Erich von Drygalski

Erich von Drygalski was born on February 9, 1865 in Köningsberg, East Prussia. Near the end of the nineteenth century 'Antarctic fever' broke out in western Europe and in 1898 the German South Polar Commission suggested a national expedition to Antarctica. As Professor of Geography and Geophysics at the University of Berlin, Drygalski was certainly qualified and was subsequently chosen to be the leader of the expedition. Financing was not an issue but the Commission felt one ship would be all that was necessary so Drygalski asked for and received permission to build a new vessel rather than modify an existing ship.

The crew amounted to only 32 men. Of the 32, there were 22 regular crew members, 5 naval officers and 5 scientists (including himself).

On August 11, 1901, the GAUSS left Kiel for the south. On January 2, 1902, they reached Îles Kerguelen. On January 31 the GAUSS left Kerguelen for the Antarctic and seven days later they sighted the first of many icebergs. Navigation was particularly difficult from this point on and it wasn't until February 21 that the first land was sighted. Drygalski wrote the "coherent, uniform white contours, and in one place in the northeast darker spots which, when coming closer, also turned out to be ice. But there was no question about it: all the ice was on solid land...everywhere it ended abruptly at the water's edge, forming cliffs 40 to 50 meters high...the area behind them rose gently to about 300 meters..." Here, about 90° longitude, Kaiser Wilhelm II Land was named. It was late afternoon on February 21 that the ship attempted to enter an opening between two ice ridges only to become trapped.

"Later, nobody recalled exactly what happened during the next hours but we all felt that we had become a toy of the elements. A snowstorm blew up, floes and 'bergs closed in..." For the next few days the men tried everything to work the ship free of the ice but to no avail. By March 2 "our fate had been sealed: the trap we had entered had closed".

Drygalski and his men were to encounter many of the hardships of the Antarctic winter, just as Carsten Borchgrevink and the crew of the BELGICA before them. Fortunately, the ship was adequately supplied and the cabins / mess rooms were very comfortable. One of the crewmembers, F. Bidlingmaier, best described off-duty hours on the BELGICA as follows: "Sundays were beer-nights, Wednesdays were lecture-nights, but Saturday nights were best of all: on them we sat together behind a glass of grog, united in games or conversation. Clubs sprouted like mushrooms. There were several card-clubs, a gentleman's cigar-smoking-club, glee-clubs, a band composed of a harmonica, flute, triangle and two pot-lids for a cymbal".

Although somewhat pleasant indoors, outdoors was another matter. Snowstorms raged and other than her masts, the ship nearly disappeared in the snow. Temperatures dropped to -18°F resulting in cracked instruments and dozens of broken bottles of German beer! On the other hand, there were occasional good days and it was during these times that scientific data was collected. The men built a windmill to generate electricity while others went on hunting expeditions for seal and penguin: "Their hearts and livers made a most delicious ragout...we loved it better than our tinned food".

"By March the situation had stabilized so much that I thought it was time to start the sledging expeditions". The first expedition left on March 18th, lasting eight days, and resulted in the first physical proof of reaching the Antarctic mainland when crewmembers returned with pieces of volcanic rock. The discovery, about 50 miles from the ship, was named Gaussberg. (See top photo).

Drygalski became the first balloonist in Antarctica when he climbed aboard the balloon the GAUSS was carrying and rose to an altitude of 1600 feet. "It was so warm up there I could even take off my gloves...the sight from this altitude was grandiose. I could see newly discovered Gaussberg and...gave my description via telephone to the deck of the ship. It was the only ice-free landmark in the surrounding area".

In early April, a second sledging expedition returned from a 13-day trip to Gaussberg where the four men had built a temporary shelter for any further trips to this area. It was at this time that Drygalski decided to take part in a third expedition which was very nearly his last. Temperatures had dropped to -38°F by the time the men had reached Gaussberg on April 27, six days after leaving the ship. Unfortunately, upon their arrival they discovered the shelter in ruins from the previous storms. Many hours were spent rebuilding the shelter. The next few days were devoted to geological and magnetic surveys. On their way back to the ship another storm hit. Food quickly ran out and just as they prepared themselves to kill some of the dogs, they stumbled upon a dead seal that had been killed by the previous teams. They now had plenty of food but the weather was so poor they totally lost their bearings. However, good fortune followed them as they literally stumbled into the snow-covered GAUSS again.

Gaussberg, located at 66°40'S, was the southern limit of the expedition. Drygalski thought it possible to attain 72° or 73°S but abandoned the idea when spring arrived. As spring arrived, attention was now given to the purpose of freeing the ship from the ice. The ice had started to break up but they were still 2000 feet from the nearest stretch of open water. Holes were dug through the ice by hand and filled with explosives in an attempt to blast their way free. Steel saws, some 20 feet long, were used to cut through the ice beside the ship's hull but progress was very, very slow. The crew was beginning to wonder if a second ship would be sent from Germany to search for them. Hans Ruser, captain of the GAUSS, went so far as to suggest throwing empty beer bottles into the water with messages contained inside with a description of their position. Furthermore, he suggested 100 more bottles be dropped by the balloon when a next northerly wind came up. One day Drygalski was walking around the ship when he noticed an area where soot from the ship's funnel had landed and melted the ice beneath. He determined that the black color of the soot absorbed the light from the sun which then melted the ice beneath. Immediately he ordered garbage aboard the GAUSS be laid in a trail to the open water. "Success came immediately. The ice under the dirt started to melt. Within a month we had a long water channel almost two metres deep. Although there were still four to five metres of ice underneath, the channel widened constantly" which grew into a small pond. By the end of December, 1902, rain fell.

Christmas and New Year's Day passed and it was not until February 8, 1903 that "we suddenly felt two sharp jolts in rapid was like a revelation, and with a cry 'the ice is breaking', I jumped out on to the deck". With the ship free from the ice, the expedition started a slow voyage along the Antarctic coast. Traveling among the floes was dangerous and slow so on March 31 Drygalski ordered retreat. "It was a most difficult decision, certainly the most difficult one I had to make, but it was necessary. There was no safe place to spend the winter here..." They reached the tip of South Africa on June 9 where Drygalski sent a request to Berlin suggesting another wintering in the Antarctic. On July 2 his request was denied, probably due to the fact that the Kaiser was disappointed that no new territory of significance had been discovered. The GAUSS arrived in Kiel on November 23, 1903.

Regardless, Drygalski wrote "...we found new territory in the Antarctic itself...something we can look back to in full satisfaction". Drygalski spent many years documenting his expedition as he published 20 volumes between 1905 and 1931. In 1906 he became Professor of Geography at Munich and in 1910 took part in Count Zeppelin's expedition to Spitsbergen. He retired from the university in 1934.


The German South Polar Expedition 1901-03, by Erich von Drygalski.

Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest.

Antarctica, the Last Continent, by Ian Cameron.

Antarctic Conquest, the Great Explorers in Their Own Words, by Walker Chapman.

The White Continent, by Thomas R. Henry.


Antarctica; the Extraordinary History of Man's Conquest of the Frozen Continent, by Reader's Digest, second edition.