Tom Crean is Ireland’s poster boy for adventure. Read on to learn all about Crean’s Discovery Expedition, resulting in Crean being the first Irishman to land in Antarctica.
On 8 February 1902, Tom Crean made history by becoming the first Irishman to step foot onto Antarctica. Entitled the Discovery Expedition, this successful mission would act as the catalyst for, what is now called, the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Read on to learn all about Tom Crean, a man who has gone down in history as Ireland’s answer to Indiana Jones.
Early Life – a man of humble beginnings
Tom Crean was born to humble beginnings in Annascaul, County Kerry on 20 July 1877. When he turned 15, he left his family home to enlist in the Royal Navy. He lied, declaring that he was 16, to meet the minimum age requirement.
These early life experiences would drive Crean to a lifetime of adventure and discovery. In 1901 – while stationed in Ringarooma in New Zealand, he joined fellow explorer and Royal Navy Officer, Robert Falcon Scott’s, Discovery Expedition to Antarctica.
This mission would firmly establish Crean’s career as a leading explorer and earn him the title of first Irishman to land in Antarctica.
The crew – a contingent of explorers
The Discovery Expedition’s name is coined after the ship in which they sailed on: Discovery. Formally, however, the mission is regarded as the British National Antarctic Expedition.
On the ship, aside from Robert Falcon Scott and Crean, was Frank Wild (an English explorer who participated in five Antarctica explorations throughout his career), and Ernest Shackleton (who led three British voyages to Antarctica and was of Anglo-Irish descent).
In addition to this, present were Edward Wilson (an English explorer, artist, historian, ornithologist and physician), and William Lashly (an experienced Navy seaman who acted as the stoker on its mission).
Discovery Expedition – the deliverables
The mission ran from 1901-1904, and it was the first official British exploration to the region in sixty years. Ahead of them was the English polar explorer, James Clark Ross.
Compared to previous attempts to investigate Antarctica, this mission was extremely advanced and well planned. Both the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) played critical roles in determining the deliverables from the voyage.
Discovery’s crew were entrusted with carrying out scientific and geological experiments in Antarctica – the first of their kind on lands which remained until then grossly untouched.
An abundance of discoveries – in science and nature
Many success stories came out of this mission, aside from the fact that Tom Crean was the first Irishman to land in Antarctica. The crew made groundbreaking discoveries in geology, marine biology, zoology, meteorology and magnetism.
Quite remarkably, the expedition undercovered the only snow-free valleys in the Antarctic along with the longest river on the continent.
A colony of emperor penguins were discovered in Cape Crozier – the most easterly region of Ross Island in Antarctica – and, they located the Polar Plateau.
The ship’s path – a detailed account
The ship departed from the Isle of Wight on 6 August 1901 and arrived in New Zealand on 29 November. Three weeks after, they set sail for Antarctica. On 8 February 1902, the ship anchored – and would be eventually frozen into the ice as temperatures dropped.
Over the next few months, days were filled with research and exploration. Recreation was found in the form of football on ice or amateur theatrics.
On 2 November 1902, the team headed off on foot to discover the South Pole. The trip was arduous; the crew developed scurvy, were blinded by the snow and weakened with encroaching frostbite; the dog pack began to starve. By the time they finally made it back to the ship, having reached their Furthest South at 82°17′S, a relief vessel had arrived with supplies.
Over the next couple of years, missions on the ice continued. The ship remained embedded into the icy landscape, unable for them to leave.
On 5 January 1904, the relief ships Morning and Terra Nova arrived to free the Discovery from the ice shelf. On 16 February 1904, Discovery finally broke loose, and the crew made tracks back to New Zealand.
The fine details – staggering costs
Financially, the mission cost £90,000 (GBP), which would amount to more than £11 million by today’s standards. The British Government largely funded the voyage.
A wealthy member of the Royal Geographical Society, Llewellyn W. Longstaff, donated personally £25,000 (over £3 million in today’s standards) to the mission.
The Scottish Dundee Shipbuilders Company built Discovery and designed it to be particular sturdy amidst icy Antarctic waters.
The ship cost £34,050 (over £4 million today) to construct, and an additional £10,322 (£1.2 million) for engines. By the time it was complete, the total cost – including modifications to ensure it was Antarctic-ready – was £51,000 (£6.3 million).
Aftermath – legends were born
Although the scientific and natural discoveries made during the mission are inarguable, the crew were met with little formal reception on their arrival back to Britain. The public, however, waved them on as heroes.
Nevertheless, the Discovery expedition was instrumental in jumpstarting the careers of the crew as brave Antarctic explorers.
In The Voyage of the Discovery, which was published in 1905, Crean documents the mission which resulted in Tom Crean being the first Irishman to land in Antarctica.