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PureTravel Says: “Antarctica is situated around the South Pole, whose very existence was discovered when it was first sighted in 1820. The name itself, which is Greek for ‘opposite to the north’ was first used to refer to the continent in 1890. The entire continent is covered by the Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is around 2,300 meters (over 1 mile) thick. This is a captivating region that will truly astound those seeking real adventure, wildlife and stunning scenery. Boat trips often take in some of the remote islands of the southern ocean, such as South Georgia and the Falklands.”
Antarctica is the fifth largest continent in the world and nearly all of its area (about 98%) are covered by ice. This ice here makes up around 90% of the world’s total ice, grows and shrinks seasonally and therefore the continent is twice as large in the winter than it is during the summer!
In the summer months, Antarctica measures approximately 14 million square kilometers (almost 5.5 million square. miles), making it about twice the size of Australia. In the winter months, the size nearly doubles, due to ice that forms around its 18,000 km long (11,000 miles) of coastline.
Situated in the Southern Hemisphere within the Southern Ocean, Antarctica is the world’s southernmost continent and asymmetrically surrounds the South Pole. Other than islands off its coast that are considered part of the continent, the nearest land is Argentina, in South America, some 1,000km (600 miles) away.
Antarctica holds the world record for some very impressive statistics: it’s the world’s coldest, highest and windiest continent. It’s also incredibly dry and can be considered a desert due to its low levels of precipitation (which falls in the form of snow, not rain) and very limited plant and animal life.
Somewhat of a fabled land, ancient people believed in the existence of a Terra Australis, or Southern Land, and thinkers as early as the 1st century AD spoke and theorized about it. However, it was not until 1820 when the first sightings of Antarctica can be confirmed and it is believed that the first landing took place a year later in 1821. In 1840 it was determined that Antarctica was indeed a continent and not just a group of islands. The name Antarctica, which is Greek for ‘opposite to the north’ was first used to refer to the continent in 1890.
Nearly the entire continent is covered by an ice sheet called the Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is around 2,300 meters (over 1 mile) thick on average. If this ice were to melt, it would equal nearly 70% of the world’s fresh water and sea levels would rise about 20 meters (200 feet)!
With the highest average elevation of all the world’s continents, Antarctica’s highest peak is Vinson Massif in the Ellsworth Mountains, measuring nearly 5,000 meters (just over 16,000 feet). Among the many dormant volcanoes in Antarctica are Mount Erebus, located on Ross Island, and Deception Island, just north of the Antarctic Peninsula.
An interesting feature of this frozen land are the numerous sub-glacial lakes which are literally lakes that lie thousands of meters beneath the continental ice sheet. There are said to be more than 70 of these lakes, Lake Vostok being the largest known.
Visitors to the region visit mostly during the summer months, to view glaciers and penguins, trek over the massive ice flows, and to experience the unique and ancient snowscape first hand. There are plenty of activities available in Antarctica to keep keen travellers and adventurers busy. One of the best ways to get the most from Antarctica is to consult a specialist local tour operator who will know more about the difficulty levels and relevant grading systems used.
Antarctica is ideal for photography, iceberg cruising and wildlife observation. Or why not spend some time camping to experience the true ambience. You can also go on fascinating glacier walks.
For the more adventurous, cross-country skiing is one of the best ways to enjoy the landscape. Or why not try iceberg and rock climbing under the supervision of your local guide. There are also opportunities for mountaineering and sea kayaking, which is a popular, yet more gentle, way of exploring the surroundings.
The first people to inhabit the region were sealers and whalers, most of whom were American, British and Norwegian, passing through seasonally. To this day, there are no permanent human residents in Antarctica, though many scientists journey to the frozen land and its nearby islands for extended stays while conducting their research.
Small communities (also called bases) are maintained, some of which are staffed year round and are composed of permanent research stations which are funded by governmental and non-government organizations representing as many as 28 nations. It could be said that the language, currency and culture of Antarctica corresponds to the nationality of the people occupying each station!
This population of researchers and base staff ranges from 1,000 in the winter to as many as 4,000 in the summer, including some families. In fact, the first child born on the continent was an Argentine national named Emilio Marcos Palma (born at Base Esperanza in 1978), whose parents were among a group of Argentine couples sent to Antarctica as part of a government experiment to determine if family life was possible there!
Antarctica has no government, nor does any other country govern it. Although various countries claim possession of certain areas of Antarctica, these are not legitimate claims. Politically neutral, the continent’s status is regulated by the Antarctic Treaty System, enacted in 1961, which defined the boundaries of Antarctica and designated it as a scientific preserve where entities may conduct scientific research and practice environmental protection. Both military and mining activity is banned and the continent has been deemed a ‘natural reserve devoted to peace and science’, under a 1998 accord known as the Madrid Protocol.
Aside from small insects, micro-organisms and scrubby plant life such as lichen, Antarctica’s primary inhabitants are marine animals, including penguins, blue whales, orcas, colossal squids and fur seals.
In addition to scientific research and tourism, the primary activity in the Antarctic region is offshore fishing, a very important and sometimes controversial, industry.
With average mid-summer temperatures (December to February) ranging from -6C to +10C (20F – 50F), it’s the most pleasant and comfortable time for tourists to visit.
Due to its proximity to the South Pole, Antarctica experiences defined seasons, which can give long periods of constant darkness or constant sunlight. During the summer months, daylight can last over 20 hours. In addition, the sunlight reflecting on the icy landscape contributes to the high risk of sunburn.
