SY Aurora

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Aurora Ship.png
A glimpse of Aurora from within the cavern in the wall of the shelf-ice of the Mertz Glacier Tongue, Commonwealth Bay, Adelie Land, Australasian Antarctic Expedition, December 1913. Photo by Frank Hurley. From the National Library of Australia ID No. nla.pic-an23478533
Builder: Alexander Stephen & Sons Ltd. Dundee, Scotland
Launched: 1876
Fate: Declared lost by Lloyd's of London, 2 January 1918
General characteristics
Class and type: Steam yacht
Tonnage: 380 grt
Length: 165 ft (50 m)
Beam: 30.5 ft (9.3 m)
Draught: 18.75 ft (5.72 m)
Propulsion: Compound Steam Engine
Cunliffe and Dunlop of Glasgow
98 bhp
Sail plan: Barquentine

SY Aurora was a steam yacht built by Alexander Stephen and Sons Ltd. in Dundee, Scotland, in 1876,[1] for the Dundee Seal and Whale Fishing Company. Her primary use was whaling in the northern seas, and she was built sturdily enough to withstand the heavy weather and ice that would be encountered there. That strength proved useful for Antarctic exploration as well, and between 1911 and 1917 she made five trips to the continent, both for exploration as well as rescue missions.


Between the years 1876 and 1910, Aurora made the annual trip from Dundee, Scotland to St. John's, Newfoundland to take part in the whale and seal hunt in the North Atlantic. There were a couple of notable events in this time. In 1884, Aurora made a failed attempt to rescue the Greely Expedition to claim the reward money, and in 1891, the ship came to the rescue of the crew of Polynia when she was crushed in sea ice.

Douglas Mawson Expedition[edit]

In 1910, she was bought by Douglas Mawson for his Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Aurora made the journey from Hobart, Australia to Macquarie Island, Mawson's base of operations, in December 1911. After establishing the base, they sailed south again, and arrived in Commonwealth Bay Antarctica, on 7 January 1912. At Cape Denison, her crew unloaded Mawson and his team, and helped set up the camp (Mawson's Huts), but then departed to return to Hobart so as not to get trapped in the sea-ice over the winter.

In December 1912, Aurora returned to find that Douglas Mawson, Xavier Mertz, and Belgrave Edward Sutton Ninnis had set out on a sled expedition, and were overdue on their return. The captain attempted to wait for the expedition to return, but poor anchorage and extremely strong winds combined to cause a number of anchor chains to break. At the end of January the ship had to leave or risk getting stuck for the winter. Aurora left a team of six, including a radio operator, behind with ample supplies, and departed. Mawson, the sole survivor of the three, arrived in time to see Aurora disappearing over the horizon. A radio call brought Aurora back, but bad weather forced her to depart again, leaving Mawson and party behind.

Aurora returned to Commonwealth Bay on 12 December 1913, to pick up the seven men, and return to Australia.

Trans Antarctic Expedition[edit]

In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton tasked Aurora to help set up supply depots along the route for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. After being delayed by sea ice in McMurdo Sound in January 1915, Aurora managed to make her way further south, and sent teams off to set up the depots. Eventually she made her way to Discovery Bay on 12 March 1915, where she anchored and continued to offload supplies. In May, Aurora was trapped in the ice, and was carried out to the sea, stranding the men that were setting up the depots. She remained trapped in the ice for the better part of a year, drifting some 1600 nautical miles. It was not until 12 February 1916 that the ship escaped from the ice, making it back to Dunedin, New Zealand on 3 April.

1917 Ross Sea Party rescue[edit]

The Australian, New Zealand and British governments agreed to fund the refit of Aurora for the rescue of the Ross Sea Party. An Advisory Committee was established in Melbourne, consisting of Rear Admiral Sir William Cresswell, Professor Sir Orme Masson, Captain J.R. Barter, Commander John Stevenson and Dr Griffith Taylor.[2]

Shackleton's expedition funds were fully expended. After his legendary ordeal on Endurance in the Weddell Sea sector, Shackleton arrived in New Zealand during December 1916. The three governments involved were adamant that he would not lead the rescue expedition and at their insistence John King Davis was appointed to captain Aurora. After negotiation Shackleton sailed aboard Aurora, but Captain Davis had total authority on the voyage. On 10 January 1917, the ship pulled alongside the pack ice near Cape Royds and worked her way to Cape Evans. One week later, the seven survivors of the original ten members of the Ross Sea Party were headed back to Wellington, New Zealand aboard Aurora.


Aurora was last seen in 1917, when she departed Newcastle, New South Wales, bound for Iquique, Chile with a cargo of coal. Lloyd's of London posted the ship as missing on 2 January 1918; it was believed she was a casualty of World War I, possibly being sunk by a mine laid by the German merchant raider Wolf. One of Aurora's lifebelts was recovered from the sea between Sydney and Brisbane six months after her disappearance. [3]

Message on a bottle[edit]

In 1937, a Mr. G. Bressington was walking along the beach near Tuggerah, New South Wales and noticed an old wine bottle partly buried in the sand. Upon examining the bottle he saw an engraving of the picture of a ship and on the other side the following message: "Midwinter's Day, 1912, Shackleton Glacier, Antarctica. 'Frank Wild, A. L. Kennedy, S. Evan Jones, C. Arch. Hoadley, Charles T. Harrisson, George Dovers, A. L. Watson and Morton H. Moyes".[4]

The story of the bottle is that it was one of three given to Sir Douglas Mawson when his expedition left England in 1911. The bottles were given by Mr J. T. Buchanan who had them left over from the Challenger expedition and wished the party to drink them on Explorer Day. Mawson passed one bottle onto to Frank Wild, who led the Western Base Party whilst Aurora was under the command of John King Davis. When the wine was drunk on the day, the party's artist Harrisson engraved a picture of Aurora on one side and the names of the party on the other. It is thought the bottle was still aboard the Aurora when it left Newcastle in 1917.


A number of Antarctic features are named for Aurora. These include:


This is a partial list of Captains of Aurora:


  1. ^ "Alexander Stephen & Sons, Dundee Yard-list". Maritime History Virtual Archives. Retrieved 2 July 2012. 
  2. ^ "The Relief of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party". The Geographical Journal 49 (3): 218. March 1917. doi:10.2307/1779498. 
  3. ^ "Mystery of the sea. Loss of the Aurora. Victim of the Wolf.". The Argus. 5 November 1921. p. 4. 
  4. ^ "The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania)". Strange Sea Story. 26 May 1927. Retrieved 30 October 2014.