Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Jump to navigation Jump to search

Newly constructed Main Base Hut
The Western survey party

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) was an Australasian scientific team that explored part of Antarctica between 1911 and 1914. It was led by the Australian geologist Douglas Mawson, who was knighted for his achievements in leading the expedition. In 1910 he began to plan an expedition to chart the 3,200-kilometre-long (2,000 mi) coastline of Antarctica to the south of Australia. The Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science approved of his plans and contributed substantial funds for the expedition.

Accomplishments were made in geology, glaciology and terrestrial biology, unlike both of Ernest Shackleton's following expeditions which produced very little science.[1] In a celebration of the achievements of Mawson and his men, a centenary scientific voyage, retracing the route of the original expedition, departed from Australasia on 25 November 2013 and became stuck on 24 December 2013.[2]



The team selected for the expedition came primarily from universities in Australia and New Zealand. Of the men who would occupy bases on the Antarctic continent, twenty-two were Australian residents. Four were New Zealanders, three British and one Swiss. Three of the leaders, Mawson, Wild and Davis, were veterans of other Antarctic voyages.

The expedition sailed on the Newfoundland sealing vessel Aurora, a steam-powered sailing vessel with a length of 50 metres (165 ft) and a displacement of 600 tons. The ship underwent modifications for the trip, including adding three large tanks for storing fresh water. The Aurora captain was John King Davis.

The vessel departed for Macquarie Island on 2 December 1911,[3] arriving on 11 December after surviving stormy weather during the crossing. A second vessel, the Toroa, followed with supplies and passengers. Departing Macquarie Island on 23 December, the Aurora began exploring the coastal areas, during which the vessel and its men discovered and named King George V Land and Queen Mary Land.

Signatures of some expedition members

Key members of the expedition included Frank Hurley as official photographer, Frank Wild as leader of the western base, Charles Hoadley as geologist, and Cecil Madigan as meteorologist.

Other members of the expedition included Edward Bage, Frank Bickerton, Leslie Russell Blake, Sidney Jeffryes, Charles Laseron, Archibald McLean, Herbert Dyce Murphy, Frank Stillwell and Leslie Whetter .

Base camps[edit]

The expedition built their main base, or winter quarters, at Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay, where eighteen men spent the winter of 1912 and seven spent the winter of 1913. (Their huts still stand – two intact and two as ruins: Mawson's Huts, now managed as an historic site by the Australian Antarctic Division). They also built two auxiliary bases, a support base and wireless relay station on Macquarie Island initially headed by George Ainsworth, and a western base on the Shackleton Ice Shelf, but these two auxiliary bases no longer survive.

The teams at all three bases conducted routine scientific and meteorological observations, which were recorded in great detail in the voluminous reports of the expedition (not published until 1922–1942). They also overcame months of failures with equipment and masts by eventually establishing the first Antarctic wireless radio connection (linked to Hobart via a radio relay station established at Wireless Hill on Macquarie Island).[4]

Three short film clips from the official film of the expedition eventually entitled The Home of the Blizzard can be found online.[5] An extensive critique of the final film appears on the NFSA page in two parts.[6][7] A 15-minute 3-D version of Frank Hurley's still photographs from the expedition is also available online.[8]

Sledging expeditions[edit]

The start of the Far Eastern Party expedition, 1912
Mawson's half sledge

Coastal and inland sledging journeys enabled the teams to explore previously unknown lands. In the second half of 1912, there were five major journeys from the main base and two from the western base.

Mawson himself was part of a three-man sledging team, the Far Eastern Party, with Xavier Mertz, and Lieutenant B. E. S. Ninnis who headed east on 10 November 1912 to survey King George V Land. On 14 December 1912,[9] after three weeks of excellent progress, the party was crossing the Ninnis Glacier, when Ninnis fell through a snow-covered crevasse. Mertz had skied over the crevasse lid, Mawson had been on his sled with his weight dispersed, but Ninnis was jogging beside the second sled and his body weight is likely to have breached the lid. Six dogs, most of the party's rations, their tent and other essential supplies disappeared into a massive crevasse 480 km east of the main base. Mertz and Mawson spotted one dead and one injured dog on a ledge 46m down but Ninnis was never seen again.[10]

Mawson and Xavier Mertz turned back immediately. Their scanty provisions forced them to eat their remaining sled dogs, unwittingly causing a quick deterioration in the men's physical condition. The liver of one dog contains enough vitamin A to produce the condition called Hypervitaminosis A. Mertz became incapacitated and incoherent; in an attempt to nurse him back to health, Mawson fed him most of the dog livers, which he considered more nourishing than the tough muscle tissue. After Mertz died, Mawson continued alone for 30 days.[11] He cut his sled in half with a pen knife and dragged the sled with geological specimens but minimal food 160 km back to the base at Cape Denison. During the return trip to the Main Base, he fell through the lid of a crevasse and was saved only by his sledge wedging itself into the ice above him. When Mawson finally made it back to Cape Denison on 8 February 1913 the words of his first rescuer upon finding Mawson were, "My God, which one are you?"[12] However it was just hours after Davis's recovery party had left on the Aurora. The ship was recalled by wireless communication, only to have bad weather thwart the rescue effort. Mawson, and six men who had remained behind to look for him, wintered a second unplanned year until December 1913.

