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About Stonington Island


The Preservation of East Base


Oleona Base:  First Official U.S. Post Office in Antarctica





Narration of a Slide Lecture

Edith M. "Jackie" Ronne

On the Second Byrd Expedition in 1934, Richard Black and Finn Ronne conceived the idea for additional American exploration in the Antarctic as they rested on top of Mt. Nielson on their return from a long sledge trip.  Later, through the intervention of Alaska's Governor Gruening with President Roosevelt, these small plans snowballed into the United States Antarctic Service Expedition of 1939-41.  A half million dollars was appropriated by Congress to explore new territory and do scientific research at two bases.

From a map dating to the late 1930s, it was clear that there was much geographical information missing in the Peninsula area. With the southern tip of South America to the right and the Antarctic Peninsula left of it near the center, there are only dotted lines hinting at unknown coastlines and features.

West Base was set up near the former Little America site on the Ross Ice Shelf in east Antarctica with Paul Siple in charge.  East Base was established on Stonington Island in West Antarctica in March 1940 with Dick Black in charge.  Although Admiral Richard Byrd had been named Commanding Officer, he did not remain in the Antarctic during their year of operation but instead returned to his home in Boston.  Both bases were under the administration of the Department of the Interior.  

Aerial flights helped them in finding a suitable location.  It ended up on a rocky island (in the middle of the photo part of the ice ramp) named Stonington, after Stonington, Connecticut, the hometown of Nathanial Palmer who discovered Palmer Peninsula.  It was located near mountainous Neny Island in Marguarite Bay.

This island was chosen because a snowy ramp led up to the long sloping glacier giving the necessary access to the six thousand foot high plateau dividing the Antarctic Peninsula north and south to the mainland. 

All prefabricated building walls were carried down on the decks of the North Star. 

Finn Ronne was named Second in Command and  was the engineer in charge of setting up the prefabricated double wooden paneled well insulated buildings with doors resembling the commercial refrigerator type. 

It was an early use of prefabricated construction and it tested inovative building methods and materials.  The base consisted of a large bunkhouse, with five two man cubicles set against the outer wall on either side, a good size galley with coal burning range at the end of the building and two long mess tables placed end to end occupying the center aisle.  There was also a science building complete with meteorological tower, on the right, here; a machine shop; a storage shed; and various other outpost buildings.

During the winter night the twenty-six men made plans and preparations for exploratory plane flights south in their Curtis-Wright Condor biplane and for surveying sledge parties by dog teams into the unknown.  When the weather and surface conditions were good, it was wonderfully exhilarating to be out in the field enjoying the magnificent scenery, but very often a grueling job and under blizzard conditions there was nothing more miserable and monotonous.

One party headed south in the Weddell Sea area,  while Finn Ronne of Norwegian background and his very good friend Carl Eklund of Swedish descent, headed southwest to make one of the longest, fastest and most successful dog team trips on record.  With the support of two additional dog team parties on the first part of their journey to establish food caches for their return, they traveled 1,264 miles in 84 days of surveying. 

Sun sights were taken twice daily in order to get an astronomical fix and establish their accurate position. They proved what Sir Hubert Wilkins had suspected, that King George Sixth Land was instead an island off the Mainland which thus eliminated any possibility that the Russian Expedition under Von Bellingshausen had first sighted the continent there in 1821.  

At their furthest south location, they built a cairn and placed claim sheets in the snowy tower.  It was believed that in the touchy area of claiming, if necessary, these claims would establish U.S. sovereignty over this area.

Exploratory flights were also conducted from the Main Base west to King George Sound and as far south as Mount Tricorn and Cape Eielson near the Weddell Sea Coast. 

In addition a scientific program was conducted at the Main Base.  By now the barkentine Bear, which was assigned to pick up East Base personnel, made more urgent by the ongoing war in Europe, had managed to break through the ice pack as far as Mikkelsen Island, where solid ice surrounding Stonington Island made it impossible to relieve the men as planned. 

East Base was finally evacuated by two very hazardous plane flights, allowing the 26 men to take only their scientific records and a few personal items.  As I recall, 98% of USAS personnel joined the armed Services in World War II.  Their work was published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society publication in April 1945.

As World War II drew to a close, Finn once again began making plans for his own expedition.  After great dedication and unbelievable persistence he became only the third and last American ever to launch a private scientific expedition to the Antarctic. 

The Port of Beaumont was what we named a former ocean going tug, which was obtained on loan from the Navy by an act of Congress.  The 183 foot long wooden hulled ship was named for our port of departure, Beaumont, Texas.  Some financing came from donations and a small contract with the Office of Naval Research for the scientific results.  Through the great interest of General Curtis LeMay of the Air Force three small planes, one of which was equipped with trimetrogon cameras, two weasels, and considerable amount of clothing was acquired for testing under cold climatic conditions.   A contract with the North American Newspaper Alliance for news reports and some private funds, mainly from friends, rounded out a minimum sum necessary for departure.  For the most part members of the expedition were volunteers.

