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Antarctica and New Zealand

by Nigel Roberts

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.

Voyages of discovery

Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest and highest of the world’s seven continents. Snow and ice cover 95% of its area, and the seas that surround it are frozen for much of the year. It was the last continent to be discovered, and it had no human inhabitants.

Terra australis incognita

Europeans assumed the existence of an unknown land in the south, ‘terra australis incognita’, for thousands of years. The Flemish cartographer Rumold Mercator included it on his 1587 map of the world. Finding the southern continent was one of the objects of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s voyage of discovery when, in 1642, he became the first European to sight New Zealand.

Antarctic and Antarctica

Although ‘Antarctic’ and ‘Antarctica’ can be used to refer to different things, the two terms are so similar that many people use them interchangeably. Strictly speaking, Antarctica is the continent that surrounds the South Pole. ‘Antarctic’ refers to the entire southernmost region of the earth. It includes Antarctica and the surrounding ice shelves and sea.

British navigator James Cook visited New Zealand during each of his three voyages of discovery. On his second voyage he was specifically commissioned to search for terra australis incognita, and in doing so he circumnavigated the globe, frequently sailing below 60° south. On 17 January 1773 Cook and the crew of the Resolution became the first people to cross the Antarctic Circle (at latitude 66° 33’ south). Although Cook’s second voyage proved that neither Australia nor New Zealand was attached to a southern continent, he and his men did not sight Antarctica. Despite encountering icebergs during the Resolution’s southerly circumnavigation, the voyage did not confirm the existence of southern lands.

Antarctica sighted

In 1820, on separate expeditions, Russian admiral Fabian von Bellingshausen, Royal Navy master Edward Bransfield and American captain Nathaniel Palmer all sighted the southern continent.

Bellingshausen visited New Zealand after seeing the ‘mountainous ice’1 of Antarctica. During the next two decades, sealers and explorers continued to visit the Antarctic, some using New Zealand as either a base before or a haven after making discoveries. They included:

  • John Balleny, an Enderby sealing company captain who discovered the Balleny Islands in 1840
  • Dumont d’Urville, a French admiral who found the Adélie Land coast of Antarctica in 1840
  • Charles Wilkes of the United States Exploring Expedition, whose mapping in 1839–40 provided evidence of the southern continent
  • James Clark Ross, the British Royal Navy officer who in 1840–41 discovered the Ross Sea, McMurdo Sound (named after an officer on the expedition), Ross Island and Mt Erebus (named after one of Ross’s two ships).

First New Zealander

Tuati, also known as John Sac, the son of a Scottish whaler and sealer and his Ngāpuhi wife, saw Antarctica in 1840 while a seaman with the Wilkes expedition. This first sighting by a New Zealander was commemorated 150 years later, when Tuati Peak in Antarctica’s Royal Society Range was named after him.


In January 1895 a party from the Antarctic – a whaling and sealing ship owned by Carsten Borchgrevink, a Norwegian resident of Australia – set foot on Cape Adare. It was the first recognised landing by people on the continent of Antarctica. The group included a young New Zealander, Alexander von Tunzelmann.

  1. Quoted in L. B. Quartermain, New Zealand and the Antarctic. Wellington: Government Printer, 1971, p. 2. Back

The heroic age of Antarctic exploration

The opening decades of the 20th century witnessed a surge in Antarctic exploration, as well as in nationalist fervour. There was a race for the South Pole.

Scott’s first expedition

British Royal Navy officer Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition, named after the expedition’s main ship, visited the South Island ports of Lyttelton (near Christchurch) and Port Chalmers (near Dunedin) on its way to Ross Island in 1901. The expedition returned to Lyttelton in 1904 after leaving Antarctica. During their time on the continent, a sledging party led by Scott reached 82° south, while another party travelled west as far as meridian 159° east. ‘New Zealand,’ wrote Scott, ‘welcomed us as its own, and showered on us a wealth of hospitality and kindness.’1

Ernest Shackleton

Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton, a member of Scott’s 1901–4 Discovery expedition, led the next British attempt to reach the pole. The New Zealand government contributed £1,000 ($155,000 in 2011 terms) towards the costs of Shackleton’s 1907–9 British Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton’s ship, the Nimrod, arrived in Lyttelton in November 1907 and departed for Ross Island on New Year’s Day 1908. Shackleton and three companions reached the 88th parallel – a mere 97 nautical miles from the South Pole – before deciding to turn around on 4 January 1909 and head back to their base at Cape Royds. Another group from Shackleton’s expedition – including Douglas Mawson, who later played a crucial role in Australia’s exploration of Antarctica – were the first people to reach the south magnetic pole (then situated at 72° south and 155° east).