Cover first edition of Adelie Blizzard newspaper dated April 1913

To maintain morale over the prolonged period of isolation Archie Maclean hit upon the idea of publishing their own newspaper to keep the confined men entertained. Expedition members contributed poetry, short fiction, and literary criticism as well as scientific articles and accounts of their daily activities. The result was the Adelie Blizzard which had five issues between April and October in 1913. They were never officially published for the general public until almost 100 years had passed when a facsimile edition was produced.


Commonwealth Bay has since been described as "the windiest coastal place on earth"

As the expedition commander Douglas Mawson was himself a geologist, the examination of the accessible (i.e., not covered by ice) rock formations of Wilkes Land was a key feature of the expedition.

The expedition is noted for having achieved the first discovery of a meteorite, a chondrite, 30 km west of Cape Denison.[13] Over the following century a trove of meteorites have been discovered in this region of Antarctica.


The location chosen by Mawson for the main base camp, at Cape Denison, proved to be one of the places on Earth with the strongest wind forces, with local morphology – the abrupt gradient between the East Antarctic ice plateau and the Antarctic Ocean – creating conditions ripe for the generation of near-continuous katabatic wind conditions.[14]



Robert Falcon Scott had considered taking wireless equipment with him for his ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition in 1910-1913, but had dismissed the idea because of the great weight of the entire transmission system.[15] Prior to the AAE, there may have been wireless transmissions from ships at anchor at Macquarie Island, but as far as was known, no wireless messages had either been transmitted or received on the Antarctic mainland. To establish such a facility on the mainland would have been a major publicity coup for the expedition, while the further publicity value of realtime news from the Antarctic was great. The facility would also provide an opportunity to investigate for the first time propagation of radiofrequency waves in Antarctic environments. This was entirely consistent with Mawson's stated objective for the expedition to be principally one of scientific investigation. It must have been difficult for the expedition's promoters to announce close to the scheduled departure of the expedition that there was a £9,000 shortfall in funding and that if benefactors could not be found, it would be the wireless component of the expedition which would be omitted.[16] Nevertheless, the funds were found and the stage was set for the Antarctic to be placed on the wireless map.

Wireless operators[edit]

The personnel who were either recruited as wireless officers or stepped into the role out of operational necessity were:

Hannam was already prominent in the world of wireless at the time of his recruitment, issued with an early wireless experimental licence by the Postmaster-General. He was an associate of patriot Taylor and joined with him in early demonstrations of the potential of wireless to the Australian military. Hannam was a founding member of the Wireless Institute of Australia. He was personally recruited by Mawson as chief wireless operator for the expedition and advised him both on wireless equipment selection and wireless personnel recruitment. But after two summers and a winter in Antarctica, the big man had had enough, and having fulfilled his contract, in February 1912 returned to Australia.

Sawyer was a Kiwi who had been earlier recruited by the Australasian Wireless Co., Ltd. as chief wireless officer for their new temporary coastal station at the Australia Hotel. Australasian Wireless would not have been unhappy for Sawyer to join the AAE, as it would have been concurrent with a decision to acquire two full 2 kW Telefunken transmission systems for the expedition. Sawyer's intimate knowledge of the Telefunken system would ensure the success of the venture and result in excellent publicity for their product and this proved to be the case.

Sandell was less well known in wireless circles, but like Hannam, was a licensed wireless experimenter and they were well known to each other through their involvement in the Wireless Institute of Australia. A good steady hand, he alone of all the formally appointed wireless officers saw out the full two years of the expedition, albeit on the slightly less arduous Macquarie Island station.

Jeffryes had been briefly a telegraphist with the Postmaster-General's Department, then was employed by the Australasian Wireless. It is not known whether he was engaged at Hotel Australia or on one of the ships fitted with Telefunken equipment. He had applied for one of the wireless positions in the initial voyage, but had not been selected by Mawson. But after Hannam's announced intention to return home, Jeffryes was selected by Davis as his replacement. For some months, he did good work, installing a new receiver for Cape Denison, recommissioning the antenna system badly wind-damaged and getting the facility fully effective for the first time. But he soon succumbed to Polar Madness and may never have recovered.

Bickerton was a wireless officer of necessity. He was initially engaged as pilot and mechanic for the aircraft the expedition had brought with them. But when the aircraft was damaged beyond repair for flight, the unit was turned into an "air-tractor" and it fell to Bickerton to operate and maintain it. But as Jeffryes slipped into Polar Madness, Mawson sought Bickerton out, and instructed him to learn morse code and equipment operation alongside Jeffryes. Once Jeffryes was relieved of duties, Bickerton then well filled the wireless operator role.