Having assisted him in editorial work, I was very familiar with all of his plans.  It had been my intention to handle the domestic side of the expedition from our home in Washington, D.C. where I was employed by the Department of State and had taken a two-week leave of absence to see him off.  

Because of some last minute unforeseen delays, Finn asked me to continue as far as Panama to catch up with some final problems.  I asked Jennie Darlington, who was recently married to Harry, one of our pilots, and still on her honeymoon to accompany me. We could fly back from Panama together I reasoned.  As usual I took over Finn's writing duties and before long he began to insist that I would be of more help to him by going the entire way.   This I resisted strongly for many good reasons until the very last minute in Valparaiso, Chile when I finally gave in.  He agreed that Jennie could go with me.

The approach to the Continent through light pack ice was magnificent.  I was totally in awe of where I was going and I anticipated a great adventure. We anchored outside a small British Base, one of several established secretly on the Antarctic Peninsula during the war years.   When I stepped ashore with Finn, it was brought to my attention that I was the first American woman to set foot on the continent.  I honestly had not even considered that. 

The occasion was that I accompanied Finn ashore to call on the British Leader, K.S. Pierce-Butler, who diplomatically pointed out to us that we were on British claimed territory.  Finn replied that we were merely an American expedition reoccupying an American-built base.  After that political do-si-do, we became great pals.

Ken Butler accompanied us over the small hill separating the two camps to show us what had taken place. He told Finn that within the last couple of days a Chilean ship had been in and their personnel had been given unlimited shore leave.  Unfortunately, he was unable to control their actions at the American Base and there had been a great deal of looting taking place. Just six years after the USAS had evacuated East Base, it was in unbelievably disastrous condition.

After inspecting the Base, Finn had our ship brought around into the back bay near the base so that our men could see their new home for the next year.   They started unloading the ship and moving supplies to shore using makeshift rafts.  After several weeks of intensive fix-up, the camp was put in livable order and all hands were able to move ashore. 

The dogs were the first ashore.  I developed a good relationship with the puppy born on the way down.  He was named Kasco, after a sponsoring dog food company.   Finn did not train the dogs for this expedition as he had for the last two expeditions he was on.  He maintained a friendlier relationship with these dogs.

Before the winternight, a trail party established a weather station on 6,000-foot high plateau.  Ignoring Finns safety guidelines, the two men returning from the plateau removed their skis in a highly crevassed area. 

One man broke through an ice bridge and fell over 120 feet head first.  Finn organized a rescue party, but with the man stuck head down in a crevasse for 12 hours, Finn expected to find a body.  Instead, with ropes they plucked him from his would-be tomb like a tooth from a socket;  with only minor injuries, the man lived to tell the tale .

The ship was purposely frozen-in for the long winter months in the back bay between Stonington Island and the mainland. It was not long before the sun began to disappear on the northern horizon and the winternight was upon us for two and a half months of darkness.  During this period intensive plans were made for the summer field programs.

Finn and I stayed in our 12 foot square hut, connected to the main bunkhouse by a canvas hallway that soon became a buried snow tunnel.  I wrote newspaper releases for the North American Newspaper Alliance and the New York Times, while Finn plotted plane flights and dog team routes for the sledge parties to follow in the field when the sun returned. 

Necessary activities in the course of the day became a real challenge, causing you to think twice as to whether you really wanted to make the trip there.  In storms, there was a rope tied between the main bunkhouse and the outhouse, and during blizzards you sometimes had to hold on for dear life.

Trail gear was assembled by those going on sledge trips.   From the radio shack, we sent twice daily weather reports to the weather bureau in Washington, as well as seismological data from our two seismographs receiving information on Antarctic earthquakes and microseisms for the first time.  In the blubber shack dog food was made by rendering seal blubber down to seal oil and mixed with commercial dog food. 

Parachutes were checked and placed in the planes for each person flying.   We checked out the weasels and classes were given in navigation and safety on the trail.

On moon lit nights we skied on the ramp leading to the high glacier overlooking our base.  Well, sometimes, we skied! 

During the winternight, much drifting snow accumulated against the buildings, burying them until Spring.  As soon as the sun returned the dogs were exercised and dog team parties assembled.  Geologist Dr. Robert L. Nichols and his assistant Bob Dodson started off with their two dog teams on what turned out to be a 154 day sledge trip, 54 days of which were spent completely on geological field work, more than any geologist up to that time. 

