Speculation of Antarctica, the “southern land,” dogged human mythologies for hundreds of years before a Russian explorer finally discovered this southernmost continent in 1820. Despite Antarctica’s initial discovery, this continental desert remained largely unexplored throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century due to its isolation and hostile climate.
Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and, on average, windiest continent on Earth. These harsh conditions prevented exploration and colonization until 1895, when Norwegian explorers launched the first confirmed expedition exploring the land.
The international Antarctic Treaty System has governed Antarctica since 1959, preventing exploitation of the land for military purposes, mining, and nuclear testing or waste disposal. The treaty encourages scientific research and protects the continent’s ecosystem.
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Compared to the rest of the world, Antartica’s history is relatively brief. Humans have only occupied the continent of Antarctica since 1899—just under 120 years—and it’s been just under 200 years since the first sailors spotted the islands of the Antarctic Peninsula in 1819. Despite Antarctica’s rather cursory appearance on the world’s map of history, it’s lived much longer in mankind’s imagination and exploration ambitions. Before they knew it existed, they called it Terra Australis Incognita: the Unknown Southern Land.
The ancient Greeks first conceived of the probability of the Antarctic continent, seeing the massive southern land as the symmetrical point of balance to the lands dotting the northern hemisphere. It took over 2,000 years for the first European explorers to delve into the southern hemisphere to test out this theory.
First Exploration Attempts
Early fascination with the American continents and potential trade routes kept exploratory eyes up north until nearly the beginning of the 18th century. In 1699, Britain’s Edmond Halley embarked on an excursion to determine the longitudes of South America and Africa’s ports, calculate magnetic variance and get his sights on the elusive Terra Australis Incognita. Halley ultimately crossed the Antarctic convergence and documented the first sightings of tabular icebergs by 1700.
Antarctic action continue to pick up throughout the 1700s.
THE FRENCH: The French sent off several excursions, with Jeal-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier discovering Bouvet Island, the most isolated island on earth, in 1739 and Yves-Joseph de Kergulen-Trmarec claiming Kergulan Island in 1772. Kergulen was a firm believer in a bountiful, welcoming southern continent, however—a persistent believe that led him to return to France with patently false tales of a balmy, inhabited haven he dubbed “New South France.” When Kergulen returned with only 3 poorly-outfitted ships, he didn’t even step off the ship before returning to France in ignominy.
THE ENGLISH: The English found themselves inspired by Alexander Dalrymple’s An Account of discoveries made in the South Pacific Ocean Previous to 1764, in which Dalrymple persuasively argued for the existence of a southern continent. Captain James Cook made two attempts at discovering Antarctica; though Cook gathered much anthropological, geographical and biological information during his 1768 expedition, it was during the second 1772 that he made history’s first crossing of the Antarctic Circle. Though Cook ultimately crossed the Antarctic Circle three times, he was always turned away by pack ice before reaching the continent. He discovered Willis’ and Bird Islands, re-discovered South Georgia after de la Roch and discovered the South Sandwich Islands. In 1775, Cook completed the first circumnavigation of Antarctica.
ENTER THE SEAL HUNTERS
Though James Cook’s dismissal of the southern continent as largely inhabitable dissuaded government funded exploration for many years, his thorough observations regarding the number of whales and seals throughout the area spurred commercial hunters to trek down south.
From 1784-1822, sealers massacred seal populations on South Georgie, the South Sandwich Islands, the Falkland Islands and the coast of Chile. Subantarctic islands were hit hard as well, and they took nearly 3 million skins from the Juan Fernandez Islands alone, leaving that population nearly extinct. Whalers also found their way south, hunting fur seals, elephant seals and the easy-to-poach southern right whale.
English merchant William Smith’s 1819 Antarctic excursion served as a catalyst for the decimation of the South Shetland seal population as well after he discovered the islands and claimed them for Britain. His discovery of the South Shetlands harbored in a new wave of sealers and explorers alike who discovered new islands, sighted the Antarctic Peninsula’s mountain tops and sailed into the Weddell Sea. Between 1820-1821 anywhere from 50-91
sealing ships housing around 1,000 men could be found hunting the South Shetland Islands, and records show that a quarter of a million seals were slaughtered within 3 short months. The sealers didn’t necessarily have it easy down south, however; 6 vessels were lost during this period as well.
THE ANTARCTIC CONTINENT MAKES ITS APPEARANCE
Russia’s Captain Thaddeus von Bellingshausen spearheaded Russia’s first government-funded Antarctic expedition—and the last one for 135 years. Bellingshausen was the second group in history to cross the Antarctic Circle, the second to circumnavigate Antarctica after James Cook and the first to sight the Antarctic continent when they came upon the Finibul Ice Shelf. He also discovered Peter I Island, the most southerly known land at the time.
February 7, 1821 saw the first recorded landing of the Antarctic continent. American sealer Cecilia, under Captain John Davis, disembarked at Hughes Bay looking for seals; though they weren’t there for very long, Davis knew they had landed on a continent. Around the same time in 1821, men from a British sealer wintered over on King George Island—the first time men had lived through an Antarctic winter.
EARLY ENCOUNTERS WITH THE SOUTHERN LANDS
Magellan found himself conjecturing that the southern lands of Tierra del Fuego, across the Strait of Magellan, were the northern borders of a great southern continent in 1520. Over 50 years later, Sir Frances Drake found himself blown south of Tierra del Fuego and then around Cape Horn, a happy accident that allowed him to fully dispute Magellan’s theory as he encountered a series of islands rather than a continent.
