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Under The Leadership of Captain Adrien de Gerlach They Brave Perils More Terrible Than Those of the Far North.

On Sunday, July 25, the first systematic and direct exploring expedition having the south pole for its objective point that has been undertaken in fifty years sailed from the historic town of Antwerp.

This expedition has been planned, financed, and manned by the Belgian people in fulfillment of a promise made some years ago to thoroughly explore the antarctic regions.

The Belgian expedition is in charge of Captain Adrien de Gerlach (sic), a navigator and seaman of great experience.

The sum of 250,000 francs, raised by public subscription, furnishes ample financial means to equip and defray all ordinary expenses of the expedition, and the officers, the crew and scientific staff are all men eminently fitted by nature and training for the perilous undertaking they have on hand.

The Belgiac (sic), originally built for an arctic whaling vessel, was purchased and remodeled along the lines of Dr. Nansen's famous boat, the Fram. She has been refitted particularly with an eye to resistance of ice pressure, is thoroughly seaworthy and a good sailor, upon which quality her captain intends to rely mainly during her voyage, the plan being to use the auxiliary engine only in calms or head winds.

The crew of the Belgiac consists in addition to Captain de Gerlach of two lieutenants, two machinists, one sailing master, one carpenter, two harpooners, twelve sailors, two stokers, a cook and a steward.

This crew is composed largely of hardy Norwegians accustomed to the rigors of arctic latitudes and the dangers and trials of the tempestuous and icy northern seas.

The scientific staff consists of a geologist, a lieutenant of artillery, who will have charge of the magnetic meteorological observations, an expert dredger and a physician.


Map of south polar region


Took A Captive Balloon.

A captive balloon will be a feature of the outfit. It can be inflated and sent skyward in light air for the purpose of taking observations at great distances. This is a feature of much importance, in view of the obstacles encountered fifty years ago by the Ross expedition in making surveys and observations in the then newly discovered regions of Victoria Land.

It may not be generally understood, although it is a fact, that there are greater possibilities in the line of scientific discovery and research in an antarctic exploring expedition, such as the one now under notice, than in the numerous and costly arctic voyages of discovery conducted during the last 200 years.

The question therefore naturally arises: How is it that so much money has been lavished and so many lives sacrificed in quest of further knowledge of the north polar regions, while their antipodes remain unknown, unexplored and apparently uncared for?

The answer lies in the simple fact that until a comparatively recent date an antarctic expedition has been attended with a hundred fold more dangers and terrors than those to be encountered in explorations of the same kind to the arctic regions.

The climate is more rigorous, the seas are more tempestuous, and laden with monster floating islands of ice, the habitations of man are farther removed from the great unknown regions to be invaded, and, indeed, animal and vegetable life that teems within a comparatively short distance of the northern axis ceases hundreds of dreary miles of ocean away to the north of the antarctic circle. The hardy mariners and explorers of the Belgian expedition realize very fully the great dangers that confront them. They know that the expedition is regarded as one of the most perilous that has been undertaken in fifty years, but they have faith in the wonderful scientific developments of the last quarter of a century of which their predecessors did not have the advantage to pull them through.

Captain Cook's Expedition.

The greatest of the earliest of antarctic explorers, the famous Captain Cook, whose discoveries made so many important changes in the map of the world, was appalled by the frightfully forbidding aspect of "Antarctica" when he steered his adventurous boat through the southern ice fields 100 years ago. Cook placed these impression upon paper as follows:

The risk run in exploring a coast in these unknown and icy seas is so very great that I can be bold enough to say that no man will ever venture further than I have done, and that the lands which lie to the south will never be explored. Thick fogs, snowstorms, intense cold and every other thing that can render navigation dangerous must be encountered, and these difficulties are greatly heightened by the inexpressibly horrid aspect of the country, a country doomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun's rays, but to lie buried in everlasting snow and ice.

This was the deliberate opinion of the great English navigator, expressed in 1774, when he rounded the Kerguelen regions and the southerly land of Georgia and dispelled the mistaken notion that these islands were the northern extremity of a continent that reached to the south pole.

Fifty years bore tribute to the truth of what he had said. Numerous but insignificant expeditions went either directly or indirectly into the inhospitable embrace of the antarctic circle, but the voyages of these mariners were barren of results so far as scientific discovery or knowledge was concerned.

In 1839, however, Captain Sir James Ross led a great British expedition farther south and made discoveries of far greater importance. It found undeniable proof of the existence of a great continent around the antarctic pole, he planted the British flag upon hitherto undiscovered antarctic territory and named it after his sovereign, "Victoria Land."

Two extinct volcanic mountains, Erebus and Terror, were sighted in the distance, but the awful antarctic ice barrier barred all further progress south of 73 to 75 degrees. But this was done in old-fashioned wooden sailing vessels, good enough for their day, but not to be compared with the vessels of to-day, built under the advantages of the improvements made in the line of arctic and antarctic navigation through modern invention and the development of nautical science.

How vast is the field now opened up to these hardy adventurers may be judged from the fact that the absolutely unknown and unexplored territory of the antarctic circle contains an area of 8,155,600 square miles, an area equal in extent to one-sixth of the entire surface of the globe, an unexplored territory of about twice the size of Europe. It is circular in shape and in circumference measures about 7,000 miles.

Practically nothing is known of the physical conditions of this vast area of the earth's surface, and that it is just as much an object of interest to the scientific world, and will be of much benefit to the human race when fully disclosed, is admitted.

