Emil Racoviță, the first Romanian at the South Pole

Did you know that true stories also start with “once upon a time”?

One of the greatest Romanian explorers and scientists, Emil Racoviță lived a life straight out of adventure books.

He reached close to the South Pole, dived to the seabed, and transformed the study of cave-dwelling creatures into a new science.

A scholar, explorer, biologist, diver, and speleologist, Racoviță sailed distant oceans and ventured into dark depths, each time driven by courage and especially curiosity.

Emil Racoviță was born in 1868 into a wealthy family of Moldavian boyars in Iași. His father was a direct descendant of rulers from Moldova and Wallachia and was among the founders of Junimea, the most important literary society of the time, which included Mihai Eminescu, Ion Creangă, Ion Luca Caragiale, and Vasile Alecsandri.

In the house in Copou, musical chords were heard daily, his mother being a very talented pianist.

Emil listened and built imaginary worlds, dreaming of traveling the world far and wide. He imagined himself alternately as a ship captain, an explorer, or a locomotive engineer.

Emil received a distinguished education. His father entrusted him to the most beloved teacher in Iași at the time, the writer Ion Creangă.

Every morning, at 7:00, Creangă arrived at Emil’s gate and whistled with his fingers to announce his presence. With his backpack already on, the boy would jump over the table, spill his cup of cocoa, and run to the teacher, happy to hold his hand all the way to the school in Păcurari.

“A story, Mr. Creangă, a story!” the boy would often ask.

Creangă was no ordinary teacher; he liked to play with the students and name the letters and numbers so that they could remember them more easily.

“We’ll get to school and meet ‘the cross-legged one’, ‘the hunchback’, ‘the pretzel’,” he would respond, teaching him to write the letters M, G, or O with humor.

The following two years were spent at the National Gymnasium, after which the young man entered the United Institutes, a private elite high school at the time, where he was classmates with Grigore Antipa.

The friendship that bound the two during their school years lasted a lifetime. They would always cherish their teachers—Petru Poni, the greatest Romanian chemist; A.D. Xenopol, a great history professor; and not least, the natural sciences professor, Grigore Cobălcescu.

The latter transmitted to them a passion for nature, and in recognition, one of the islands discovered by Racoviță during the Antarctic expedition bears his teacher’s name.

Who would have imagined that years later, the two teenagers accompanying Cobălcescu through the surroundings of Iași would become two of the greatest scientists in Romania? Sometimes the world really is small, isn’t it?

At 18 years old, Emil Racoviță arrived in Paris.

“My dear, you know we have always cared about your education. You’ve passed your baccalaureate, it’s time for you to become a settled man. Your mother and I believe you could be a good magistrate or lawyer. We have arranged everything in Paris, you will go to the Sorbonne.”

Emil was not thrilled about a career in law, but he did not dare upset his parents, so he completed his degree and then decided to follow his true passion.

In just two years, he graduated from the Faculty of Natural Sciences. He was first in his class! Meticulous and organized, he then completed a PhD in biology and was noticed by his professors.

They invited him to work at one of the most important oceanographic research stations in France.

Not long after, Racoviță was called back home to fulfill his mandatory military service. Once in Iași, he wrote to his mother:

“Dear mother, they wake us at four thirty in the morning, all day we do drills. It’s not as easy as you might think. I am truly unhappy!”

But his destiny was written.

During that period, the Belgian Navy lieutenant Adrien de Gerlache began searching across Europe for scientists to join him on a journey to the South Pole aboard the ship Belgica.

Although he had found a doctor, a physicist, and a geologist, his crew was missing a naturalist. That’s when Racoviță was recommended to him.

Thus, one morning during drills, Racoviță received the most beautiful letter of his life.

“Mr. Racoviță, the Belgian government is preparing a scientific expedition to Antarctica and is seeking the best specialists. We need a biologist. Your recommendations are so good that you should consider participating in this expedition.” What enthusiasm, what joy!

Thus, in 1897, not yet 30 years old, the Romanian Emil Racoviță joined without hesitation the daring journey and became a member of the most significant expedition in the world. At that time, the planet had been entirely explored, with one exception – Antarctica. Therefore, the expedition’s goal was not reaching the South Pole or discovering new lands, but conducting scientific research about life there.

Nineteen people embarked on a ship just 30 meters long, a real nutshell, and set off on the adventure of their lives towards the coldest pole of the Earth. They assumed any risk and stepped into the unknown. The ship that would make history is named BELGICA (meaning Belgium in Latin). The crew was international, and Racoviță quickly befriended the officer Roald Amundsen, the future conqueror of the South Pole. He would later say about Racoviță that he was “an invaluable and pleasant companion and a resourceful explorer.”

Survey and fishing equipment for all depths, thermometers and underwater cylinders, microscopes and glassware, cameras, all are carefully loaded onto the ship. The Belgica hosts a library, a meteorology laboratory, oceanography, geology, and biology labs, and a dark room for developing photographs.