When Shackleton’s expedition returned to New Zealand in March 1909, he was struck by the friendliness of New Zealanders, describing ‘a welcome from that sunny land that had always treated us with such open-hearted kindliness.’2

Reaching the South Pole

On 14 December 1911 a five-man party led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole. Amundsen, an experienced explorer of both the Arctic and Antarctic, had set up a base in the Bay of Whales, wintering over there and setting up supply stations along a direct route to the pole. The explorers waited for spring before setting out. Using dogs to pull their sledges, they made the journey there and back with no loss of human life (although most of the original group of 52 dogs died or were killed, and used to feed the rest).

Scott’s second expedition

Scott’s second Antarctic expedition arrived in Lyttelton aboard the Terra Nova on 28 October 1910, stayed for four weeks, and then briefly called in at Port Chalmers before leaving New Zealand on 29 November. In Antarctica, Scott’s base was again on Ross Island – this time at Cape Evans – and he and four companions set off for the South Pole on 2 November 1911. When they reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, they learned to their utter dismay that Amundsen’s party had arrived there almost five weeks earlier. Scott wrote in his diary, ‘Great God! this is an awful place …’3 Scott and the other members of his polar party perished on their return journey. The last words in Scott’s diary – ‘For God’s sake look after our people’4 – were written on 29 March 1912.

Two members of the Terra Nova’s crew came ashore in the South Island town of Ōamaru on 10 February 1913 and telegraphed the news of Scott’s death to the world. New Zealanders, who had identified strongly with the expedition, were deeply shocked.

Mawson and Shackleton

New Zealanders also took part in two other notable Antarctic expeditions. Douglas Mawson’s 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition included four New Zealanders: two scientists, a doctor, and a wireless operator. Ernest Shackleton’s 1914–17 Trans-Antarctic Expedition – an Antarctic foray characterised by both disaster and successful survival – included Frank Worsley, the Akaroa-born captain of Shackleton’s ship the Endurance, as well as Harry McNeish and Thomas Orde-Lees, both of whom settled in New Zealand after the expedition.

  1. Quoted in L. B. Quartermain, New Zealand and the Antarctic. Wellington: Government Printer, 1971, p. 12. Back
  2. Quoted in New Zealand and the Antarctic, p. 16. Back
  3. Robert Falcon Scott, diary, 17 January 1912, (last accessed 17 April 2012). Back
  4. Robert Falcon Scott, diary, 29 March 1912, (last accessed 17 April 2012). Back

The Ross Dependency

British interest

Although the First World War effectively ended the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, British interest in the region remained high. Shortly after the war, the British government sent a secret despatch to New Zealand’s government, suggesting that the whole of the Antarctic should eventually be part of the British Empire. In 1917 Britain had used the sector principle (which allowed a nation to claim an area of the Arctic or Antarctic from its existing territory to the pole) to extend its claim over areas of the Antarctic coastline as far south as the pole itself. Now Britain was proposing that the Australian and New Zealand governments should do likewise, as they were the nearest countries and had the most convenient ports.

New Zealand interest

Eighty years later former New Zealand diplomat Malcolm Templeton summed up the situation as follows: ‘Thus, almost casually, through an accident of geography, New Zealand was offered a slice of Antarctica larger than New Zealand itself.’1 In May 1923 the New Zealand government agreed to make the Ross Sea region a ‘dependency’, formally controlled by the governor-general.

In the years before the Second World War, New Zealand did little to exert its claim to the Ross Dependency. In August 1923 the New Zealand attorney general had argued that the decision had been made by New Zealand ‘on behalf of the Empire as a whole, and not specially in the interests of New Zealand.’2

In 1926 New Zealand promulgated regulations to manage whaling in the Ross Dependency, but no whaling licences were issued under the regulations.

Commonwealth expedition

A Commonwealth scientific expedition – the British Australia New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) – went to the Antarctic in 1929 and 1930–31. Led by Douglas Mawson of Australia, the group included two New Zealanders, scientist Robert Falla and meteorologist Richard Simmers. The New Zealand government helped fund the expedition, but did so reluctantly – the Antarctic was still of marginal interest.

