Who discovered Antarctica? Any number of early pioneers are credited, depending on how their accounts are interpreted. Here are the all-time top candidates:
The first reported sighting was by Russian Imperial Navy officer Fabian Gottlieb (Thaddeus) von Bellingshausen while commanding the second Russian expedition to circumnavigate the globe. Bellingshausen recorded seeing “ice mountains” on January 28, 1820 in the vicinity of what is now known to be the East Antarctic coastline. However his journals don’t mention that it may be land, and his expedition charts don’t indicate any land.
Two days later in the continent’s northwestern quadrant, British navy captain Edward Bransfield sighted the northernmost point of the Antarctic mainland, named it Trinity Peninsula, and produced the first recorded Antarctic land chart.
The next sighting of the continent was by American sealer Nathaniel Palmer in November 1820 — yet neither he, Bransfield, nor Bellingshausen were first to set foot on the continent. That distinction is claimed by American sealer John Davis who allegedly made the first landing on February 7, 1821 on the Antarctic peninsula’s west coast.
While these early pioneers certainly speculated on having encountered a significant land mass (John Davis’s logbook entry reads: “I think this Southern Land to be a Continent”), the first person to actually know he’d discovered a whole continent was United States Navy commander Charles Wilkes. In 1839-40 Wilkes’ expedition sailed along the edge of the ice pack south of Australia for some 1,500 miles, confirming the existence “of an Antarctic continent west of the Balleny Islands.”
This image depicts Bellingshausen, winner on the timeline if not for best evidence. He’s aboard his flagship, a 600-ton corvette named the VOSTOK (meaning “East”) after which the Russian research station and fascinating subglacial lake are named. The letters VOSTOK are incorporated into the piece and the graphic element on the right edge is Bellingshausen’s stylized Russian initials ФФБ.
The artwork was created with cut paper and graphite and is currently in MOVE, a group show curated by Rich Jacobs at Space 1026 in Philadelphia.