The trimetrogon equipped Beechcraft, our largest plane, was kept on board the ship until the bay ice was strong enough to hold its being pulled ashore by the tractor weasel.  As soon as its wings were assembled They were ready to fly.  This is a view of the planes as they were parked right adjacent to our buildings.  The Beechcraft took off on our strong bay ice runway for numerous exploratory flights

We used the leap frog methods on the longest ones.  Our main geographical objective was to capture the last unknown coastline in the world, that 500 mile stretch from Palmer Land to Coats Land,  which established the fact there could be no frozen strait dividing the continent between the Ross and Weddell seas at that point. 

There was even open water at the head of the Weddell Sea.  On the second long exploratory flight, they followed the Mountainous Palmer Land Plateau to where it dies out in higher land continuing south. 

Every available flying day was spent doing exploratory trimetrogon flights.  Camera mounted in the fuselage of the plane were focused on each horizon and straight down, taking simultaneous photographs with 60% overlap.  Altogether, they flew 39,000 miles in 346 hours in the air, almost twice as much as any expedition thus far.   86 landings were made in the field, more than half of which were unsupported. 14,000 aerial photographs were obtained supported by ground control points obtained by surface parties,  so that accurate maps could be made over this part of the Antarctic by the aeronautical chart service of the Air Force.  The red lines show the flight tracks and the entire area inside the bubble lines was mapped.   250,000 square miles of new territory, or the size of Texas was discovered and the very first landing ever was made on Charcot Island.

Prior to leaving on the expedition, Finn had been secretly sworn-in as a 4th class U.S. Post Master and he established the first U.S. post office in Antarctica, naming it Oleona Base.  I took this photo of a quick display of the sign, as he and I were the only ones who knew of its existence.  He cancelled opening date and closing date covers that were later given to the State Department and the Post Office Department for assisting in possible future land claims.  The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 61 holds all national claims in abeyance.

Meanwhile, at Base, shown here from the glacier, investigations continued in climatology, terrestrial magnetism, seismology, geology, and other branches of science.  Of course, the study of penguins is always a popular branch of science. Fourteen scientific reports were published by the Office of Naval Research upon our return.

All of our plans had been carried out very successfully.  It was time to go - our flag was lowered, our ship reloaded and led to open water by a visiting American icebreaker.  Our thoughts turned northward wondering if we would ever see Antarctica again.   Some of us did.

Waving enthusiastically to crowds who gathered,  we were glad to sail by the Statue of Liberty as we were greeted by a celebratory water spray.  Upon our arrival in New York, we were well received by the American Geographical Society.

Back at East Base, after RARE left, subsequent expeditions of various nationalities removed everything from the interior of the buildings.  The British dismantled the Machine shop and probably used the wood to put in the second floor in the Main Bunkhouse that covered ice accumulated from a broken skylight and used the higher space to store dead seals for dogfood.  They used the Science building for sled repair and rope storage.  Interior walls were removed  - only a short section remains.      

In 1989 East Base was designated a historic monument under the Antarctic Treaty.  The National Science Foundation has assumed preservation of the buildings, artifacts and surroundings as an important reminder of the early days of American exploration of the continent.  In early 1991, two National Park Service archeologists were sent down to assess the material remains of archeological and historical value at East Base. 

Another visit was made to East Base by the National Science Foundation in 1992 to clean up potentially hazardous materials and unsightly trash areas.  They also made necessary repairs, patching open walls and roofs.  They installed protective and educational signs.

 In 1995, my daughter and I made an unexpected visit to the Base on the tourist ship "Explorer".  Although not publicized as such, their priority seems to have been to get me ashore at East Base after an absence of nearly forty-eight years. 

Although I had since returned to Antarctica twice, including a trip directly to the South Pole in 1971, I never thought it would be possible to return to this uniquely special site and certainly not with my daughter, Karen, to be able to share it with her. 

By piling two large rocks on top of one another, we were able to peer into the Ronne Hut, as it was now labeled, and saw the empty room used by the British in the 1950s for an emergency generator on concrete pad in the center of the floor.   Gone were the numerous shelves for personal belongs, the tables holding my typewriter and Finns desk, our double bunk, the small coal burning stove which kept us warm, curtains on the two windows Finn had made to give us views of the surrounding grandeur, and the canvass wall coverings that provided interior decoration.  Now, it was bare and barren.

The same was true of the large bunkhouse - there was nothing left of the bunks, tables, chairs, galley stove and kitchen equipment - nothing, nothing, except frozen snow in the rear which the NSF personnel had chipped away, but not completely removed.  The Science building faired a bit better exhibiting a small wire caged museum containing bits and pieces of crockery and other very small things picked up around the buildings to show visitors these buildings had once housed two good sized American expeditions bent on exploration and scientific research. 