For weeks, the crew makes stops, measurements, and landings every day, and after each fishing trip, the samples are brought to Racoviță’s laboratory. Organisms are studied under the microscope, drawn, and described. He notes everything he can about the habits of seagulls and studies the seals and whales.

From his journal, we learn about his encounter with the first iceberg, what penguins look like, and what other plants and animals inhabit those cold lands – flowers, lichens, and “a few decent insects.”

Racoviță makes a significant discovery, the beaked whale.

However, the weather is extremely capricious. After powerful storms that seem to shatter the ship, days of calm and peace follow.

The crew feels a strong wind for a while. The nights become longer and colder. Ice begins to form everywhere. Winter is approaching.

In February 1898, Belgica is caught in an ice clamp. The long polar night sets in. The howling wind is heard through the masts, the sails flutter, without the ship being able to move forward.

The ship is covered with snow to reduce heat loss, and wolf fur clothes, reindeer leather boots, and seal leather muffs are taken out from the storage.

The temperature drops to -10, then to -20 degrees. Outside, it is always dark, the wind howls incessantly, and a curtain of snow prevents you from seeing a few steps ahead. The white sea is motionless.

The crew members are the first people to spend the winter among the ice of Antarctica. They survive four months without sunlight. Conditions become increasingly difficult. There is no connection to civilization. The crew’s morale begins to drop. Only Nansen, the cat, the most loved and pampered member of the expedition, still soothes their homesickness!

“In the whirlwind that dominated our hearing, in the turmoil of the frozen rage that moved our bodies, in the white darkness that took our sight, we felt so lost and so alone, that hope left us. Only the sense of duty kept us alive. We were sent here to serve science,” writes the explorer in his journal.

Racoviță proves to be an extremely pleasant companion. Each evening he disappears into the laboratory to update his journal, then makes a caricature about the day’s events. It is the daily dose of laughter for the crew. No one can be upset by his drawings. Raco, as his colleagues affectionately call him, has a good mood and a remarkable sense of humor for which everyone is grateful.

After many months of waiting, the sun rises again in the sky, and the Belgica breaks free from the ice.

From Antarctica, Racoviță returns with 1,200 zoological specimens and 400 botanical specimens, along with detailed observations about whales, seals, and Antarctic birds.

For their study, no fewer than 74 specialists were requested.

Thus, the Belgian Antarctic Expedition carried out during 1897–1899 is a resounding success worldwide!

Racoviță returns to France to lead the Arago laboratories within the Banyuls-sur-Mer marine biology station.

He resumes his expeditions in the Mediterranean because he wanted to study marine animals not just under the microscope, but especially on the sea floor.

He was among the first scientists to wear a diving suit. At that time, the suit had lead boots that kept the diver upright in the water and a round metal helmet.

Racoviță reaches depths of up to 15 meters. Indeed, the first underwater photograph in the world is an image featuring the Romanian explorer.

His passion for the riches and wonders of nature brought him, in the summer of 1904, to the island of Mallorca.

There, in a cave, he nets a small, transparent, and entirely unusual crayfish, which makes him realize the extraordinary world opening before his eyes.

The animal bore the imprint of its adaptation to the subterranean environment. No one had ever seen anything like it. It was the moment when a new science, biospeleology, which studies cave-dwelling creatures, was born.

Racoviță’s career would thus take a new direction. He abandons the study of underwater life in favor of subterranean life.

Throughout his career, he would explore over 1,200 caves in Europe and Africa.

But Racoviță’s life was to change again. After 1918, the state invited him to become a professor in Cluj to support the organization of the first Romanian university in Transylvania, newly integrated within the borders of Romania.

He refused twice, but the one who convinced him was Victor Babeș, another great Romanian scientist.

Sir, it would be extraordinary if you came home! Our country could become the world center of speleology!

I accept your proposal only if we can create within the new University a scientific research institute, a unique Institute of Speleology in the world!

Racoviță came to Romania with his wife Héléne, their three sons, and his closest collaborators, six professors from France and Switzerland. His life’s work fit into three train carriages.

In 1920, he fulfilled his dream and established the world’s first speleological institute in Cluj.

That same year, upon the recommendation of Grigore Antipa, the scholar Racoviță was appointed a member of the Romanian Academy.

Later, he became president of the Academy for three terms, and the international scientific community offered him numerous distinctions and honorary positions.

The last years of his life were not easy. Due to the war, the Institute moved to Timișoara, and Racoviță used his own money to keep it afloat.

Only after five years of war, at the age of 78, did Racoviță resume his lectures at the university in Cluj. The tall professor with white mustache, short-cut beard, and black eyebrows was loved and cherished by his students.

He spent hours with them, always telling them: “The gain you will acquire from any journey will be enormous. Travel, explore!”

On November 11, 1947, Emil Racoviță was transported directly from his office to the hospital.

The doctors could do nothing more. Racoviță went to explore another world.