Built in Scotland in 1876, the steam yacht Aurora was Australia's first Antarctic exploration vessel. It was the ship captained by John King Davis in the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) in 1911.

As the leader of the AAE, Douglas Mawson had the task of raising funds and finding a ship for the expedition. He went to England, where Ernest Shackleton helped him raise enough money to buy and equip a ship.

The Aurora was the only vessel for sale that was suitable for the expedition. It had a strong, iron bow and a sturdy wooden hull that could stand being pressed between ice floes. It also had a steam engine that allowed it to enter pack ice. It was an ideal vessel for Antarctic exploration, and despite its leaking decks, Davis was convinced it was a good choice for the voyage:

A sailor cannot but regard with affection the good ship which has carried her living freight in perfect safety over many miles of tempestuous ocean, and through the berg-strewn seas of the Southern Ocean.

– John King Davis, 1919

Davis, J King 1919, With the 'Aurora' in the Antarctic 1911–1914, Andrew Melrose, London.

‘Berg-strewn seas' refer to icebergs in the Antarctic. In most cases only 10 percent of an iceberg shows above the water, which makes it hard to navigate ships past them.

Indeed, the expedition was a great success: the Aurora made five voyages with the AAE, then sailed to Sydney and was purchased by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

In December 1914, Shackleton commenced an expedition in the Endurance and the Aurora. The Endurance was crushed by ice and sank during the winter of 1915. The Aurora broke away from its mooring during a blizzard and became trapped in ice, but its stout old hull survived.

During the winter it drifted 1,200 nautical miles in eight months before the ice finally melted. After a temporary rudder was made, the crew sailed to New Zealand, and the Australian and New Zealand governments organised a rescue mission for Shackleton and the Endurance party.

Captain Davis was called upon to lead the rescue expedition. After the successful mission, the Aurora returned to New Zealand and was handed back to Shackleton.

He sold it to an American company, who sent it to Newcastle, New South Wales, to obtain a cargo of coal. The Aurora was last seen in June 1917, leaving Newcastle for Chile with a crew of 21 and a cargo of coal. It disappeared without a trace.

Photograph of the Aurora at drydock.
Photograph of explorers from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), on board ship.
Photograph of the Aurora under sail.
Hand-drawn plans plans of the Antarctic exploration vessel, the Aurora.