Australia has played a pioneering role in Polar exploration.
In 1842, a Tasmanian scientific journal was the first to promote the idea of an Australian-led Antarctic research initiative. Australians were the first confirmed to have stood on Antarctica.
In 1886, the Australian Antarctic Exploration Committee was established by the Royal Society of Victoria to investigate the establishment of research stations.
In 1895, Melbourne teacher Henryk Bull led the first expedition confirmed to have landed on the Antarctic mainland. With Bull was Norwegian amateur scientist Carsten Borchgrevink, who in 1898 departed Hobart on the first expedition to over-winter in Antarctica. With him was Australia’s first Antarctic scientist, physicist Louis Bernacchi. In 1901, Tasmania provided financial support and port facilities for Robert Scott’s Discovery expedition and Bernacchi returned to Antarctica as Scott’s physicist.
In 1907, the Australian Government provided substantial financial and scientific support to Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition. This included Edgeworth David as Chief Scientific Officer, Douglas Mawson as geologist and Captain John King Davis as Master and ice pilot of the Nimrod.
In 1910 Australian geologist Frank Debenham joined Scott’s fatal Terra Nova expedition in Melbourne.
He survived and afterwards became Cambridge University’s first Professor of Geography and founding Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, the world’s foremost polar research organisation.
In 1911 Douglas Mawson led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition and in 1929, the British, Australian and New Zealand Research Expedition. In 1928-29 Australian Hubert Wilkins made the first aerial exploration of Antarctica’s Graham Land and in 1933, he was aboard American Lincoln Ellsworth’s three private attempts to make the first trans-Antarctic flight. During 1934-37, South Australian John Rymill led the British Graham Land Expedition, which discovered the existence of the Antarctic Peninsula. In 1931 Mawson claimed 42% of Antarctica for Australia, and in 1936 this officially became the Australian Antarctic Territory. In 1949, Mawson tapped Melbourne physicist Dr Phillip Law as the first Director of the Australian Antarctic Division. Law created an internationally respected exploration polar infrastructure and built Mawson and Davis bases. No other individual has achieved more impact in Antarctica. Under his direction, more than 5,000km of coast was chartered and over one million square kms of continent was mapped. He oversaw some 28 Antarctic voyages, most of them as leader.
On the open sea, in 1972 Dr David Lewis circumnavigated Antarctica in his small yacht Ice Bird and returned for three expeditions over the period 1977- 84 aboard Solo and Dick Smith Explorer, twice overwintering to undertake scientific research.
Australia has forged a reputation in the Arctic that began in 1985.
In 1981, Dr Law selected Earle de Blonville as Chief Leader of the Australian and New Zealand Scientific Exploration Society (ANZSES) 1982 Granite Mountain Expedition.
De Blonville’s 1986 Arctic expedition, a 1,000km sea kayak voyage down the ice-choked coast of East Greenland, aimed to retrace the 1931 open boat journey of legendary British explorer, Gino Watkins
As CEO of ORI, de Blonville will lead Australia’s first scientific reconnaissance to East Greenland with ORI’s international scientists, to investigate why it is one of the biggest melt zones on earth.
Dr Law was then President of the Australian and New Zealand Scientific Exploration Society (ANZSES) with HRH The Prince of Wales as Patron. Dr Law was mentor and personal friend of de Blonville for 30 years, and responsible for his election in 1984 as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1985, Law supported Australia’s first Arctic expedition led by de Blonville, with HRH The Prince of Wales as Patron, by proposing an Australian Advisory Panel and becoming a key member.
De Blonville’s Arctic expedition, a 1,000km sea kayak voyage down the ice-choked coast of East Greenland, aimed to retrace the 1931 open boat journey of legendary British explorer, Gino Watkins.
Other members of the Expedition Advisory Panel included the Minister for Science Dr Barry Jones, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Sir John Holland and Dr Eleanor Rymill who was the inaugural secretary of the Scott Polar Research Institute (under Director, Prof Frank Debenham). Eleanor was the first woman in the UK to gain a PhD in Geography, and wife of Australia’s greatest polar pioneer – Arctic and Antarctic – John Rymill.
Dr Eleanor Rymill was very influential during the planning and reconnaissance phases of Australia’s first Arctic expedition, from 1982-86, connecting de Blonville with surviving members of Watkins’ East Greenland expedition teams from 1930-32: surveyor Alfred Stevenson, pilot and ice cap explorer Wilfred Hampton, film cameraman Iliffe Cozens, and sledge partner and biographer Jamie Scott. These men were mostly Cambridge graduates who had been inspired to explore by mentors Frank Debenham, James Wordy and Raymond Priestly, Antarctic veterans who had travelled with Scott and Shackleton. These human threads create a strong historic continuity between Australia’s first expeditions to Antarctica and the Arctic.
Over a five-year period (1985-1989) de Blonville explored more than half of Greenland’s navigable coastline by local charter boat, sea kayak and his own steel exploring yacht named Eleanor Rymill.
The one-hour documentary film of Australia’s first Arctic expedition, to East Greenland, made by de Blonville’s production company, was released internationally in 1987, and screened by Discovery, CBC, BBC, ABC and later broadcasters in Europe, South America, Israel and South Africa. More recently it has been screened in theatres and venues in Denmark, France and Australia. To view the trailer of the documentary, click on the video link below.
The extraordinary story of this expedition is told in his acclaimed book, ‘Seventh Journey’, first released as a sold-out Author’s Private Edition, Australia’s first contribution to the canon of Arctic literature. It is now released in a second fully revised edition, ‘Savage Coast’ and available through major retailers online. To buy the book Savage Coast through our website go here.
Such widespread print and broadcast media coverage of de Blonville’s Arctic expedition resulted in a sudden surge in exploration and adventure by Australians.
Marking Australia’s 1988 Bicentenary, Australia’s greatest mountaineer, Greg Mortimer, led a first ascent on Antarctica’s ‘loneliest mountain’, Mt Minto. In 1989, Graeme Joy became the first Australian to ski to the North Pole, as a member of Robert Swan’s Australian-based international Icewalk expedition. In 1995, a decade after Earle’s first reconnaissance, Eric Philips led the first Australian expedition to cross the icecaps of Greenland and (in 1992) Ellesmere Island. With fellow Australian, Jon Muir, Philips was the first Australian to ski to both the North and South Poles, and today is one of the world’s most respected polar guides. On the last day of 1997, Keith Williams, Ian Brown and Peter Treseder became the first Australians to reach the South Pole. From 1996, beginning with a crossing of the Spitsbergen icecap, Tim Jarvis has undertaken extraordinary polar journeys of remarkable speed and endurance, most recently including re-enactments, using period costumes, equipment and even diet, of the great survival epics of Mawson and Shackleton. In 2009 Chris Bray and Clark Carter completed a two-year crossing of Canada’s Victoria Island hauling their gear on an innovative balloon-wheeled trailer.
A wide range of publications and documentary films from these modern explorers ensure that Australia’s reputation for polar exploration and adventure stands among the best in the world. This reputation has been kept alive by increasing numbers of young Australian adventurers pushing the boundaries at the Poles.