A Brief History of the Danco Coast Area

On 17 January 1773 James Cook became the first person to cross the Antarctic Circle and penetrated as far as 71° S.  In fact he was to cross the Circle a total of 3 times but remarkable bad luck prevented him from being the first to sight mainland Antarctica. However, he and many others were of no doubt as to its existence. Cook concluded that.

BAAE - Team

whoever has resolution and perseverance to clear up this point by proceeding further south than I have done,
I shall not envy him the honour of discovery but I will be bold to say that the world will not be benefited by it”

But he also recorded his observations of seals and whales. Others, perhaps more commercially minded, saw opportunities and before long sealers were exploiting Antarctica’s population. In February 1819, the master of the sailing brig Williams sighted the South Shetlands but his reports were meet with much scepticism. However, following a second trip to reassure himself, the British Naval authorities finally agreed to charter his boat under the command of Bransfield with Smith as his pilot to try and determine if his sightings were islands or the mainland.  It is now generally agreed though that the first person to sight mainland Antarctica was Bellinghausen on 27 January 1820, however he apparently failed to appreciate the importance of his sighting. By coincidence 3 days later Edward Bransfield sighted and charted parts of the Trinity Peninsula. He turned North and amongst other discoveries, discovered a new island which he called Sea Elephant Island .

In 1822 the Scotsman James Weddell and the American Nathaniel Palmer independently discovered the South Orkney Islands. The former landed and discovered a new type of seal before sailing further south than anyone else. He named the sea King George IV but the following centaury it was changed to recognise his own achievements. Palmer went on to discover Deception Island and also claimed to have sighted the Antarctic Peninsula, which he named Palmer Land.  In 1832 John Biscoe sighted and named Adelaide Island after King William IV’s consort. He also discovered Anvers Island and named the stretch of coast that he had discovered Graham Land after the First Lord of The Admiralty. For the next 130 years the British and Americans continued to disagree over the name and it wasn’t until 1964 that they agreed to call the north part of The Peninsula Graham Land and the southern part Palmer Land.

By the mid 1820s the area had attracted the attentions of sealers, who were beginning to exploit the natural resources in ever increasing numbers, few of whom kept detailed records of their exploits and discoveries and indeed had a vested commercial interest in not always reporting their findings. Thus there remains considerable uncertainty over the precise dates, validity and claims of first sightings. However the sealers collectively added greatly to the knowledge of the area. (The loss of one of their ships, on the west side of Elephant Island The Charles Shearer in 1857, was investigated by BAAE.) This knowledge was enhanced by a number of more formal expeditions of discovery by the French (1837-40), Americans (1838-42), British (1839-43, Commanded by Capt James Clark Ross RN), Germans (1873-74) and the Belgium (1897-99). The influence of these expeditions is evidenced by the names they gave to their discoveries.

The Belgian Antarctic Expedition (BeAE 1898-99) led by Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery, after whom The Gerlache Strait is named made the first ever landing on Brabant island 0n 30 January 1898. In that party was a young Norwegian, making his first visit to Antarctica. Roald Amundsen would later achieve fame as the leader of the first team to reach The South Pole. By early February they had mapped the strait that now bears his name. The Reclus Peninsula was named after the French geographer and Profesor at the Université Nouvelle in Brussels, the Neuymayer channel after the German geographer and promoter of Polar exploration, Georg Balthasar von Neuymayer, Weinke Island was named after a sailor who fell overboard and was lost. De Gerlache headed south and a few days later his third mate and magnetition died of a heart attack. He named the recently charted coastline The Danco Coast in his memory. The expedition then became the first to overwinter south of the Antarctic Circle. De Gerlache’s son, Gaston, was a member of the 1957-59 Belgium Antarctic expedition and his grandson, François overwintered on Brabant Island with the 1983-4 Joint Services Expedition.

