Tag Archives: Douglas Mawson


19 Apr



In my blog of 7 February, I wrote about the remarkable adventures of the ship Discovery, from her build in 1901 until the end of World War 1. Today, I continue her story from 1919 as she proceeded on her venerable and memorable history.

In 1919 she sailed to the Black Sea to exchange goods with groups supporting the dwindling numbers of the White Army – Discovery’s official log has one of the last signs of the old regime’s sway. The log pages show the Imperial Two-Headed Eagle, stamped by port authorities in Novorossiysk.

Discovery sailed to South Georgia and the Falklands in 1925. She had a second season in the Antarctic from 1926-1927. But probably her most important ventures were related to the protection of the Great Whales and the two BANZARE (British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition) expeditions, which ran between 1929 and 1931.


THE GREAT WHALES: 1925 -1927

A British committee considered the plight of the Great Whales before W.W.1.

Northern seas were, by this time, almost depleted of whales because of overexploitation and the attention of the whalers had turned south. Here the ‘Dependencies of the Falklands’ held sway and monies paid by Norway to the Dependencies for the use of shore whaling stations, contributed to the research fund that refitted Discovery as a research vessel in1923.

The brief was – a) to contribute to oceanographic research, b) to mark whales, c) to make exploratory trawls off the Falklands – Basically, to give a scientific base for whale regulation. Two Vessels were employed. Discovery carried an echo sounder that could chart the ocean bed both when the vessel was moving as well as stationary. Vertical stations, taking up to six hours, provided information on sea contents and plankton at known levels, from the surface to the seabed.

Discovery reached South Georgia in February 1926. Her scientists examined more than seven hundred whales – their size (over 80 feet), eating habits, breeding times, gestation periods, calves growth rate and age at maturity were recorded. Also Elephant Seals and birds were examined. Discovery stayed in South Georgia for two months, carrying out the first hydrographic and biological survey of the whaling grounds.

In 1926 Discovery with the ship the William Scoresby returned to South Georgia. On this occasion a remarkable survey of the whaling grounds was completed. With South Georgia at the centre, seven lines were stretched out, like spokes on a wheel, and twenty nine stations, which covered over 10.000 square miles were completed – currents were measured, there were 370 water samples and 307 plankton net hauls were recorded. This record was unique[i]


BANZARE: The British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition 1929-1930

BANZARE was a British Commonwealth initiative, driven by geopolitics and science. It was funded by the United KingdomAustralia and New Zealand

TRACK OF DISCOVERY 1929-1930 (dotted black line)


The Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, was in charge of the expedition; (Mawson, in 1912, had made a horrendous sortie along that arc of Antarctica facing Australia, during which his two companions died separately in horrible circumstances). But Mawson understood the geographical and scientific potential of Antarctica. He wrote that more than half the circumference of the globe remained to be charted in high southern latitudes. In addition the British Government were concerned about rival nation’s increasing activities in the continent, particularly Norway and Russia.   These points underlined the importance of establishing sovereignty over the continent

On BANZARE 1, land bases were not used, but Antarctica was investigated inland from a seaplane, the Gipsy Moth.

The expedition sailed from Cape Town in October 1929. Throughout Discovery’s journey to Antarctica, careful investigation into the marine life was made as Discovery called on sub-Antarctic Iles Crozet, Iles Kerguelen, and Heard Island (thousands of penguins and Elephant Seals ‘like logs’ along the beach).

The expedition aimed at Enderby Land. In January 1930, Kemp Land was confirmed and Gipsy Moth was used to record the vast panorama of Antarctic new land that spread out below her. Heavy blizzards were encountered, but Mawson discovered new land east to Kemp Land which he named MacRobertson Land (after the benefactor of the expedition). Enderby land was seen at last on 12 January 1930. Conditions prevented landing but a flag was raised on nearby Proclamation Island – which was given the name ‘Proclamation’ following the reading – on 13 January 1930. This claimed the area for the British Crown in the name of George V. The areas claimed were Enderby Land, Kemp Land and MacRobertson Land, together with the off lying Islands. (See map)

Flights were made from open water from around Proclamation Land. Moving pictures and many still photographs were taken. A flag we as dropped from 3,000 feet, two miles inland confirming the Proclamation. Mountain peaks were discovered. Discovery turned north on 26 January 1930.






