De Gerlache

Being a Belgian on the Antarctic waters can not go without thinking about Adrien De Gerlache at certain moments. I choose to take his book “15 months on Antarctica” with me on this trip. Refreshing my French and at the same time reading about one of the first people who came where we are now, is not a bad combination:

De Gerlache, searching for unexplored territories in Antarctica

Adrien de Gerlache leaves Antwerp in August 1896. He aims to explore some missing parts on the map of Antarctica. He reaches Ushuaia on New Year’s day 1897. Almost 120 years ago, he sailed the same waters we’re facing here. His ship was double the length of ours, and 1.5 times as wide. Still, it would be way smaller than most cruise ships and ice breakers that go to Antarctica these days.

The Belgica stuck in the ice on Antarctica (
The Belgica stuck in the ice on Antarctica (Courtesy of wikimedia)

The Belgica, his expedition ship, got stuck in the ice in February 1897, and it would take him and his crew 13 months to get back out of there. He’s the first to have overwintered on Antarctica. He discovered many locations and updated the map of Antarctica as we know it today.

It feels like an honor to be a Belgian and sail in these waters. As a young man, De Gerlache drew many of the parts of the maps we use here today. When reading de Gerlache’s book, one sees how much he saw it as his duty to discover this area and bring some Belgian influence. It’s partially thanks to his work that Belgium was one of the first 12 signers of the Antarctic Treaty.

Many bays, mountains, and islands in the Antarctic peninsula got their names by de Gerlache. The passage he called the Belgica Strait, was later renamed to the Gerlache Strait in his honor. Anvers Island, Brabant Island, Flanders Bay are just a few of the places that got their names by Mr. de Gerlache. and his crew. And even the Netherlands have de Gerlache to thank for the fact that the Wilhelmina bay on Antarctica carries its name.

Lasting influence

De Gerlache is not just famous for his own expedition. Because he influenced several later discoveries in the Antarctic region. One of the crew members was Roald Amundsen, who would later be the first to reach both poles. De Gerlache later also assisted Shackleton with his infamous expedition. It was de Gerlache who sold him his yacht. Ernest Shackleton renamed it “Endurance”.

This crabeater in de Gerlache Strait waking up his buddies when we sail across the floe where they are sleeping early in the morning.
This crabeater in de Gerlache Strait wakes up his buddies when we sail across the floe where they are sleeping early in the morning.

Statue of De Gerlache in Ushuaia

When you make it to Ushuaia: his statue is the first in a row of people who played a role in the discovery of Antarctica. He overlooks the harbor where every year ships like ours take of on expeditions that wouldn’t have been the same without what he did 120 years ago. De Gerlaches expedition is also featured in the scientific part of the Museo del fin del Mundo.

Sailing in the morning in the Gerlache strait, next to some smaller icebergs
Sailing in the morning in the Gerlache strait, next to some smaller icebergs

This article is part of a series, describing my trip to Antarctica. Follow on


2 replies
  1. bikusia says:

    Thank you for this interesting article and pictures. I am also a big fan of both Poles but the nearest i have come was several visits to northern Russia (Arkhangelsk on the White Sea).
    By the way, i have a book(let) at home about De Gerlache. It is called Belgica, de eerste overwintering in Antarctica 1897-1899, uitgegeven naar aanleiding van een tentoonstelling in het Scheepvaartmuseum in Antwerpen.

  2. Chris says:

    Koen, going to Antarctic is on my bucket list. Wow!!! I’ve read about Ernest Shackleton and his amazing story of survival. Would love to go some day… Great photo’s.

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