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Antarctica and Sir Douglas Mawson

A photograph of the Mawson ice edge, Antarctica.

Mawson ice edge, Australian Antarctic Division, 2006.

Antarctica and the history of its exploration is an exciting and important part of Australia's history and culture, and the future of Antarctica's environment an important responsibility.

A photograph of Sir Douglas Mawson, 1930.

Frank Hurley (1885-1962), Sir Douglas Mawson, affectionately known by his staff as 'The Dux', photograph: gelatin silver. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Australia.: an10932811-47

Sir Douglas Mawson

Douglas Mawson studied mining, engineering, chemistry and geology at university, and was a lecturer in mineralogy at the University of Adelaide in 1905. In 1907, Mawson was interested in rocks that had been left after glaciers had melted, so he travelled to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Expedition (BAE) of 1907–09 led by Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton offered him a place in the group that was to stay in Antarctica over winter. Mawson accepted, and became an important member of the expedition.

Mawson was a member of the trio that set out to locate the South Magnetic Pole. On this trip, Mawson, Mackay and David set a record for an unsupported sledge journey (over 2000 km in 122 days). As the trip got more difficult, David gave Mawson the leadership, saying later in a tribute:

Mawson was the real leader who was the soul of our expedition to the Magnetic Pole. We really have in him an Australian Nansen, of infinite resource, splendid physique, astonishing indifference to frost.
Australian Dictionary of Biography, Mawson, Sir Douglas (18821958)

Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 1911–14

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 1911–14 was an important scientific expedition and established Australia's interests in the Antarctic. However, the success was not without cost. Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz set out on one of the scientific sledding parties. Only Mawson made it back.

After the AAE, Mawson could see the potential for Australia to become a major influence in the Antarctic region. He saw the potential for the commercial use of the resources of the continent, ranging from whaling to mining. He also thought other countries would become dominant in the region if Australia did not show interest. Mawson was knighted in 1914 and returned to the University of Adelaide in 1919 where he was later appointed professor in 1921. Mawson, and others, spent a great deal of time and energy persuading the government that another expedition was needed.

British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition 1929–31

As the Professor of Geology and Mineralogy in Adelaide, Mawson was given government assistance and led two more voyages to Antarctica - the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE), 1929–31. The voyages were mainly ship-based, but also included land exploration and Gipsy Moth reconnaissance flights. Mawson and his team made numerous scientific observations and were careful to map and claim territory for Britain (these claims were later transferred to Australia).

The scientific plans driving Mawson's expeditions were wide-ranging and often quite specialised. They included studies of the weather, the oceans, geology, physics, biology, glaciology and bacteriology. Mawson and the other early Antarctic expeditioners started a series of weather reports which are being continued today as part of scientific work on predicting weather patterns and understanding climate change. Another important task was mapping, as Antarctica was an almost unknown land. Maps were drawn on ship and on land by Hodgeman, the cartographer (map maker) and sketch artist at the Australasian Antarctic Expedition Main Base.

However, the main occupation of the BANZARE expedition was marine science, which included extensive oceanographic work and marine biological sampling. Examination of the various species collected was done over the next fifty years by specialists all over the world, and their results described in the thirteen volumes of the BANZARE Scientific Reports.

Mawson's influence and materials

Mawson cultivated a broad range of interests including conservation, farming and forestry. He was a persistent advocate of decimal measures, a supporter of strict regulation of the whaling industry, and was influential in having Macquarie Island declared a sanctuary.

In 1928 Sir Grenfell Price gave an evaluation of Mawson as:

...the man who, of all southern explorers, gave the world the greatest contributions in south polar science and his own people the greatest territorial possessions in the Antarctic.
Australian Dictionary of Biography, Mawson, Sir Douglas (18821958)

The Mawson Institute for Antarctic Research was established within the University of Adelaide in 1959. Its library incorporates Mawson's collection of polar literature, his Antarctic diaries, a substantial collection of papers, correspondence, photographic records and objects of historical importance.

In the Footsteps of Sir Douglas Mawson is an online exhibition of Mawson's life. The exhibition includes archival photos of Mawson in Antarctica as well as information about his epic sledge journey and his contribution to Australian society in other areas.

Published by Wakefield Press The Home of the Blizzard are the diaries of Sir Douglas Mawson. The diaries tell of Mawson's extraordinary journey across Antarctica, and the establishment of the first Australian station on Antarctica. Mawson brings to life the difficult and challenging conditions of Antarctica in 1911.