My daughter, an architect, had made three large plaques covered with heavy plastic, which we screwed tightly into the wall.  One gave the history and accomplishments of the Ronne Expedition, another gave Finns biography and the third was about my participation in the expedition and my life, to date. 

After taking some photographs and a last look, we returned to the ship in silence.  I was grateful to have seen East Base once again, and I hope many more travelers will experience a visit to the remnants of the oldest remaining U.S. presence in Antarctica.



About Stonington Island:


55 Buildings and artefacts on Stonington Island, Marguerite Bay, Antarctic Peninsula. 6811'S, 6700'W. Buildings and artefacts at and near East Base of the US Antarctic Service Expedition, 1940-41, and the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition, 1947-48.


East Base, Stonington Island (68 11'S67 00'W). Buildings and artifacts and their immediate environs. These structures were erected and used during two U.S. wintering expeditions: the Antarctic Service Expedition (1939-1941) and the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition (1947-1948).The historic area is 1000 meters in the north-south direction (from the beach to Northeast Glacier adjacent to Back Bay) and 500 meters in the east-west direction.


The size of the historic area is approximately 1,000 meters in the north-south direction

(from the beach to Northeast Glacier adjacent to Back Bay) and approximately 500 metres in the

east-west direction.


Reclaiming a Lost Antarctic Base. By Michael Parfit, Photographs by Robb Kendrick. In National Geographic Vol 183, No 3, pp 110-126, March 1993. A survey and restoration team visits "...historic East Base, the United States' first permanent toehold in Antarctica, surrendered to the cold in 1948." East Base was established in 1940 on Stonington Island, Marguerite Bay, Antarctic Peninsula. It was here where the first two women winter-overed: Edith "Jackie" Ronne and Jennie Darlington.


The Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition (1947-48), led by Finn Ronne, was the last privately sponsored U.S. expedition. Using Byrd's old base on Stonington Island, Ronne closed the unexplored gap at the head of the Weddell Sea.

The first woman to set foot on the continent was Caroline Mikkelsen from Norway. She landed at Vestfold Hills on February 20, 1935, with her husband who was a whaler. The first women to winter in Antarctica were Edith Ronne and Jennie Darlington in 1947. They spent a year with their husbands on Stonington Island in the Antarctic Peninsula region during the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition (American naval commander Finn Ronne led this expedition which discovered the Ronne Ice Shelf at the southern coast of the Weddell Sea). The first women to see the South Pole were two stewardesses aboard a commercial flight that flew over the Pole as it traveled from Christchurch to McMurdo in 1957.


Captain Finn Ronne, USNR/Military Commander Scientific Leader/Ellsworth Station, Edith Ronne Land/Antarctica". Norwegian-born Finn Ronne came to America in 1923 when he was 24. He was with Byrd in Antarctica (1933-1935, 1939-1941) and led his own Antarctic expeditions in 1946-1948, 1958-1959 and 1962-1969. Ronne was the Commander of the Weddell Sea Station during the International Geophysical Year (1956-1958). The Ronne Ice Shelf is named in his honor.


Read her fantastic (true) account of the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition, 1946-48, in which she became the first American woman to set foot on ... - 12k - Cached - Similar pages

CRM at East Base, Antarctica

Cathy Spude

Robert Spude


The ice-breaker slowed to the pace of a row boat as it crunched through the brackish ice of

the LeMaire Straits. Disturbed crab eater seals looked briefly toward the big red boat, then slid

away into the sea. Penguins, startled in disbelief at the intruder, dove off their ice blocks. We

were bound for Stonington Island, site of America's and Antarctica's most recently designated

historic monument. Captain Alex of Erebus ensured our safe arrival on February 21, 1991,

the final destination of a journey that began six months earlier with a phone call.


Much of the environmental community is disturbed about the untidy nature of the

continent, and the National Science Foundation, concerned as well, had initiated measures to

clean up former research stations.


While planning their effort, they recognized the historic significance of "East Base,

Stonington Island," site of an early winter-over expedition. Further research and conferences

changed the NSF mission from clean-up to one of sympathetic preservation of the site while

ensuring that hazardous materials were removed. After a 1990 field check, they found that

East Base, the oldest remaining U.S. base in the Antarctic, had a host of artifacts. That is

when they called the National Park Service for technical advice. In February, we boarded a

boat bound for Antarctica.


East Base was established as part of Admiral Byrd's third expedition to the Antarctic

(1939-1941). Known officially as the U.S. Antarctic Service Expedition (USASE), the full

scale exploration of the continent was supported by President Roosevelt. Admiral Byrd

established two bases, West Base at Little America III and East Base on Stonington Island.

The base was a cluster of U.S. Army, knock-down buildings built by a crew of 23 under

Richard Black. The men used a Curtiss-Wright Condor airplane and dog sleds to survey the

peninsula. In 1941, as wartime pressure increased and the pack-ice in the bay prevented a

planned departure by ship, Black decided to hurriedly evacuate the base by air. Crates of food,

a spare plane engine, a tank and tractor and much gear were left behind. In 1947-1948, the

privately funded Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition (RARE) re-occupied East Base. Finn

Ronne, Richard Black's second in command, led RARE and conducted more explorations.

The RARE expedition was also significant for being the first site where women (Edith

"Jackie" Ronne and Jennie Darlingon) wintered-over in the Antarctic.


When we arrived, on a calm, sunny (55 degrees) uncommon Antarctic day, the

completeness of the site amazed us. Buildings and material culture were in surprisingly good

shape. Pothunters and bottle collectors would have destroyed a similar 50-year-old site in the

United States. Trash dumps contained material in incredible condition-a 1939 Reader's

Digest in which one could read about sex education in public schools, a shirt from Ike

Musselman, one of the USASE crew, bottles from the doctor's office, a spare 1930s Curtiss-

Wright plane engine, hay piles, and three of the buildings. Everything had a history, a history

pieced together by published books, records at the National Archives and interviews. Mrs.

Jackie Ronne drew us a layout of her hut on a napkin at a MacDonald's restaurant in

Washington, DC before we left. It helped piece together on-the-ground evidence: stacks of

trail mixings, caches of coal for stoves, and on and on.


Our report, a description of resources and recommendations for management, will be used

by the National Science Foundation to manage the site and, in the immediate future, remove

any hazardous material: a corbel of acid from the science lab, sulfuric acid from the doctor's

office and other dangers. The team will repair and make air-tight the buildings, unfortunately

much altered on the interiors by a nearby British base. The former bunk house was used as a

seal-slaughter house and is befouled with the waste. Preservation crews will patch the

building and lock it shut. Its fate is uncertain. The valuable artifacts in the trash dumps will not

be salvaged at this time. At present a light covering of gravel from the island will serve as a

cap to ensure their preservation, allowing future archeologists to excavate the site based on our

field mapping and photographs, as well as improve the present unsightly appearance of the

rust-colored dumps.


As the preservation and clean-up effort is underway, the National Science Foundation will

prepare interpretive signs to ensure that the East Base Historic Monument is not impacted by

increased visitation. The site, as a listed Antarctic national monument, may become a

destination point for the few tourist boats that venture south along the scenic Antarctic

Peninsula. The number of visitors to the site are few, but during our journey we met

Australian, French and British tourists, the former while we were at East Base.


As the movement for a world park on Antarctica continues to be discussed and introduced

in Congress, we need to continue to stress the importance of people in the Antarctic story. The

East Base site is but one piece of the whole century and a half of exploration and discovery.

The site deserves preservation. Cultural resource management will continue to be an important

part of the management of Antarctica.


Cathy Spude is an archeologist with the Western Team at the Denver Service Center,

National Park Service. Robert Spude is chief, National Preservation Programs Branch, Rocky

Mountain Region, National Park Service.


Wilderness of ice felt like a visit to another planet

ANTARCTICA - When I was a young boy, one of my parent's closest friends was Finn Ronne, one of the world's great polar explorers. During those years, Finn often came to our house for dinner and talked at length about his latest adventures to Antarctica, which he affectionately described as "the last unspoiled place on Earth."

By dog sled, ski and ship, Finn covered more of Antarctica than any other explorer. For hours on end, my brother and I sat at the dinner table, mesmerized by his tales.

As I grew older, I often recalled Finn's exploits and hoped that one day I might also have an opportunity to visit Antarctica. But while the notion of travelling to "the last continent" seemed pretty remote a few decades ago, much has changed as the number of organized tours to this remote part of the world has increased dramatically.

After reading about one such trip being organized by Australian-based Peregrine Adventures that also coincided with the 60th anniversary of Finn's most famous expedition, I finally decided to go.

Our journey would commence from Ushuaia, Argentina, located on the southern tip of South America. A city with a stunning mountainous backdrop and a population of 45,000, Ushuaia proudly promotes itself as being at the end of the world ("fin del mundo" in Spanish) and is often cited as the southernmost city on the planet. It was here that I joined the other passengers who had signed up for our expedition.

After taking a day to explore the town as well as nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park, we finally boarded the Akademik Ioffe, a relatively small and manoeuvrable expedition ship that would be our home for the next 11 days. Late that afternoon, we set sail into the Beagle Channel and began our journey to the Antarctic Peninsula.

But first, we would have to cross the 1,000-km Drake Passage, a notoriously violent stretch of water that separates Antarctica from the rest of the world and, for the next two days, the passage lived up to its reputation. The seas were big and the conditions were rough, but tolerable (thanks largely to the Gravol we were all encouraged to bring).

