Press release

100th anniversary of start of Filchner expedition to the Antarctic – Significant discoveries in favourite area for modern German polar research

[05. May 2011] 

Bremerhaven, 5 May 2011. The bark “Deutschland” set sail from Bremerhaven on the second German Antarctic expedition on 6 May 1911. Its destination was the Weddell Sea sector of Antarctica. The expedition headed by Asia researcher Wilhelm Filchner (1877-1957) got as far as 78° South where it came across an ice shelf barrier – the Filchner-Ronne ice shelf. Frozen in the pack ice, the “Deutschland” drifted across the Weddell Sea over the winter for nine months. During this time the scientists obtained significant oceanographic and meteorological data that contributed in particular to an understanding of the global currents of the oceans and the atmosphere. For the first time it was possible to estimate the size of the Weddell Sea, which developed into the favourite area for German Antarctic research.


The voyage of the bark “Deutschland” first headed to Buenos Aires across the Atlantic and then to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia. The former Norwegian whaling vessel (built in 1905, length 44.2 metres) was equipped with a 220-kilowatt steam engine capable of covering short distances independent of the wind. With the support of the head of the whaling station in Grytviken, Carl A. Larsen (1860-1924), Filchner was able to travel the coasts of South Georgia with his scientific staff. Among other things, they visited the former German station of the first international polar year 1882/83 in Royal Bay, carried out makeshift repairs and occupied it for four weeks.


Without encountering any major obstacles, the “Deutschland” was then able to reach the interior of the Weddell Sea nearly up to 78° South, where the expedition was confronted with an ice shelf barrier: the present-day Filchner-Ronne ice shelf. It thus met a key prerequisite for achieving the primary objective of the expedition: it was to determine whether the Antarctic Peninsula was connected to the roughly known main continent or was separated by an arm of the ocean. No entrance was found in sector 30°-42° W. Instead, the expedition team sighted several nunataks – rocks sticking up out of the ice – an observation that indicated a connection.


Filchner decided to spend the winter on the newly discovered ice shelf. During a spring tide, however, part of the ice shelf on which the winter station was built broke off so the station had to be abandoned. Filchner elected to return to South Georgia. This is how the flight from the Antarctic winter started from the interior of the Weddell Sea on 4 March 1912. While heading north, the ship finally got stuck at 73°34'S, 33°12'W. The “Deutschland” froze in a massive ice floe and drifted westwards and northwards at increasing speed – some days covering over 10 nautical miles. This was evidence of the prevailing marine current there, the so-called Weddell gyre, and it was obvious that the expedition would reach the open South Atlantic soon. During the almost nine-month drift the expedition team collected important data that was used especially for publications in oceanography and meteorology.


At the beginning of the Antarctic summer, on 26 November 1912, the boilers were heated after the pack ice turned into drift ice. The station ice floe had to be blasted to free the “Deutschland” at last so it could set course for South Georgia, which it reached on 19 December 1912. The homeward voyage was used for extensive oceanographic and bathymetric work. The expedition was disbanded in Grytviken after tension had arisen among the team members.


“In spite of the extensive new findings, the voyage received little attention from the international scientific community, which was due to the commencement of World War I and the fact that a complete presentation did not take place,” explains Dr. Reinhard Krause, scientific historian at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association. The Weddell Sea developed into the favourite research area for modern German polar research, thus underlining the great significance of the voyage. In terms of discovery history the result of the second German Antarctic expedition is comparable to the discovery of the Ross ice shelf by James Clark Ross in 1841.


One of the best known polar expeditions of all, the Shackleton expedition (1914-16), travelled to the identical marine area with very similar objectives. In contrast to Filchner, Shackleton neither reached the interior of the Weddell Sea nor did his ship “Endurance” survive the ice drift. However, the fascinating photographs of this expedition by Frank Hurley (1885-1962) conquered the world and made the expedition immortal while, at most, specialists recall Filchner.



Notes for Editors:  Your contacts are Dr. Reinhard Krause (tel.: +49 (0)471 4831-1924; e-mail: and in the Communications and Media Department Folke Mehrtens (tel.: +49 (0)471 4831-2007; e-mail:


The Alfred Wegener Institute conducts research in the Arctic, Antarctic and oceans of the high and middle latitudes. It coordinates polar research in Germany and provides major infrastructure to the international scientific community, such as the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations in the Arctic and Antarctica. The Alfred Wegener Institute is one of the seventeen research centres of the Helmholtz Association, the largest scientific organisation in Germany.


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Das Institut

Das Alfred-Wegener-Institut forscht in den Polarregionen und Ozeanen der mittleren und hohen Breiten. Als eines von 19 Forschungszentren der Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft koordiniert es Deutschlands Polarforschung und stellt Schiffe wie den Forschungseisbrecher Polarstern und Stationen für die internationale Wissenschaft zur Verfügung.