Antarctica Travel Guide
Antarctica is Earth’s coldest and driest continent, and also has the highest average elevation. It is the southernmost continent, overlying the South Pole. As visits are restricted, costly and difficult, Antarctica is the only continent to be largely untouched by humans, in that it is still a vast expanse of icy wilderness with few traces of human activity, although global warming is melting the ice caps. Antarctica’s population consists of only a few thousand scientists. Unlike the Arctic in the north, there is dry land below the ice in Antarctica.
The continent’s main cruise destination, with seas that support wildlife and are navigable in summer, and with the shortest crossing from temperate climes. The impressive heights of the Antarctic Andes and many research stations are here.
These are ranged around the Antarctica mainland with the main group being the South Shetland Islands north of the Peninsula. They extend out to 60° S latitude, and are often combined with the Peninsula on cruises.
East Antarctica’s vast ice desert that makes up most of Antarctica is probably the least well known to tourists, but there are a few exciting destinations, including Mawson’s Huts, the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility and Mount Kirkpatrick.
This is barren and empty, with only a handful of research stations. But it does contain the continent’s highest mountain, which you can climb on a guided expedition. You can also run a marathon here.
Ross Sea, Ice Shelf and Island
Ross Island contain the largest settlement in Antarctica, McMurdo Station. It has several historic camp sites and Mount Erebus, an active volcano that you can climb. This is the usual destination for cruises from New Zealand or Australia.
The furthest south you can go.
Antarctica is a desert: the winds are so cold that they carry very little moisture, and inland precipitation averages 50 mm (2 inch) a year, the same as the Mojave in California. And yet Antarctica is covered in ice 2-3 km thick. In a warmer climate the snowfall would run off in streams or evaporate, but here it just builds and builds. The underlying rock is mostly low-lying (though there are several mountain ranges) but add all that ice and most of the continent is at high altitude – the South Pole itself is 2835 m / 9301 ft above sea level. This makes a very cold climate colder still, with inland summer highs of -15°C (5°F) and winter lows below -80°C (-112°F), and thin dry air. The icecap is moving, very slowly on the plateau, faster as it descends to the coast to form glaciers and floating ice sheets which calve into county-sized icebergs.
The coast, especially the Peninsula and its nearby islands, have a slightly less harsh climate, which means their seas are not frozen in summer. This is crucial for wildlife: penguins, seabirds and seals all depend upon open water. It also means that ships can approach, bearing supplies and tourists, from Nov through Feb.
Although several countries have laid claim to various portions of Antarctica, it is governed by the 1958 Antarctic Treaty, which establishes the continent as a peaceful and cooperative international research zone. As the Antarctic Treaty prohibits most of its signatories from making any new claims to territory and claims to Antarctic territory already made have little to no effect as long as the treaty stands, there are overlapping claims and a rather large swath that is not claimed by any country. The only other significant piece of dry land with that characteristic is Bir Tawil between Sudan and Egypt. There are no cities, just some two dozen research stations with a total population ranging from 1,000–4,000 depending on the time of year (more in the November–March summer than in the June–September winter). These are maintained for scientific purposes only and do not provide any official support for tourism. The Antarctic Treaty grants some rights only to those countries that maintain year-round stations, so it is desirable for some countries to maintain a winter crew at their stations even if the scientific research done during that time could be done more cheaply and easily during the Antarctic summer or somewhere else. The laws of the nation operating each research station apply there.
Private travel to Antarctica generally takes one of three forms:
Commercial sea voyages with shore visits (by far the most popular),
specially mounted land expeditions, or
sightseeing by air.
Approximately 80 companies belong to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), a membership organization which regulates non-research travel to the region. According to the organization, 41,996, visitors traveled to Antarctica in 2017-18, an increase of 16% over the previous year.
See and Do
Antarctica is an amazing place just to look at, with its enormous calving glaciers, icebergs the size of cities, penguin colonies and towering snow-clad mountains. But even just standing there looking is going to involve exertion on your part, elaborate preparation, and a degree of risk. The distinction between seeing and doing is a fine one in many locations, and here it vanishes altogether.
- In that spirit, the prime thing for you to do in Antarctica is come home safe. Don’t do anything, not even just standing there, without having that in mind. How are the sea conditions and the weather? How is your body faring? What about the other people in your group, is everyone accounted for? And what if, what if, what if?