United States interest

In late 1929 an American navy commander, Richard Byrd, flew to the South Pole from a base on the Ross Sea ice shelf. Byrd canvassed the idea of an American claim to Antarctica east of the Ross Dependency. While New Zealand worried about American intentions, they came to nothing, but two other countries’ claims did materialise. France formally claimed a small sector of the continent, Adélie Land, in 1938, and Norway claimed Queen Maud Land in 1939. Although Australia, Britain and New Zealand recognised these claims, the advent of the Second World War effectively put New Zealand’s interest in and concerns about Antarctica on ice.

    • Malcolm Templeton, A wise adventure: New Zealand in Antarctica, 1920–60. Wellington: Victoria University Press in association with the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, 2000, p. 17. Back
    • New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 202 (15 August 1923), p. 81. Back

Developments after the Second World War

After the Second World War the United States – a comparative latecomer to the field – led the exploration of Antarctica. Using 13 ships, 23 aircraft and more than 4,000 men, Operation High Jump surveyed more than 6 million square kilometres of Antarctica and photographed almost two-thirds of its coastline. During and after the war Argentina – responding to a 1940 Chilean territorial claim to a section of Antarctica, as well as to British claims – claimed jurisdiction over slices of the continent.

International Geophysical Year

Not having made any formal territorial claims of its own, the United States was anxious to promote non-nationalistic cooperation in Antarctica. American scientists’ 1950 proposals for a year devoted to international polar studies developed into plans to hold an International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957–58. New Zealand was formally asked to consider setting up a research station on Ross Island.

Trans-Antarctic Expedition

While plans for the IGY were being formulated, so were proposals by an Englishman, Vivian Fuchs, for a Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE). A plan for a combined Commonwealth expedition to undertake the first ever crossing from one side of Antarctica to the other (something that Ernest Shackleton’s 1914–17 expedition had failed to do) was eventually agreed upon. In May 1955 the New Zealand government announced it would contribute to the cost of the TAE and establish a base in the Ross Dependency.

Scott Base

Just two years earlier Edmund Hillary had been one of the first two people in the world to climb Mt Everest, and he was an obvious choice to head New Zealand’s contribution to the TAE. In November 1956 HMNZS Endeavour left New Zealand and took TAE members and a construction team to Ross Island, where Scott Base was built. It was formally opened on 20 January 1957, and since then has served as New Zealand’s main base in Antarctica, housing a continual stream of explorers, scientists and support staff.

Overland crossing

One of the key tasks for Hillary and the New Zealand TAE contingent was to set up a series of food and fuel supply depots along a route from the South Pole to the Ross Sea. Fuchs and his team would use the supplies on the second half of their continental crossing. From mid-October to mid-December 1957, a party led by Hillary used three Ferguson tractors to establish the depots. They then pushed on to the South Pole, arriving there on 4 January 1958. Fuchs’s party arrived 16 days later, and then followed Hillary’s route to the Ross Sea. On 2 March 1958 Fuchs’s party – accompanied by Hillary – arrived at Scott Base, successfully completing the first overland crossing of Antarctica.

Scientific milestone

The IGY was also a significant success. Twelve countries cooperated, setting up a total of 55 scientific stations in Antarctica and the subantarctic islands. The New Zealand Commission for the Environment later described the IGY as ‘undoubtedly a major milestone in Antarctica as well as international science’.1 Findings from scientists, geologists, glaciologists, oceanographers and seismologists in Antarctica and around the world were pooled.

From exploration to science

From the mid-20th century scientific investigation rather than exploration began to drive activity in Antarctica. New Zealand scientists worked from three stations in Antarctica:

  • Scott Base on Ross Island (New Zealand’s main base since 1957)
  • Harrison Laboratory on Cape Bird (from 1966)
  • Vanda Station in the McMurdo Dry Valley (1969–95).

An additional joint New Zealand/United States facility, Hallett Station (1957–73), was set up at Cape Hallett. Temporary camps, with tents or portable buildings, were also used.


Christchurch became so much a part of life for Americans stationed in the Antarctic that it was nicknamed ‘Cheech’ – based on Chch, the standard abbreviation for the city.

Operation Deep Freeze

The United States’ main staging post for flights to and from Antarctica is its Operation Deep Freeze base at Christchurch airport. New Zealand and the US have maintained a consistently close relationship over Antarctica since 1955. This continued even in the 1980s when the overall relationship was strained by New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policies. It has also survived attempts by Australia to persuade the Americans to move their operational base to Tasmania.

    • New Zealand and Antarctica: a discussion paper. Wellington: Commission for the Environment, 1983, p. 24. Back

The Antarctic Treaty

The International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957–58 occurred during the Cold War. The world’s two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, had research stations in Antarctica, and both countries had wide-ranging research programmes. They had a similar outlook regarding the continent: neither had made territorial claims and nor did they recognise the claims other nations had made.

