Although Cook had demonstrated on his first voyage that the hypothetical Terra Australis could not be as large as some had thought, the possibility of a large land area with a mild climate had aroused interest in southern bases. In 1770 France, Spain, and Great Britain had quarreled over possession of the strategically located Falkland Islands. As a result, the British Admiralty was interested in finally solving the age-old mystery of the southern continent. Soon after his return from the first expedition Cook began preparations for his second voyage, which was to find the land or disprove its existence. The encounter with the Great Barrier Reef had demonstrated the desirability of two vessels. Cook fitted out two colliers, the Resolution and the Drake; they were of the same type as the Endeavour, which had performed so well on the first voyage. Cook, in command of the Resolution, sailed from Plymouth on July 13, 1772. He proceeded southward from Capetown and in January, 1773, crossed the Antarctic Circle. At 67° south latitude pack ice was encountered that would not permit the ship to make higher latitudes. So far as is known this was the first time anyone had crossed the Antarctic Circle. If it had been possible to proceed a little farther east, Enderby Land, part of the continent of Antarctica, would have been discovered.
The Resolution worked eastward between the fiftieth and sixtieth parallels to about 150° east longitude and then turned northeast to New Zealand. About one-third of the circumference of the earth was covered on this section of the voyage without discovering land. Cook suspected that land did lie farther south because of the icebergs and birds that were encountered. However, any land farther south would not be of commercial interest. In July Cook reached Tahiti, where he picked up fresh food before making another effort to find land in the south. He was stopped again by pack ice in position 71° 10′ south latitude, 106° 54′ west longitude. From this position he turned northward, fixing the location of Juan Fernandez, Easter Island, and the Marquesas. Proceeding westward, the Resolution again visited Tahiti and fixed the positions of the southern Fiji Islands, New Hebrides and New Caledonia. After a stop in New Zealand Cook returned to the Atlantic, sailing between the fiftieth and sixtieth parallels. Crossing the south Atlantic in the same latitudes, he sighted South Georgia, the Sandwich Group, and Bouvet Island, and crossed the track of his outgoing voyage. The expedition arrived at Portsmouth on July 29, 1775.
This expedition solved the great mystery that had plagued cartographers and geographers for more than 2000 years. It was definitely established that there was not a great southern land mass extending north of 60° south latitude. If there was land to the south, as Cook suspected, it was a cold land that offered few opportunities for man. The chronometer of John Harrison was proved accurate, and henceforth it was possible to fix longitude accurately. The methods Cook had adopted in fighting scurvy were proved successful, as no men were lost on account of this disease on the Resolution during the long voyage. Men were lost on the Adventure, whose captain did not follow Cook's orders strictly. In addition, many Pacific islands were accurately charted for the first time.