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"Below the 40th latitude there is no law; below the 50th no god; below the 60th no common sense and below the 70th no intelligence whatsoever."
The Antarctic Continent
The Antarctic region (see maps) was originally discovered in the 18th century by seal hunters working the ice shelves off the continent's coast. The most notable of these was an American, Nathaniel B. Palmer – whose name is given to both an American base (in Palmer Land) and an oceanographic boat. The first to actually set foot on Antarctic ground was also an American, John Davis, who landed there February 7, 1821 (in the Antarctic Peninsula – across the Drake Passage from the tip of South America). Nearly twenty years later, the French were to make landfall on the same continent at its opposite side, across the Southern Ocean from Tasmania.
Jules Dumont d'Urville, Maritime Explorer
Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville, born 1790 in Normandy, France, commenced his career as a specialist in botany and linguistics. However, on completing his studies at the Lycée de Caen, he joined the Navy, serving aboard the "Aquilon" as a novice in 1807, and as an aspirant in 1809 on board the "Amazone". D'Urville was eventually promoted to Lieutenant de Vasseau in 1821, subsequently embarking on two decades of exploration to Western Australia, New Zealand, and eventually the Antarctic.
The purpose of these expeditions was ostensibly for scientific research – collecting botanic specimens, as well as the possible establishment of a French penal colony similar to that of the British on Australia. France was intent on gaining a foothold in the Pacific, and d'Urville's proposal to French naval authorities for a second circumnavigation of the Pacific was approved in 1837. This time, his expedition would involve two ships, the "Astrolabe" and the "Zelée".
Setting sail on September 7, 1837, the ships stopped off at Staten Island before passing by Le Maire Strait (off the tip of southern Argentina). It was not long before the Astrolabe and the Zelée found themselves in the icefields of the south, near Clarence Island. Though d'Urville had received orders to navigate the Antarctic area, bad weather, ice fields, fog and snow eventually obliged him to turn away before the end of Antartica's short summer – instead heading for the South Orkneys (800 mi./1290 km SE of the Falklands, on the Scotia Sea), where the ships stopped at Saddle Island.
After long navigation around the Pacific Islands, calling at various ports such as Guam, Tahiti, Tonga and Java, the French arrived at New Holland (Australia), where the ships laid anchor on February 27, 1839. During the following months, d'Urville resumed navigation around the islands of Indonesia, waiting patiently for the Antarctic summer to return.
In mid-January 1840, the Astrolabe was back in Antarctic waters once again. On January 20, 1840, d'Urville succeeded in raising the French flag over land which he took in the name of the King of France, naming it the Adélie Coast after his wife Adèle. The visit proved to be short-lived, however. After a few days of intense scientific work, and driven out by the bad weather, the two boats set out towards Hobart (Tasmania), then returned to France. No one could have anticipated that another 110 years would pass before the French would once again set foot on the Adélie Coast.
In fact, it was nearly 50 years later, in 1897, that the Belgian explorer Adrien Victor Joseph de Gerlache and his crew on board the Belgica landed and – quite unintentionally – spent the first winter stranded there. More than a century after d'Urville's discovery, the French established their first base, Port-Martin (1950-1952), near the glacier of Zélée on the Adélie Coast. Terre Adélie, a narrow strip of land which runs from the coastline directly to the South Pole, is still a base for French scientists today. The Magnetic Pole – nearly 1700 miles (2700 km) away from the geographic South Pole – is located just offshore from Dumont d'Urville, a meteorological and geophysical research station which has been manned since it opened on 12 January 1956.
The region of Terre Adélie is officially part of the French Southern and Antarctic Territories – Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises (TAAF), which also includes Kerguelen Island, the Crozet Archipelago, and the islands of Amsterdam/St-Paul.
(1.) National Geographic presentation on antarctic penguins and their survival rates in face of global warming.
Sources: Discovery - New Zealand in history, ©2000 Grolier Interactive Inc. – All Rights Reserved.
Bibliography: John Dunmore, French Explorers in the Pacific; Leslie G. Kelly, Marion du Fresne at the Bay of Islands.
Images: Map of Antarctica © Lonely Planet. Map of Antarctica showing international research stations, from COMNAP, the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs. Larger map of Antarctica showing international research stations, from SCAR, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. (1.) Aurora Australis above Dumont d'Urville, (2.) Seven penguins loafing on Antarctica, and (3.) Base at Dumont d'Urville, from Guillaume Dargaud Photo Gallery and Pictures of Antarctic Bases © 1992-2002. Lightbox gallery images: Base at Dumont d'Urville, Samuel Blanc (photographer, 1 Dec 2005), from Wikimedia Commons. Base at Dumont d'Urville, Katell Pierre (photographer, ca. 2006), from IPEV (L'Institut polaire français Paul Émile Victor). All Rights Reserved.