- Historic Sites
The Boy Skipper Who Found A Continent
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
While the Stonington sealers waited in the Falklands, other ships were probing in the far south. Most of them were commercial vessels, hunting seals or whales in the Antarctic wastes. But at least one group was carrying on pure exploration, seeking to confirm the existence of that mysterious continent at the bottom of the world. This expedition carried a flag strange to this part of the globe—the double eagle of the Russian Empire.
Captain James Cook’s voyages in the Pacific and Antarctic had greatly impressed Tsar Alexander I, and in 1803 he had sent an able navigator, Von Kruzenstern, across the Pacific to the Russian outpost of Kamchatka. Kruzenstern became the first Russian to circumnavigate the globe. Now Alexander’s interest was rekindled in the perennially fascinating subject of Terra Australis, and he sent two naval vessels there under the command of Captain Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen.
The Russian expedition consisted of two sloops of war—the flagship Vostok, 117 officers and men, and the smaller Mirnyi, 72 officers and men. They sailed from Kronstadt, on the Gulf of Finland, on July 4, 1819, with the objective of exploring the icy lands in the far south—and, if possible, proving or disproving the reports of a continent.
Bellingshausen made his first discovery in December, 1819, when he found the Marquis de Traversey Islands, just below the South Sandwich group, and named them for the Russian Navy minister. He surveyed the south side of the large island of South Georgia—Captain Cook had surveyed the north side—and made a series of sketches for mariners which are still used today.
While the Russian captain ranged far and wide within the Antarctic Circle, the Stonington fleet had assembled, reprovisioned, and departed for the South Shetlands. Their voyage south was not without incident. One entry in the Hero ’s log reports that a boat from the Catherine capsized in passing between vessels, and carried its crew, hampered by heavy clothing, to an icy death. On another occasion, while maneuvering in heavy weather to speak with the Express , the Hero suddenly rammed her and carried away two timbers. One morning while hoisting the mainsail, Nat Palmer himself was knocked overboard into the freezing water. His log casually reports that he “regained consciousness and got on board without much injury.”
On reaching the South Shetlands November 12, Palmer noted gloomily in the Hero ’s log that there were “no seals up.” Other sealers evidently had found the treasure-trove and looted it.
The Hero desperately scouted the other islands of the group, and parties went ashore in search of the valuable animals, but only a scattered few were in evidence. The crews were forced to lie idle, and the success of the expedition was at stake. Quickly a council of war was called aboard the Hero .
The decision was to send the Hero farther south, hoping to find the source from which the seals migrated to the northern breeding grounds. There were no charts for this area; it was the unknown, and it took a man with a sixth sense to delve into it when a dense fog might suddenly surround his ship without warning.
Nat got the Hero “underweight on a cruise” the very same day, and that evening made the southern shore of Deception Island. “What we thought to be a harbor” turned out to be a deception indeed, but further along the same coast he found “a spacious harbor with very deep water 50 & 60 fathoms,” and after he had sounded and anchored, he “went on shore and got some Eggs.” It was from this “Excellent Harbor secure from all winds"—in actuality, the crater of an extinct volcano—that he first sighted the land which was to put his name in history books.
So sketchy is Palmer’s log that it is difficult to tell from what point he sighted “the Land,” approximately fifty nautical miles distant. Probably he saw it from a high point on Deception Island, but it may have been from the mast of his sloop—for it was a clear day and the mainland was higher than Deception Island. At any rate, his niece remembered hearing him tell in later years how he was “thrown into great excitement at seeing land to the south of anything then known” and filled with a desire to explore it. He set about the task without delay.
At ten o’clock in the morning of November 17, the Hero “stood over for the Land.” The day was one of “fresh Breezes from SWest and Pleasant” and at eight o’clock that evening he was in the lee of an offshore island, now called Trinity. He had crossed Bransfield Strait in a matter of ten hours, making an average of four knots. But when he reached Trinity Island he “found the sea filled with immense (sic) Ice Bergs” and “hove Too under the jib” for the rest of the night. Until morning he “Laid off & on” (tacked to-and-fro) while he waited to sail closer to the mountainous mainland.