2nd BANZARE EXPEDITION: (red line)


This voyage was primarily an acquisitive exploratory expedition. Mawson made proclamations of British sovereignty over Antarctic lands at each of the five landfalls—on the understanding that the territory would later be handed to Australia. One such proclamation was made on 5 January 1931 at Cape Denison. A hand-written copy of the proclamation was left at the site, enclosed in a container made of food tins and buried beneath a cairn.

BANZARE was also a scientific exploration. Work was successfully completed on voyages along much of the Antarctic coastline, and Mawson’s team were the first to chart much of the coast. Their exploration covered over 6437 km: Adélie Land, King George V Land and Queen Mary Land. Also new land, Princess Elizabeth Land was identified. A plaque was left on Mac Robertson Land. The claims provided a foundation for the establishment of the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Thirteen volumes of reports were produced relating to the expeditions between 1937 and 1975: geology, oceanography, meteorology, terrestrial magnetism, zoology and botany.



Discovery returned to quieter waters. She was moored in the River Thames, alongside the Embankment. Funds were eventually raised to ensure her proper upkeep and she was handed over to the Sea Scouts for forty years (1932-1986). She was a training ship and hostel


                                                                 DISCOVERY MOORED ON THE EMBANKMENT


In spite of being in the heart of London Discovery survived the World War 11 blitz. She was designated headquarters of the River Emergency Services. This was an ambulance service with twenty-two stations The Scouts worked in eight-hour shifts and despite air raids, building rubble and sleepless nights, it is recorded that no Sea Scout failed to report for his duties.

In 1941 the Navy took on these duties and for the rest of the war Discovery was a Parachute Mine Station. The Sea Scout’s duties were to be on constant look out for parachute mines, locate them and telephone a compass bearing through to the Royal Naval Headquarters.



From 1945 to 1951 Discovery was a Training Ship for the Sea Scouts – the first Queen’s Scout Presentations were made on the ship. For Over twenty years from 1955 she was utilised as a Drill Ship for recruits beginning navel service.

In 1979 Discovery was handed over to the Marine Trust, a trust established, in the words of the Duke of Edinburgh, ‘to do for historic ships what the National Trust does for buildings’[ii] She was moved to St Katharine’s Dock near the Tower of London and during this time she was extensively restored.

Her future (she was a star attraction) was carefully considered. When an offer came from Scotland to take over her care and maintenance, this was a wonderful opportunity for her to return to Dundee where she had been built, 85 years earlier. Discovery was transported, in a floating dock ship from Tower Bridge to Dundee in 1986. This was a great occasion –cheering crowds, a Royal Air Force Fly Past. Her arrival was dramatic as she became jammed in the hold of the floating dock ship and eventually arrived at Victoria Dock at midnight 3rd/4th January, where a few romantics were still lingering to greet her as she was piped in.

She is now at Discovery Point, Dundee, close to the new V&A Dundee – Scotland’s first design museum. Excellent tours describe the experience of the heroes of the early 1900s, the history of WW1, an account of scientific and geographical advances, details of BANZARE.  It’s a great place to visit.


                                                                          118 years old and many more to go!





[i] Sir Alister Hardy, quoted in The Voyages of the Discovery, 2001, Ann Savours Chatham Publishing , p 125

[ii] The Voyages of the Discovery, 2001, Ann Savours Chatham Publishing p 153


Akademik Shokalskiy

6 Jan
Douglas Mawson was the first to enable communication from the Antarctic mainland to Australia by setting up a relay station in Macquarie Island in 1911. This year, scientists and enthusiasts chartered the ‘Akademik Shokalskiy’ to follow Mawson’s 1911-14 expedition of ‘The Aurora’.