During our time at sea, I read as much as I could about Antarctica. By any measure, it's a land of extremes, being the coldest, driest and windiest continent on Earth. To the surprise of many, it's also the highest, with an average elevation of 2,300 metres, much of that ice.

Late on the second day of our journey, I took a walk on deck and could feel and see a sudden change; the air was cooler and fresher, there were several visible icebergs and a growing number of birds were circling the boat.

We were approaching the Peninsula!

Within hours, I saw the South Shetland Islands, our first glimpse of land. I felt the adrenaline rush through me and, throughout the ship, there was a sense of excitement and anticipation. We had made it and were now ready to embark on an unforgettable journey to the most remote place on Earth.

For the next several days, we cruised among the islands and into the bays of the Antarctic Peninsula. On the ship, we also had a fleet of kayaks and motorized Zodiac rafts that would enable us to explore seldom seen places while also venturing ashore for numerous walks and hikes. And whatever one's expectations are of such a trip, I soon realized that nothing quite prepares you for the amazing landscapes and wildlife displays that are found here.

We visited many incredible places, including Deception Island, an ancient volcanic caldera from which Nathaniel Palmer, a seal trader and explorer, first spotted the Antarctic mainland back in 1820. The island is home to more than 100,000 pairs of chinstrap penguins as well as a century-old abandoned whaling station that was fascinating to explore.

Our first foray on to the continent itself was at the beautifully situated Neko Harbour. After landing by raft, we hiked up a steep icy trail to the top of a hill where we enjoyed some breath-taking panoramic views of the rugged coastline and interior mountains before deciding to slide back down to the bottom (laughing like kids as we went!).

To the surprise of many, the weather was downright balmy by Antarctic standards, although it cooled quickly whenever the wind came up. We were there right in the midst of the brief, but beautiful, austral summer and the temperature hovered close to zero degrees Celsius for much of our trip. By contrast, winter temperatures on the continent have been recorded as low as minus 89 degrees Celsius.

On Cuverville Island, we came across a large colony of nesting gentoo penguins and, after seeing how docile and accepting they were in our presence, I appreciated the efforts of our able and energetic expedition leader, Hayley Shephard, in ensuring that no passenger approached the birds too closely.

On other days, we took our rafts through a maze of icebergs, many of which were a dazzling blue, due to the way sunlight is reflected by the ancient high-density ice. On these same outings, we had some amazing close-up encounters with humpback whales as well as leopard and crabeater seals.

On one of these occasions, two whales emerged right beside our raft, their mouths wide open as they gorged on a swarm of krill we had drifted through. Close enough to touch, the whales slowly sank back into the depths of the sea, our rafts bouncing in their wake. It was a magical moment and all of us sat there in awe.

Later in the trip, we also had a very informative visit to the Vernadsky Research Station, currently operated by the Ukrainian government. This facility has accumulated more than 50 years of meteorological data, which has been invaluable to scientists working on issues such as climate change and atmospheric ozone levels.

During our tour of the station, I asked about the anticipated impacts that might be associated with global warming. We were told that, while it appears that Antarctica has not yet been affected to the same degree as the Arctic, researchers have documented a warming trend of 1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius per decade in the western Antarctic, a region of lower elevations and more moderate temperatures compared to the eastern part of the continent. Consequently, the glaciers and ice sheets along the western edge of Antarctica appear to be the most vulnerable if global warming continues unabated.

Each passing day seemed to bring something new and, while we had so many memorable experiences, perhaps the highlight of the trip was the night that I camped ashore. Our trip was one of the few that actually allows passengers the option of camping -- so I jumped at the chance.

That evening in my bivy sack (a small one-person tent), I felt like I was finally alone with the spectacular solitude of Antarctica, although it was never really silent. The rifle-like sound of cracking glaciers, an occasional gusty wind and the mournful braying of nearby penguins continued through the night. Yet, it was a wonderful sound and, more so than ever, I understood the great allure of this far corner of the planet.

Early next morning, our raft picked us up and we headed back to the ship for breakfast. We would soon be leaving, heading back across the passage toward Cape Horn and then on to Ushuaia.

I started to reflect on the past several days and I felt so fortunate to have seen a place of such incredible beauty. The trip had been a once-in-a-lifetime experience and there is simply nowhere else on Earth that is so removed from the day-to-day lives that most of us lead.

I then recalled those long-ago dinner conversations with Finn Ronne when he tried to describe to a young boy what Antarctica was like. He used terms such as "otherworldly" and "like being on another planet" while more recent adventurers, such as Jon Krakauer, have likened a trip to Antarctica as a bit like going to the moon.

