Antarctica - a
land of superlatives and extremes, Antarctica is without a doubt one of
the most awe-inspiring places on Earth. The fifth-largest continent, it
is the highest, most arid, and most isolated. More than 99 percent of
it is covered in ice. It is the least explored and least inhabited; yet
people are drawn to this place again and again.
Travel to Antarctica is not easy; in fact it has to be earned: its
isolation requires a lengthy flight�unless you happen to live in one of
the gateway towns, like Stanley, Hobart, or Ushuaia�just to board the
ship. Then there�s the matter of the sea itself. Even in the sturdy
confidence and relative comfort of an expedition ship or icebreaker,
crossing the Drake Passage south of Argentina�s Cape Horn can be a
seafaring adventure in itself.
However, nothing can compare with the rewards of traveling to
Antarctica! Antarctica�s glaciers, massive rivers of ice, crunch, grind
and calve their way into the sea. Gargantuan towers of ice the size of
city blocks glow in shades of pink, violet, and baby blue. Humpback
whales gracefully loop through the frigid water in search of a meal of
Navigate around an iceberg on a Zodiac expedition and gaze in awe
as 18-foot, 4.5-ton elephant seals haul themselves out of the water and
gather on icy banks as southern albatrosses soar overhead. Ready your
camera for a king or royal penguin encounter in a colony of thousands
upon thousands of nesting birds and their fluffy, bewildered chicks.
Antarctica cruises are truly one of the last great adventures.
Leave tourist crowds�and indeed, the whole world�behind. Come see more
than the tip of the iceberg: venture to terra incognita australis, the
unknown southern land.
Antarctica surrounds the South Pole, and much of its land mass lies
beneath more than a mile of ice and snow. Mountains punch through this
ice cap along the coast and across the wind-whipped interior. The ice
cap holds 70% of the Earth�s fresh water, locked up in huge chunks of
snow and ice sheets.
Much of Antarctica�s inland areas remain largely unexplored. The
diverse sea life in the Antarctic Ocean (the southernmost waters of the
Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans) and along the continent�s edges,
however, draws researchers, explorers, and nature lovers from the world
Although there are no vertebrate animals on Antarctica�s interior
(in fact, the land fauna consists of only a few invertebrate species,
of which the largest is the dime-sized wingless midge), several kinds
of birds populate the shorelines.
Penguins, the lovable, flightless mascots of the Far South, include
many species. Lines of these penguins belly-flop off icebergs into the
ocean. On the Antarctic Peninsula, the chinstrap, Ad�lie, and gentoo
gather in great groups. The emperor is the largest of all the penguins,
standing over three feet tall and weighing 40 to 100 pounds. The
smaller, 15-pound Ad�lies are the most common penguins in Antarctica,
with up to 250,000 of them gathering in one breeding area. King and
royal penguins inhabit New Zealand�s subantarctic islands. Magellanic
penguins, found in Argentina, breed north of the Antarctic Convergence.
At least ten species of whales have been spotted in the Antarctic
Ocean. These whales include humpback (the most common), minke, right,
blue, sei, finback, orca, pilot, sperm, and southern bottle-nosed. The
blue whale, the largest animal on Earth, exceeds 100 feet in length and
weighs over 150 tons. Just as exciting to watch are the three species
of dolphins�Commerson�s, dusky, and southern right-whale�that swim and
dive in graceful arcs throughout the southern seas.
Six seal species thrive in the Antarctic Ocean. Watch crabeater and
Weddell seals slide off ice platforms in search of crabs and fish.
Catch a glimpse of the more vicious, 10-to-12-foot-long leopard seals
which feed on fish, penguins, and other seals. Sharp teeth line their
powerful jaws. Ross seals, more difficult to spot and less well known,
eat fish, as do the smallest seals in the region, the fur seals. Seal
hunters once coveted fur seals for their thick, high-quality coats. The
huge elephant seals feed on squid around the Scotia Arc Islands and the
Antarctica Peninsula. Males weigh nearly 4.5 tons and grow to lengths
of 15 to almost 20 feet long.
Forty-four species of seabirds, including two big albatrosses, the
wandering and the royal, circle the sky around the Antarctic and
subantarctic. Fulmars, medium-to-large-sized petrels, scavenge dead
birds and seals along the coast. Other petrels feed only at sea. Long,
hook-tipped bills provide shearwater petrels with the means to pull
squid from the water. Some species also pursue their prey beneath the
water�s surface. Sheathbills, skuas, Arctic terns, cape pigeons, and
petrels all live near the coasts and over the seas of Antarctica.
For more information on the natural history of Antarctica, see book selections below.
