Daring 1931 expedition by world’s first Arctic submarine to be recounted Feb. 29
Sir George Hubert Wilkins, leader of the 1931 Nautilus expedition. Courtesy of Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program, Ohio State University.
4:19 p.m., Feb. 22, 2008--A daring mission in 1931 to explore the Arctic in a submarine named Nautilus, and a recent underwater expedition to rediscover the scuttled vessel, will be the focus of the next lecture in the University of Delaware's William S. Carlson International Polar Year Events, set for 3:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 29, in 127 Memorial Hall.

Oceanographer Stewart B. Nelson will present a lecture about the 1931 expedition of Nautilus, the world's first Arctic submarine, and his rediscovery of the vessel in 2005 off Bergen, Norway. In cooperation with the University of Delaware Bookstore, Nelson's book about the historic mission, Sabotage in the Arctic, will be available for purchase and signing by the author after the lecture.

Submarines operating under the ice in the Arctic Ocean have been part of U.S. and Russian military operations since the Cold War of the 1950s. The first submarine to reach the North Pole was the nuclear submarine Nautilus in 1958, commanded by Captain William R. Anderson of the U.S. Navy. But nearly three decades earlier, another Nautilus made a bold attempt to reach the pole.

Conceived by Sir Hubert Wilkins, this voyage involved a World War I surplus sub that had been specially outfitted to operate for extended periods under the ice. Wilkins, who had already established his polar credentials by flying across the Arctic basin from Point Barrow to Spitsbergen, undertook his underwater assault on the pole with the financial support of Lincoln Ellsworth, himself famous for aviation exploits in Antarctica.

Although the submarine expedition ended in failure, it operated under the ice as far north as latitude 82 degrees north, and was a notable attempt to use modern technology in the exploration of remote regions.

The Wilkins-Ellsworth Trans Arctic Submarine Expedition generated a tremendous amount of publicity in 1931, but soon faded from public memory. Until recently, the voyage was only a footnote in the annals of polar exploration. This began to change in 2005, when Nelson, co-leader and scientific adviser of Project Nautilus 2005, an Explorers Club flag expedition, explored the wreck of Nautilus in more than 1,100 feet of water off Bergen, Norway. Nelson subsequently published a book about Wilkins' abortive attempt to reach the pole by submarine.

Hand-painted advertisement of the Wilkins’ voyage. Courtesy of Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program, Ohio State University.
Wilkins, Ellsworth, and Anderson all signed the American Geographical Society's Fliers' and Explorers' Globe. The globe carries the signatures of many other heroes of exploration, including Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Sir Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong. Signed most recently by Capt. Lawson W. Brigham in a Feb. 12 ceremony at UD, the AGS Globe is currently on display on the second floor of Morris Library.

Nelson's lecture will be followed by a book signing and an interpretive tour of the Carlson International Polar Year exhibit in Morris Library, which, in addition to the AGS Globe, includes a collection of rare antique polar maps, Antarctic photographs by UD study-abroad students, polar projects by Delaware schoolchildren and a collection of books by and about signers of the AGS Globe.

The lecture is sponsored by the Department of Geography, the College of Marine and Earth Studies, the Center for Material Culture Studies and the University of Delaware Bookstore. Registration is not required.

Article by Tracey Bryant