This week marks 194 years since the first sighting of Antarctica by an American. Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer, after whom the research vessel we use is named, was a sealer, based out of Stonington, Connecticut, where you can still visit his house, less than an hour’s drive from our university. Captain Nat, as he was called, was a successful sealer, and on a previous journey in 1819 had helped to bring in a cargo over 8,800 seal skins. Seals were valued both for their skins, and for their oil in the US at that time.
In 1820, Captain Nat was in command of the sailing sloop Hero, a small tender ship able to explore areas close to shore and seek out new rookeries to exploit. The voyage so far had been successful, as they had captured many seals in the South Shetland Islands. In November they headed south, as the summer was approaching, in search of new rookeries which might not have been hunted yet. Sometime this week, various sources report the 16, 17, or 18, the Hero came along the Antarctic coast. They sailed along the coast for several days, but since they were more interested in seals than in science or geography, they did keep particularly good records, and finding the area had fewer seals than the South Shetland Islands, headed away to the north. In part because records were poor, it is unclear who first sighted the continent, with James Bransfield, William Smith, and John Davis also being claimed as the discoverers.
You can read more about Captain Nathaniel Palmer here.