On 18 February 1899, the first dogs set their paws in Antarctica. Carsten Borchgrevink, the Norwegian leader of the Southern Cross expedition, described these early canine expedition members:
It is no joke to have ninety savage beasts from Siberia and Greenland on the deck of a vessel of only 276 tons, when, besides the dogs, thirty-one men have to move about. By the noise they made, whether in a quarrel or while singing sentimentally in chorus to the big moon in the tropics, these faithful companions of ours often tried the tempers of the members of the Expedition beyond control. However, it was remarkable to see how already early in the voyage certain dogs took to certain men, and in their leisure hours you could see some of the members selecting a quiet corner underneath the boat, on top of a barrel, or on the anchor in the forecastle, quietly petting their favourite dog.
Stareek was the favourite dog of Dr Edward Wilson, the chief scientist on the Terra Nova expedition.
“I have a delightful leader, ‘Stareek’ by name—Russian for ‘Old Man’, and he is the most wise old man . . . the nicest, quietest, cleverest old dog I have ever come across. He looks in fact as though he knew all the wickedness of all the world and all its cares, and as if he were bored to death by them.”
Stareek died shortly before the end of expedition. He remains in that frozen distant land, not far from the final resting place of Dr Wilson.
Roald Amundsen’s Fram expedition was the first to reach the South Pole in 1911. This accomplishment came at a cost. Of the 52 dogs that set off for the Pole, only 11 returned.
In a brutal landscape with no available food, Amundsen’s strategy was to kill most of the dogs and feed them to the men and remaining dogs. Despite this seemingly brutal behaviour, Amundsen actually had great affection for his dogs. In his diary, he called them “Our four-footed companions” and wrote that “We care for our dogs like little children . . . We grow fonder and fonder of them every day. And the affection is mutual. They howl with pleasure when they see us.”
Reflecting on the expedition, he lamented:
“It is my only dark memory from down there — that my lovely animals were destroyed. I demanded more of them than they could manage.”
Not all dogs that went to Antarctica were sledge dogs. A New Zealand collie was taken on the Terra Nova expedition in 1910 and an American pilot travelled to the Pole with his German shepherd.
In 1928, Richard Byrd’s pet terrier Igloo accompanied him and 95 sledge dogs to Antarctica. Igloo, nicknamed Iggy, was a stray puppy found on the streets of Washington, DC. With his short fur coat, Igloo was ill-equipped for the extreme Antarctic cold and sometimes wore a jacket and bootees.
His short life ended from illness in 1931. He rests in Pine Ridge small animal cemetery in Massachusetts, under an iceberg-shaped headstone with the inscription: “He was more than a friend.”
During the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1957 and 1958, Deputy Leader of the New Zealand party Bob Miller and his team of dogs sledged over 2,500 km.
Bob was passionate about his dogs. They could do no wrong, especially Peanuts, his lead dog, whom he described as "A sleek silver grey boy. Very intelligent, but occasionally with ideas of his own.”
There were nine dogs in his team, and of these Tepi was known for being friendly and a good worker while Andy often battled with the other dogs.
Grateful for his team’s efforts, Bob brought Peanuts and Jan, whom he had named after his daughter, back to New Zealand in 1958. He gave Peanuts to family friends in Pahiatua while Jan went to Wellington Zoo. He tried to bring Tepi home a few years later, but concerns about introducing rabies to New Zealand prevented this.
The first dogs arrived in Antarctica as part of the Southern Cross expedition, and Joe was one of the first puppies born on the ice. He was given to Louis Bernacchi, the expedition’s astronomer and physicist. When Bernacchi returned home to Australia in 1900, he took Joe with him.
In 1901, the two joined the Discovery expedition and returned to Antarctica for another adventure together. On a journey to reach the South Pole, Joe collapsed from starvation and exhaustion and died on 8 January 1903. A statue at Franklin Wharf, Hobart, commemorates the close relationship between Bernacchi and his faithful Antarctic friend.
Like most of the dogs on the Terra Nova expedition, Deek came from the Gilyak tribe of Eastern Siberia. He gained a reputation as an excellent sledge dog with expedition member Dr Edward Atkinson noting that “he did every journey requested of him and was without exception the hardest working dog of the lot”.
In 1912, Deek was part of the search team that located the bodies of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Dr Edward Wilson and “Birdie” Bowers who had perished on their return from the South Pole. Deek’s faithful service was rewarded at the end of the expedition when he returned to New Zealand and the home of Christchurch surgeon Sir Hugh Acland. When Deek died in September 1920, Dr Acland had his head mounted and presented it to Canterbury Museum.