Antarctica and New Zealand

Page 5 – Timeline

Annotated timeline

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17th–18th centuries


Abel Tasman sights New Zealand in December 1642 while searching for Terra Australis Incognita. This 'great southern continent' is believed to exist somewhere between Australia and South America. By the time Tasman sails away from New Zealand in early January 1643, he has mapped only a 'ragged line' and is unable to confirm whether this was part of the coast of the great southern continent.


James Cook voyages to New Zealand to find the eastern edge of the land Tasman had sighted. The voyage confirms this is not a great southern continent.


Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne, a French explorer, arrives in the Bay of Islands after searching for the southern continent. 

19th century


Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, a Russian naval officer, becomes the first of three Europeans to sight the continent of Antarctica within a few months. He and his men spend a week in Queen Charlotte Sound between voyages into Antarctic waters.


Captain Charles Wilkes, leader of the United States Exploring Expedition, provides the first evidence that a ‘land of continental extent' exists in part of the area thought to contain the great southern land. Involved in the expedition is a New Zealander, Tuati, also known as John Sac. Wilkes and his men subsequently visit the Bay of Islands.


James Clark Ross, a British naval officer, discovers the Ross Sea, Victoria Land, Mt Erebus, Mount Terror, the Victoria barrier (the Ross Ice Shelf) and McMurdo Sound. Ross and his men subsequently visit New Zealand, remaining in the Bay of Islands for three months.

24 January 1895

New Zealander Alexander von Tunzelmann joins six men from the Norwegian whaling and sealing ship Antarctic in the first substantiated landing on the Antarctic continent. Prior to its voyage south, the ship calls in for repairs at Port Chalmers, then recruits Tunzelmann and three other New Zealanders at Stewart Island.


Carstens Borchgrevink, a Norwegian explorer, makes the first deliberate wintering over on the continent. The expedition's ship, the Southern Cross, voyages to New Zealand in March 1899 to load stores and overhaul the vessel before returning to pick up Borchgrevink and his wintering team in December 1899. The ship returns to New Zealand following the completion of the expedition.

20th century


British explorer Robert Falcon Scott leads the British National Antarctic Expedition (the Discovery expedition) - the first substantial land expedition in Antarctica. It undertakes scientific research and exploration. The expedition uses Lyttelton as its New Zealand base, and receives great support from New Zealanders. This encourages Scott to rely on New Zealand to a greater extent in his next expedition in 1910-13. A New Zealander, Clarence Hare, is taken on as a steward.


British explorer Ernest Shackleton leads the British Antarctic Expedition (Nimrod expedition) that reaches the farthest south yet – within 160 km of the Pole. The expedition uses Lyttelton as its New Zealand base and receives significant support from the government and public. A number of New Zealanders are also involved.

14 December 1911 

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen is the first to reach the South Pole. He visits New Zealand in March 1912 to lecture to crowded audiences.


The British Antarctic Expedition (Terra Nova expedition), led by explorer Robert Falcon Scott, reaches the Pole. Although the expedition has objectives in scientific research and geographical exploration, its main goal is ‘to reach the South Pole and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement’. But Scott's polar party is beaten by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and they perish on the return journey. The news of this tragedy is transmitted to London from New Zealand. Lyttelton is again the expedition's New Zealand base – the Terra Nova officially leaves from the port (though the last port it visits is Port Chalmers) and returns there during the expedition. Most expedition members disembark at Lyttelton after the tragedy.


The Japanese Antarctic Expedition, led by army lieutenant Nobu Shirase, which aims to reach the Pole, is the first Japanese exploration of Antarctic territory. Its ship, the Kainan Maru, calls in to Wellington for fuel and supplies on its way to and from Antarctica.


The Australasian Antarctic Expedition, led by Australian geologist Douglas Mawson, aims to chart the coastline of Antarctica to the south of Australia. The expedition is not financially supported by the New Zealand government, but does receive significant donations of goods from New Zealand manufacturers. New Zealanders are also directly involved: Eric Webb is chief magnetician and Dr Leslie Whetter medical officer at the expedition's main base at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay; Harold Hamilton is chief biologist and A.J. Sawyer chief wireless operator at its Macquarie Island station. Other New Zealanders collect specimens on cruises in sub-Antarctic waters and work aboard the expedition's ship, the Aurora.


