Mapping along Antarctica’s west coast

On January 23th 1898, black mountains and white glaciers rose slowly along the horizon, seen from the RV Belgica. On this day, the expedition led by Adrien de Gerlache reached the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, officially starting their Antarctic exploration. Back in those days, the crew and scientists onboard the RV Belgica were one of the few to have ever reached Antarctica, a vast unexplored continent was laid out before them.

Unfortunately, the day before (January 22nd) was tragic for the expedition. During a vigorous storm in the Drake Passage, Norwegian sailor Carl Wiencke was thrown overboard by a gargantuan wave. In the frigid water of the Southern Ocean, Wiencke was receding quickly. His shipmate Ludwig Johansen saw it happen and shouted at the top of his lungs: “Wiencke overboard! Wiencke overboard!”. At Johansen’s cry, commander Adrien de Gerlache and captain Georges Lecointe reacted immediately. Whilst de Gerlache slowed down the ship by steering into the wind, Lecointe started his act of unfathomable courage. Lecointe quickly tied a rope around his waist and jumped into the wild sea. Lecointe wrapped his arms around Wiencke and several men tried to hoist them back aboard. But the harm was already done, the freezing water caused Wiencke to paralyze and Lecointe’s hold on Wiencke loosened with every next wave. After two or three waves, Lecointe couldn’t hold anymore and lost his grip on Wiencke. On that day, the sea took Wiencke and he was never seen after. In honor, de Gerlache named one of the newly discovered islands “Wiencke Island”.

Norwegian sailor Carl August Wiencke, age nineteen

Wiencke Island turned out to be one of the many new geographical discoveries of the Belgian Antarctic expedition of 1897-1899, as they were the first ones to sail the entire west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. A large strip of this coast was named after Emil Danco, best friend of Adrien de Gerlache and geophysicist onboard the RV Belgica, who was the second casualty of the expedition during the subsequent polar night, but more on that in a later blog post. Many islands were named after Belgian cities and provinces, such as, Anvers Island, Ghent Island, Brabant Island, and Liège Island. The region of Flanders even received its own bay.

The track of the RV Belgica along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Source: book “Madhouse at the End of the Earth” by Julian Sancton.

Most of the mapping was done by captain Georges Lecointe, using a variety of geodetic techniques. At the end of the expedition, many of the newly discovered lands were also named after major supporters of the expedition. One of them was Ernest Solvay, soda ash tycoon and said to be Belgium’s richest man at that time, who devoted much of his fortune to the advancement of science, including Adrien de Gerlache’s Belgica expedition. In his name, the Solvay Mountains in the southern part of Brabant Island were named. One of the major scientific backers of de Gerlache’s expedition was Alphonse Renard (1842-1903), professor in mineralogy, oceanography, and geology at Ghent University from 1888 until 1903. Without Renard’s support, de Gerlache would never have received the approval of the Royal Belgian Geographical Society, nor forthcoming government funding. Therefore, Adrien de Gerlache decided to name Renard Island in his honor. At the edge of this island lies Cape Renard, a looming tower of dark basalt soaring straight out of the sea, so steep it remains clear of snow on all sides. To this day, the Renard Centre of Marine Geology at the Geology Department of Ghent University still carries his name. And it is in this very institute that I, Matthias Troch, am currently performing my PhD research.

Matthias in front of the misty mountains of Cape Renard.

Although we will not discover any more land during the coming weeks, the geophysics team onboard the PS134 RV Polarstern expedition will map many uncharted areas of the Bellingshausen Sea, creating detailed maps of landforms hidden below the surface of the Southern Ocean.

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