Travelling to Antarctica in the 20th century


In this learning sequence, students note the ways in which ships destined for Antarctica have changed in the 20th century. They compare the features of a variety of vessels then create an annotated timeline that demonstrates how particular aspects of Antarctic ships have changed between 1901 and 1989. In the process, students note the accomplishments of Sir Douglas Mawson, whose contributions to Australian society and scientific understanding are significant.

Setting the scene: Travelling to Antarctica

Brainstorm ideas for modes of transport that students might use to travel to Antarctica e.g. ships, aeroplanes, helicopters. What modifications might be necessary to allow vehicles to cope with ice, snow, wind, hail and extreme cold? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each form of transport?

The Transport photo gallery on the Australian Antarctic Division’s website provides lots of suggestions.


  • what seems to be the main form of transport used to get to and from Antarctica?
  • why do you think this form of transport is used to travel to Antarctica?

Explore and research: Travelling to Antarctica by sea

Students can visit the History of ANARE Shipping page to view a selection of ships that have travelled to Antarctica since 1947. ANARE stands for the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition. By selecting each image on the webpage, students find information about the vessels. Students compare the data and note changes that have occurred over the years. For example, MV Tottan (1952-53) weighed 540 tons (490 tonnes). The Kista Dan (1953-57) weighed 1,250 tons (1,134 tonnes). The MV Astrolabe (1988) weighs 2,300 tonnes while the Aurora Australis (1989) weighs 3,900 tonnes. What other aspects of the vessels have changed over the years? Why might these changes have been made?

A number of explorers sailed to Antarctica at the start of the twentieth century. Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott made the journey south in Discovery in 1901. Shackleton returned in The Nimrod (1907) and The Endurance (1914). Scott sailed to Antarctica once again in Terra Nova (1910) while Roald Amundsen, the first person the reach the South Pole, travelled in Fram in 1910. Students can find information about the explorers and the ships in which they travelled online or in the library. They can note the differences between the explorers’ vessels and the ones at History of ANARE Shipping. They can record similarities and differences in tables or Venn diagrams.

Sir Douglas Mawson travelled to Antarctica on the Aurora in 1911. There is a useful image of the ship on the Australian Government’s site Home of the Blizzard. The Early exploration photo gallery includes some images of the Aurora (1911) as well as Discovery, on which Mawson returned to Antarctica in 1929.


  • what differences would you notice if you sailed to Antarctica in 1901 and today?
  • in what ways has Antarctic travel become safer and more comfortable?

Sir Douglas Mawson is a particularly significant figure in the history of Australia’s Antarctic exploration. The Australian Antarctic Division's web page about this extraordinary Australian provides an overview of Mawson’s accomplishments. Students are encouraged to undertake research about Mawson online or in the library, then share their findings.

Explain and share: Preparing a timeline

Using information gathered in the previous activity, students prepare a timeline that ranges from 1901 to 1989. Along the timeline, students note the years in which at least six vessels travelled to Antarctica, including the 1901 Discovery and 1989’s Aurora Australis. The timeline spans ninety years so students need to determine an appropriate scale and how they will organise their information, e.g. by decades.

The teacher can determine whether students work individually, in pairs or in small groups. It is preferable for the timelines to be completed in class time to ensure the students don’t receive help from well-meaning family members.

Students annotate their timelines with information about each vessel. Details might include:

  • materials used to build the ship, e.g. wood, steel
  • source of power, e.g. wind, petrol-driven engines
  • length and weight (or displacement)
  • cargo-carrying capacity and passenger capacity
  • colour
  • depth
  • maximum speed
  • uses other than Antarctic travel
  • Antarctic destinations
  • country of origin and year of construction
  • special features for travelling through ice

It might be worth specifying how many of these aspects the students need to elaborate on for each vessel. Further, it is important that students include a summary statement at the end of their timelines that indicates the ways in which Antarctic vessels changed during the 20th century and what the benefits of these changes are.

Elaborate and apply: Creating the timeline

Students determine how they will prepare their timeline. Options include:

  • a poster or chart that can be stuck on a wall
  • a digital timeline that can be presented using an electronic whiteboard or digital projector
  • a 3D timeline using a variety of building blocks and signs
  • an audio presentation

Students identify the resources they will need to complete their timelines and begin creating them. They can be reminded to acknowledge the sources of images or quotes they use in their work.

Evaluate: Presenting the timelines

Students present their timelines to the class. Consideration can be given to the following aspects of the presentations:

  • have the students presented information about six vessels, including the 1901 Discovery and the 1989 Aurora Australis?
  • have students been consistent in providing information about each vessel, e.g. speed, cargo-carrying capacity, length? The timelines should provide indications of how these aspects have changed progressively in the 20th century
  • have students provided sufficient information about their six vessels?
  • are students’ summaries consistent with the information they have provided?
  • are the timelines easy to interpret?
  • can students answer questions about their timelines?
  • have students acknowledged the sources of third party content?

Students are prompted to ask questions to the presenters about the data they’ve included on their timelines and compare them with data from other presentations. They can also consider the experiences of Antarctic explorers such as Sir Douglas Mawson and Robert Scott and discuss the value of their contributions to our understanding of Antarctica.

When the presentations have been delivered, students view the web page about Australia’s new icebreaker and see what differences they can find when comparing it with the Aurora Australis. Are the differences consistent with trends noted in the timelines?

Assessment ideas

Along with assessments made during the presentations, it is useful to observe students’ progress in preparing their timelines. Things to look out for include:

  • students’ willingness to ensure adequate information is included
  • students’ ability to work co-operatively in pairs or small groups (if appropriate)
  • students’ attention to accuracy
  • students’ ability to create engaging presentations
  • students’ ability to sequence information on a timeline in a manner that is easy to interpret
  • students’ capacity to draw logical conclusions using the evidence available.