Davis station: a brief history

Group of men posing beside flag and buildings at Davis
Australia's Davis station was officially established on January 13, 1957.
First Davis expeditioners in front of a basic hutThe moon rises behind Davis, 2010New living quarters at Davis, 2010Radio operator Alan Hawker at Davis in 1957.
Davis is situated on the coast of the ice-free Vestfold Hills, a region discovered by Norwegian whalers and Australia’s Douglas Mawson in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The station is named after Captain John King Davis.

It is still uncertain who first sighted the Antarctic coast to the east of Amery Ice Shelf. During an aerial reconnaissance to the east of Amery Ice Shelf as part of the second BANZARE expedition in January 1931, Mawson undoubtedly sighted coastal mountains and named the hinterland Princess Elizabeth Land (in honour of the daughter of the Prince of York, later to be Queen Elizabeth).

Around the same time whalers of the Norwegian whaling company of the magnate Lars Christensen were active in the area. They named the same land Ingrid Christensen Coast, after their shipowner’s wife. Many place names around Davis, including the Vestfold and Larsemann Hills and Prydz Bay, are a result of their activities in the waters of the region.

On 20 February 1935, one of Christensen’s captains, Klarius Mikkelsen in the tanker Thorshavn, landed with his wife Caroline and seven men in a small bay on the most northerly part of this ice-free coast. He named the region the Vestfold Hills because of its resemblance to the province of Vestfold, south of Oslo in Norway. Caroline is credited with being the first woman to land on the Antarctic continent. The site of the landing was re-discovered in subsequent years, including in November 1995 by an Australian party from Davis.

In January 1939 the American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth visited the region in his wooden ship Wyatt Earp, which nine years later would become the first ANARE ship to enter Antarctic seas. Accompanying Ellsworth was an Australian, Sir Hubert Wilkins. Wilkins spent 8 days visiting sites in the Vestfold Hills, including Svenner Islands and Rauer Islands, on each occasion proclaiming territory for Australia by deposition of a proclamation and an Australian flag. One such event, on 11 January 1939, was at Walkabout Rocks at the northern extremity of the Vestfold Hills. Wilkins wrapped his handwritten proclamation in a copy of Walkabout magazine, further protected by two enamel coffee jugs placed end-to-end to form a cylinder.

In early 1947 as part of ‘Operation Highjump’, the USA conducted a comprehensive aerial survey of the coastline. The following summer Australia established sub-Antarctic bases at Macquarie Island and Heard Island, but it was not until 1954 that Australia’s first Antarctic station, Mawson, was established.

Phillip Law, first director of the Australian Antarctic Division, used information from the Ellsworth-Wilkins visit and Operation Highjump to determine the broad location of a new Australian Antarctic station. Law landed at the Vestfold Hills on 3 March 1954, a late-season adventure immediately following the establishment of Mawson that nearly came to grief when the ship, Kista Dan, was almost lost in a ferocious storm.

Law visited the area again in January 1955. He became convinced that Australia should establish a second base in the Vestfolds, a move supported by his Minister, Richard Casey, when presented with evidence of growing interest in the region by the Soviet Union. The interest was confirmed by a Soviet landing on the Ingrid Christensen Coast on 12 January 1956.

The move was finally made in the 1956–1957 summer. In January 1957, an ANARE party aboard Kista Dan led by Phillip Law spent two days fruitlessly searching for good ship anchorages and sources of fresh water sources for a new station. On 12 January, a last minute decision was made to locate the station on a small rocky plateau located above a black sandy beach. Unloading began immediately.

On 13 January 1957, a small ceremony was held to officially open the new station. Naming the station Davis, Law said on the day that the title honoured Captain John King Davis, a famous Antarctic navigator and captain, living in Melbourne, and a member of the ANARE Planning Committee until his death in 1967. After the ceremony, unloading resumed and continued until 20 January when Kista Dan sailed. The ship made a return visit to Davis later in the season, dropping off dogs and one more expeditioner.

Bob Dingle, Alan Hawker, Nils Lied, Bill Lucas and Bruce Stinear made up the first party to winter in the Vestfold Hills. However, the party was not completely isolated, as Auster aircraft flew between Mawson and Davis several times that year exchanging personnel and supplies.

The first two years of operation of the station were devoted to gathering basic knowledge about the Vestfold Hills and developing essential station services. Wintering groups were small, numbering only five and four respectively. In fact for the first seven years of its existence no wintering group exceeded 10.

In January 1965 Davis was temporarily closed to allow concentration of the Australian Antarctic Division’s resources on the building of Casey as a replacement for Wilkes. It was reopened on the 15th February, 1969 and has been continuously occupied since that time.

There are over 300 lakes in the Vestfold Hills, ranging from hypersaline, which never freeze, to freshwater lakes that freeze almost to the bottom during winter. In the 1970s a biology program was begun, studying the lakes' microorganisms. As the program developed, field huts were built at several sites in the Vestfolds, the first being Brookes Hut, built at Long Fjord in 1972. 

In the 1980s Davis was substantially rebuilt. Steel-framed structures on concrete foundations replaced the cramped accommodation of earlier times, with purpose-built laboratories providing scientists with unprecedented facilities and space for their work.

Phillip Law returned to Davis as a tourist on 11 January 1998, aged 85. In the three decades since his previous visit, Davis had become the premier Australian Antarctic research centre. It is now the hub of investigations into the biology, geology and glaciology of the Lambert-Amery and Sørsdal Glacier region, and the home of a large atmospheric physics program. Davis is also the base for aircraft that deploy researchers and equipment to the less-accessible areas of the Vestfold Hills and remote coastal and inland areas beyond, undertaking aerial surveys, and transferring personnel between Mawson, Casey and Davis.