Skip to main content

Quail Island, Lyttelton used by Antarctic expeditions

Imelda Bargas, 2009

Click on the photograph above to see a series of images of Quail Island, near Lyttelton, where dogs and ponies were housed and trained prior to leaving for Antarctica.

NZ Quarantine islands used by Antarctic expeditions

Quail Island, an 81-hectare island approximately 3 km from the port of Lyttelton, was used as an animal quarantine station for several Antarctic expeditions between 1901 and 1929. Remnants of their presence on the island remain. They include the foundations of dog kennels, the beach where the dogs and ponies exercised, and the old wharf where they were loaded and unloaded prior to their journey south. Quarantine Island, a 15 hectare island approximately 2 km from Port Chalmers, was used by Byrd's first Antarctic expedition.

Scott's Discovery expedition

The first Antarctic expedition to use Quail Island was Scott's Discovery expedition. Twenty-three Siberian dogs purchased from the north-west coast of Russia stayed on the island between November and December 1901 with their handler, William Weller. Although the dogs were reportedly ‘in capital condition and apparently in good humour’ when they left Quail Island, they failed to perform in the Antarctic. The expedition had no experienced dog drivers which saw the dogs driven too hard in the harsh Antarctic environment – with insufficient breaks and an inadequate diet. Eventually they all died of exhaustion or were killed as feed for the remaining pack.

Dogs in Antarctica

Dogs were used by the New Zealand party of the Trans Antarctic Expedition and dog teams were subsequently kept at Scott Base. But by the 1970s their role had lessened and in February 1986 the last ‘New Zealand’ dogs returned from Scott Base. Five years later fear of the impact of dogs on wildlife led to a new clause in the Antarctic treaty:

'Dogs shall not be introduced onto land or ice shelves and dogs currently in those areas shall be removed by April 1994.'

The last dogs were removed from Antarctica on 22 February 1994.

Shackleton's Nimrod expedition

Both Scott and Shackleton came to mistrust dogs as a result of their experiences on the Discovery expedition. So after hearing of the good performance of Manchurian ponies Shackleton decided to take these on the Nimrod expedition. Fifteen purchased in China stayed on Quail Island between November 1907 and January 1908. They were broken in by a professional horse trainer, W.H. Tubman, and the biologist and surgeon for the expedition, Dr Forbes Mackay, who was to be in charge of them on the ice. Only 10 of the 15 eventually went south and by the time they arrived in Antarctica two had already been destroyed. Another four had died by June 1908, and the remainder by December. Despite these early losses the ponies made a marginal contribution to Shackleton reaching within 160 km of the Pole - and certainly kept the team fed on the return journey.

Perhaps as an afterthought nine dogs (the descendants of dogs left in New Zealand by Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink) and handler Ernest Joyce joined Shackleton's ponies on Quail Island in December 1907. All nine headed south and, although again no experienced dog drivers were included in the expedition, they (or their offspring) performed relatively well. Accounts of the Nimrod expedition suggest that many if not all survived.

Scott's Terra Nova expedition

Convinced by Shackleton's success in nearly reaching the pole, Scott used similar methods of transport on the Terra Nova expedition. Nineteen Siberian (or possibly Manchurian) ponies purchased in northern China, and 34 dogs (31 Siberian, two Eskimo and one New Zealand collie) purchased in Siberia stayed at Quail Island between September and November 1910. They were trained by dog handler Cecil Meares, dog driver Dimitri Gerov, groom Anton Omelchenko and Captain Lawrence Oates. When Scott and his wife visited the island in October they watched a display of dogs hauling sledges from the jetty and ponies hauling sledges along the beach. Only eight of the 19 ponies survived their first winter in the Antarctic and the remainder died by December 1911. The dogs fared better, though it is unclear from accounts of the Terra Nova expedition how many survived.

Dog food

After it was found Byrd's dogs held on Quarantine Island were suffering from diarrhoea and distemper, Dr John Malcolm, Professor of Physiology at the University of Otago, developed a special formula for the dogs’ pemmican biscuits. The biscuits were made by Malcolm and staff at Hudson Brothers’ chocolate factory. Four dogs died but within a few days those remaining were reportedly back in good condition. The recipe was rediscovered during the Trans-Antarctic Expedition and was produced and fed to the dogs on the expedition.

Scott had arranged for additional ponies and dogs to arrive in New Zealand while he and his party wintered in the Antarctic in case a second attempt at the Pole was needed. In September 1911 seven Himalayan mules donated by the Indian government arrived at Quail Island. They were later joined by 14 Siberian dogs. All the animals were cared for by a volunteer to the expedition, J.R. Dennistoun. The reinforcements arrived in the Antarctic in February 1912.  But instead of a second attempt on the Pole they were used in the search party for Scott. The mules struggled in the harsh environment and all were eventually destroyed. Again it is unclear how many dogs survived.

Byrd's first expedition

The last use of Quail Island as an animal quarantine station was for 15 huskies destined as reinforcements for Byrd's first Antarctic Expedition. They were quarantined on the island between March and July 1929 following protests from the Canterbury Sheepowners' Union, who feared the dogs might attack sheep. The 90 huskies that had already headed south on Byrd's expedition had stayed on Quarantine Island, Port Chalmers. They and their handlers stayed on the island between October and December 1928. As the dogs were only to be ‘rested' rather than quarantined they were put on ready display to the public; the first trip to see ‘the Polar dogs' attracted 4000 visitors. Four dogs died while on the island. At least one other, popular lead dog Chinook, was lost in the Antarctic.

Further information


  • Ranulph Fiennes, Captain Scott, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2003
  • Lyndall Hancock, Quarantine Island / Kamau Taurua (St Martin Island) A Short history, St Martin Island Community, Dunedin, 2008
  • David L. Harrowfield, Call of the Ice: Fifty years of New Zealand in Antarctica, David Bateman Ltd, Auckland, 2007
  • Ronald Huntford, Shackleton, Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland, 1985
  • Max Jones, The Last Great Quest, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003
  • Peter J Jackson, Otamahua/ Quail Island: a link with the past, 2nd edn, Otamahua/ Quail Island Trust, Christchurch, 2006
  • Theodore K Mason, The South Pole Ponies, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1979
  • Neville Peat, Snow dogs: the huskies of Antarctica, Whitcoulls, Christchurch, 1978 L.B. Quartermain, New Zealand and the Antarctic, A.R. Shearer, Government Printer, Wellington, 1971



Images: Imelda Bargas, 2009.

How to cite this page

Quail Island, Lyttelton used by Antarctic expeditions, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated