James Weddell and the Southern Ocean

Weddell Sea

Scarred and chiseled sea ice in the Weddell Sea

On August 24 1787British sailor, navigator and seal hunter James Weddell was born. He sailed into a region of the Southern Ocean that later became known as the Weddell Sea. Also the Weddell seal was discovered and named in the 1820s during expeditions led by James Weddell.

Not much is known about James Weddell’s early life. He probably entered the merchant service at quite young age and was bound to the master of a Newcastle collier for a few years. Weddell shipped on board a merchantman trading to the West Indies and made several voyages there starting from 1805. In the 1810s, James Weddell was aboard the Hope, capturing the American privateer ‘True Blooded Yankee’. He was laid off after the Napoleonic War and resumed his merchant travels before volunteering for service in the Royal Navy in 1820.

Weddell met the shipbuilder James Strachan already in 1819. He owned a 160-ton ship and Weddell set off as captain of the Jane to sail towards the Falkland Islands. The voyage was very profitable and his investors decided to have a second ship, the Beaufoy, built. From 1821 to 1822, Weddell led both ships to the newly discovered South Shetland Islands, however, it is believed that it was an unprofitable voyage and another was planned for sealing in the following year. On September 17, 1822, the Jane along with 22 men and the smaller Beaufoy with 13 men departed from England. Unfortunately, the provisions were poorly estimated and the Jane was heavily damaged. Still, it is believed that Weddell was a great leader and explorer. The charts he prepared of the South Orkneys proved his accuracy and it is assumed that the crew was cheerful despite the hardships they went through.

The crew stopped at Madeira and Bona Vista, then crossed the equator, arriving at the Falkland Islands by December 19. Towards the end of the yearWeddell and his men sailed further south and reached the South Orkneys on January 13, 1823. In order to find more seals, the crew moved north at the end of January and hoped to find land between the South Orkneys and South Shetlands. However, things did not really go as planned and Weddell decided to head south once again in the cold and foggy weather. On February 20Weddell determined his position to be some 214 miles further south than Cook had achieved and they finally were awarded with mild and clear weathers. The men sighted a few icebergs and named the waters King George IV‘s Sea. The ships returned to England in July 1824 and it is assumed that Weddell’s record southing was not broken until the German explorer Wilhelm Filchner and his ship ‘Deutschland’ entered the Weddell Sea and discovered Luitpold Coast and the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf in 1911.

At yovisto, you may learn more about the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration by Edward Larson.

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