- A total solar eclipse on Saturday 4 Dec 2021. It starts at 07:00 UT east of the Falkland Islands, tracking south over the South Orkneys and the Weddell Sea to reach its maximum duration on the Antarctic coast at 07:30. It crosses Antarctica via Byrd Land, becoming an unusual example of an eastbound eclipse thanks to the earth’s tilt, to end in the Amundsen Sea at 08:00. Most of the shipping companies listed above have a cruise that takes in the eclipse, and these are likely to sell out early.
- The southern aurora, but not in summer. You need full darkness to see it, but in summer the sky is bright even if the sun has briefly dipped below the horizon. You may have more chance on the homeward sailing, as your latitude decreases and the nights lengthen. The same applies to other dark sky sights such as meteors.
- The midnight sun in midsummer, but only within the Antarctic circle; most of the Peninsula and all of the Antarctic Islands lie north of it. Actually you’re going to get fed up with the sun, since it’s broad daylight at 02:00 when you need your sleep.
- Deception Island, one of the South Shetland Islands, is a remarkable natural amphitheatre with an equally remarkable show within. It’s an active volcano, last erupting in 1970, and the deception is that it looks like a normal mountainous island. But its flanks are just the rim of a great flooded caldera, entered via the narrow channel “Neptune’s Bellows” into a sheltered natural harbour. Its main sights are the scenery, a large colony of chinstrap penguins, geothermal hot springs (so you can swim in Antarctica), and the remains of an old whaling station and bases wrecked by eruptions.
- Lemaire Channel is a spectacular section of coastline along the Peninsula. It narrows to 1.6 km, and cruise ships sail through a canyon of cliffs and towering ice. Its waters are remarkably still and populated by whales. It’s close to other attractions such as Port Lockroy, Cierva Cove and Paradise Bay so it’s on many cruise itineraries, but the channel is sometimes blocked by icebergs, so the ship has to back up and seek another route.
- Old camps and bases that have been abandoned. Some (such as on Paulet Island) were refuges built by shipwreck survivors, others (as on Deception, above) were summer camps for whaling and sealing. Port Lockroy on the Peninsula was the main British base until they moved to Rothera. It’s been converted into a museum. There’s a particularly rich collection on Ross Island, as this was historically the main base for exploration towards the pole.
- Penguins: species you’ll see here are Emperor, King, Adélie, Gentoo and Chinstrap. They’re the signature beasts of Antarctica, yet most penguin species live much further north.
• Emperor Penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) are the 1.2 m creature that stays and breeds here during the harsh winter. Its habitat is stable pack ice within waddling distance of open water – though they may waddle for over 100 km. The largest colonies are on mainland sites that are hard to visit, but there’s a small but accessible colony on King George Island, and a larger one at the tip of the Peninsula.
• Other penguins seen here are King, Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins.
• Tangerine penguins maybe 60 cm high, are they Adélies? There are penguin colonies all round the Antarctic coastline, but viewing them from close-up needs a colony near a safe landing beach; so these attract a stream of visitors. You’ll smell them first and hear their grating kra-kra kraa? before you see their orange line along the shore. Then as the boat draws closer you realize the orange things are traffic cones. They are there partly to show you the trail (you may be trying to return in poor visibility), but mostly to indicate the line that you must not cross to avoid disturbing the colony. Expect grief if you transgress, and if you do so in January when the eggs are hatching and the chicks are most vulnerable, you’ll be busted off further shore trips.
• No penguins at all at the South Pole, or anywhere on the remote plateaux.
- Other wildlife includes Humpback, Minke, Blue and Orca Whales; Crab-eater, Weddell and Leopard Seals; and Blue-eyed Shag, Southern Giant Petrel, Cape Petrel, and Kelp Gull.
- Climb an active volcano, Mount Erebus at 3794 m on Ross Island. It’s a Stromboli-type volcano so it erupts continuously but without great violence, so you can reach the summit crater with its lava lake.
- Climb the Seventh Summit, Mount Vinson at 4892 m. The “Seven Summits Challenge” is to climb the highest peaks of all seven continents. The list of seven is disputed: which continent does Elbrus belong to, and does Puncak Jaya in Indonesia supplant the Sunday afternoon stroll that is Kosciuszko? What is universally agreed is that Everest is the highest in Asia and Vinson the highest in Antarctica, and that these two are the most difficult and perilous. Vinson is much less of a technical challenge, you spend little time in the “death zone” above 4000 m, but it’s the isolation, the logistics, and the literally perishing cold.
Via : Wikivoyage