Exploration and expeditions

A huge dead whale is pulled up beside a whaling
This whale dwarfs the ship from which it was slaughtered in the Southern Ocean, 1928. (Photo: Leonard P Holroyd)
Sealing operations at the Nuggets 1911. Note the squares of elephant seal blubber.Digesters at Lusitania Bay, Macquarie IslandRemains of sealers' try pots with hut in background, circa 1866-1880Whale factory ship Sir James Clark Ross, 8224 tons, arriving at Hobart November 1923

Australia’s connection with Antarctica stretches back to the 18th century when the nation depended on the sea for trade and communications. From the first days of colonisation in 1788, sealing and whaling were important industries and the relative proximity to the vast, icy expanse to the south made it inevitable that Australia would delve into Antarctic exploration.

The sailing vessels upon which the colonies depended for their supplies and trade with Europe followed the Great Circle routes south of the Cape of Good Hope and sought the westerly winds found well to the south. As the number of animals in waters closer to Australia were depleted, ships pushed on down into the subantarctic islands. By 1820, just ten years after the discovery of Macquarie Island, fur seals had been virtually exterminated and elephant seals were being slaughtered for their oil.

Over-exploitation in waters around Australia also forced whalers to explore the southern waters into the high latitudes. The Hobart barque Venus reached 72°S in search of whales in 1831. Its return to Australia with a cargo of sperm whale oil prompted others to also explore the further south.

However the pursuit of commerce also sparked an urge for exploration and scientific discovery. Elsewhere around Antarctica other voyages by English, American and Russian vessels were making significant discoveries. Many explorers bound for the Antarctic visited Australia for supplies for their southern journeys, including John Biscoe, Charles Wilkes, Dumont d’Urville and James Clark Ross. The use of Hobart as a port of call for most of these expeditions and its support for the southern sealing and whaling industries fostered Australian interest in Antarctica.

This page was last modified on 6 June 2002.