Here is what Dr. Murray, in his speech at the Nansen banquet already referred to, had to say on this point:

I regret that the Fram did not float right across the pole, for then all possible imitators of Nansen's voyage would in all probability direct their energies to the antarctic, where in the future discoveries will reward adventurous spirit. Observations of all kinds are especially needed in the south for comparison with the more numerous ones in the north. In the continental land surrounding the north polar basin we have fossil rocks which show that at one time coral reefs and extensive forests flourished within the arctic circle. We wish to know if a similar state of matter prevailed within the antarctic circle in past ages. We wish to know if the continental land of the antarctic lies buried within twenty-five miles of ice, as some men believe, or, as I think, beneath only some 2,000 feet of land ice. We wish to know how this ice sheet moves over the land,and whether or not a great anti-cyclonic area covers the south pole, corresponding to the low barometric region over the surrounding southern ocean. We want observations around the south magnetic pole. We wish to know the circulation of the ocean waters around Antarctica at different seasons of the year. We wish a fuller knowledge of the marine organisms of the antarctic regions for comparison with those in the arctic.

To emphasize the interest of these questions I may state that I have recently drawn up a list of over 200 marine species which are common to both the arctic and antarctic regions, but so far as we at present know these wholly disappear from the shallow and deep water of the intervening tropics. So that we have this curious anomaly - the marine fauna and flora of the arctic and antarctic, although separated from each other as widely as the poles are, yet more closely allied to each other than any other fauna or flora on the surface of the earth. Who will deny the interest attached to such problems?

As a step toward their solution we wish a British antarctic naval expedition to sound out the great Southern ocean to lay down the contour lines of the antarctic continent and to carry out researches in various directions. Were a party of men like Nansen's landed at Cape Adair in Victoria Land they would probably travel to the pole and return in a single season. To comprehend the existing distribution of phenomena on the surface of our globe we must know the past history of the polar regions.

The possession of such information might give a great impetus to the intellectual development of future generations.

The opportunity to meet all these eager demands of the scientific world now spreads itself before Captain Gerlach and his brave companions. Nor are the pictures of the terrors of the gloomy southern seas of ice altogether without a gleam of light to brighten their gloom. In marked contrast with the grim description of Captain Cook are the words of Sir James Ross, who in describing an incident of his three years voyage says:

On some days the sun shone forth with great brilliancy from a perfectly serene and clear sky of a most intense indigo blue, and the members of the expedition gazed with feelings of indescribable delight upon a scene of grandeur and magnificence beyond anything they had ever before seen or could have conceived.

Alone in Seas of Ice

In one feature the trip of the Belgiac is particularly unique. Hitherto it has been held by students of the possibilities of antarctic exploration that no vessel could safely venture alone into the antarctic circle. If serious accident should occur no chance for escape would remain, owing to the great distance of the unexplored regions from the nearest places inhabited by human beings. In this and the tremendous floating islands of ice that sail the southern seas lies the chief danger to antarctic expeditions. Some of the bergs reach the enormous size of several miles in area, and 1,000 feet in thickness. Indeed, some of the adventurous mariners who have dipped into the southern seas below the line of general navigation testify to having seen icebergs 2,000 feet in height and thirty miles in length.

The great ice barrier that has brought every exploring voyager to the south pole to a sudden and complete termination will undoubtedly be one of the most difficult obstacles that will confront Captain de Gerlach's party.

This unending stretch of an impenetrable wall of ice rises 200 feet from the water, and is the outward edge of a glacier which the snows of centuries have built to a thickness of 3,000 feet.

Slowly this stupendous mass of frozen matter maintains its grinding march of centuries seaward. And yet right at its foot lie the most convincing proofs of the existence of a continent within the mysterious precincts of the antarctic circle.

This consists of the slimy ooze at the base of the ice barrier, in which is contained tiny particles of granite and quartz, rocks characteristic of continental land.

The Belgian expedition will call at the Canary Islands, at Brazil, at La Platte, and at one of the farthest Falkland Islands, in the Straits of Magellan, to replenish stores. Then the vessel will set sail for the Antarctic Ocean, which it expects to reach at the commencement of the fine austral season, which is usually about Oct. 15. The vessel will run a little to the east of Graham Land, which lies between 63 degrees and 68 degrees south latitude and 61 degrees to 68 degrees west longitude. Thence there will be a clear passage to running a little to the east of Graham Land, and thence into the Sea of George IV., pushing as far as possible toward the south. On the approach of the rough season, that is, in March, 1898, she will return toward the north and reach Melbourne. The following summer, after having renewed her stores in Melbourne, she will start toward Victoria Land, in latitude 70 degrees to 79 degrees south, and longitude 108 degrees east, with the view of reaching the austral magnetic pole. It is expected that the Belgiac will return about 1899, by way of Australia, the Strait of Sunda, the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal.

The world will await with anxiety the news from the far-away southern seas in the hope that this expedition may exceed in glory of achievement and usefulness of result those even of Ross in 1839-43, the Challenger trip in 1874, and the numerous whaling expeditions of Larsen, Borchegrevink and others which followed later.

Reproduced with permission: L.L. Dyche, Explorations (Newspaper Clippings Related to Polar Exploration), Vol. 1 & 2. University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence, KS.


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Original Source:
  Chicago Times Herald, Chicago, IL, August 10, , 1899.  
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  Jennifer F. Holvoet, University of Kansas.  
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