Antarctica is considered the coldest place on the planet where scientists once recorded the Earth’s lowest temperature, an unimaginable -89C (-129F). It’s colder than its counterpart in the north, the Arctic, partly because of its higher elevation, and Eastern Antarctica is colder than Western Antarctica, also due to elevation.
Most Antarctic cruises are scheduled from November through to March, when the coast is clear of the ice that builds up during the winter months. While some tour operators offer excursions outside of this period (such as ice-breaker trips), weather conditions may limit the itinerary.
- With no government or administration, all activity in Antarctica is carried out by and on behalf of other countries as Antarctica has no economy and no currency.
- A good way to visit Antarctica is on a cruise where expert guides lead visitors safely around the most popular destinations and expose them to new experiences unique to Antarctica.
- No passports or visas are required to visit Antarctica, aside from the documentation required by the country where the Antarctic excursion begins (usually Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia or South Africa). Furthermore, some Antarctica cruise expeditions include stopovers in these countries so visitors should consult the embassy or consulate of all the countries included in their itinerary regarding passport and visa requirements.
- GSM mobile phone (limited service is available, at high roaming rates).
- Power converter and adapter for electronics (for the European standard 220V, which will be found on most cruise ships).
- Sun protection (sunscreen, lip balm and sunglasses).
- Camera, spare batteries, lots of film or memory cards.
- A lightweight, waterproof backpack.
- Appropriate clothing including a wind-proof outer layer, such as a down jacket or a wind-breaker style jacket with a zip-in lining, an insulating layer, such as a sweater or a fleece, waterproof rain pants (not for rain, but for sea splash), head and ear protection such as a hat with ear flaps, good quality gloves, sturdy waterproof boots and warm socks. Long underwear is also recommended.
- Antarctica’s time zone is UTC/GMT -3 hours. Remember that the continent lies in the Southern Hemisphere and therefore the seasons are the reverse of North America and Europe.
Most visitor excursions to Antarctica are conducted by boat, the majority of which depart from Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Although large passenger vessels carrying over 1,000 tourists occasionally travel to the Antarctic region for sightseeing purposes, it is not the recommended way to see the continent, as these ships must remain a fair distance from land and rarely offer opportunities to go ashore. Instead, smaller vessels with a passenger capacity of 45 to 300 passengers offer a more personalized experience, where you have several opportunities for shore landings (by zodiac, tender or helicopter) and engage in land-based activities.
The average Antarctic cruise from a South American port is 10 to 14 days long (cruises from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are considerably longer due to the distance to be travelled) and the most common itinerary is the Antarctic Peninsula region. Some cruises also include South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. In addition to the length and the price of the cruise, one should factor in expenses and time required to travel and from the point of embarkation. For visitors from North America, trips departing from Ushuaia, Argentina or Punta Arenas, Chile will be the most convenient.
It’s important to understand that the services and amenities on board these cruise ships are very different from other destinations, such as those offered on Caribbean or Mediterranean routes. For example, casinos, discos and other entertainment will be much more limited. In exchange, these ships offer knowledgeable and experienced guides and lectures and seminars about Antarctic history and geology are often featured.
Tourism to the region is governed by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) and it is highly recommended that you select a cruise line or tour company that is a member of this organization. Important to note is that only 100 passengers may go ashore in any one place in Antarctica at any one time. Therefore, if shore excursions are of interest to you, you’ll want to select a smaller ship (up to 100 passengers) in order to go ashore at every opportunity.
Originally constructed for polar research expeditions, the majority of which were led by the former Soviet Union, research vessels now offer trips to the region and tend to be popular with younger, active visitors who are not looking for luxury accommodation. Another option is an expedition ship, which is designed to push through broken ice and usually carries zodiacs (inflatable dinghies) that are used for shore landings and exploration. Generally speaking, a cruise on an expedition ship offers tourists an academic experience, with a fairly large and knowledgeable staff of regional experts who conduct on-board educational programs as well as tours.
On a vessel specially designed to break through sea ice, ice breakers are able to tour regions where other ice-strengthened ships cannot pass, giving tourists unique experiences such as viewing isolated Emperor Penguin rookeries. These ships often carry helicopters onboard for sightseeing flights and shore landings.
Many cruises include stops at one of the international research stations such as those located on King George Island or Anvers Island. Another popular destination is Deception Island, formed by the eruption of an ancient volcano, which is a popular nesting place for Chinstrap Penguins. When weather permits, visitors are able to soak in the natural geothermal pools in the island’s Pendulum Cove, surrounded by Antarctic ice and penguins!
Adelie Penguins can be viewed on Torgerson Island, and Gentoo Penguins are seen at Port Lockroy, where visitors can send a postcard from Antarctica’s only post office! Other enhancements to shore excursion offerings can include a 30-minute climb to the summit of Observation Hill, near McMurdo Station, for spectacular views of Mount Erebus and the Ross Ice Shelf. Other activities include mountain climbing, South Pole trekking, kayaking alongside icebergs, scuba diving, bird watching and ice camping.
Some visitors may even have the chance to see the Aurora Australis, or the southern lights, which is a glow in the night sky in the South Pole region caused by solar winds. Another unique sighting is called diamond dust, sometimes also referred to as clear-sky precipitation, which consists of clouds that form at ground level from tiny ice crystals.
Antarctica sees its share of whales including the humpback, orca (also called the killer whale) and minke whales in the waters. Also among the icebergs, glaciers and mountains are other whales such as the fin and sei, all of which make for spectacular viewing. Specialist tour operators can arrange tours locally so you can closer to these wonderful creatures.
By Julie Bowman
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