Arctic and Antarctic seas were not explored until the 19th century. Once the North Pole had been reached in 1909, several expeditions attempted to reach the South Pole. Many resulted in injury and death. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen finally reached the Pole in December 1911, following a dramatic race with the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott.
While the South Pole lies on a continental land mass, the North Pole is located in the middle of the Arctic Ocean amidst waters that are almost permanently covered with constantly shifting sea ice.
A number of expeditions set out with the intention of reaching the North Pole but did not succeed; that of British naval officer William Edward Parry, in 1827, the American Polaris expedition in 1871, and Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen in 1895. American Frederick Albert Cook claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1908, but this has not been widely accepted.
The conquest of the North Pole was for many years credited to American Navy engineer Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the Pole on April 6, 1909, accompanied by American Matthew Henson and four Inuit men named Ootah, Seeglo, Egingwah, and Ooqueah. However, Peary's claim remains controversial. The party that accompanied Peary on the final stage of the journey included no one who was trained in navigation and could independently confirm his own navigational work, which some claim to have been particularly sloppy as he approached the Pole. He traveled with the aid of dogsleds and three separate support crews who turned back at successive intervals before reaching the Pole. Many modern explorers, contend that Peary could not have reached the pole on foot in the time he claimed.
The first undisputed sighting of the Pole was on May 12, 1926 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his American sponsor Lincoln Ellsworth from the airship Norge. Norge, though Norwegian owned, was designed and piloted by the Italian Umberto Nobile. The flight started from Svalbard and crossed the icecap to Alaska. Nobile, along with several scientists and crew from the Norge, overflew the Pole a second time on May 24, 1928 in the airship Italia. The Italia crashed on its return from the Pole, with the loss of half the crew.
U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Joseph O. Fletcher and Lieutenant William P. Benedict finally landed a plane at the Pole on May 3, 1952, accompanied by the scientist Albert P. Crary.
Early Western theories believed that in the far south of the globe existed a vast continent, known as Terra Australis. The rounding of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn in the 15th and 16th centuries proved that Terra Australis Incognita ("Unknown Southern Land"), if it existed, was a continent in its own right. The basic geography of the Antarctic coastline was not understood until the mid-to-late 19th century.
It may safely be said that all the navigators who fell in with the southern ice up to 1750 did so by being driven off their course and not of set purpose. An exception may perhaps be made in favor of Edmond Halley's voyage in HMS Paramour for magnetic investigations in the South Atlantic when he met the ice in 52Â° S in January 1700, but that latitude was his farthest south. A determined effort on the part of the French naval officer Pierre Bouvet to discover the South Land described by a half legendary sieur de Gonneyville resulted only in the discovery of Bouvet Island in 54Â°10â€² S, and in the navigation of 48Â° of longitude of ice-cumbered sea nearly in 55Â° S in 1730. In 1771, Yves Joseph Kerguelen sailed from France with instructions to proceed south from Mauritius in search of "a very large continent." He lighted upon a land in 50Â° S which he called South France, and believed to be the central mass of the southern continent. He was sent out again to complete the exploration of the new land, and found it to be only an inhospitable island which he renamed in disgust the Isle of Desolation, but in which posterity has recognized his courageous efforts by naming it Kerguelen Land.
The obsession of the undiscovered continent culminated in the brain of Alexander Dalrymple, an hydrographer who was nominated by the Royal Society to command the Transit of Venus expedition to Tahiti in 1769. The command of the expedition was given by the admiralty to Captain James Cook. Sailing in 1772 with the Resolution and the Adventure under Captain Tobias Furneaux, Cook first searched in vain for Bouvet Island, then sailed for 20 degrees of longitude to the westward in latitude 58Â° S, and then 30Â° eastward for the most part south of 60Â° S, a higher southern latitude than had ever been voluntarily entered before by any vessel. On 17 January 1773 the Antarctic Circle was crossed for the first time in history and the two ships reached 67Â° 15' S by 39Â° 35' E, where their course was stopped by ice.
The first land south of the parallel 60Â° south latitude was discovered by the Englishman William Smith, who sighted Livingston Island on 19 February 1819.
In 1820, several expeditions claimed to have been the first to have sighted Antarctica. The first confirmed sighting of mainland Antarctica cannot be accurately attributed to one single person. It can, however, be narrowed down to three individuals. According to various sources, three men all sighted Antarctica within days or months of each other: Fabian von Bellingshausen, a captain in the Russian Imperial Navy; Edward Bransfield, a captain in the British navy; and Nathaniel Palmer, an American sealer out of Stonington, Connecticut. It is certain that on 28 January 1820 (New Style), the expedition led by Fabian von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Petrovich Lazarev on two ships reached a point within 20 miles (40 km) of the Antarctic mainland and saw ice-fields there. On 30 January 1820, Bransfield sighted Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic mainland, while Palmer sighted the mainland in the area south of Trinity Peninsula in November 1820. Bellingshausen's expedition also discovered Peter I Island and Alexander I Island, the first islands to be discovered south of the circle.
Only slightly more than a year later, the first landing on the Antarctic mainland was arguably by the American Captain John Davis, a sealer, who claimed to have set foot there on 7 February 1821, though this is not accepted by all historians.