Captain Cook and the Antarctic Circle

The legend that is Captain James Cook is well known to many. The 18th-century explorer and navigator led remarkable achievements in mapping of the Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific. His mapping radically shaped western perceptions of the world and inspired many explorers in his wake. Cook’s fabled death in Hawaii continues to be told  by Hawaiians with pride and was ever so emblematic of his astounding life and accomplishments. While many discoveries may be attributed to Captain Cook and his gallant crew, on January 17, 1773 Cook and his two ships (Resolution and Adventure) were the first recorded to have ever crossed the Antarctic Circle. Navigating the treacherous seas and ice of the Southern Hemisphere was an enormous task even my contemporary standards. Captain Cook notes in his journal the hardship of traversing the Antarctic Cirle:

Our ropes were like wires, Sails like board or plates of Metal and Shivers froze fast in the blocks so that it required our utmost effort to get a Top-sail down and up; the cold so intense as hardly to be endured, the whole Sea in a manner covered with ice, a hard gale and a thick fog: under all these unfavourable circumstances it was natural for me to think of returning more to the North, seeing there was no probability of finding land here nor a possibility of getting farther to the South…

The trip to discover the southern continent  and circumnavigate the globe began in July of 1772 in Plymouth, England. Two ships: the Resolution and the Adventure (111 feet and 97 feet respectively in size) were to carry 193 men around the world and test a version of the John Harrison chronometer for longitude determinations (prior to Cook’s journey an accurate and reliable measurement of longitude was almost impossible). Having set sale from England Cook’s ships headed for the Cape of Good Hope (near to what is now Cape Town, South Africa). It took 5 months for Cook and his ships to reach the Antarctic Circle and navigate the dangerous ice as it slowly encroached on the hull of the two ships and jeopardized the mission. Cook had sailed further south than any explorer before him.

A log from Captain James Cook’s journal provides some clues as to the sentiment and challenges of passing through the Antarctic Circle:

On 17th January, “we cross’d the Antarctic Circle for at Noon we were by observation four Miles and a half South of it and are undoubtedly the first and only Ship that ever cross’d that line.” Forster commented “A place where no Navigator ever penetrated, before the British nation, & where few or none will ever penetrate. For it is reserved to the free-Spirited sons of Britannia, to navigate the Ocean wherever it spreads its briny waves.” The next day “the Master & the Captain went up the Masthead & saw to the South & South West by South, a solid Field of Ice, so that it would be impossible to proceed & therefore having gone as far as 67° 15′ South, we wore Ship & went North East by North.” Cook, “did not think it was consistent with the safety of the Sloops or any ways prudent for me to persevere in going further to the South as the summer was already half spent and it would have taken up some time to have got round this Ice, even supposing this to have been practi-cable, which however is doubtful.
With thick ice threatening a viable and safe exit from the Antarctic Circle, Cook and his ship sailed for warmer waters. After stops in New Zealand and Tahiti, Cook discovered other islands in the south Pacific as well. Cook arrived back in England on July 29, 1775 – 3 years after embarking on his epic journey. It is hard to imagine the strength of character and steadfastness required to undertake such a journey. We take for granted the speed and technological advancements that can take us around the world in comfort. Antarctica still remains somewhat untouched, and unclaimed, although many nations have established semi-permanent stations in the area to assert their sovereignty. Cook’s voyage to Antarctica was the second of three renowned journeys around the globe. While great destruction was often brought by explorers to the new world, it was still those same explorers who pushed humankind forward and opened a new age for human civilization. Their achievements must have a place in history.


Note: Cover image courtesy of  Princeton University’s “Strait Through: Magellan to Cook & the Pacific.” Retrieved from

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