Now that I've seen this crystalline wilderness, I think that's a pretty apt description. And while I may never witness the beauty of a distant planet or star, I knew this trip was as close as I would ever come.

We then entered the rough seas of the Drake Passage and started the long journey home.


Mark Angelo is the head of the BCIT Fish and Wildlife Department and recently received a special United Nations Stewardship award for his international conservation and education work.


The best (and only) time to visit Antarctica is from December to March. The best departure point is Ushuaia, located at the southern tip of Argentina and about a four-hour flight from Buenos Aires.

No visa is required for Canadian visitors to Argentina. While a range of Antarctic tours and ship sizes are available, boats of moderate size with a fleet of Zodiacs make it possible to access a greater number of islands and bays. Mid-sized ships also enable passengers to hop ashore more quickly. For more information on Antarctica expeditions, contact Mountain Travel Sobek at 1-888-687-6235 (, Peregrine Adventures ( or Trek Escapes in Vancouver at 604-734-1066.

Oleona Base:  First Official

U.S. Post Office in Antarctica

A Secret U.S. Post Office operated in Antarctica
causing speculation about the real reason behind two concurrent U.S. expeditions...

Finn Ronne

Finn Ronne was a Norwegian immigrant who later joined the United States Navy and was a member and officer in Admiral Byrd's earlier expeditions to Antarctica. In 1946-8, he led a privately-financed expedition to Antarctica, following upon the heels of Operation Highjump.  Ronne's expedition was to the Marguerite Bay area, where he reoccupied Byrd's 1939 Base.  One of the most important results of this expedition was a showing that the Antarctic peninsula was connected to the rest of Antarctica, thus solving one of the last great public mysteries of the continent.  

Writing in his book entitled "Antarctic Conquest", he stated:

"Although no one knew it, I had been operating a United States Post office too, but for reasons of state (emphasis added) had been compelled to keep it secret."

Secrecy seems to be in no scarcity as it relates to several Antarctic expeditions; perhaps in no small way due to a continued concern that the Nazis had a remnant left in Antarctica from their infamous 1938-9 "New Schwabenland" colonization of Antarctica.   Note carefully the Swastika in the following photo of aircraft aboard the Schwabenland, the vessel that took them south.


(Photo source unknown, and is presumed to be in the public domain)

The web is abundant with sites setting forth information about suspected and actual German involvement in Antarctica possibly dating back even to the late 1800's.   It does make one wonder if there were in fact, covert or as they say today, "black-ops" reasons for one or more of the Byrd Expeditions (including Operation Highjump for this discussion) as well as the private expedition of Captain Ronne. 

Many online sources are available with information concerning what I have dubbed the "Byrd Conspiracy", which was not a conspiracy by Admiral Byrd, rather what may have been an apparent conspiracy by the government to keep particular information that he had uncovered during Operation Highjump as a secret.  I am not passing judgment at this time, as I am still investigating the whole thing to my satisfaction.

However, lending credence to this conspiracy theory is the observation that Admiral Byrd does in effect seem to "disappear" from public view shortly after his return from Operation Highjump in 1947-- until approximately 1955 when he organized Operation Deep Freeze I,  and he was reported to have been hospitalized (in a mental ward) shortly after his return in 1947.  This forced hospitalization is said to have came upon the tails of Byrd having made some remarkably candid comments (which included what smacked of being a description of a UFO) to a South American newspaper about what he had found during Operation Highjump.  His disappearance from the scene after his arrival back in the states, would make it appear he may have been promptly squelched!  Remember that this time period coincided roughly with the Roswell UFO sightings.  Operation Highjump would have been first, early in 1947, and then Roswell to follow in the summer of 1947.  This was a situation that was the last thing the government would have wanted, another military official (in this case a quite prominent and popular man who had spent years criss-crossing the United States giving lectures and whose word would have been quite respected and accepted) who apparently reported having seen/and or believing in UFOs!!  

NOTE:  If Op HJ had continued to its full expected duration of six to eight months, they would have still been in Antarctica at the time of Roswell.  The expedition headed back to the U.S. in early 1947, well short of its expected ending.  Some would say "limped back", after suffering great losses of personnel and equipment.  The official record only sets forth a limited loss of life and aircraft, but conspiracists feel the record has been doctored or we are not being told the full story.   

Contrast this lack of public accessibility after Operation Highjump, to the previous well-known availability of Admiral Byrd in the period following his first two Antarctic Expeditions, where there are documented philatelic items from cities all over the country serving as commemorations of where Byrd visited lecturing to the public about his travels in Antarctica.   That Byrd loved to travel and lecture about his polar explorations is quite evident.  

