Story: Antarctica and New Zealand

The ‘frozen continent’ of Antarctica has long fascinated New Zealanders. The early-20th-century Antarctic expeditions of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton visited the South Island, and New Zealand’s main Antarctic centre, Scott Base, is named after the ill-fated Scott. In the 21st century scientific exploration was a major focus. Tourists were also drawn to the dramatic landscapes, wildlife and historic sites.

Story by Nigel Roberts
Main image: Aerial view of Scott Base, 2004

Story summary

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Antarctica is the coldest continent, mostly covered in snow and ice. It originally had no human inhabitants.

Early visitors

For centuries Europeans believed that there was an unknown southern continent. On their Pacific voyages, Abel Tasman and James Cook both searched for – but did not find – this land.

In 1820 three separate expeditions sighted Antarctica, and other ships later visited the area. The first known landing was in January 1895, and included a New Zealander, Alexander von Tunzelmann.

Exploring the land

In the early 20th century there was a surge in Antarctic exploration and a race to reach the South Pole. British expeditions set off from, and returned to, New Zealand’s South Island.

  • Robert Falcon Scott led the British Discovery expedition in 1901–4.
  • The British Antarctic Expedition of 1907–9 was led by Ernest Shackleton. Some of its members were the first to reach the south magnetic pole (not the South Pole).
  • Scott’s second Antarctic expedition reached the South Pole in January 1912, only to find that a Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen had got there first. Scott’s party died on the way back.

Ross Dependency

After the First World War the British government wanted Australia and New Zealand to make claims over Antarctica. In 1923 the Ross Sea region became a New Zealand dependency. However, at the time New Zealand took little interest in Antarctica.


  • After the Second World War the United States surveyed and photographed much of Antarctica. Operation Deep Freeze at Christchurch airport is the Americans’ base for flights to Antarctica.
  • In 1957 New Zealand established Scott Base on Ross Island, originally as a base for a Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Mountaineer Edmund Hillary led the New Zealand contribution to the expedition.
  • During the International Geophysical Year in 1957–58, 12 countries (including New Zealand) set up 55 scientific stations in the Antarctic.


The Antarctic Treaty was agreed on in 1959 to encourage peaceful scientific cooperation and ban military activity in the Antarctic. In 2012, 49 countries had signed.

Conventions have been signed to protect the Antarctic’s wildlife and environment, but there are concerns about overfishing and whaling.

Science and tourism

Since the 1950s New Zealand has conducted scientific studies in the Antarctic, including on glaciers and sea ice, climate change, penguin populations and continental drift.

In the 2000s around 40,000 tourists visited Antarctica each year, although there were concerns about their impact on the environment. In 1979 an Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into Mt Erebus, killing all 257 passengers and crew.

How to cite this page:

Nigel Roberts, 'Antarctica and New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2024)

Story by Nigel Roberts, published 20 June 2012