Monday, January 27, 2020

A solid stretch of ice

It is now generally accepted that the very first sighting of Antartica took place on this day, two hundred years ago, by a Russian expedition under the leadership of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen (also known as Thaddeus von Bellingshausen). The British got there a few days later, and the Americans ten months after that. Bellingshausen’s expedition diary makes no mention of the discovery of a continent, referring only to ‘a solid stretch of ice’, nevertheless it is thanks to the diary that scientists have been able to establish the facts of Bellingshausen’s achievement.

Born to a Baltic German family in 1779 in what is now Estonia but was then part of the Russian Empire, Bellingshausen joined the Imperial Russian Navy at the age of ten. After studying at the Kronstadt naval academy, he rapidly rose to the rank of captain, and took part in the first Russian circumnavigation of the world. Subsequently he was in charge of various ships in the Baltic and Black Seas.

When Czar Alexander I decided on two major expeditions in 1819, one to the northern polar seas the other to the southern, Bellingshausen was chosen to lead the latter (after the first choice, Commodore Roschmanow, suffered ill-health). His two vessel convoy (Vostok and Mirnyi) set off from Portsmouth in September the same year. The expedition crossed the Antarctic Circle and on 27 January 1829 it made the first sighting of the Antarctic coast.

During the voyage Bellingshausen also visited Ship Cove in New Zealand, the South Shetland Islands, and discovered and named various other islands. He returned to Kronstadt in August 1821, and thereafter fought in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829 attaining the rank of admiral. In 1839 he was appointed military governor of Kronstadt, and died there in 1852. See Wikipedia or the Antartic Gude, for more on Bellingshausen, and for more on the actual expedition.

In the early 1980s, according to Wikipedia, the British polar historian A. G. E. Jones looked at competing claims for the first sighting of Antartica. He concluded that Bellingshausen was indeed the discoverer of the sought-after Terra Australis, beating the British explorer Edward Bransfield whose first sighting was on 30 January 1820. Jones’s study relied on various documents in the Russian State Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic in Saint Petersburg, including Bellingshausen’s diary.

Here is what Wikipedia says: ‘The first confirmed sighting of mainland Antarctica, on 27 January 1820, is attributed to the Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, discovering an ice shelf at Princess Martha Coast that later became known as the Fimbul Ice Shelf. Bellingshausen and Lazarev became the first explorers to see and officially discover the land of the continent of Antarctica. It is certain that the expedition, led by von Bellingshausen and Lazarev on the ships Vostok and Mirny, reached on 28 January 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 that became known as the Fimbul ice shelf.’

An English version of Bellingshausen’s diary of the journey was published in 1945 by the Hakluyt Society - The Voyage of Captain Bellingshausen to the Antarctic Seas, 1819-1821 (two volumes, translated by Edward Bullough and edited by Frank Debenham). The first volume can be viewed online at Internet Archive; and the second volume can be previewed at Googlebooks. A few copies are available secondhand on Abebooks, but are not cheap, costing several hundred pounds each.

Here are Bellingshausen’s diary entries for 27-28 January 1820 (the published diary entries are given with Julian Calendar dates - which slightly pre-date the West European Gregorian Calendar).

16 January 1820 [27 January 1820]
‘The thick weather, with snow and ice and high north-west wind, continued through the night. At 4.0 a.m. we saw a grey (smoke-coloured) albatross flying near the ship. At 7.0 a.m. the wind changed to the north, the snow ceased for a time and the blessed sun now and then broke through the clouds.

At 9.0 a.m., in Lat. 69° 17’ 26” S., Long. 2° 45’ 46” W., we found a magnetic variation of 8° 48’ W. Proceeding south, at midday, in Lat. 69° 21’ 28” S., Long. 2° 14’ 50” W., we encountered icebergs, which came in sight through the falling snow looking like white clouds. We had a moderate north-east wind with a heavy swell from the north-west and, in consequence of the snow, we could see for but a short distance. We hauled close to the wind on a south-east course and had made 2 miles in this direction when we observed that there was a solid stretch of ice running from east through south to west. Our course was leading us straight in to this field, which was covered with ice hillocks. The barometer fell from 29-50 to 29, warning us of bad weather. We had 2° F. of frost. We turned north-west by west in the hope that in this direction we should find no ice. During the last 24 hours we had observed snow-white and blue petrels and heard the cries of penguins.’

17 January 1820 [28 January 1820]
‘The thick weather and snow continued through the night. At 2.0 a.m. both ships put about on to the port tack. At 6.0 a.m. we observed right ahead of us an iceberg which we only just succeeded in avoiding. The thermometer stood at freezing point; at the same time the wind began to freshen and we were forced to double-reef the topsails. At 8.0 a.m. the Vostok, turning to the wind, joined up with the Mimyi. Towards midday the sky cleared a little of snow clouds and the sun appeared. We were able to take midday observations and found our position to be Lat. 68° 51’ 51” S., Long. 3° 07’ 06” W., the stream having set N. 20° W. 13 miles. We did not, however, enjoy the sun for long; in these latitudes it is so rarely visible. Fog and snow, the travelling companions of the navigator in the Antarctic, again overtook us.

In these high latitudes, into which we extended our voyage, the sea is a most beautiful blue colour, which in some measure serves to indicate the great distance of land. The penguins, whose, cries we heard, are in no need of land. They live just as comfortably, and indeed seem to prefer living, on the flat ice, far more so than other birds do on land. When we caught penguins on the ice, many dived into the water but, without even waiting till the hunters had gone, they returned to their former places with the help of the waves. Judging by the form of their bodies and their air of repose, one may conclude that it is merely the stimulus of seeking food that drives them from the ice into the water. They are very tame. When Mr Lyeskov threw a net over a number of them, the others, not caught by the net, remained quite quiet and indifferent to the fate of their unhappy fellows who, before their eyes, were put into sacks. The suffocating air in these sacks and careless handling while catching, transferring and taking the penguins on board the vessels, produced a sickness amongst them, and in a short time they threw up a great quantity of shrimps, which evidently form their food. At this point I may add that we had so far not found any sort of fish in the high southern latitudes, excepting the different species of whale.

At 8 o’clock the Vostok waited for the Mirnyi and, joining her, we passed to windward on a starboard tack so as to draw away from the ice and lie to during the foggy weather. The wind blew steadily from the north with occasional snow. The whole horizon was in a haze. Since our arrival in these higher latitudes we had always the same sort of bad weather with north winds, but with the wind from the south we had dry weather with a clear horizon.’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago in January 2010.

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