The polar regions and his expeditions were his very reason for existence; he had said from the time he was a child that he felt destined to be a polar explorer.  He had a passion for all things polar, especially exploration, that could scarcely be contained.   Operation Highjump was at least as important in many respects, it would appear, as his previous expeditions... so where was he after his return?  Where did he go?  Was he locked away so he couldn't share the story of what he really had found in Antarctica?  As some theorists suggest, during Operation Highjump, did he encounter and engage Nazi forces operating from bases that lodged advanced aircraft with advanced propulsion systems?

   Many think so, and I am beginning to see some curiosities about many aspects of Operation Highjump and now, perhaps even with Ronne's Expedition. 

The little tidbit mentioned above that Ronne forked us in his book, only begins to tell us why the Oleana Base, Antarctica postmark is one of the rarest polar cancels that exist.   With this being the first American post office established on the Antarctic continent, it is a shame that the cancel was not used more often.  Is there perhaps a larger reason why this post office was kept secret?  We do know that many countries, including Britain, had concurrent secret bases and or expeditions in the same general time period, notably Port Lockroy on the Antarctic peninsula.  Port Lockroy was part of a top secret World War II British expedition called Operation Tabarin

Operation Tabarin was the beginning of Britain's permanent presence on the Antarctic continent, and was built to serve as a southern outpost and to keep an eye on suspected Nazi presence on the ice.   In a 2001 BBC interview, one of the last remaining survivors of that secret expedition, Gwion Davies, noted that the posting of mail from their secret base was a way of their laying claim to, or establishing that section of Antarctica as British sovereign territory.  In other words, just as the Nazis are known to have dropped metal dart/ markers with the Third Reich swastika emblem over a large area of Antarctica during their expedition in 1939, to act as a laying of a claim; for any country (such as Britain) to have a post office that actually accepted and postmarked mail definitely shows an intention on their part of not only establishing a base, but of staying

While the United States did not then, and does not now, recognize any country as having specific territorial claims upon Antarctica, for Ronne to have allowed his expedition members to have open mailing of letters from Oleana Base would have served a similar purpose as with Port Lockroy, but for some reason, he would not allow that to be done.  Why?  Some mail did escape, and other mail from members of the Ronne Expedition is known to have been posted from nearby British bases.  The posting of mail often serves a geo-political purpose in addition to the simple fact it carries mail back home to loved ones; and it is a great curiosity to many polar philatelists and followers of Antarctic history that it was not done in this instance.  The full story about the existence of the post office (as well as even greater secrets?) may have passed with Captain Ronne.

The "Holy Grail" of Antarctic Covers

Click on the above image for a larger view; copy of cover was provided courtesy of Scott Smith

The Oleana Bay covers are most commonly seen with a date of March 12, 1947, which was the date the expedition arrived at Marguerite Bay, Antarctica.  In this instance, the cover illustrated above is extraordinary in that it is on a printed envelope from the Byrd II Antarctic Expedition, postmarked with the less common hand cancellation from that mission; then repostmarked at Oleana Base in 1947, with the addition of Captain Ronne's "corner card" and the IGY Ellsworth Station octagonal cachet, and the best part of all, Ronne's signature in which he adds the word "Postmaster", rounding it out to make a splendid cover!  A cover like this would fare extremely well in a polar auction.   I would go so far to term it as the "Holy Grail" of a polar collection; only very few covers I can think of would be more collectable, in my opinion.

Credit for the content to KGYH's Polar Philately Page  

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Permission granted to use material through August 10, 2019.  

Permission ID QSL2009-02.






Ronne Ice Shelf:

The larger and western of the two major ice shelves at the head of Weddell Sea. It is bounded on the west by the base of Antarctic Peninsula and Ellsworth Land, and on the east by Berkner Island. Cdr. Finn Ronne, USNR, leader of RARE (1947-48), discovered and photographed a strip along the entire northern portion of this ice shelf in two aircraft flights in November and December 1947. He named it "Lassiter Shelf Ice" and gave the name "Edith Ronne Land" to the land presumed to lie south of it. In 1957-58, the US-IGY party at Ellsworth Station, under now Captain Ronne, determined that the ice shelf was larger than previously charted, that it extends southward to preempt most of "Edith Ronne Land." Inasmuch as Capt. James Lassiter's name has been assigned to a coast of Palmer Land, the US-ACAN has approved the name Ronne Ice Shelf for this large ice shelf. The recommendation is on the basis of first sighting and exploration of the ice shelf by Ronne and parties under his leadership. Named for Edith Ronne, wife of Captain Ronne, who made important contributions to the planning, organization, and operation of RARE and who served as observer at the Stonington Island base while RARE members were in the field. (Filchner Ice Shelf lies between Berkner Island and Coats Land.)

Links to 2 sites with Satellite Images of Antarctica:

Faces of Antarctica by NASA:

Landstat Image Mosaic of Antarctica by UGSG:





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