Roald Amundsen's expedition, 1903–06

Dates Explorer Ships Outcomes
1903–06 Roald Amundsen Gjøa • Establishes the movement of magnetic north
• First person to navigate the passage by boat

Roald Amundsen is one of the world’s most famous polar explorers. He was the first person to sail through the North-West Passage and the first man to reach the South Pole.

As a boy Amundsen had dreamed of navigating the famous Passage, but when he set sail in 1903 (in a boat he bought himself) his stated main objective was not the completion of the passage but to ascertain if the magnetic north pole had moved since its discovery in 1831.

Roald Amundsen's expedition, 1903-06Amundsen's expedition, 1903-06 - click to enlarge Amundsen’s ship, the Gjøa, was small (47 tonnes) and had a crew of just 6 men. The boat made good progress across Baffin Bay, through Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait and reached Beechey Island on 22 August 1903, anchoring in Erebus Bay. From here the Gjøa followed Franklin’s fateful route towards King William Island anchoring on the east coast of the island at Gjøa Haven.

Scientific observations

For two winters Amundsen and his crew dedicated themselves to conducting magnetic and meteorological observations. A great disappointment for Amundsen was that he never reached the magnetic north pole. This was not because he did not make it to the spot where John and James Clarke Ross’s expedition had placed it in 1851, but because the pole had moved about 30 miles to the north. However, to prove that the pole was moving was of huge scientific significance.

Navigating the Passage

The Gjøa set sail once more on 13 August 1905, passing through Simpson Strait to the south of King William Island and on to the Bering Strait. When Amundsen encountered a whaling ship from San Francisco coming in the opposite direction he knew he would complete the North-West Passage. In his diary, he famously wrote:

The North-West Passage was done. My boyhood dream—at that moment it was accomplished. A strange feeling welled up in my throat; I was somewhat over-strained and worn—it was weakness in me—but I felt tears in my eyes.

Due to water as shallow as a metre, a larger ship could never have used Amundsen’s route.

Amundsen had achieved in a small boat what could not be accomplished in a larger vessel. But while his achievement ranks as one of the key milestones in the exploration of the Arctic, the discovery of a passage for commercial shipping (the original motivation for finding the North-West Passage) was still out of reach. It would take the effect of global warming to open up the possibility of deeper routes in 2007.

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