Born in London, he was educated at Lancing College and acquired a love of mountaineering and the outdoors from his father through holidays in the Alps, the Tyrol and the English Lake District. He became interested in polar exploration while studying at the University of Cambridge under the tutelage of James Wordie and organised his first expedition, to Edgeøya, in the summer of 1927.
Watkins also learnt to fly, as one of the first members of the Cambridge University Air Squadron.
In 1928-9, Watkins made an expedition to Labrador, where he established a base at North West River and explored much previously unmapped territory, including Snegamook Lake. However, his most important expedition was the British Arctic Air Route Expedition of 1930–31. Watkins led a team of fourteen men to survey the east coast of Greenland and monitor weather conditions there, the information being needed for a planned air route from England to Winnipeg. In addition to meeting these aims, the expedition discovered the Skaergaard intrusion, and Watkins and two companions made a 600 mile open boat journey around the south coast of Greenland. The expedition won Watkins a Founders Medal from the Royal Geographical Society, and brought him international fame. In addition, one of the members of Watkins' expedition, Augustine Courtauld, solo-manned a meteorological observation post in the interior of the Greenland ice pack during the 1930-31 winter, generating the first data set from this previously inaccessible location. The expedition also included as ski expert and naturalist Freddie Spencer Chapman, who would later gain fame as a soldier in Japanese-occupied Malaya.
Watkins next attempted to organise an expedition to cross Antarctica, but in the depths of the Great Depression finance proved impossible to raise. Instead he returned to Greenland in 1932 with a small team to continue the work of his air route expedition. On 20 August he went hunting for seals in his kayak in Tugtilik Fjord and did not return. Later that day, his empty kayak was found floating upside down by his companions. His body was never found.
Watkins is commemorated by the Gino Watkins Memorial Fund, managed by the Royal Geographical Society and the University of Cambridge, which provides grants for polar exploration. Watkins Island, a sub-Antarctic island in the Southern Ocean, commemorates Watkins.
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- Ann Savours, ‘Watkins, Henry George (1907–1932)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004  doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36763, accessed 4 March 2008
- Glasby, Geoff. "Geological Society - Skaergaard, Everest and more...". www.geolsoc.org.uk. Retrieved 2008-03-04.
- Scott, Jeremy (2008). Dancing on Ice: A Stirring Tale of Adventure, Risk and Reckless Folly. London: Old Street Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-1-905847-50-1.
- "The Gino Watkins Memorial Fund". Scott Polar Research Institute. Retrieved 2008-03-04.
- Forgotten Travellers: Watkins, Explorer, England Essay on Gino Watkins
- Photograph of Gino Watkins at the National Portrait Gallery