With its massive icebergs, jagged mountain ranges, and vast expanses of empty polar planes, Antarctica presents some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes on the planet. While it is the coldest, driest, windiest, most uninhabitable continent on earth, such extreme conditions provide for dreamlike vistas and an undisturbed frozen wonderland populated by only the most adaptable creatures. It is the largest remaining wilderness, spanning 13.6 million square kilometers around the South Pole and covered with a sheet of ice 4 kilometers deep at its thinnest. While icy terrain and bone-chilling temperatures make it inhospitable to most, a wide variety of penguins, seals, whales, seabirds, and a small handful of brave humans call Antarctica home.
Antarctica has maintained a special mystique since before its existence was even confirmed. Long before anyone set eyes on the continent, Pythagoras and Aristotle postulated that the earth would topple over if there weren’t a substantial land mass at the bottom of the globe to balance the northern continents. Though never sighting land, James Cook became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle in 1773. It wasn’t until 1820 that Russian explorer Fabian von Bellingshausen became the first person to see the lands of the Antarctic, stirring curiosity and prompting expeditions from many European nations.
Though several countries have since made territorial claims over areas of the region, no single nation has definitive control over any part, as is maintained by the Antarctic Treaty of 1961. Today Antarctica is host to international scientific research sites among several nations sharing curiosity and increasing concerns about the future of the region.
Antarctica is not easy to access and relatively few make the journey, adding to its austere beauty and allure. Adventurous travelers will find endless untouched lands of otherworldly landscapes marked by gaping glacial deserts, luminous carved icebergs, and towering mountain peaks. Whether exploring by boat or by aircraft, a trip to Antarctica is bound to be a magical, unmatched experience.
Top places to visit on a trip to Antarctica:
- The Antarctic Peninsula is outlined by jagged mountaintops and glaciers and offers some of the best wildlife-viewing opportunities on the continent. Visit the Lemaire Channel, Hope Bay, Paradise Bay, and Wiencke Island to witness historical sites and museums.
- The historically rich Falkland Islands, made up of over 700 islands, are not considered sub-Antarctic but are still a common stop for tourists. Travelers can enjoy wildlife viewing, trekking, horseback riding, fishing, and scuba diving. Wildlife zealots should not miss a visit to Sea Lion Island.
- Two mountain ranges outline the narrow landscape of the South Georgia Islands creating a breathtaking view. In spite of its dark whaling and sealing history, which nearly drove the animals into extinction, wildlife now flourishes. Witnessing the animals in such impressive numbers is an experience not to be missed.
- The South Shetland Islands are worth visiting as well. View the remains of the Endurance, ship wreckage from the famous journey of Ernest Shackleton at Elephant Island. Visit King George Island, one of the most populated locations in Antarctica. Livington Island is an important historic site with a museum set up by scientists and researchers. A favorite destination is Deception Island where travelers can see the ghostly remains of whaling stations as well as take advantage of the rare opportunity to take a dip in the Antarctic Ocean. The warm waters are heated by the island’s volcanic activity.
- The Ross Sea: This area is known for its rich history, as it was the site of many important expeditions to Antarctica. It is also home to a variety of wildlife, including penguins, seals, and seabirds.
- The Weddell Sea: This area is known for its beautiful ice floes and icebergs, as well as its rich marine life, including seals, penguins, and whales. It is also the site of many historic expeditions to Antarctica.
- The Gerlache Strait: Located on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, this area is known for its stunning scenery, with towering mountains and glaciers. It is also home to a variety of wildlife, including penguins, seals, and seabirds.
- Deception Island: This is a unique destination, as it is the caldera of an active volcano. It is known for its black sand beaches and warm thermal waters, which make it a popular spot for swimming.
Depending on your itinerary, opportunities for kayaking, on-shore camping, and scuba diving are available as well.
Antarctica Cruises & Tours:
Travel to Antarctica is somewhat limited with most cruise ships departing Ushuaia, Argentina and the travel season is from November through March, as polar ice blocks ship traffic and temperatures plunge into the negative degrees during other months. Punta Arenas and Puerto Williams Chile also host ports for embarkation and disembarkation from Antarctic cruises and flight-cruise combination expeditions.
Cruise ships range from small research to luxury expedition ships, and cruises can last as long as three weeks, while shorter trips are generally 9 to 12 days. Plan for at least two days of sea travel each way and be sure to take advantage of the lectures on natural history, weather, and wildlife available on board. Once in the Antarctic region, zodiac excursions transport travelers from the ship to land and provide up-close encounters with wildlife and icebergs. Though several travel agencies offer outings, trips are similar, and many commission the same ships. Most shorter cruises depart from Ushuaia, traveling through the Beagle Channel, into the South Shetland Islands, around the Antarctic Peninsula, and back through the Drake Passage to Argentina.
Antarctica Wildlife Guide
- The Antarctic Peninsula: This region is known for its abundant penguin colonies, including Adelie, chinstrap, and Gentoo penguins. You can also see seals, whales, and seabirds here.
- The South Shetland Islands: This archipelago is home to a variety of penguin species, including Chinstrap, Gentoo, and King penguins. You can also see seals and a variety of seabirds here.
- The Ross Sea: This area is known for its rich marine life, including penguins, seals, and whales. You can also see a variety of seabirds here.
- Deception Island: This island is known for its large colonies of Chinstrap penguins, as well as seals and seabirds.
- The Weddell Sea: This area is known for its large colonies of Emperor penguins, as well as seals, whales, and seabirds.
- The Falkland Islands: These islands are home to a variety of seabirds, including penguins, albatrosses, and petrels. You can also see seals and dolphins here.
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