Wireless stations[edit]

The AAE expedition was the first Antarctic expedition in history, and the only one during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, to maintain radio contact with its country of origin. Only a high power facility of comparable capacity to those recently established at Sydney (VIS) and Perth (VIP) would have been capable of direct communication between Hobart and Cape Denison and this would have been prohibitively expensive and resource hungry for the expedition. It was decided to establish an intermediate station at Macquarie Island, and by halving the maximum distance for each signal to traverse, it was expected that the 2 kW Telefunken transmitters of the Australasian Wireless Co., Ltd. would enable reliable communication.

SY Aurora[edit]

The Aurora carried a Marconi wireless set and another was set up at Cape Denison, but due to the competitive nature of Antarctic exploration at the time transmissions were kept to an absolute minimum.

Macquarie Island[edit]

The equipment used was a 1.5 kW Telefunken spark transmitter and a flat top antenna. Atmospheric conditions associated with the Aurora Australis interfered with radio transmissions on many occasions, but the expedition parties were generally able to receive news from the outside world reasonably regularly via the relay station on Macquarie Island.[17]

Cape Denison[edit]

VIH Hobart[edit]

Prior to the departure of the expedition, Mawson was making representations to the Postmaster-General to prioritise the establishment of the Hobart station (subsequently allocated callsign VIH) in the network of coastal stations which were finally to be established after a decade of delays and several shipping calamities. These representations appear to have ceased once it was realised that the Macquarie station could communicate with the Australasian Wireless Co., Ltd.'s temporary station at the Hotel Australia.

Hotel Australia[edit]

While the Australian Government dithered on the establishment of a network of coastal radio stations, Australasian Wireless Co., Ltd. was granted a temporary licence and a Telefunken system was promptly installed on top of the Hotel Australia and gave sterling service. Once the Macquarie Island station was commissioned, it was with Hotel Australia that the first messages were exchanged. Sawyer, the chief wireless officer at Macquarie Island, was immediately prior to the expedition, the chief wireless officer at Hotel Australia. Thereafter we hear no more of representations by Mawson and the AAE for prioritisation of the VIH coastal station.

British Navy on Australia Station[edit]

By the time of the AAE, wireless installations on ships of the British Navy on Australia Station were ubiquitous. Despite being a mobile facility, good power supplies were available and the larger vessels provided sufficient on deck space for provision of efficient antenna systems. The range of the ships while at harbour was no different to that of a moderate power coastal station, while at sea, the superior propagation over salt water resulted in ranges equal to high power coastal stations. While little mentioned by Mawson, he would have been advised by Hannam that Macquarie Island would be able to stay in contact with the naval shipping and this proved to be the case. Mawson's interest in the Australian coastal stations would have been driven primarily by the Navy's likely desire not to be an intermediary in high volume traffic.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ National Research Council (U.S.), Pola Research Board (1986). Antarctic Treaty System: An assessment. National Academies. p. 96.
  2. ^ "Polar trek made to measure where Mawson team made mark". The Age. 30 September 2013.
  3. ^ "100 years of Australian Antarctic Expeditions". About the centenary. Department of Environment. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
  4. ^ Yates, Peter. "Australia continues as telecommunications innovator". Australian Antarctic Magazine. Spring 2001 (2). Retrieved 13 June 2014.
  5. ^ "Video Overview The Official Film of the Mawson Antarctic Expedition (c1916) on ASO – Australia's audio and visual heritage online". Aso.gov.au.
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 7 April 2015. Retrieved 28 September 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 3 April 2015. Retrieved 28 September 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. ^ "Home of the Blizzard". Petermorse.com.au.
  9. ^ Roberts, David (January 2013). "Into the Unknown". National Geographic. Retrieved 29 January 2013.
  10. ^ "Antarctic Explorers: Douglas Mawson". South-pole.com. Retrieved 18 January 2012.
  11. ^ "Sir Douglas Mawson (1882–1958)". About Antarctica. Department of the Environment. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
  12. ^ Bickel, Lennard (2000). Mawson's Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written. Hanover, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press. ISBN 1-58642-000-3.
  13. ^ Sears, Derek (22 March 1979). "Rocks on the ice". New Scientist. 81 (1147): 959. ISSN 0262-4079.
  14. ^ "Cape Denison, the birthplace of Australian Antarctic expeditions". AusGeo News. Commonwealth of Australia. December 2011. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
  15. ^ "SOUTHWARD HO!". Evening News (13, 528). New South Wales, Australia. 18 October 1910. p. 5. Retrieved 18 April 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  16. ^ "The World's News". The World's News (511). New South Wales, Australia. 30 September 1911. p. 15. Retrieved 17 April 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  17. ^ Taylor, Stanley Gordon Roberts. "Antarctic Diary". Stanley Gordon Roberts Taylor's diary of his 1912–1913 voyage to Antarctica with Sir Douglas Mawson's Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Taylor family. Retrieved 7 April 2014.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]