Organized by the Geographical Royal Society from Bruxelles and conducted by Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery, lieutenant in the Belgian navy, the “Belgica” expedition was an important step these scientists made in exploring the southern most part of the Earth. This expedition successfully achieved two main objectives; the very first scientific research program carried out in this part of the globe and also the first expedition that spent the polar night caught among the ice blocks.
“Belgica” was initially a Norwegian whaler that sailed for a long time under the name “Patria”. It was made of wood and measured 32 m in length, 6.5 m in width, having a total loading capacity of about 260 t. It had 3 wooden masts and a 160 hp steam-engine that allowed it 7 running-knots.
The crew consisted of 19 people out of which 2 were mechanics and 8 sailors. Except for skipper de Gerlache, the general staff included the Belgian Georges Lecointe (second captain), the Norwegian Roald Amundsen (first officer, and the man who first reached the South Pole in 1911), the Belgian’s Jules Melaerts(second officer) and Emile Danco (physicist), the Romanian Emil Racovita(biologist), Poles Henrik Arktowski (geologist and oceanographer), and his assistant Anton Dobrowoloski and the American Frederick Cook (doctor and cameraman).
“Belgica” left Anvers (Belgium) in August 16, 1897 and Punta Arenas (Chili) in December 14, 1897. It was out of any kind of communication after it passed the States Island in January 14, 1898. Ten days later the expedition discovered new territories west of Graham Land, later called Gerlache Strait. Along its 170 km, the explorers disembarked 22 times making as many scientific investigations as the other polar expeditions all together. In March 10, 1898 the ship was blocked by the ice pack and had to wait for the polar summer to come. Until March 14, 1899 when the ship was again able to sail (after the explorers cut out a 75 m long channel in the 2 to 6 m thick ice sheet to connect the ship with free waters) the crew experienced a dramatic period, the ice threatening to crush their ship several times. While the ship was blocked, it moved some 3,500 km due to the drift. The southernmost point it reached in March 31, 1898 was 71o 36′.
The scientific results obtained by the “Belgica” Polar expedition were extremely valuable. They provided the first meteorological data recorded hourly during a whole year as well as important information concerning oceanic streams and terrestrial magnetism. Several rock, botanical (400) and zoological (1200) samples were collected. All these materials were entrusted to 80 scientists (74 of them being biologists). Their studies undertaken on these samples were published in 10 large volumes. It is the most palpable evidence that this expedition completed its mission.
This text has been written by Dr. Gheorghe Racovita
Courtesy of: Romanian Speleology