Antarctica is a continent that is like no other, with its vast white land that goes on for miles. Add in all the snow, ice, rocks, and the possibility of unfrozen water on occasion, and you will finally have found a destination that intrigues you like no other area of the world! If you have always been fascinated about this mostly forgotten about continent, but have had no idea of what it would entail to visit, then this comprehensive guide on Antarctica is exactly what you need before you rush down there for your next vacation.
Where is Antarctica?
First off, Antarctica is a continent way to the south of South America, Africa, and Australia. Basically, head south and keep going until you have reached the frozen tundra! This part of the world has the greatest position of being around the South Pole and while a small portion of Antarctica used to be a desert, the Pleistocene ice age destroyed all hopes of the dry and slightly warmer land ever returning.
James Clark Ross discovered Antarctica in 1841, as he passed by what is now known as the Ross Sea. He may have been the first person to discover Antarctica back then, but he was not the only one to spend time there in the early years. Mercator Cooper landed in East Antarctica in 1853 and many others followed.
Since Antarctica is not a country, no one can truly own the entire landmass. However, twelve different countries have claimed their rights to own different areas of Antarctica. This may seem crazy, but since Antarctica is big, at approximately five and a half million square miles, there is enough space to go around.
Who Lives in Antarctica?
When it comes to how many people live in Antarctica, that number varies according to the season. During the warmer months of the year, which could be all relative depending on how you view the cold, there are approximately five thousand people living within this massive continent. That number dwindles down to about one thousand when the coldest temperatures of the year arrive.
Most of the Antarctica population works at the research stations and people normally rotate regularly, as it can be quite difficult to live in this part of the world for more than a year at a time. There was a time when other people lived in Antarctica and that was when whaling was prominent. Most of the whalers were Norwegian, although some Brits arrived every year as well, and during that period of time, the population of Antarctica increased by another one to two thousand people during the summer months.
While this area is not ideal for raising children, there have been a few babies born in Antarctica. The first was back in 1913 and now there are schools at many of the bases for those children that arrive here with their parents or those that are born here during their parents’ stay.
The Animals of Antarctica
There are very few animals that live on the land in Antarctica, but many do live in the water. If you have always wanted to know what animals live in Antarctica, you will be happy to know that you can see whales, seals, albatrosses, seabirds, and a few other animals you have never seen before. Of course, there are also many different types of penguins in Antarctica, so when you do visit, make sure you take the time to see a few of the different penguin species.
You might be surprised to know that polar bears do not live in Antarctica, but they would definitely thrive in the weather conditions there if they did. Speaking of the weather, many of the animals that live in Antarctica are not there year-round. The reason for this is the weather is just so harsh, that even the hardy animals that love the cold cannot withstand the temperatures and elements during the winter months.
Weather in Antarctica
The temperature in Antarctica doesn’t really change too much throughout the year, because it is always cold. However, there are days when it may seem warmer, or colder, than any of the other days out of the year. The warmest day on record was back on March 24, 2015. It was on that day that the Esperanza Base reached a temperature of 63.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The coldest day ever recorded was negative 126.8 degrees Fahrenheit and that was at the Vostok Station on July 21st, 1983.
Don’t worry, you won’t see those extreme cold temperatures all the time, but you must truly be prepared for cold weather in Antarctica. After all, the mean annual temperature for this part of the world is negative 70.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
The good news with all this cold is that precipitation is at a minimum in Antarctica. Some places will see a measly two inches throughout the year, while others will have up to twenty-five inches. The funny thing is that the areas of Antarctica that receive less than 9.8 inches of precipitation during the year are known as being the desert areas of the continent!
Thankfully, the Antarctica ice wall is mainly protected by all this cold, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t in the clear. The Wordie Ice Shelf has reduced in size significantly over the years and the Prince Gustav Channel is now completely gone. There is very little glacier formation in Antarctica any longer, but the ice sheet that covers the continent should stay intact for many more years if the temperatures do not continue to rise.
Best Time to Visit Antarctica
Due to the extreme cold at certain times of the year, there is usually a better time to visit this part of the world. Plus, as a tourist, you will only be allowed to travel to Antarctica during the warmer months of the year. Therefore, the best time to visit Antarctica would be anywhere between the months of late October through the end of March.
The end of October is the best time to see those larger patches of ice breaking apart and certain species of penguins in Antarctica are nesting at this time of the year. November brings the spring flowers and elephant seals lay their eggs.
The days are at their longest during the months of December and January and that is perfect for those times when the penguin chicks are all hatching. The seal pups are also beginning to grow, and the beaches become full of new wildlife.