The Australian Antarctic Division

A photograph of an aurora at Mawson, Antarctica.

Glenn Duncan, Aurora at Mawson, Australian Antarctic Division, 2006, Kingston Tasmania 7050.

The Australian Antarctic Division leads Australia's Antarctic Program, which aims to increase understanding and protection of the Antarctic environment. The Australian Antarctic Division website includes information on station organisation, maintenance, research and a photo gallery of wildlife, icebergs, and the Aurora Australis.

By 1994 all of Australia's Antarctic stations had been rebuilt. The ongoing upgrade of facilities at Australia's Antarctic stations since 1969, combined with state-of-the-art satellite communication facilities, has enabled a greater emphasis to be placed on research that provides information and data, vital to further understanding global climate change and the role of the Antarctic in global systems.

Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship

The Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship aims to foster imaginative and engaging understanding of the Antarctic - which most Australians will never experience first-hand.

The Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship aims to communicate the significance of Australia's activities in Antarctica through the work of people especially gifted in communicating through various media including the visual arts, film-making, imaginative writing, education, and music as well as print and broadcast journalism. The Fellowship takes the form of a berth on a ship to Antarctica and associated logistical support i.e. food, accommodation and transport.

Previous Fellowship recipients

Writers have included Tim Bowden, who wrote and narrated the documentary The Silence Calling (1997), as well as six half-hour documentaries Breaking the Ice (2005). Alison Lester, children's author and illustrator, produced a book and a travelling educative project for schools called Kids Antarctic Art (2005). Tom Griffiths completed a book about Antarctic history, titled Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica (2007).

Diana Calder's photographic material has been used extensively to depict the environment and work of the Australian Antarctic Division. Her images are in stock libraries around the world, are regularly sold in USA, have been used in published articles and were used in an issue of Australian stamps featuring Antarctica.

Peter Morse, a lecturer in digital media, has a background in semiotics (study of signs and symbols), artistic practice and computer visualisation, and an ongoing interest in the intellectual history and practices of science and engineering. This helped him build stereoscopic (3D) images of Antarctica and a database of images to create an interactive 3D virtual reality representation of Antarctica. This virtual environment, Antarctica Virtua, and a new stereoscopic projection system is displayed at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Antarctic Arts Fellows for 2006–07 included Tanya Patrick, editor of Scientriffic magazine – a popular CSIRO science magazine for children aged 7 plus. Tanya's weblog Polar Eyes was produced on the voyage.

A photograph of King Penguins, Antarctica.

King penguins, Australian Antarctic Division, 2006, Kingston Tasmania 7050.


Antarctic bases may be seen through webcams set up at Mawson, Davis Station, Casey and Macquarie Island Station. The pictures are captured at the stations and sent via a permanent satellite link to the Australian Antarctic Division's headquarters in Kingston, Tasmania.

Yvonne and Jim Claypole are two 'fairly ordinary' people from Balnarring in Victoria, Australia, who spent a year in Antarctica. Their new home was a tiny hut chained to rocks on Commonwealth Bay. Their backyard was the whole of Cape Denison - the place that Mawson named 'Home of the Blizzards'. No-one else was within 2000 km. They were isolated from the rest of the world, except for the satellite links.

Conserving Mawson's huts

Mawson's huts, built at Commonwealth Bay early in 1912 to house Australasian Antarctic expedition members and their scientific equipment, are regarded as Australia's most significant historic presence in Antarctica. The site was included on the National Heritage List in 2005, and had been registered on the Register of the National Estate since 1980. The Mawson's Huts Historic Site Management Plan 2007-2012 sets out the direction of management of the site.

The Mawson's Huts Foundation was formed in 1996 to conserve the unique, historical buildings. The foundation works in partnership with the Australian Government, through the Australian Antarctic Division and the Australian Heritage Division, to carry out conservation work. The 2008–09 Mawson's Huts Foundation conservation team uncovered a collection of artefacts from the 1911–14 expedition, including smoking pipes, a Horlicks milk tin full of linseed oil, and the collar of one of Mawson's husky dogs. The remains of a seat from the first aircraft taken to the Antarctic have also been found, although the plane's fuselage has not been located.

Useful links


Sir Douglas Mawson

Education and research

Last updated: 22 December 2015