The name Antarctica derives from the Greek antarktos, or �opposite
Arktos,� a constellation in the northern sky. The early Greeks arrived
at the idea of a southern continent not by observation of any
phenomena, but by virtue of their ideals of symmetry: land to the north
must be balanced by land to the south, otherwise the Earth would lose
Some other early thinkers postulated in a similar fashion. It is
said that a Phoenician fleet and a Polynesian vessel reached the Far
South, but the real story of Antarctica begins with the Age of
During his 1519�1522 voyage from Spain, Ferdinand Magellan ventured
all the way to the southern tip of South America, which he called
Tierra del Fuego, or �Land of Fire,� after the sightings of native
campfires on shore. A half-century later, Francis Drake set sail from
England to attempt the second circumnavigation of the globe. He made it
south of Cape Horn and into a passage between the Horn and the South
Nonetheless, Antarctica remained �undiscovered� and, for that
matter, unsought, until 1772. That year, Captain James Cook departed
England on a three-year expedition to search for the fabled southern
continent. Rumors of such a place had long existed, but after Drake�s
journey, many Europeans believed that no land existed south of the
South Shetlands. Little did Captain Cook realize that when his ship,
Resolution, reached the �end of the world� latitude of 71 degrees 10
minutes south, he was only 150 miles from the Antarctic shore. The
wooden Resolution, however, lacked the icebreaker construction needed
to smash through the pack ice and gain the shoreline.
From the early 1800s through the 1820s seal hunters from Great
Britain and America caught sight of islands, icebergs, and parts of the
Antarctic land mass. No one set foot on the Last Continent until
Captain John Davis, an American seal hunter, sent members of his crew
ashore near Hughes Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. Unfortunately, they
did not know whether they had landed on the continent or one of its
Between 1838 and 1840, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes led an ill-fated
expedition for the U.S. Navy to the Far South and into the Indian
Ocean. He and his crew battled fierce winds, crushing seas, and
tremendous adversity, but ultimately managed to navigate over 1,500
miles of Antactica�s coast, enough to call it a continent. James Clark
Ross, a British explorer, sailed to Antarctica in 1841 and added to
Wilkes� documentation. He noted the Ross Ice Shelf, the Ross Sea, and,
at the edge of the coast, the Transantarctic Mountains.
For more than fifty years after Ross, only seal hunters and whaling
ships explored the South Seas. Then, in 1898, an expedition from
Belgium commanded by Adrien de Gerlache remained through the winter in
the pack ice of the Bellingshausen Sea. Following this first �winter
over� on the continent, a group from England and Norway spent the
winter of 1899 at Cape Adare.
The twentieth century brought on a race for the South Pole. Robert
Scott led a first, unsuccessful expedition to reach the Pole in 1903,
landing 575 miles short of the goal. In 1910 he returned to New Zealand
from Great Britain to prepare for a second attempt. In New Zealand he
received a note from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen that read,
�HEADING SOUTH. AMUNDSEN.� The race was on.
Amundsen and his party loaded dog sleds and headed for the South
Pole on October 20, 1911. Scott and his crew set out on November 1.
They took off with ponies to pull their sleds but after the cold killed
the ponies, they were forced to haul their supplies by hand. Amundsen
reached the Pole on December 14. Scott�s party arrived on January 18,
1912, to find a note from Amundsen. Exhausted and bitterly
disappointed, Scott and all four of his men died of hunger on the way
The year 1914 closed the �Heroic Age� with the epic adventure of
British captain Ernest H. Shackleton. A veteran of two previous
Antarctic expeditions, Shackleton sailed the Endurance into the Weddell
Sea with the intention of penetrating as far as he could; then, the
ship frozen in ice, he planned to lead an overland expedition to the
Ross Shelf. Unfortunately, ice trapped the Endurance earlier than
anticipated. Ice crushed the ship, which sank. The crew survived by
climbing onto drifting ice and salvaging what supplies they could. They
floated to Elephant Island at the northern tip of the peninsula. With
no hope of rescue from there, Shackleton took five of his best men in
an open rowboat 800 miles northeast across some the world�s fiercest
ocean to South Georgia with a minimum of navigational aids. Once at
South Georgia, they made the treacherous trek over the island�s
snow-covered mountains to reach a whaling station on the other side.
Shackleton boarded a Chilean ship and returned to Elephant Island for
the rest of his crew. Miraculously, Shackleton and every man on his
crew survived the ordeal.
The two World Wars diverted the world�s attention and national
resources from the exploration of Antarctica, and so the continent lay
little explored in the intervening years. The British set up the first
permanent camp in 1943. Following the war, the United States launched
two major expeditions for the purposes of military training in arctic
conditions and of exploration.
July, 1957, marked the beginning of the International Geophysical
Year (IGY), an enormous, cooperative undertaking by 12 countries
initiating the modern research efforts in Antarctica. Argentina,
Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Great Britain, Japan, Norway,
Russia, the Union of South Africa, and the United States joined forces
and established some forty stations throughout the polar ice cap.
Thousands of investigators were sent to accumulate data about weather,
gravity, magnetism, oceanography, earthquakes, radiation, and sunspots.
After the IGY ended on December 31, 1958, most of the nations involved
continued research in Antarctica. Today, scientific studies include
geology, biology, mapping, and ice core analysis. Investigators work
from field stations and aboard state-of-the-art research icebreakers.
For more information on the history of Antarctica, see book selections below.