In the1890s there were two other expeditions that were to have a profound impact on the history of the area. Although neither the Dundee (1892-93) or Norwegian (1892-94) Whaling Expeditions caught whales themselves they did conclude that commercial whaling would be viable. In 1843 The British Government had recognised the formal claims in the name of the Crown of Cook, Smith, Bransfield, Powell, Foster Biscoe and Ross by Act of Parliament issuing Royal letters Patent.  By 1905 The Falkland Islands Government had started to regulate whaling in The Falkland Islands Dependencies. In 1908, this was reinforced by the formal announcement that the Dependencies were possessions of The British Crown and a single administrative unit included "South Georgia, The south Orkneys, the South Shetlands, The Sandwich Islands and Graham’s Land". This Royal letters Patent was further amended in 1917 to include all islands and territories south of 60° S and lying between 20° - 50° W.

In the1905/6 season two companies established themselves, one in Admiralty Bay, King George Island and the other in Whalers Bay, Deception Island. Both used floating factory ships to process the catch of their whalers. The following season a further 2 companies started commercial operations in the area. Expansion rose rapidly, a shore base was built and at its peak there were 13 factory ships in the bay, the last of which did not leave Deception Island until 1931, when commercial operations ceased. During this period floating factory ships were occasionally deployed to other anchorages such as Mikkelsen Harbour, Half Moon Bay, Yankee Harbour, Paradise Bay, Port Lockroy, Neko Harbours and perhaps most importantly Sven Foyn Harbour, named after the inverter of the explosive harpoon. The whalers invested in navigational infrastructure to support their activities and at both Lockroy and Sven Foyn there remain mooring bollards and chains. The Sven Foyn site was charted in 1920-21, there were moorings for 5 ships, leading marks and other navigational aids.  

Thus whilst the Heroic age of Antarctic exploration, focused on firstly reaching the pole and then Shackleton’s Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition, the main activity on the Peninsula was the commercial exploitation of whales. The loss, to fire of the whale transport ship Gouvernøren in Sven Foyn harbour in 1916 occurred the same year as Shackleton was escaping after the loss of Endurance. 

In 1920-22 a 4 man British Expedition attempted to sledge south from Hope Bay but were unable to land, two members returned to Britain but the other two Thomas Bagshaw and Charles Lester decided to remain and persuaded the whalers at Sven Foyn to drop them in Paradise Harbour where they overwintered under an upturned Jolle (waterboat), subsequently giving the place its name; Waterboat Point. Bagshaw and Lester completed a years worth of meteorological, tidal and zoological observations. They were re-embarked on 13 January 1921, 1 week after Shackleton had died at Grytviken on his way south.  The Quest expedition would go on to visit Elephant island and name Rowett Island. However by far its greatest output was scientific rather than exploratory. The Heroic age was giving way to the scientific age.

On 16 November 1928 Sir Hubert Wilkins made the first Antarctic flight from Whalers Bay, Deception Island. Two further reconnaissance flights over Graham land reached 70° S.   He reported three east west sea channels through the Peninsula, named the Crane, Casey and Lurabee Channels, but these had to be renamed Glaciers, after there non existence was confirmed by the 1934-37 British Graham Land Expedition! Despite this the possibilities of aerial exploration had been demonstrated.

In the late 1920’s and 30’s Argentina advanced her own claims to these areas as did Chile in 1940.  In 1942 an Argentine expedition visited Deception Island to reinforce their claim.    In response, a party from HMS Carnarvon Castle raised the Union Flag on Deception Island in January 1943. The Admiralty was then charged with launching Operation TABARIN, to reassert British claims and to prevent or at least report any potential use of the Peninsula area by German surface raiders. In January 1944 a hastily raised force of two ships, HMS William Scoresby and SS Fitzroy left from The Falkland Islands with crews gleaned from previous Antarctic hands. The leader was Commander James Marr who as a boy had sailed with Shackleton on the Quest. The expedition first landed at Deception Island and established a presence before departing for Hope Bay, however local ice condition hindered the unloading of stores and eventually they withdrew and finally landed at Port Lockroy. The following year Hope Bay was successfully occupied. In 1946 the infrastructure and control of the operations passed from the Admiralty to The Colonial Office and Operation TABARIN was renamed The Falklands Islands Dependences Survey or as it is better known FIDS.   In due course FIDS would become the British Antarctic Survey.   The Admiralty continued to support operations, initially with HMS Protector and subsequently with its own ice patrol ship, HMS Endurance. Her annual presence in the polar region not only gave visible presence to the UK’s territorial claim but also assists in the BAS national programme of scientific research.

