how humanity had been interested in Antarctica since the Ancient Greeks and the reasons that have kept curiosity alive here for centuries.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Antarctica & Us – The Human History of a Unique Continent

Antarctica is commonly known as a place of superlatives: the highest, driest, windiest, and coldest continent – and home to some of the world’s most amazing wildlife. Its lesser-known human history adds three more features that are unique to the 7th Continent:

  • It is the last continent discovered.
  • It is the only continent without an indigenous population. That also makes it the only continent truly discovered, when it was discovered.
  • It is the only continent that does not belong to anyone.

A visitor photographs a “penguin highway”, penguins always have the right of way – Credit: Sandra Walser


Over 200 Years of Antarctic History

Today, we can travel to Antarctica, this remote and hostile place, in relative comfort. But it is important to realize, that the first purpose-built cruise ship only came here in 1969. That was the same year our species turned to space and landed on the moon! Just a bit more than 200 years ago, there was a huge white spot on the map of the Southern hemisphere: Antarctica had not been discovered.

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Visitors on Magellan Explorer enjoy the scenic Lemaire Channel area. – Credit: Sandra Walser


Antarctica in the Ancient World

Interestingly enough, the belief in the existence of a great southern continent dates back to the very beginning of classical geography. It is derived from the concept of symmetry of nature. Scientists like Aristotle or Ptolemy from ancient Greece and Rome not only believed in a spherical earth. They also thought that the largely known landmasses of the Northern hemisphere had to somehow be balanced in the South.

Southern hemisphere map from 1818 – Credit: Wikimedia Commons


Early Antarctic Explorations

During his famous voyages around the world in the 1770s, James Cook – unknowingly – circumnavigated Antarctica. He even crossed the polar circle several times and came as close as 120 km to the coast, but he never saw any land. What he did discover though was the island of South Georgia and its large numbers of seals. That sparked somewhat of a gold rush.

Blow of a humpback whale – Credit: Sandra Walser


In those days, sealing and whaling were major industries. Fossil fuels had not been discovered yet, oil from whales and seals was widely used in industrial processes and to provide lighting. Some species, for example, the fur seal, were also hunted for their fur. So within no time and driven by profit, sealers and whalers came to the barely known Antarctic waters and heavily exploited the area well into the second half of the 20th century. Luckily, nowadays most species show signs of a recovery, confirmed by more and more sightings of blue whales, which were basically extinct. The fur seals are abundant again.

Visitors checking out a whale skeleton at a former whaling site on the Antarctic Peninsula – Credit: Sandra Walser


Elephant Seal, fur seals and king penguins take over the remains of a former whaling station at South Georgia – Credit: Sandra Walser


Adélie penguins and fur seals at a landing site – Credit: Sandra Walser


Fur seal pups – Credit: Sandra Walser


A lot of the early exploration of the Antarctic was, somewhat ironically, driven by seal furs and whale oil. There is quite some dispute over who discovered the continent, and the answer depends on whom you ask. Several sightings happened in 1820. Highly likely, it was Fabian von Bellinghausen, a Baltic German hired by the Russian Zar, who sighted Antarctica first.

Port Lockroy, former British Base A, established 1944, today museum/gift shop – Credit: Sandra Walser


Of course, his discovery triggered a lot of exploration. Many explorers had nationalistic motifs: They wanted to discover previously unknown land in the name of their country. These activities as well as geographical reasons lead to official claims, some even overlapping, especially in the area of the Antarctic peninsula.

Interior Wordie Hut – Credit: Sandra Walser


The Antarctic Treaty

The Two World Wars hit at the height of Antarctic exploration and the dark decades brought some change of thought. In 1957/58 the International Geophysical Year took place, a major global research initiative with many projects in Antarctica. Their outstanding success led the 12 nations involved to agree that peaceful scientific cooperation in the Antarctic should continue indefinitely. In 1959, they signed the so-called Antarctic Treaty which came into force in 1961. Several additional agreements have been added since, and today there are 54 signatory nations.

At the South pole, the flags of the 12 signatory nations from 1961 – Credit: Jeff Keller, NSF


The Antarctic Treaty is a unique piece of legislation, a massive public good:

  • It puts any territorial claims on hold. That means that Antarctica is the only continent that does not belong to anyone. So when entering Antarctica, you won’t find immigration procedures.
  • It stipulates that Antarctica should be used for peaceful purposes only. That makes Antarctica the only continent without a military or police.
  • It guarantees freedom to conduct scientific research and it promotes international cooperation.
  • It declares Antarctica a nuclear-free zone.
  • A set of rules and impact assessments have been put in place to protect the Antarctic environment. Among others, tourism is strongly regulated.

Ukrainian research station Vernadsky, mast with signs pointing in the direction of various research stations – Credit: Sandra Walser


The next time crucial elements of the Antarctic Treaty – regarding mining, for example – will come up for possible renewal is in 26 years from now, in 2048. The fate of the continent could hang in the balance.

A lonely visitor, Antarctic Peninsula – Credit: Sandra Walser


A lonely visitor in South Georgia, king penguins – Credit: Sandra Walser


Antarctica Today

The relationship between humans and Antarctica is a tricky one. We like to think of Antarctica as an untouched, pristine system – while it is already quite modified by us. However, as the last decades of human history have shown, the mindset has changed. Visitors become ambassadors for the 7th continent.

Undoubtedly, Mother Earth is the driving force. But the education program, as well as the citizen science activities offered during cruises, also play an important part in creating a deep connection. While out and about, visitors learn about the Antarctic cryosphere and ecosystem from their guides, and they are engaged in hands-on data collecting supporting professional science projects.

Citizen Science Zodiac collecting phytoplankton samples – Credit: Sandra Walser


Speaking of which… The science carried out in Antarctica, especially within the last 60 years has contributed significantly to our knowledge of the Earth. It is also vital in helping to safeguard the future of the global environment.

“Something” happens to people traveling to Antarctica. Many return home with more than “just” amazing memories and photos: deeply touched and inspired by the so-called Last Great Wilderness, with a new understanding of our planet and human nature, and committed to protecting what they have come to love.

After sunset in the Antarctic sound, lenticular cloud – Credit: Sandra Walser


Photos and text were provided by Sandra Walser, a historian and photographer based in Switzerland. She is the Cruise Manager at Antarctica21 and has been a member of the expedition team since 2011. Visit her Instagram: @S_Walser

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