Having an indigenous human population of zero, Antarctica is
understandably sparse in its cultural offerings. �Local� languages,
foods, religions, and codes of conduct are as varied as the countries
whose forty-some-odd research stations dot the continent. Nevertheless,
the harsh environment, tight living quarters, and intense research
schedules engender a kind of culture all their own. Visitors to a
research station should ask their expedition leader about the station�s
rules and etiquette so as to minimize their impact on the facility.
People live in research stations all year round. In the austral
summer, the total population jumps from 1,400 to about 10,000. Some
stations house only four people at a time; others have several hundred
inhabitants and function like small towns. Most people elect or are
required to return to their home countries for a few months between
�shifts�; otherwise, the demanding living conditions can take a high
psychological toll on an individual.
Rapid travel and fast communication coupled with improvements in
housing, medicine, food, and fuel make life at polar outposts somewhat
more bearable than the 1911 polar expeditions of Scott and Amundsen.
Nevertheless, modern Antarctica residents face the daily challenges of
water, shelter, fire prevention and control, waste disposal, and safety
away from the station. The severe cold can take a human life. The use
of gloves and mittens and constant alertness for the whitening of the
skin, the first sign of frostbite, especially around the cheeks and
nose, are absolutely essential. Excursions outside the station require
dark glasses to safeguard against snow blindness, caused by intense
sunlight reflecting off the snow and ice.
Scientists use snow tractors, snowmobiles, and aircraft to explore
and study the inland reaches of Antarctica. Helicopters prove almost
essential for short-range fieldwork in the mountains. In addition to
research equipment, each trip must be carefully provisioned with
specialized weather gear and food. Skis and snowshoes are everyday
items for those who venture beyond the stations. Research work goes on
despite stinging blizzards and extreme temperatures, which means proper
clothing and equipment is crucial.
For more information on the culture of Antarctica, see book selections belwow.
Dos and Don'ts
Antarctica Travel Tips:
Don�t expect to go ashore alone. Your Antarctica cruise leaders will take passengers ashore in Zodiac groups.
Antarctica travel means preparing for severe and changeable
weather. Bring foul weather gear to cover you from head to toe and
plenty of clothes to layer on when the wind blows and peel back when
the sun shines.
Do not walk alone on ice fields; there are crevasses which may be dangerous.
Antarctic�s varied terrain has some of the Far South�s best scenery. To enjoy wildlife, tote powerful binoculars.
Don�t interfere with scientific equipment.
Follow the instructions of your tour leaders and maintain a safe distance from all wildlife on land and at sea.
Important to remember:
1. Always maintain at least a Zodiac length away from wildlife.
2. Watch your step�lumbering elephant seals can look like rocks.
3. Listen to your Zodiac driver. Do not stand while he or she is driving.
4. Remember the �Zodiac grip� when on-loading and off-loading the Zodiac.
5. Wear sunblock (sunburns are intense). Ozone hole!
6. Remember your sunglasses. Snow blindness can easily occur.
7. Bring your swimsuit�a swim in the thermal waters at Deception Cove is not to be forgotten.
8. Do not climb on or get too close to icebergs. They can explode and calve in the sunshine.
Antarctica is the world�s coldest, windiest and driest continent. The
lowest temperature ever recorded on earth was �89.6�F, at the
Antarctica�s Russian Vostok station on the inland ice cap. All this
said, during the summer months, the temperatures are surprisingly
comfortable, averaging between 20� and 50�F. Expect wind, and perhaps
precipitation, but also be ready for brilliant sunshine.
Best Time to Go
December � February
20� to 50�F
Shackleton: The Antarctic Challenge, by Kim Heacox
The story of Ernest Shackleton�s legendary journey.
The Endurance: Shackleton�s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander
The story of Ernest Shackleton�s legendary journey with stunning black-and-white photographs.
Antarctic Oasis: Under the Spell of South Georgia, by Pauline Carr and Tim Carr
A photographic portrait of South Georgia by yachtsmen Tim and Pauline Carr, the island�s only permanent residents.
The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Robert F. Scott�s doomed last expedition. A fantastic adventure tale.
Seabirds of the World: A Photographic Guide, by Peter Harrison
A portable version of Harrison�s definitive guide to seabirds. The best.
South: The Story of Shackleton�s Last Expedition, by Ernest Shackleton and Peter King
A handsome edition, much enriched by expedition photographs and explanatory notes.
South: A Memoir of the Endurance Voyage
, by Ernest Shackleton
Shackleton�s own account of his great adventure�a classic of polar exploration.
Ernest Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1916 has been
considered one of the greatest survival stories of the 20th century.
William Bakewell's travel experiences and skills brought him to the
expedition and made him an indispensable crew member.
Page 98 of this book has a photo by Victory Adventures (Grace Garrett)|
Lonely Planet Antarctica, by Jeff Rubin
good overview on the wildlife and history, plus special sections on
Antarctic science and environmental issues. Excellent chapters on
preparing for a voyage.
Penguin, by Frans Lanting
A magnificent collection of penguin photographs, including gorgeous portraits of emperor penguins and their young.
The Crystal Desert, by by David Campbell
A splendid portrait of Antarctica, the land, history, and its marine life.
Waiting to Fly: My Escapades with the Penguins of Antarctica, by Ron Naveen
The life and story of penguins�and those who study them.