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Richard Byrd inaugurating the scientific age of Antarctic exploration

by Robert C. Brears Blog

The Byrd Expedition of 1928-1930 was the first American expedition to Antarctica since the Charles Wilkes voyage of 1840. The expedition was led by Richard Evelyn Byrd, a United States Navy aviator, who had claimed to be the first person to fly to the North Pole in 1926.
Antarctic Peninsula

Ship: m/v Ortelius

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea, Weddell Sea

Richard Byrd inaugurating the scientific age of Antarctic exploration

The Byrd Expedition of 1928-1930 was the first American expedition to Antarctica since the Charles Wilkes voyage of 1840. The expedition was led by Richard Evelyn Byrd, a United States Navy aviator, who had claimed to be the first person to fly to the North Pole in 1926. Afterwards he met Roald Amundsen who asked Byrd ‘…what shall it be now? Byrd replied to him ‘Flying over the South Pole’. The expedition of four ships and three aircraft, along with a base on the Bay of Whales, Little America, heralded a new age of Antarctic exploration with Byrd being the first to fly to the South Pole: What took Amundsen three months had taken Byrd just 16 hours.

© United States Library of Congress_ggbain.38060

Byrd’s pioneering use of technology

During a second expedition to Antarctica in 1933-1935 Byrd endured five long winter months operating a meteorological station, Advance Camp, where he almost died of carbon monoxide poisoning. His radio provided comfort to him, connecting him to events outside Antarctica with one radio request even made by him for stock prices. Byrd’s pioneering approach to communication and travel in Antarctica transformed the way expeditions could operate. He was the first explorer to initiate radio communication on the continent, removing much of the intense isolation felt by many. While one media outlet, the Times, declared the ‘loneliness of exploration is gone’ the New York Times claimed it to be a triumph of journalism with one of Byrd’s team, Russel Owen, stationed at Little America making weekly broadcasts on CBS Radio, bringing Antarctica into the homes of the American public. Owen also sent morse code dispatches to New York that were also published in London in the following day’s Times. The stories from Antarctica captured the imagination of the public, eventually leading to Owen being awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Meanwhile Byrd’s flights over Antarctica produced extensive charts and aerial photographs. Byrd also proved that the Ross and Weddell seas were unconnected and was the first to conduct seismic tests to determine the depth of ice on both the plateau and the Ross Ice Shelf. Byrd’s expedition inaugurated what was to become known as the ‘scientific age’ of Antarctic exploration, ensuring future expeditions relied on motorised sledges and planes that could handle Antarctica’s extreme climate and geography. Ending forever the reliance by explorers on man-hauling, dog-sledging or the use of ponies.

The Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1955-1957

While Byrd had been credited with doing more for Antarctic exploration than any other man, there was no significant activity in Antarctic until the mid-1950s when a the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1955-1957, led by British geologist Dr Vivian Fuchs, aimed to cross the Antarctica via the South Pole using a route similar to what Shackleton had proposed 40 years earlier. Till this expedition, no one had managed to successfully make an overland crossing. The expedition was timed to capitalise on the global interest that would come from the announcement of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) programme of 1957-1958. With the latest technology and adapted polar vehicles, the private expedition, which also had funding from the governments of Britain, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia and corporate sponsors, included a scientific team that would conduct seismic soundings, glaciological, meteorological and geological research. The planning of the expedition took two years and included the construction of bases in Antarctica to ensure its success: Shackleton Base near Vahsel Bay on the Weddell Sea, Scott Base at McMurdo Sound on the Ross Sea and a small base 500 km inland to the south called South Ice. The expedition was comprised of two teams that would make the overland crossing, the first a crossing party led by Fuchs and a second being a supporting party travelling from the Ross Sea led by Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who was the first climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. It was Hillary’s group that would build Scott Base and then lay supply depots as well as a safe vehicle route from the polar plateau back to the sea for Fuchs’ party.

Hillary beats Fuchs to the Pole

On 24 November 1957, Fuchs party set out from Shackleton Base with Fuchs wearing Captain Scott’s watch on a leather thong around his neck. The mode of transport was orange-painted tracked vehicles pulling 32 tonnes of provisions and equipment. At the same time, on the other side of Antarctica, Hillary set out from Scott Base in a convoy of converted tractors. Hillary’s party laid the supply deport out in a quick manner and decided to push on towards the South Pole, reaching it on 3 January 1958. The party was greeted by the members of the newly built United States Amundsen-Scott station who treated Hillary’s party to hot showers and a breakfast of hot dogs and baked beans. When asked why Hillary decided to push on beating Fuchs to the South Pole Hillary responded ‘Because I wanted to. Some people have to have a scientific reason. Not me’. Meanwhile Fuchs’ party was making very slow progress across the continent, which lead to the British media raising concerns about his safety. However, this was the age of modern Antarctic exploration with the availability of aircraft to extract anyone out of trouble.

Fuchs arrives at the South Pole to hamburgers

Around two weeks later, Fuchs’ party finally arrived at the South Pole, having made slow progress and needing to abandon four vehicles. They were met by a 40-strong crowd of international journalists. One of the journalists later recalled of being flown into the American base at the Pole ‘it was hard to imagine just what those ten early pioneers had experienced. I could not help but reflect on the fact that once something is achieved it soon becomes commonplace…reaching the South Pole has become almost routine, certainly by much stronger aircraft than we had’. Having arrived, Fuchs’ party were treated to a lunch of hamburgers, creamed corn and a large cake with red, white and blue icing on it. Bottles of bourbon were opened and toasts made however the British preferred a quick cup of tea, keen to push on and finish the job as it was only half done: Fuchs’ party now had to follow the trail towards Scott Base to complete the crossing. On 2 March 1958, the first crossing of Antarctica was accomplished, the party taking just 99 days to complete the 3,473 km journey from the Weddell Sea to McMurdo Sound. The party was greeted outside Scott Base by a welcoming committee along with photographers to capture the historical moment. After a cup of tea, Fuchs went off for a shave and bath, during which he was informed that Queen Elizabeth II had awarded him a knighthood for his achievement. However, to Sir Fuchs’ the most important aspect of the expedition was the science that was conducted: While the expedition had ended now the results had to be produced, giving faith to those that had supported the expedition in the first place. However, the news headlines were dominated by the stories of adventure the expedition produced not the unique scientific discoveries made.

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