The last two months, February and March, are the best time to visit if you want to see the whales. The seabirds will also still be flying around, but quite a few of the other animals will have already left in search of warmer temperatures.
How to Visit Antarctica
Some people think that visiting Antarctica is as easy as boarding a plane and flying to the capital city. However, there is no official capital of Antarctica. Maxwell Bay is considered the unofficial capital and you can find that over on King George Island. Since getting to Antarctica is no easy task, you must be prepared to spend a little time planning before you leave.
The only ways to travel to Antarctica are by airplane or cruise line. The best way to fly into Antarctica will involve you flying out of Southern Chile. This option allows you to skip the water adventures of the Drake Passage and gets you to spending more time on land than out on the water. Of course, you can also fly to this beautiful destination from many other parts of the world.
Here are a few ideas:
- From the USA, the UK, Canada, and Australia you can also take a flight to Santiago and from there go into Punta Arenas
Most people state that a cruise to Antarctica is the only way to see this part of the world though, because you get to experience so many unique things out on the water and on land. The cruise ships leave from Ushuaia and they can go to many different areas. As you are planning your cruise, you will want to determine which part of Antarctica you want to see the most.
The current cruise options include:
- Ross Sea
- Weddell Sea
- Polar Circle
- South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, and Antarctica
- Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands
When you do decide to tackle the cruise option for your trip to Antarctica, you must be aware that you need to conquer the Drake Passage. This might not mean much to you, but this is a dangerous stretch of water and the crew on your ship may be giving out instructions about what to do during the rough water you may experience on the journey through. Although, you may be one of the lucky ones who has calm waters both there and back, but don’t plan on it!
As you are planning your trip, you may want to consider one of the many Antarctica tours that are available. Some of the tours offer flights, while others offer cruises or a combination of both. You can also take tours of some of the best areas on the continent, so plan your tours wisely.
What to See and Do While Visiting Antarctica
You may think that there is very little to do and see while visiting Antarctica, but I can assure that your days will be busy when you are there. Simply dress according to the weather in Antarctica and you will have one adventure after another!
There is an entire ocean surrounding Antarctica, so take advantage of the water and do a little kayaking! As you propel yourself through the icy waters, you will find yourself dodging chunks of ice and watching the wildlife frolic and play out on the distance. You may even find yourself kayak nose to whale nose if you are lucky enough.
2) Capture the Wildlife on Camera
The animals that live in Antarctica are not the types of animals that you can see everywhere else in the world. Yes, you can see them in certain areas around the globe, but this is the best place to see them in their natural environment. So, venture out into the wilderness or out towards the water and see what you can see.
At first, you may only notice the birds flying high above your head, but soon enough, the penguins will start waddling by in the snow, the whales will breach out of the water, and the seals will begin to bark at you to come a little closer. A pair of binoculars can also come in handy, so you may want to pack them to see those creatures that may be a little further away. At least once you find them, you can walk a little closer to them!
3) Visit the Research Stations
There are numerous research stations in Antarctica, and you can visit many of them during your time there. Those research stations are manned by people from forty-two different countries, so you never know who you may be talking to when you are visiting one. The most popular station to visit is the Vernadsky Research Station, which was established by the Brits back in 1947. This station is now run by the Ukrainians and they mostly focus on weather and climate. The scientists at this station love having visitors, so do not be surprised if you are taken on a tour of the facilities and treated very well during your time there.
Since there are so many different research stations, the best way to see quite a few is with an Antarctica Peninsula Expedition. Your guide will take you to a few different ones and since they do all the planning, all you need to do is show up and participate in all the fun!
4) Visit Deception Island
Deception Island was once a booming destination, but then the whaling industry ended, and this island was left to be forgotten forever. When you arrive, you will quickly see the rusted barrels that were used to boil whale fat decades ago, as well as whale bones scattered all over the black lava sand.
It is recommended that you take a hike up a mountain or two to see the gorgeous views and watch the penguins play on the beach. You may even want to do a little swimming, because according to past visitors, the water is the warmest of anywhere else in Antarctica. They say it is because of the volcanic heat. Don’t expect eighty-degree water, but it may be warm enough that you won’t instantly turn into an ice cube!
5) Take a Climb Up Observation Hill
If you happen to be close to McMurdo Station and the Hut Point Peninsula, you must take a couple hours to climb up Observation Hill. This hill is seven hundred and fifty-four feet high and you can see extraordinary views of Mt. Terror, Scott Base, Mt. Erebus, White Island, Castle Rock, the two airports in Antarctica, and the Dry Valleys. There is a wooden cross at the top that honors those who lost their lives, from Captain Scott’s lost Polar Party, back in 1912. The trail to the top is not that difficult, but make sure to do the climb on a good day if you want the best views.
