For centuries, it was believed that a great unknown continent encompassed much of the southern end of the globe. Attempting to locate this land in 1772-75, James Cook, a British explorer, became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle and to sail around the continent (although not sighting it). His voyage neither proved nor disproved the continent's existence, but did indicate that if there were any such land its size had been greatly exaggerated.
During 1819-21, a similar circumnavigation of Antarctica was made by Fabian von Bellingshausen, a Russian captain. He discovered and named Peter I and Alexander I islands, within the Antarctic Circle.
While searching for seal breeding grounds in 1820, Nathaniel Palmer of the United States sighted the peninsula later called Palmer Peninsula. (It was renamed Antarctic Peninsula in 1964.) This may have been the first actual sighting of the mainland, although there have been conflicting claims. In 1823 a British sealer, James Weddell, sailed into the sea later named for him. Charles Wilkes, commanding a U.S. Navy expedition, discovered Wilkes Land in 1840 and was the first to recognize the existence of Antarctica as a continent.
Up to that time, no one had attempted to land because of the surrounding pack ice. In 1842, however, James C. Ross, commander of the British ships Erebus and Terror, steered through the ice. A massive floating ice shelf more than 100 feet (30 m) high, later called the Ross Ice Shelf, halted his southward progress. Ross sailed eastward along the Antarctic coast, sighting and naming Cape Adare, Victoria Land, Possession Island, and Mount Erebus.
About mid-century, the attention of most explorers turned to the Arctic. Interest in Antarctica did not revive until the 1880's, although whalers and sealers continued to search its waters.
One of the first important landings on Antarctica was made by Leonard Kristensen, a Norwegian whaler, in 1895. A Belgian scientific expedition under Adrian de Gerlache was the first to winter within the Antarctic Circle, 1898-99, when its ship was trapped in the ice. A year later, a British party led by the Norwegian explorer C. E. Borchgrevink wintered on the continent.
These early explorers surveyed only small coastal areas. Exploration of the interior did not begin until after 1900. During 1901-04, the expedition of Robert F. Scott discovered King Edward VII Land and made several sledge journeys, one reaching a point some 500 miles (800 km) from the South Pole. In 1909 Ernest Shackleton led a British party to within 97 miles (156 km) of the Pole.
The South Pole was reached on December 14, 1911, by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and four companions, who made the trip from the Bay of Whales by dog sledge in 57 days. About a month later a British expedition led by Scott reached the Pole on foot by a different route. The five-man Scott party perished on the return journey.
After the end of World War I, expeditions were more numerous and increasingly better equipped. Greater emphasis was given to gathering scientific data. The airplane was first employed in Antarctic exploration by Sir Hubert Wilkins, an Australian, who flew most of the length of Palmer Peninsula in 1928.
Also in 1928, Richard E. Byrd of the United States began the construction of the Little America base in the Bay of Whales. He made the first plane flight over the Pole on November 29, 1929, covering the 1,600-mile (2,575-km) round trip in 19 hours; the plane was piloted by Bernt Balchen. Byrd conducted several expeditions for the U.S. Navy, setting up a number of bases and amassing important meteorological and geographic information.
During 1929-30, Sir Douglas Mawson of Australia discovered Mawson Coast, the coast of MacRobertson Land. In the 1930's, Lincoln Ellsworth led two American expeditions and made the first aerial crossing of Antarctica.
In the mid-1940's, scientific interest in Antarctica and its surrounding lands greatly increased. A number of nations planned to establish research stations in the area. During 1946-47, the United States conducted the massive Operation Highjump, which included some 4,000 men and more than 30 ships and planes. Rear Admiral George Dufek of the U.S. Navy made the first airplane landing near the Pole, in 1956. Shortly after, the United States' Amundsen-Scott station was set up there. The first overland crossing of the continent was completed by a British Commonwealth party under Vivian Fuchs, 1957-58, aided by a New Zealand party led by Sir Edmund Hillary. In 1966 an American expedition was the first to climb Vinson Massif, the highest peak in the Antarctic.