07 Who first saw Antarctica?

The South Shetland Islands, off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, are central to the question of who was the first to “see Antarctica.” The islands were discovered in February 1819 by sealer William Smith, whose report of his find triggered the island sealing boom. Smith was soon employed by the British Admiralty to survey the islands under the command of Edward Bransfield the following summer.

On 30 January 1820 Bransfield and Smith saw and charted part of the Antarctic Peninsula, and named it Trinity Land (now Trinity Peninsula). Exactly two weeks earlier, Thaddeus Bellingshausen had probably seen the icy fringe of Antarctica, far to the west. However, he had glimpsed ice and they were looking at rocky mountains. In November 1820 Nathaniel Palmer, captain of the sealer Hero, sailed through the narrow entrance of Neptune’s Bellows and into the spectacular caldera known as Port Foster. He was perhaps the first to do so; Bransfield and Smith had seen Deception Island on 29 January 1820, but did not investigate in the thick fog. Palmer met Bellingshausen in January 1821, and was later quoted as saying: “I informed [Bellings-hausen] of … the discovery of land … and it was him that named it Palmers Land,” but his only likely sighting is dated November 1820—10 months after Bransfield and Smith.

author: David McGonigal

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