The work of FIDS is well recorded in Sir Vivian Fuchs’ book “Of Ice and Men” and space precludes all but the briefest and highly selective mention of their activities.   The focus of their work turned to the scientific rather than exploration but there was still plenty of risk and danger and the knowledge was brought at a price, in 1948 the base at Hope Bay was destroyed by fire with the loss of two lives, in 1958 three lives when an entire sledging party was lost without satisfactory explanation, particularly as 9 of their 14 dogs returned to their base with cut traces.

In 1957 HRH The Duke of Edinburgh visited their work calling at Detaille island, Anvers island, Port Lockroy, Danco Island, Deception Island and finally Admiralty Bay.   The visit included the first recorded game of Antarctic Tennis.

1957 was also significant as the year that Wally Herbert, Lee Rice, Ken Brown and Pat Thompson successfully completed the first east west crossing of the Peninsula from Hope bay to the Reclus Peninsula where Denis Kershaw, Dick Forster and Ray McGowan had succeeded in establishing a route up from Portal point to the Antarctic Plateau. The crossing had taken 54 days and covered 280 miles through some of the most demanding and difficult snow and weather conditions. The Recluse support team had spent 50 days in the field of which 39 had been pinned down in their tents by blizzards or whiteout. Their work was to provide our own expedition with the only guaranteed landing and access route to The Antarctic Plateau.   Indeed Sir Wally Herbert’s support, advice and encouragement was invaluable to our own plans and subsequent achievements.

In 1961 HMS Protector’s crew included Malcolm Burley and with a small team, he made an unsuccessful attempts on Mount Paget on South Georgia, he got within 600yds of the summit but was defeated by a lack of time. The same season in February 1962 on Adelaide Island, he succeeded in making the first ascent of the unsurveyed Mt Liotard. In 1964-5 he returned to South Georgia to make the first crossing of the Allerdyce range and to follow Shackleton’s route across the Island.

In 1970 He conceived and led The Joint Services Elephant Island Expedition. This 4 month scientific and mountaineering expedition made 19 first ascents as well as undertaking survey, geological, glaciological, ornithological, zoological and botanical studies. Amongst the expedition members were David Burkett (Port Lockroy base leader during BAAE’s visit) and Chris Furse.

6 years later Chris Furse, returned to the Elephant Island group to build on the work. This 5 month expedition included the first landings and detailed exploration of Clarence, Cornwallis and Gibbs Islands that make up the group. The expedition made 15 further first ascents, as well as building on the scientific work. Between these two expeditions Elephant Island was both mapped and explored. It was also the first major use of canoes in Antarctic Waters.  

Five years later he led a more ambitious 18 month expedition and made a detailed exploration of Brabant Island, the last unexplored major Antarctic Island.   The expedition made a staggering 55 first ascents as well as canoeing all but 14 miles of the coast line.  Their 140 mile inflatable journey from the American Palmer base to Metchnikoff Point is still believed to be the longest open boat journey so far south. They were the first to overwintered in tents without a hut. They also completed over 60 scientific projects.   After 186 man months on the Island their final departure was overshadowed by a crevasse fall that broke Clive Waghorn’s leg and led to a rapid evacuation of the Island a fortnight earlier than planned.

That expedition was the geniuses of a two further Service expeditions. John Kimbery, who had overwintered turned his attention to Smith Island and the challenge of the unclimbed Mount Foster. In spite of two expeditions, including the frustration of being diagnosed with appendicitis and consequently unable to land himself on the first, the team was denied the summit. That neither expedition summited in no way diminutions their achievement and only reinforces the challenges of the region and the role of luck.

The Peninsula started to attract yachtsmen, for example Willie kerr and Bob Shipton, looking for an out of the way destination and challenge.  Since their and others pioneering visits, yachting has become increasingly popular in the Region. Today several yacht charter business’ offer the more adventurous visitor even greater opportunity to experience the Northern Peninsula region   People like Skip Novak and Jeromme and Sally Poncet have also been at the forefront of developing this and mountaineering activity.   In addition a proliferation of cruise ship itineraries have made the area accessible to all.