State Library and Tasmanian Archives Blog

An Antarctic homage: 30 years since the sinking of Nella Dan

A black and white photo of a metal ship.

Tasmania has hosted many of the most important ships that have ventured to Antarctica. In December 1987 one of these ships, the Nella Dan, ended its journey when it ran aground at Buckles Bay, Macquarie Island.

Nella Dan was a Danish ice breaker built in 1961 for the J. Lauritzen Company, with input from the Australian Antarctic Division. It was named after Nel Law, the wife of the director of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE). Nel was the first Australian woman to travel to Antarctica. The Nella Dan made 125 voyages to the Arctic and Antarctic between 1961 and 1987.

The little red ship was on a re-supply visit to Macquarie Island when bad weather pushed it onto the rocks. The crew and passengers were all seen safely off the ship. After efforts to salvage equipment and remove oil that would pose an environmental threat, the ship was towed out to deep water and scuttled.

A mental ship. Grounded. Text at the bottom of the page reads: "Dec 1987"
Nella Dan, grounded off Macquarie Island TAHO: AB567-9-6 p. 2b

Parks and Wildlife tried to contain the oil spill, and a file of reports in TAHO details their efforts to protect this fragile island.  Over several days the rangers on Macquarie Island monitored the effects of oil washing in over the beaches on the plant and animal life of the coastline.

A metal ship. Grounded. as seen from above. Text at the bottom of the page reads: "Dec 1987"
Nella Dan, grounded off Macquarie Island TAHO: AB567-9-6 p. 1

Efforts were made to remove oil from the ship before it could leak into the water. Crews pumped oil back to tanks on Macquarie Island, and a lot of the damaging waste was removed. Although the incident still produced a moderate oil spill, favourable winds washed most of it out to sea, and damage was limited to the inhabitants of the rock pools along a stretch of coast. Birds and other larger animals were closely watched, particularly those that picked off the dead fish and molluscs washed onto the beach. Luckily they were largely unaffected.

A table listing the direction and speed of surface winds recorded every 3 hours of a day. dates listed are from 1 to 31
Timeline of Nella Dan Shipwreck TAHO: AB567-9-6 p. 101

Nella Dan was much loved by her former crews, and has been honoured by several memorials. She was replaced by the Aurora Australis, that great orange ship that is such a regular visitor to Hobart’s port.

Hobart as an Antarctic port

One of the first Antarctic ships to use Tasmania’s ports was Captain John Biscoe’s brig Tula, which landed in Hobart after circumnavigating Antarctica in 1832. Interest increased in the area with the growing industries of sealing and whaling. Expeditions were launched with the mixed motivations of money, science and the glory of discovery.

As tribute to the Nella Dan, we’ve put together a gallery of some of the most important ships in the history of Antarctic discovery.

A drawing of 2 ships on water amongst the ice.
The Astrolabe and Zélée in the ice / Les corvettes louvoyant dans l’intérieur de la banquise le 5 Février 1838 parages Antarctica dessiné par E. Goupil; lith. par Sabatier; navires par Mayer. ALMFA: TAHO
A drawing of a sailing ship among the ice
Dumont D’Urville’s Astrolabe and Zélée visited Antarctica and Tasmania in 1838. The Astrolabe / L’Astrolabe faisant de l’eau sur un glacon, 6 Fevrier 1838 ALMFA: TAHO
A Painting of the south pole. 2 ships in the distance sailing among icebergs.
James Clark Ross’s expedition from 1839-1843 travelled on the Erebus and Terror, the same ships which later became trapped in the Arctic in the fateful expedition of Tasmania’s former Governor Sir John Franklin. [South Polar Barrier Erebus and Terror], ALMFA: TAHO
A black and white photo of a sailing ship on the water, as seen from the front.
The Norwegian expedition aboard the Southern Cross in 1899 was the first to spend a winter in Antarctica, and to use dogs. Tasmanian scientist Louis Bernacchi was a member of this party. Southern Cross, 1875, W.L Crowther Library: TAHO
3 men on skies, standing in the snow.
Evans, Bernacchi & Fougner, Southern Cross Antarctic Expedition [1899], ALMFA: TAHO
A black and white photo of a sailing ship on the water. its sails are furled.
Roald Amundsen, came to Hobart on the Fram after leading the first party to reach the South Pole. Fram – 1912: TAHO
A black and white photo of a ship docked at a pier.
The Ship Aurora in Hobart in 1915 after Douglas Mawson’s dramatic expedition. Mawson missed the ship when it first returned to pick him up in January of 1913 and had to remain for another winter on the ice. W. L Crowther Library: TAHO

Further reading: 

If you’re interested in any of the stories of these ships that left Hobart for the Great South, have a look at these accounts of their exploits. If you’d like to know more generally about Antarctic exploration, scroll to the bottom of the page for more great books.

Amundsen, Roald, The South Pole : an account of the Norwegian Antarctic expedition in the Fram, 1910-1909. (Edinburgh : Birlinn, 2002) 

Bernacchi, Louis Charles, To the South Polar regions : expedition of 1898-1900. Facsimile ed. (Denton, Eng. : Bluntisham Books ; Erskine Press, 1991.)

Butler, Rowan, Breaking the ice (Sutherland, N.S.W. : Albatross Books, 1988)

Dumont d’Urville, Jules-Sébastien-César, An account in two volumes of two voyages to the south seas by Captain (later Rear-Admiral) Jules S-C Dumont D’Urville of the French Navy to Australia, New Zealand, Oceania 1826-1829 in the corvette Astrolabe and to the Straits of Magellan, Chile, Oceania, South East Asia, Australia, Antarctica, New Zealand and Torres Strait 1837-1840 in the corvettes Astrolabe and Zelee. trans. and ed. Helen Rosenman. (Carlton, Vic. : Melbourne University Press, 1987.)

Mawson, Douglas, Mawson’s Antarctic diaries. Fred Jacka & Eleanor Jacka, eds. North Sydney, Australia : Allen & Unwin, 1991

Mawson, Douglas, The home of the blizzard : an Australian hero’s classic tale of Antarctic discovery and adventure. Kent Town : Wakefield Press, 1996.

Ross, James Clark. A voyage of discovery and research in the Southern and Antarctic regions, during the years 1839-43. (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Antarctic Exploration (general)

Cherry-Garrard, Apsley. The worst journey in the world. (London : Vintage, 2010)

Fiennes, Ranulph. Cold : extreme adventures at the lowest temperatures on Earth. (London : Simon & Schuster, 2013) 

Herbert, Kari, and Huw Lewis-Jones. In search of the South Pole. London : Conway, 2011.

Hurley, Frank. South with Endurance : Shackleton‘s Antarctic expedition 1914-1917 : the photographs of Frank Hurley. (London : Bloomsbury, 2001)

Jones, Max, The last great quest : Captain Scott’s Antarctic sacrifice. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Larson, Edward J. An empire of ice : Scott, Shackleton, and the heroic age of Antarctic science. (New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, 2011.)

Leane, Elizabeth. Antarctica in fiction : imaginative narratives of the far south. (New York : Cambridge University Press, 2012) 

Leane, Elizabeth, South Pole, (London : Reaktion Books Ltd, 2016).

Shackleton, Ernest Henry, South : the story of shackleton’s last expedition, 1914-1917. London : Century, 1991.


  • Jessica is a Librarian for the State Library and Tasmanian Archives.

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