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  • Writer's pictureMatthias Troch

125 years RV Belgica, a story about Antarctic exploration

125 years ago, Belgian commander Adrien de Gerlache and his crew set sail to Antarctica onboard the RV Belgica, at the dawn of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. They were the first ones to overwinter in Antarctic sea ice and safely return.

At the end of the 19th century, much was still unknown about Antarctica. The Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897 – 1899 was the first expedition to overwinter in the Antarctic region, and is considered the first expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. From March 3rd 1898 until March 14th 1899, the crew was stuck in the ice of the Bellingshausen Sea aboard the RV Belgica.

The expedition was led by Belgian commander Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery, and the crew consisted of nine Belgians, six Norwegians, two Poles, one American, one Romanian, and one cat named “Nansen”. Among them were Dr. Frederick Cook and Roald Amundsen, explorers who would later attempt the respective conquests of the North Pole and South Pole. Though the circumstances were severe, the expedition returned with an important collection of scientific data and the first annual cycle of observations from Antarctica. The stage was set for later Antarctic expeditions …

This year, Belgian marine biologist Gerlien Verhaegen, film director Meltse van Coillie, and glacial geologist Matthias Troch are returning to the icy realm of the Bellingshausen Sea onboard the German research icebreaker Polarstern.

Gerlien, Meltse and Matthias will be part of the RV Polarstern expedition PS134 titled “West Antarctic Ice Sheet history and Processes in the Bellingshausen Sea sector” conducted by the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz-Centre for Polar and Marine research (AWI) in Bremerhaven, Germany. The expedition, led by Prof. Karsten Gohl, will begin in Cape Town (South Africa) on December 23rd 2022 and end in Punta Arenas (Chile) on March 6th 2023 after an 11-week cruise to Antarctica and along its coast.


The expedition begins with the transit across the Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean. Next, the expedition will head to the German Neumayer Station III in western Dronning Maud Land for a 3-day resupply mission. Arrival at Neumayer Station is estimated for January 2nd or 3rd. After, the expedition will transit across the Weddell Sea and around the Antarctic Peninsula, before reaching the Bellingshausen Sea. This transit will take about 9 – 10 days, depending on ice conditions. This leaves a 42 – 45 day window for surveying and sampling in the Bellingshausen and Amundsen seas, before the final 5 – 6 day return transit to Punta Arenas.

In the main research area of the Bellingshausen Sea and eastern Amundsen Sea, the scientific groups of expedition PS134 will collect geophysical, geological and biological data and samples. The geoscientific research purpose is to reconstruct the dynamics of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in particular from warm times in the geological past that are considered an analogue to modern climate change. Biological research will be undertaken to understand the evolution and ecology of Antarctic jellyfish. A large part of the research activities will be conducted in the area where the Belgica of Adrien de Gerlache and his crew and scientists got stuck in ice 125 years ago.

Find out more about this campaign here & follow the scientific endeavors and historic reflections of Gerlien, Meltse, and Matthias via their blog on https://125yearsbelgica.com/, and their vlog on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/@125belgica.


Written by Matthias Troch

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