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When James Cook crossed the Arctic Circle


In the late eighteenth century, two English navigators made History, in the Indian Ocean. The first one, Matthew Flinders, gave his name to the islands he discovered in Northern Tasmania. But it was the second one, James Cook, who would undertake the largest exploration in that very region.

During his first expedition in 1769, Cook passed the Cape Horn and arrived in Tahiti. Taking the observation of Venus passing in between the sun and the earth, obscuring a portion of the solar disk as an excuse, Cook set up in Tahiti. His true mission, given by the Royal Navy, was to discover the Antarctic Continent.

He began his investigations with the help of the Tahitian Tupaia, who knew perfectly the Pacific Ocean.
In October 1769, he arrived in New-Zealand and demonstrated, while drawing a map of it, that it was not attached to the most southern continent. He then headed to Tasmania to determine if it was a part of the Antarctica, and discovered Australia. After drawing maps of its coastline up to the north, he sailed back to England. ( 1 )

Rewarded, he started to prepare his second journey to try to reach the Terra Australis. During this second expedition, he crossed the Antarctic Circle on January 17th of 1773. He discovered the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and headed south. He sailed very close to the Antarctica but couldn’t spot it. Running out of provisions, he sailed back to Tahiti. In vain, he attempted one last time to discover this mythical continent. He then concluded that the Antarctica simply didn’t exist.

In January 1774, he wrote that he was willing to go “further than any man has ever gone, but as far as a man can go”. Back in Europe, he was once more acclaimed, and the House of Lords granted him the title of the Greatest Navigator in Europe.

Meanwhile, the French Navigator Yves Joseph de Kerguelen was serving a similar purpose. He managed to reach some islands in the south of the Indian Ocean that were named out of him. At that time, he thought he found the Antarctica. Bad weather prevented him form disembarking on the islands for several days, while the two boats of the expedition got separated by the storm. He finally took over the island on behalf of the King of France, and sailed back without worrying about the second boat. Back in France, he claimed he found the Antarctica and tried to get some subsidies for a second expedition. When this arrived to the Kerguelen Islands, the members found nothing but desolation: no flora, no fauna. Kerguelen was sent to jail for the lies he told the King about having found the Antarctica as well as for having lost the second boat.

Historically, Cook’s achievements have had the bigger impacts, both scientific and environmental. Indeed, he was the one who crossed the Arctic Circle, what no other man had done before, and revealed  the existence of countless colonies of seals during his explorations of the South Sandwich Islands and South Georgia .

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