The US decided to capitalise on the situation, and in 1959 hosted a conference in Washington DC about the political and international status of the continent. The resulting Antarctic Treaty was agreed to by the 12 participating states (which had all taken part in the IGY). The treaty, which came into force on 23 June 1961, is short and straightforward. It has only 14 articles (which take up only about six printed pages).

Peace zone

In the midst of the Cold War, the treaty declared that ‘Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.’ Any measures of a military nature were outlawed, and nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive waste were entirely prohibited. Antarctica effectively became the world’s first nuclear-free zone.

Territorial claims

Article IV of the Antarctic Treaty shelved the problem of territorial claims and the even more vexing problem of overlapping claims. It stated that nothing in the treaty could be interpreted as a denial ‘of previously asserted rights of or claims to territorial sovereignty’, and that activities taking place while the treaty was in force would not constitute a basis for claiming sovereignty. In addition, no new claims (or enlargements of existing claims) were permitted to be made during the life of the treaty.

Enforcement and consultation

The treaty has no formal enforcement mechanisms (and until 2010 had no standing secretariat), but contracting parties to the treaty can designate observers to inspect other nations’ activities and bases.

The 12 nations that originally signed the treaty are all consultative parties, as are an additional 17 states ‘conducting substantial research activity’ – countries that have demonstrated their interest in Antarctica and have signed the treaty since its initial ratification. By 2015 a further 24 states had also signed the treaty without becoming consultative parties.

Nash of the Antarctic

New Zealand Prime Minister Walter Nash went to some of the Antarctic Conference sessions in Washington DC in 1959 even though it was clear that his own views favouring an ‘international regime’ in Antarctica were not supported. Nash did not visit Antarctica while he was in office, but did so in January 1964, shortly before his 82nd birthday. Newspapers at the time said he was the oldest man to have visited the South Pole.

New Zealand’s unique role

As a claimant state and a participant in the IGY’s Antarctic research programme, New Zealand took part in the Washington conference. New Zealand was the only claimant state prepared to surrender its territorial claims in Antarctica. Prime Minister Walter Nash said he would ‘have wished to see the conference agree on a more imaginative and more adventurous approach to the problems arising from claims to sovereignty in Antarctica.’1

Although Nash’s plea for ‘wise adventures in the Antarctic’2 did not come to fruition with regard to territorial claims, the conference – and all that has occurred since the Antarctic Treaty was signed – underscored New Zealand’s position as a small country which is, nevertheless, a major player on the Antarctic stage.

    • Quoted in Malcolm Templeton, A wise adventure: New Zealand in Antarctica, 1920–60. Wellington: Victoria University Press in association with the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, 2000, p. 265. Back
    • Quoted in A wise adventure, p. 265. Back

Conventions and protocols

After the Antarctic Treaty came into effect in 1961, consultative party meetings were initially held every two years. Since 1994 they have (with one exception) been held annually. New Zealand has twice hosted these meetings – in Wellington in 1972 and in Christchurch in 1997. Because treaty partners host the meetings in alphabetical order, New Zealand will probably not host another full Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting until at least 2028.

Resource conservation

The consultative meetings helped ensure that the Antarctic Treaty system developed over time. At first, progress was slow. Eleven years after the treaty came into force, a convention for the conservation of Antarctic seals was agreed on. In 1980 there was another development: a Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was signed in Canberra.

CCAMLR was negotiated as a result of concerns about increased krill catches in the southern oceans. Article 2 of the convention stated that it was designed to prevent the ‘decrease in the size of any harvested population to levels below those which ensure its stable recruitment.’ In the 2000s New Zealand was concerned about the levels of fishing in the Antarctic (especially of toothfish) and strongly supported CCAMLR’s aims. In practice little could be done to monitor, let alone police, catch levels. Observers also feared that an increase in long-line fishing in the Ross Sea would increase the mortality rate of sea birds.

In 2016 New Zealand and the United States played leading roles in securing the creation of the world's largest marine reserve - 1.55 million square kilometres - in the Ross Sea.

Japan’s whaling operations in the southern oceans have been an additional subject of attention and acrimonious debate.

Environmental protection

At a consultative meeting in the mid-1970s New Zealand promoted a proposal for establishing Antarctica as a world park. The initiative received no support at all. Likewise, negotiations for a Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities were concluded in Wellington in 1988, but it was soon obvious that there was not enough support for the convention to be adopted.

