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Department of Geography, University of Cambridge


Return to Antarctica:
The British Graham Land Expedition, 1934–1937

Return to Antarctica:
The British Graham Land Expedition, 1934–1937

20 January - 30 April 2011Sledges on sea ice. (Photo. W.E. Hampton, P51_8_H216)
See: Opening times for the exhibition and the Museum

To celebrate 75 years since the major discoveries made during the first 'modern' Antarctic expedition, the Polar Museum has developed a major new special exhibition to be held in the Foyer Gallery, displaying many of the artefacts, images and archives held in its reserve collections.

The British Graham Land Expedition (BGLE) employed new approaches to travel and diet and avoided many of the problems faced by earlier explorers. With a broad scientific programme, the expedition spent three years exploring the Antarctic Peninsula (Graham Land), proving it to be part of the Antarctic mainland, not islands as previously thought.

John Rymill (Photo: E.W. Bingham, P51_8_D092)Led by an Australian, John Rymill, most of the 16 members of the BGLE travelled from England via the Falkland Islands and South Georgia to Antarctica in the schooner Penola. The expedition's aircraft and dogs, and a large part of the stores, were carried separately by the research ship, Discovery II. The aircraft - a De Havilland Fox Moth capable of operating with skis or floats - was used extensively for reconnaissance, aerial surveying and depot laying.

The shore party of nine included several Cambridge graduates, some of whom had gained experience of polar travel, particularly dog sledding, in Greenland as members of the British Arctic Air Route Expedition led by Gino Watkins. Penola developed a fault in her auxiliary engines as she approached the Antarctic early in 1935. Prevented from sailing as far south as intended for the first winter, the men established a base in the Argentine Islands and began their scientific work.

Sledge dog (image: M. Bertram)Little geographical exploration was possible until the next summer, when the engines were repaired. The southern base was then established on Barry Island, one of the Debenham Islands in Marguerite Bay. The hut there was built using materials salvaged from the disused whaling station at Deception Island. From this base the main survey and scientific work was carried out, including studies of seals and birds, the discovery of fossil plants and the mapping of much of the coastline of Graham Land. A major discovery of BGLE was that the channels, reported after the pioneering flights of Wilkins and Ellsworth, between the Bellingshausen and Weddell Seas did not exist, proving Graham Land to be a peninsula and not an archipelago.

A complete gallery of the images taken on this expedition can now be browsed in the online Picture Library catalogue.

More information on the history of the expedition ...