Australasian Antarctic Expedition Commences Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1911, Douglas Mawson led a scientific expedition into previously uncharted territory in Antarctica. His expedition was the first to employ a radio transmitter from Antarctica, and the group even attempted to use an airplane to survey the land. Using the ship Aurora, the expedition charted more than 2,000 miles of coastland directly south of Australia.

Summary of Event

The discovery of an entire southern continent had been on the minds of European explorers ever since Captain James Cook first sighted pack ice during his 1772-1775 voyage. His trip was followed by sketchy reports from people who believed they saw giant icebergs, islands, and land from whaling and sealing ships. The height of exploration in the Antarctic began at the close of the nineteenth century, as world powers vied for territory, with the emergence of explorers Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Henry Shackleton, and Douglas Mawson. Australasian Antarctic Expedition Antarctica;exploration Exploration;Antarctica [kw]Australasian Antarctic Expedition Commences (Dec. 2, 1911) [kw]Antarctic Expedition Commences, Australasian (Dec. 2, 1911) [kw]Expedition Commences, Australasian Antarctic (Dec. 2, 1911) Australasian Antarctic Expedition Antarctica;exploration Exploration;Antarctica [g]Antarctica;Dec. 2, 1911: Australasian Antarctic Expedition Commences[02900] [g]South Pole;Dec. 2, 1911: Australasian Antarctic Expedition Commences[02900] [c]Exploration and discovery;Dec. 2, 1911: Australasian Antarctic Expedition Commences[02900] Mawson, Douglas Mertz, Xavier Ninnis, Belgrave Shackleton, Sir Ernest Henry Scott, Robert Falcon

Mawson was an intelligent, adventuresome geologist from Australia who was well suited for the rigors of exploration. Like many others of his time, Mawson was fascinated with the reports from Scott’s 1901-1904 expedition to Antarctica on the Discovery. During this period, in 1903, Mawson led his own scientific expedition to the New Hebrides Islands, a voyage that demonstrated his leadership skills. In the following years, Mawson thought about the potential natural resources that could be found in Antarctica, and he believed Australia should be in the forefront of any future exploration.

When Scott’s Discovery expedition failed to reach the South Pole, Shackleton began to form his own expedition to claim the region. At the urging of the geologist T. W. Edgewood David, Shackleton invited Mawson to join his expedition on the Nimrod. Mawson accepted the invitation, and it was as a member of the party that he became one of the first people to ascend the active volcano Mount Erebus. During the following season, the same party came as close as possible to the location of the south magnetic pole, but it was their geologic findings that made Shackleton’s expedition a scientific success. Following Shackleton’s triumphant return from Antarctica in 1909, Scott declared that he would return to Antarctica to claim the South Pole. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen Amundsen, Roald also turned his eyes south, and a race began to see who would reach the pole first.





Amid all this excitement, few noticed that Mawson was planning his own expedition. Before leaving, Mawson went to England to learn about Antarctica from Scott and Shackleton. Scott was more interested in having Mawson join his expedition than in sharing his experiences, however, and was very offended when Mawson declined his offer. Shackleton, on the other hand, was very enthusiastic about Mawson’s plans, but he spoke only about his upcoming voyage and offered no real advice. In spite of this, Mawson remained determined to lead his own expedition.

By 1911, explorers were crowding Antarctica. Amundsen was positioned at the Bay of Whales, and Scott was making preparations from his base at the Ross Sea. Quietly, Mawson assembled his scientific expedition, which consisted mostly of researchers from Australia and New Zealand. His ship, the Aurora, was refitted in London and sailed for Australia on June 22, 1911, commanded by John King Davis, the captain of Shackleton’s ship the Nimrod. The expedition included several other veterans, including Frank Wild, who had previously served with both Scott and Shackleton. Also joining the expedition as Greenland dog handlers were Dr. Xavier Mertz, an expert Swiss skier, and British army officer Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis. The expedition’s goals were to find the exact location of the south magnetic pole and to chart as much of the coastline directly south of Australia as possible. In addition, a radio station would be established on Macquerie Island, some 850 miles south-southeast of Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. Mawson thought that this station could relay news of the expedition by radio transmissions from Antarctica, and he was right: The first two-way radio transmission from Antarctica was successfully made on February 13, 1912.