6) Consider Doing the Polar Plunge
You cannot visit Antarctica and not do the Polar Plunge! The waters may be around twenty-nine degrees most of the time, but the experience of feeling the shockingly cold water surrounding you will leave you exhilarated. If you have never done a Polar Plunge before, this is the best time to do it.
And if you have, you will quickly decide that this one is the best out of them all! Oh, and if you are little concerned that the water will be too cold, just tackle this adventure when you are on Deception Island since the water is warmest there!
7) Visit the Port Lockroy Museum
This museum is located in an area that used to be a whaling station. The British chose to construct the Port Lockroy Base here when the whaling industry ceased to exist, and the research station operated until 1962. The base was turned into a museum in 1966 and it operates as a post office too. That post office sees approximately seventy thousand letters during the summer months, because visitors take the time to mail themselves, and others, a letter from this part of the world. If you are interested in helping keep this part of Antarctica as nice as it is, you may want to consider purchasing a few souvenirs from the gift shop. You may want to be prepared for a slight odor when you arrive in this part of the continent, because a few of the penguins of Antarctica have created a colony here and it gets quite smelly.
8) Visit Elephant Island, Antarctica
Elephant Island, Antarctica is where Sir Ernest Shackleton was icebound with his Endurance crew, which was comprised of twenty-eight sailors, back in 1914. In order to reach this island, you will need to take a Zodiac boat over, as
they are easier to maneuver through the smaller passageways. As you get closer to the island, you will see a massive glacier. While exploring the island, you will see Shackleton’s camp, Point Wild, and get up close to the penguins that live there.
9) Visit the Highest Point in Antarctica
The highest point in Antarctica is Vinson Massif and it is sixteen thousand fifty feet above sea level. As one of the renowned Seven Summits, this peak is only six hundred and sixty nautical miles from the true South Pole. It is best to take an Antarctica expedition when you decide to climb to the summit of Vinson Massif, because it is one of the most remote destinations on Earth.
Most Antarctica expeditions will begin with a flight to the Vinson Base Camp, which is at the bottom of the Branscomb Glacier within the Ellsworth Mountains. Your journey will then take you up the Branscomb Glacier towards Vinson. You will set up camp a few times along the way and at some point, you will finally reach the summit.
If you do not want to tackle the highest point in Antarctica, you may want to at least consider the lowest accessible point, which is Vestfold Hills. That point is fifty meters below sea level and the hills themselves are only four hundred square meters. While you can see this area from the ground, it is best to see it from the air. From up there, it will look like a massively long black volcanic stripe across the bare rock.
10) Visit the Volcanoes in Antarctica
There are more than ninety confirmed volcanoes in Antarctica, but only two of them are currently considered active. Those volcanoes are Mount Erebus and Deception Island. The latter is a destination mentioned above, but the former is the most active volcano in this region, and it can be found on Ross Island. Mount Erebus erupted last back in 2015 and it has the most molten lava inside the crater than any other known volcano.
Not many Antarctica expeditions venture over towards this volcano, due to the major crash of a plane there in 1979. The loss of two hundred and fifty-seven passengers, due to flight path coordinate error is enough to keep many people from traveling there. However, you can find a guide to take you over that way if you plan far enough in advance.
11) Capture Amazing Photographs Along the Lemaire Channel
If you love taking pictures, or just love gorgeous scenery, then taking a ride through the narrow Lemaire Channel is a must for your time in Antarctica. You will spend your entire time on the boat out on the deck, as you snap photo after photo of all the sights you are seeing. Make sure you bring a charger, or extra batteries, because you will need them!
12) Do a Little Ice Diving
Diving deep down into the water is an incredible experience anywhere in the world, but Antarctica brings it to an even higher level of excellence! It is only here that you can dive far below the surface of the ice and see penguins and leopard seals in their true element. You must be certified and have a lot of diving experience to do this, but the time it takes to earn those skills will be worth every minute when you are far down under the ice in Antarctica!
Planning a trip is never easy, but this comprehensive guide to Antarctica should be enough to get you started with your dream trip there! I recommend that you take the time to see what your options are and even plan to use a tour guide or expedition group for your travels. That way, they can do the difficult work of planning and coordinating, and you can spend your time enjoying every minute of what you are doing. Plus, when you use their expertise, you will know that you have everything that you need when you are in some of the coldest temperatures in the world. After all, you don’t want to be caught down there without everything that you need!
So, start planning your trip to Antarctica today and see a part of the world that not too many other people have even thought about in a long time. I guarantee you will not regret all the work that goes into a once in a lifetime trip like this!