Marking a centenary in Antarctica

On the occasion of the centennial service for the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, held at Commonwealth Bay, Cape Denison, Antarctica

16 January 2012

Antarctica and great explorers go hand in hand. First came James Cook, arguably the greatest of them all. His circumnavigation of the then unknown Antarctic continent in the 1770s lay to rest the myth of a great southern land.

After Cook, other great explorers ventured south into the waters that we have sailed over these last few days: Bellingshausen, Wilkes, Ross and Dumont d'Urville to name just a few. Yet those expeditions barely glimpsed the Antarctic continent. Then Douglas Mawson strode on to the stage.

He was a giant figure in the ‘heroic era’ of Antarctic exploration. Mawson, who had previously been south with Shackleton, put together an expedition with a distinctly Australasian flavour. While Scott and Amundsen (and indeed much of the world’s press) were focused on their race to the south pole, Mawson headed to the completely unexplored vast spaces of East Antarctica.

In their wooden ship, the S.Y. Aurora, the men of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition were truly heading off the edge of the map when they sailed from Hobart in December 1911. A grand adventure for ‘the young sons of the younger son’. It was to be a defining moment for our newly-born Federation.

But the Australasian Antarctic Expedition wasn’t just about discovering new lands. It boasted a scientific program that was unparalleled in the history of Antarctic exploration. Mawson was first and foremost a scientist, and he knew the value of Antarctica for scientific discovery.

Mawson couldn’t have done this alone. The Australasian Antarctic Expedition was very much a team effort. He had enormously capable men under his command, including his second in command, Captain John King Davis; and the leader of the western party, Frank Wild. It is important on this day that we recognise all the members of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Too often they are forgotten men, lost in the shadow of Douglas Mawson. So let us acknowledge them now.

The staff of the Adélie Land Station here at Commonwealth Bay, led by Dr Douglas Mawson: Messrs Bage, Bickerton, Close, Correll, Hannam, Hodgeman, Hunter, Hurley, Jeffryes, Laseron, Madigan, McLean, Mertz, Murphy, Ninnis, Stillwell, Webb and Whetter.

The staff of the Queen Mary Land Station on the Shackleton Ice Shelf, led by Frank Wild: Messrs Dovers, Harrisson, Hoadley, Jones, Kennedy, Moyes and Watson.

The staff of the Macquarie Island Station, led by George Ainsworth: Messrs Blake, Hamilton, Sandell and Sawyer.

And lastly the Ship’s Party, under the command of Captain John King Davis: Messrs Blair, Gray, de la Motte, Gillies, and the unrecorded seamen of the S.Y. Aurora

I had the privilege of meeting many of their descendants in Hobart a few weeks ago. Clearly those early explorers are not forgotten by their families, and nor should they be forgotten by us.

Sadly, the expedition was not without tragedy. We remember today Dr Xavier Mertz and Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis who died during the Far Eastern Sledging Party’s trip. We gratefully acknowledge and salute their invaluable contribution to Australia’s first Antarctic expedition. As it says on their memorial cross, ‘they died in the cause of science'.

Mawson was driven by an unswerving conviction of Antarctica’s significance to scientific research. He was determined to convince government that this wild, untamed land was a treasure trove to be studied for its secrets of what may lie ahead for the planet. Surely placing science at the centre of Antarctica’s future is the greatest gift from the heroic era of Antarctic exploration.

Antarctica and its surrounding ocean has become a globally unique region where many nations come together to undertake science for the public good. In the years since those early explorers made their first faltering steps in Antarctica, our research has taught us much about the continent and how its physical and biological systems function. With this has grown an awareness of the extraordinary degree to which Antarctica and the Southern Ocean drive global change.

Antarctica holds most of the world’s fresh water in its frozen plateau, and the Southern Ocean is the globe’s largest sink for carbon. Changes in climate, which are generally most manifest in our polar regions, have the potential to impact all of our lives. The knowledge we gain from doing science in the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean is critically important for us to understand and respond to global change.

Australia’s Antarctic Science Program reflects these pressing issues and has placed Australia at the forefront of Antarctic science. Truly, Antarctic science is more relevant to the Australian public than ever before.

Sir Douglas Mawson could be justly proud of the science legacy he left for Australia and would undoubtedly approve of our overarching ambition to value, protect and understand this very special and remote region.

Many developments have taken place since 1911 in the world’s attitudes towards Antarctica. Perhaps chief amongst these was the entry into force in 1961 of the Antarctic Treaty, and the subsequent development of the Antarctic Treaty System, including the 1991 Madrid Protocol that banned mining in Antarctica.

The steady trend has been towards increasing participation in Antarctic affairs by the international community. The geopolitical landscape in Antarctica today is much more complex than in Mawson’s time, with Malaysia recently becoming the 49th contracting party to the Antarctic Treaty. While this increasing complexity presents some challenges, it also affords great opportunities for collaboration with other nations to further the world’s knowledge. 

It is very much in keeping with Mawson’s vision and legacy that Australia continues to be a natural leader in East Antarctica where our stations and science are focused, and where Mawson’s life’s work led to the proclamation of the Australian Antarctic Territory. 

Today, the men and women of Australia who continue to come to Antarctica do so with the same drive and dedication to science and the spirit of peaceful international cooperation that Dr Douglas Mawson and his men brought with them.

I am frequently asked — what is the enduring legacy of those early expeditioners? My answer is unequivocal — they laid the foundations for an entire continent to be devoted to peace and science, where nations work together in a spirit of collaboration. What a wonderful legacy they have left us! We must be ever vigilant to ensure that we preserve this legacy and hand it on to our grandchildren.

Tony Fleming

Director, Australian Antarctic Division