At noon on February 21, 1773, as the Antarctic sun glittered on the decks of the HMS Resolution, a cry of “land” ricocheted through the tiny world of wood, water, and ice. Captain James Cook examined the slate-gray smudge on the southern horizon, and his crew eagerly followed his gaze. For two months they had been seeking the terra australis incognita—the unknown southern continent—first proposed by Aristotle in 350 B.C. Satisfied by what he saw, Cook ordered his men to “work up” to the land, watching its contours sharpen to jagged mountains as they tacked toward it. Two hours later, they were confounded. The land had grown hazy again and seemed to drift away from them, as if dissolving. In his narrative of the voyage, Cook would write, “We thought we saw land to the S.W. The appearance was so strong, that we doubted not it was there in reality, and tacked to work up to it accordingly … We were, however, soon undeceived, by finding that it was only clouds,” which disappeared by evening.
Cook had begun by seeking Cape Circumcision, a spit of land sighted by the French captain Bouvet de Lozier in 1739. He found instead a realm of bewildering mirage. Along with capricious cloud formations, icebergs also baffled Cook’s men, who were “deceived by the ice hills, the day we first fell in with the field ice.” These “floating rocks” of ice were such masters of disguise that Cook believed they had fooled the French captain as well. In his journal, he confided his “opinion that what M. Bouvet took for Land and named Cape Circumcision was nothing but Mountains of Ice surrounded by Field Ice.” Fields, hills, rocks, islands, mountains—the icy formations resembled every land formation imaginable to Cook, with “ponds” or “narrow creeks” of water running among them. Yet solid land itself was nowhere to be found. Read More