MAST iconMaritime Archaeology Sea Trust

British Antarctic Territory and South Ocean

An underwater cultural heritage desk-based assessment of the British Antarctic Territory and wider Southern Ocean

Recently MAST was commissioned by the Government of the British Antarctic Territory (BAT) to undertake a review of significant underwater cultural heritage sites in the BAT and across the Southern Ocean. These territories were among the last on Earth to be visited by humans, being discovered progressively from 1675 until the early years of the 20th century. Information was collated from a collection of primary and secondary resources and national data deposits.

The study area is shown the map below and includes the following:

  1. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (British Overseas Territory)
  2. Antarctica, comprising:
    1. South Orkney Islands (British Antarctic Territory)
    2. South Shetland Islands (British Antarctic Territory)
    3. Antarctic Peninsula (Graham Land) (British Antarctic Territory)
    4. Ronne Ice Shelf (Weddell Sea), Coats Land, Queen Elizabeth Land (British Antarctic Territory)
    5. Other Antarctic Territories

British Antarctic Territory

British Antarctic Territory Map

Antarctic maritime history comprises successive eras of exploitation. Sporadic early voyages of exploration gave way to a late 18th century boom in commercially driven sealing. Hundreds of ships and crews set up seasonal camps and hunted seal colonies from island to island ever deeper into Antarctic waters. Although transient in nature, the seal hunts can be traced into the mid 19th century through ethereal remains such as abandoned camps and shipwrecks, few of which have been found. Sealing was succeeded in the 20th century by industrial scale commercial whaling, notably in South Georgia. The extensive infrastructure required largely remains intact, and abandoned whaling stations are a major aspect of the heritage and tourism industry on the island today. Further south, the turn of the 20th century also marked the peak of the so-called “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration, when state sponsored expeditions led by Scott, Shackleton and others pushed deeper into the Antarctic towards the South Pole. The remains of their camps and graves also mark the landscape.

Later 20th century history is marked by a major international presence on the Antarctic continent and the transition from nomadic ship-based expeditions to the creation of permanent camps. South Georgia was an important target during the Falklands War in 1982, the contested history of this island contrasting with the more peaceful transition of Antarctic territorial claims to the Treaty System that supports increasing numbers of scientific and touristic visits, an era that has lasted until the present.