The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, or Endurance expedition, led by British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, aims to complete the first overland crossing of Antarctica. It fails entirely in this aim and is instead remembered as an incredible survival story. Its two parties sail to opposite sides of the Antarctic continent, with separate tasks, but both eventually find themselves trapped in inhospitable surroundings with insufficient supplies. The navigational skills of a New Zealander, Frank Worsley, play a crucial role in the rescue of the main party, while other New Zealanders, and the government, contribute to the rescue of the support party.


Shackleton and New Zealander Frank Worsley are due to head back to Antarctica on the Shackleton-Rowett expedition aboard the Quest. The expedition is cut short following Shackleton's sudden death on South Georgia. Another New Zealander, pilot Major Roderick Carr, accompanies the expedition.

30 July 1923

Britain declares sovereignty over the Ross Dependency, with administration allocated to New Zealand.  


The Byrd Antarctic Expedition, or BAE1 as it later becomes known, led by American polar explorer and aviator Richard E. Byrd, aims to explore the Antarctic continent by land and air. They establish a base camp, Little America, and explore the continent using aircraft. On 29 November 1929 Byrd, his pilot, co-pilot and photographer, make the first flight over the South Pole. Dunedin is the expedition's New Zealand base – Byrd's ships leave from and return there during the expedition, and his dogs are quarantined on Quarantine Island in Otago Harbour. Several New Zealanders serve with the expedition.


The British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE), led by Douglas Mawson, aims to investigate the entire coast of the territory over which Britain claims sovereignty. The expedition receives funding from New Zealand but there is no physical contact with the country. Two New Zealand scientists serve in the expedition: ornithologist Dr R.A. Falla and meteorologist R.G. Simmers.


The New Zealand Antarctic Society (NZAS) is established with the aim of bringing together people interested in Antarctica. Since its first meeting it has been involved in a wide range of Antarctic activities, including lobbying government to commit resources.


The second Byrd Antarctic Expedition, or BAE2 as it later becomes known, led by Richard E. Byrd, aims to answer some of the questions unresolved by his previous expedition. It makes extensive use of motorised land transport. In 1934 Byrd spends five winter months alone operating a meteorological station, Advance Base, and is lucky not to die after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning from his poorly ventilated stove. Wellington is the expedition's New Zealand base – Byrd's ships leave from and return there during the expedition. Several New Zealanders serve in the expedition, including Bob Young, who also served in BAE1, and Louis Potaka.


American aviator and explorer Lincoln Ellsworth aims to make the first non-stop flight from the Ross Sea to the Weddell Sea. He fails in both his summer expeditions and New Zealand assists in a relief expedition in January 1936. Ellsworth uses Dunedin as his New Zealand base and New Zealanders serve in the expedition.


The United States Antarctic Service Expedition, led by Richard E. Byrd, generates less interest than previous Byrd expeditions, as New Zealanders are preoccupied by the Second World War. Eventually the expedition is abandoned because of rising international tensions.


The United States Navy Antarctic Developments Program, better known as Operation Highjump, led by Richard E. Byrd, is under the operational command of Admiral Richard Cruzens. Some of the vessels involved visit New Zealand ports during the expedition and Byrd visits at the end. A smaller follow-up expedition, Operation Windmill (1947-48), led by Commander Gerald Ketchum, departs from American Samoa.

April 1956

The Russian Antarctic Expedition's supply ship, Ob, visits Wellington.


This is a period of intense activity in the Antarctic. New Zealand contributes directly to the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE) and the International Geophysical Year. Vessels, aircraft and personnel from the American Operation Deep Freeze also use New Zealand as a base for their expedition. Key events involving New Zealand include:

  • On 14 May 1955 the New Zealand government agrees to contribute £50,000 towards the costs of the proposed Commonwealth TAE and to set up a committee to organise a terminal base for the crossing party.
  • On 26 May 1955 the Ross Sea Committee of the TAE is established to coordinate New Zealand's contribution to the expedition (and later to the IGY).
  • On 20 December 1955 the first long-distance flights into Antarctica from the outside world leave from New Zealand.
  • On 1 May 1956 the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) Antarctic Flight is formed, to scout the route for the New Zealand component of the TAE, to air-supply depots and to provide emergency backup. It continues in this role until 1960.
  • On 20 January 1957 Scott Base opens at Pram Point.
  • On 31 January 1957 Hallett Station, a joint New Zealand-United States operation, opens at Cape Adare.
  • On 4 January 1958 Sir Edmund Hillary and his party become the first to reach the South Pole overland since Scott in 1912.
  • On 26 February 1958 the New Zealand Cabinet approves in principal an extension to scientific work into 1959 as part of an extended world IGY programme (termed International Geophysical Cooperation)
  • On 2 March 1958 Sir Vivian Fuchs and his party complete the first successful trans-Antarctic crossing.
  • On 24 March 1958 responsibility for coordinating New Zealand's activities in the Ross Dependency is given to the Minister in Charge of Scientific and Industrial Research. A Ross Dependency Research Committee (RSDC) is appointed to advise and assist the Minister. The Geophysics Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) continues to implement the Antarctic programme.


