Described by many as the greatest captain in Antarctic history, John King Davis was a master mariner for a number of key expeditions. Named ‘Gloomy’ by his crew for his reserved manner, Davis was known as a hard taskmaster; a necessary quality for a captain commanding a ship in difficult conditions.
In 1906, having gained his first mate’s certificate in Australia and his extra master’s certificate in New Zealand, Davis met Ernest Shackleton at an exhibition of polar equipment. Appointed Chief Officer on Shackleton’s 1907–09 Nimrod expedition, Davis formed a long-lasting friendship with expeditioner Douglas Mawson. United by a passion for research expeditions, their friendship withstood disagreements in a difficult and remote environment where wrong decisions could mean loss of life.
Mawson appointed Davis captain of the Aurora for the 1911–1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). The expedition encountered many challenges: dangerous weather, navigating previously unchartered coastline, and problems with the ship.
Davis commanded several crucial AAE voyages, establishing and relieving expeditioners at sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, and the Antarctic continental bases at Commonwealth Bay and the Shackleton Ice Shelf. In 1914, the Aurora returned to retrieve the parties on each of the bases. Reaching Commonwealth Bay, Davis learnt that Mawson’s sledging party was missing. As a result, six men volunteered to remain at the base to search for Mawson’s traverse party.
Davis had to make the difficult decision: whether to risk further bad weather at Commonwealth Bay and await Mawson’s return, or to retrieve the Shackleton Ice Shelf base led by Frank Wild. After retrieving Wild's party, the Aurora could not return through difficult ice conditions to Commonwealth Bay, and sailed on to Australia. After the deaths of fellow expeditioners Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, Mawson survived the perilous journey back to the base alone, missing the ship by hours. Subsequently, he overwintered with the remaining men. On his return to Australia in 1914, Mawson married Francisca (Paquita) Delprat, with Davis as his best man.
In 1916, Davis returned to the Antarctic sailing the Aurora to rescue Shackleton’s shore party, left at McMurdo Sound to support the expedition’s attempt to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea. The party, which had spent two winters in Antarctica with inadequate supplies, was relieved to be rescued by Davis and transported safely to New Zealand.
Davis later commanded the Discovery on the 1929–1930 British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) under Mawson’s leadership. The expedition mapped the coast of Antarctica, and proclaimed the Australian Antarctic Territory.
From 1947 to 1962, Davis continued his involvement in Australian Antarctic interests as a member of the Government’s advisory planning committee for Antarctic policy and endeavours.
Awards and honours
Davis was twice recipient of the King’s Polar Medal. In 1957, his contribution was honoured by the Australian Antarctic Division, naming one of its Antarctic research stations, Davis. The Davis Sea was named in recognition of his incredible skill in negotiating the dangerous waters and ice around Antarctica.
Davis’ Antarctic publications include: With the ‘Aurora’ in the Antarctic, 1911–1914 (1919) and High Latitude (1964).