Mawson’s vision had been to make a series of bases on the costal margin of the Antarctic mainland directly below Australia. His purpose was to make scientific and geographical discoveries and especially, to locate the position of the South Magnetic Pole more accurately than on his previous attempt (1908).

However Mawson could only make one land base in Adelie Land and one ice-shelf base off Queen Mary Land

Mawson wrote, ‘Here was an Ice Age in all earnestness. A picture of Northern Europe during the Great Ice Age some 50,000 years ago’.

To-days plight of the passengers, scientists and crew of the ‘Akademik Shokalskiy’ has been shared with the rest of the world in real time and has confirmed that even modern, up to date, state of the art ice ships can become locked in ice, at the mercy of the elements, precisely as their predecessors, but happily aided by modern communication. This has enabled assistance to be mobilized with evacuation of  passengers and scientists by helicopter and then boat transfer to the ice breaker ‘Aurora Australis’.

History tells us that ships locked in sea ice are at the mercy of sea currents, wind force and ice thickness, combinations of which are unpredictable. We await the larger icebreaker ‘Polar Star’ to see if a channel can be made in the sea ice to the ice bound ‘Akademik Shokalskiy’

Aurora’s track.       Mertz Glacier as in 1911.

Ice in Antarctica

12 Nov

Douglas Mawson embraced ‘the wonderful complexity and baffling contradictions of nature’

He would have been fascinated by this one; some of the Antarctic ice is apparently extending, even as evidence of global warming increases and large sections of the world’s icy surfaces disappear. This anomaly occurs because the polar vortex, winds swirling around the South Pole is strengthening  and forcing ice sheets together to form ridges which are  thickening slowly, researchers from the University of Washington have found.

This IS a baffling contradiction!



23 Oct


I have been re-reading accounts of Douglas Mawson. His pioneering expeditions opened up the section of Antarctica (hardly seen, let alone explored), with a series of scientific explorations. His primary interests were geography and geology but he was the first to facilitate radio communications between Antarctica and the mainland of Australia (Morse Code via Macquarie Island), and he took an airplane to Antarctica on his later expeditions.

His personal expedition in 1912 was the Far Eastern Journey (along the coast from his base on Adelie Land towards Cape Adare, where some men from Scott’s party had been based), was overshadowed by the awful deaths of his two companions. ‘Cherub’ Ninnis disappeared silently and shockingly into a crevasse. Mertz died horribly, suffering from stomach pains, muscle weakness and exhaustion, plus his skin peeling away by the handful. It is thought that he and Mawson may have suffered from

Hypervitaminosis A, caused by eating dog livers on their desperate return.

When the emaciated exhausted Mawson fell into a crevasse, he thought that ‘this is how it a shall be’ but his thoughts quickly turned to 2 lines of a poem by Robert Service:

Buck up. Do your damnedest and fight

It is plugging away that will win you the day

He surely lived up to this exaltation.

He got back to his Base in 1913. He was cared for fro a year by companions who had remained behind when their relief ship left Antarctica and who had been searching for his party.

Many think Mawson’s journey to be the greatest example of survival in Antarctica

He showed leadership, courage and resolution to survive against all odds.







Microbes in Antarctic Waters Below Australia

2 Oct

When Douglas Mawson led his expedition from Australia to Antarctica in 1912, he travelled through oceans that were virtually unknown. Few ships had navigated those seas below latitude 55 S.  Mawson thought he was in ‘an ice age in all earnestness.’  He was fascinated by the possibilities of Antarctica. His expedition studied all aspects of the seas as well as the continent.

He would have devoured the discoveries relating to marine microorganisms – those essential components of the sea that absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen – in the Southern Ocean. Samples across a 3,000 km stretch between Antarctica and Western Australia and difficult to obtain, showed the important discovery that the microbial communities are connected significantly by ocean currents. DNA examination showed that microbes geographically close to each other can be dissimilar, whilst those far apart are similar if connected by currents.

Mawson would have rejoiced in the baffling complexity and fascination of nature.