End of the dog era

Huskies – sometimes called sledge dogs – were indispensable to early Antarctic expeditions. They also sailed south with the team that built Scott Base, and were stationed there from 1957 until 1987. They pulled sledges for surveyors and scientists, and sometimes simply took Scott Base staff for a spin on the snow. A few years after they left, the Madrid Protocol banned all introduced species (other than people) from the continent. The era of the dogs was over.

However, a breakthrough occurred in 1991. Recognising the need to protect the Antarctic environment, its ecosystems and wilderness, treaty nations adopted a Protocol on Environmental Protection (often called the Madrid Protocol). This ensured that mutually agreed resolutions about the Antarctic environment were legally binding on Antarctic Treaty nations. Given that the protocol’s aim was to ‘designate Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’ and that mining has effectively been banned on the continent, New Zealand’s policy goals were eventually achieved – albeit via a slow and tortuous route – 30 years after the Antarctic Treaty was initially ratified.

Science and tourism

Since the 1950s New Zealand has conducted a comprehensive range of scientific studies in Antarctica. Early studies by New Zealand scientists centred on geology, glaciology and zoology. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, New Zealanders were responsible for extensive geological mapping and detailed studies of penguin populations in Antarctica. New Zealand government and university scientists made important discoveries that supported the theory of continental drift.

Tetrapod discovery

In 1967 New Zealand scientist Peter Barrett discovered the remains of tetrapods in Antarctica, a startling find that was reported around the world. The tetrapod finding supported what was then a new and radical concept: the existence of a super-continent (known as Gondwana) and continental drift. Tetrapods, a family of species including small lizard-like creatures and freshwater amphibians, have also been found in Africa and Australia.

Melting glaciers and sea ice

Long-term studies of glaciers in the dry valley region (on the opposite side of McMurdo Sound from Scott Base) have determined that most are receding. Rising water levels in Lake Vanda, fed by melting glaciers on the eastern edge of the dry valleys, led to the decommissioning and removal of Vanda Station (which, from 1967 to 1995, was New Zealand’s only base in Antarctica other than Scott Base).

There are about 1 million breeding pairs of Adélie penguins in the Ross Sea region. The penguin population declined in the early 1960s, but has risen markedly since then. The reason for this is now clear: an earlier and more extensive melting of the sea ice surrounding Antarctica has increased the access of penguins to the sea and hence to food.

Weather effects

Antarctica has a major effect on New Zealand’s weather, and meteorological observations have been made at Scott Base since 1957. Since the 1990s scientific studies in Antarctica have focused on climate change. The observed annual temperatures at Scott Base appear to indicate slight warming. However, carbon dioxide levels at the South Pole have risen consistently since the mid-1970s. Most climate models predict substantial warming and increased rainfall for polar regions over the next 100 years. New Zealand scientists working in Antarctica have also shown that the depletion of ozone over Antarctica is far greater than anywhere else in the world.

Antarctica has a major impact on the earth’s oceans and atmosphere. New Zealand scientists have played an important role in a succession of international drilling programmes designed to discover the scope and speed of previous glacial changes in the region. The programmes sought to discover what the history of the Antarctic ice sheets indicated about the timing and extent of climate change in the future. It was an international collaboration with scientists from other nations – notably Germany, Italy, the UK and the US – and supported by Antarctica New Zealand (the agency responsible for managing New Zealand government activities in Antarctica).

Artists to Antarctica

Painters, photographers, filmmakers, multi-media artists, musicians and writers visit Scott Base in the summer season. The first, who went in the mid-1950s, were usually New Zealand Defence Force artists.


New Zealand officials and scientists also monitor the number of tourists and their impact in the Ross Dependency. In the early 2000s around 40,000 tourists visited Antarctica annually. There was concern about the impact of tourists on the environment at landing sites which include historic huts and penguin colonies.

Tourist flights over parts of Antarctica were popular in the 1970s, but led to New Zealand’s worst air accident. An Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into the lower slopes of Mt Erebus on 28 November 1979, killing all 257 passengers and crew. Air New Zealand has not resumed tourist flights to the continent. Antarctica has continued to intrigue and interest the public, but remained the continent least visited by New Zealanders.

New Zealanders began restoring the Scott and Shackleton expedition huts in the 1950s, adding Borchgrevink's hut in 1980. From 1987 the newly formed Antarctic Heritage Trust managed the restoration and preservation of all historic sites in the Ross Sea region.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Nigel Roberts, 'Antarctica and New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Nigel Roberts, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012