  • On 19 November New Zealand engineer Tom Couzens is killed when the Sno-Cat he is driving falls into a 30-m-deep crevice. 
  • In early 1959 DSIR establishes an Antarctic Division to work with the RSDC on New Zealand's activities in the Ross Dependency. It becomes known as the New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme (NZARP). It is initially based in Wellington.
  • On 1 December 1959 New Zealand and 11 other countries active in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year sign the Antarctic Treaty. The signatories agree that the area will be used for ‘peaceful purposes only’, that ‘scientific investigation and cooperation would continue’, and that they will put aside any claims and disputes over territorial sovereignty while the treaty is in force.
  • Arrival Heights, an unmanned observation hut, is established about 5 km from Scott Base.


  • On 3 May Scott Base becomes a permanent Antarctic station in recognition of the value and importance of the science being conducted in the Antarctic. It is to be maintained by NZARP.
  • On 25 December a fire destroys buildings at Hallett Station.

6 March 1964

A fire destroys further buildings at Hallett Station. They are not rebuilt. The station continues to be used as a summer-only base.

27 October 1965

The RNZAF's first flight from New Zealand to Antarctica. In ‘Operation Ice Cube’, a Hercules of No 40 Squadron makes the first of what become annual summer flights.

October 1966

A biological laboratory, Harrison Laboratory, is established at Cape Bird.


New Zealander Peter Barrett discovers the first tetrapod remains in Antarctica. 


Zoologist Marie Darby becomes the first New Zealand woman to visit the Antarctic mainland.


  • On 9 January 1969 Vanda Station, a wintering-over station in the McMurdo Dry Valleys area, opens.
  • As a field assistant to her husband, Pamela Young becomes the first New Zealand woman to work in the Antarctic in the summer of 1969-70. Young is also one of a party of six women who become the first women to reach the South Pole in November 1969. 
  • On 19 November New Zealander Jeremy Sykes, a National Film Unit cameraman, is killed in a helicopter accident.

May 1970

The Antarctic Division moves to Christchurch.


Hallett Station closes.


Canterbury Museum's Antarctic exhibition opens.


Reconstruction of Scott Base begins.  


  • New Zealand based company Helicopters (NZ) Ltd secures its first Antarctic contract with the West German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources. Since 1985 the company has sent teams to every summer.
  • New Zealander Thelma Rogers of DSIR becomes the first woman to winter over in Antarctica.
  • Air New Zealand Flight TE901 crashes into Mt Erebus, killing all 257 on board.

20 January 1982

Scott Base celebrates its 25th anniversary.

February 1986

The last ‘New Zealand’ dogs return from Scott Base.


The New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust is formed to care for historic sites located in the Ross Sea Region of Antarctica.

December 1989

One of the original huts at Scott Base, ‘A Hut’, is moved 40 m. ‘B-Hut’ is dismantled and returned to New Zealand.

September 1990

The International Antarctic Centre opens at Christchurch Airport.


  • The hut at Cape Bird is rebuilt. On 31 October 1992 New Zealanders Garth Varcoe and Terry Newport are killed in a helicopter crash while returning from working on the building.
  • The DSIR is disbanded. RDRC and the Antarctic Division (renamed the New Zealand Antarctic Programme) are placed within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).


Vanda Station is closed following environmental concerns.

1 July 1996

The New Zealand Antarctic Institute (Antarctica New Zealand) is established. Combining the work of the RDRC and the NZAP, it will develop, manage and administer New Zealand's activities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, particularly the Ross Sea region.

21st century

November 2005

25th anniversary of the Erebus disaster is commemorated. Sir Edmund Hillary opens the Hillary Field Centre, the final stage of the reconstruction of Scott Base.

1 September 2006

The New Zealand Antarctic Medal is instituted as a New Zealand Royal Honour to replace the (British) Polar Medal.

20 January 2007

Scott Base celebrates its 50th anniversary. As part of the celebrations a new atmospheric science laboratory opens at Arrival Heights.

How to cite this page

'Timeline', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 17-Jul-2023