Mawson established his main base at Cape Denison, giving it the name “Home of the Blizzards” because of the incredibly high wind speeds there. On November 10, 1912, Mawson’s two parties departed; one headed east, the other west. Both parties had specific instructions to return no later than January 15, 1913. Both faced difficulties, but it was Mawson’s eastbound party, which also included Ninnis and Mertz, that met with tragedy. From the start, the group encountered extremely difficult ice conditions and high winds. Then, on December 14, 1912, Belgrave Ninnis fell into a crevice and was lost along with six dogs and most of the group’s food. With food running low, Mawson and Mertz were forced to eat their dogs in order to save their own lives. They did not realize that the dogs’ livers held concentrated amounts of vitamin A, which acted as a poison and made the two men very sick and weak. Mertz died on January 7, 1913, and Mawson was left alone.

Mawson struggled over a hundred miles of dangerous ice to reach his base camp. Several times he fell into crevices but was able to extricate himself. Finally, on January 29, Mawson spotted a cairn left behind by a search team. At the marker, he found food, fuel, and a note giving him his precise location. Days later, Mawson reached his base just as his ship was leaving to retrieve Frank Wild’s westbound party. Fortunately for Mawson, he was spotted by six men left behind. They sent an urgent radio message in an attempt to recall the ship, but ice prevented its return. The seven men remained in Antarctica for another winter season. On February 5, 1914, the Aurora returned to take them back to Australia. Unfortunately, the drama and courage of Mawson’s tale of survival were overshadowed by Scott’s dramatic death and later by the incredible tale of survival from Shackleton’s Endurance expedition in 1916.


The 1911 Australasian Antarctic Expedition was very important for a variety of reasons. Prior to that time, the major Antarctic expeditions came either from European countries or from the United States. Several countries in the Southern Hemisphere had a significant interest in exploring Antarctica, but they did not have the financial or technical resources to mount major expeditions. Even Australia and New Zealand were content to support British expeditions. Douglas Mawson, however, wanted to give Australia its own claim to Antarctica.

Mawson was a scientist by training, and he was intent on making the best possible scientific survey of the Antarctic coast directly south of Australia. Such a survey, he believed, would give Australia a political claim to the territory and would determine the economic value of its natural resources. Mawson was also interested in Antarctic geology, however, and his team conducted meteorological studies and searched for the exact location of the south magnetic pole. The team members were also the first to find a meteorite in Antarctica. The Mawson expedition was the first to employ radio communications, and the group’s attempt to use the airplane for surveying large tracts of land was truly revolutionary. Australasian Antarctic Expedition Antarctica;exploration Exploration;Antarctica

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bickel, Lennard. Mawson’s Will. New York: Dorset Press, 1988. One of the best accounts available of Mawson’s incredible tale of survival. Draws on personal interviews and the diaries of the three ill-fated explorers to create a picture of the incredible conditions faced by Mawson and his two companions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Lincoln. Douglas Mawson: The Life of an Explorer. Sydney: New Holland Press, 2000. Pictorial biography includes more than 170 black-and-white photographs. Discusses the fact that Mawson did not receive the acclaim that others did and details Mawson’s accomplishments in comparison to those of Scott and Shackleton.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGregor, Alasdair. Mawson’s Huts: An Antarctic Expedition Journal. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1998. Illustrated volume is the result of the author’s participation in a restoration project on Mawson’s Cape Denison huts, which took place in 1997 and 1998. Gives the reader a wonderful feel for the living conditions experienced by the early Antarctic explorers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mountevans, Admiral Lord. The Antarctic Challenged. New York: John De Graff, 1956. Firsthand account by a member of Scott’s Discovery expedition. Chapter titled “Mawson in the Home of the Blizzards” provides an excellent depiction of Mawson’s heroic expedition that could have come only from someone who had actually been there.

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Peary and Henson Reach the North Pole

Amundsen Reaches the South Pole

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