John King Davis

Captain John King Davis boasts a long and successful seafaring career. He was an Antarctic navigator and one of the pioneers of Australian Antarctic exploration. In fact, the Davis Sea and Australia's Davis Base in the Antarctic are named in his honour. But despite his pioneering role, little has been written about him.

Born in England in 1884, he first went to sea at age 16, earning his first mate's certificate five years later. In London in 1907, he met Ernest Shackleton, who appointed him first mate on the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-09. After the captain resigned, Davis was given command for the voyage back to England.

On this voyage, Davis became friends with Australian geologist Douglas Mawson, and when Mawson was appointed to lead the Australasian Antarctic Expedition in 1911, he asked Davis to be his second in command and master of the expedition's ship, the Aurora.

Captain Davis is the most experienced navigator of Antarctic seas living ... He's an expert on oceanographical work, especially in sounding and dredging in deep waters ... He successfully navigated Aurora, landing Dr Mawson at his winter quarters through the stormiest oceans and one of the worst ice seasons ever recorded.

– Ernest Shackleton

Australian National University, 2006, Austrailan Dictionary of Biography, Canberra, viewed April 2011, <>.

A skilled navigator, Davis made five voyages into Antarctic waters between 1911 and 1914. He explored and mapped the Antarctic coast and conducted research in the Southern Ocean.

During World War I, Davis commanded the Australian troopship Boonah. In 1916 he was asked to lead a rescue expedition for some of Shackleton's men who were stranded at Cape Evans in Antarctica. He accomplished this mission, and then returned to war service.

Davis returned to Australia in 1919, and was appointed as the Commonwealth Director of Navigation the following year, a position he held until he retired in 1949. In retirement, Davis served on an Australian government planning committee on Antarctic policy. He wrote a number of books about his Antarctic career and his extensive records are kept at the State Library of Victoria.

Captain John King Davis on board the Aurora, with the rescued members of Shackleton's crew.
Captain John King Davis using a sighting compass.
An early Antarctic exploration vessel surrounded by snow.
Original hand-drawn map showing the coast explored by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.