Of course, the tendency for sailors to be blown off course due to the south Atlantic’s temperamental behavior played a significant role in the discovery of southern lands. In 1619, Bartolomé and Gonzalo Garcia de Nodal, also blown off course, came upon a series of small islands they named Islas Diego Ramirez. These remained the most southerly recorded lands for 156 years.
While the Islas Diego Ramirez went down in the books, other reports began to pop up. Dutchman Dirck Gerritsz reportedly discovered snow-capped peaks in 1622, and though his latitude calculations are dubious, he could have potentially spotted the South Shetland Islands. British merchant Anthony de la Roch found shelter in an undiscovered bay in 1675, and it’s thought that he found himself on South Georgia Island and sighted Antarctica and the Clerke Rocks. De la Roch’s reports align well with the location of Terra Australis Incognita on the Dutch East India Company’s map of the time.
The Hunt for the South Magnetic Pole
Weddell’s deep push south into the Weddell Sea as well as sealers’ enticing reports led the British, French and American governments to sponsor exploratory missions in the hopes of discovering new land and southern magnetic pole.
The French sent off Jules-Sbastien-Csar Dumont d’Urville and Charles Hector Jacquinot, who turned back 4 miles short of the continent, while the Americans sent off Lt. Charles Wilkes, who discovered several hundred miles of new coastline as well as the Shackleton Ice Shelf. Their reports inspired England’s James Clark Ross, who had previously found the northern magnetic pole in 1831, to sail east before turning south. This pivotal decision allowed him to sail through the debilitating pack ice and into the Ross Sea. He ultimately landed on Possession Island, discovered Franklin Island and Ross Island and passed Admiralty Range, the most southernly land yet past Weddell’s accomplishments. He was ultimately stopped by the Ross Ice Shelf after sailing as far south as possible before declaring that the southern magnetic pole was inaccessible by sea as it lay inland.
After Ross, a 50 year gap occurred in significant Antarctic exploration as governments turned North in search of the Arctic’s Northwest Passage. However, during this period the HMS Challenger became the first steamship to cross the Antarctic Circle and American John Heard’s discovery of Heard Island led to the over 4 million gallons of elephant seal oil being shipped from the once ecologically vibrant island.
Sealers Turned Naturalists
As sealers continued discovering new “sealing grounds” over the next 16 years—many excursions sponsored by the British whaling firm Enderby Brothers, who enjoyed the geographical discoveries as much as the profits—the outline of the Antarctic continent began to take shape.
One of the most prominent “sealers-turned-scientists” was James Weddell, a keen geographer, explorer and naturalist as well as a profitable sealer. Weddell goes down in history as the first Antarctic conservationist, as he noted that the lack of sustainable sealing had decimated the South Shetland fur seal breeding population whereas more responsible sealing could have produced a sustainable annual “harvest.” On Weddell’s excursions, he charted the South Orkney Islands, discovered a new seal species later known as the Weddell seal and found himself far south in the Weddell Sea. Over 80 years would pass before anyone would voyage that far south in the Weddell Sea.
Antarctic Whaling Leads to Conservation
Whaling stations had become more common since 1906, but it wasn’t until 1926 that Antarctic whaling entered into a new era of technology and slaughter. This year saw the introduction of a new kind of ship furnished with a chute for dragging entire whales onboard. These ships were accompanied by catchers, allowing the ships to exploit a wider range of territory. This shift as well as the emergence of steel hulled ships, radios, airplanes and powerful engines further advanced whalers’ hunting abilities.
That being said, the rise in whalers also saw a rise in exploration and brought the first woman to set foot in Antarctica: Caroline Mikkelsen, who accompanied her husband on his whaling expedition in 1935.
Furthermore, the alarmingly high rate of whale slaughter caused the British government to establish the Discovery Committee in 1923—the first major scientific committee in Antarctica. The committee was dedicated to researching whale biology, distribution and behavior and ultimately conducted impressive biological and hydrographic work. The Discovery Committee also led to improved whale conservation regulations and recommendations.
Antarctic Exploration in the Name of Science, Non Profit
The call to explore the Antarctic in the name of science, rather than profit, grew louder in 1895 with the Sixth International Geographical Congress, where France, Germany, Britain, Belgium, Scotland, Sweden, Australia, Norway and Japan declared their intensions toward Antarctic exploration.
The various excursions delved further into Antarctica’s vast frozen hinterland than ever before. With harsh conditions and entrapping pack ice, crews expected to spend their winters down south. A German crew led by Erich von Drygalski planned ahead and lay a trail garbage across the ice, hoping that the debris would soften the ice by increasing solar absorption. It worked, and the crew was able to escape a second Antarctic winter. Meanwhile, the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition spent their winter crafting the first scientific research station called Omond House. The foray for the pole cumulated with Roald Amundsen 1911 excursion, during which he finally reached the geographic south pole using sled dogs on December 14th.
Perhaps the most famous expedition during this era is Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition. Shackleton embarked from England on the Endurance and headed toward Antarctica. After his ship became entrapped by pack ice in the Weddell Sea, the crew drifted through the winter until the ship was ultimately sunk by pack ice in 1915.
Shackleton and his men made it to Elephant Island in their lifeboats. Once there, Shackleton and a small party set off for South Georgia Island—a trek that took 15 days and crossed 800 miles over tossing seas. Once there, they slogged across the island without food or water until they reached the Stromness Bay whaling station. In the meantime, the remainder of Shackleton’s crew awaited rescue by using their boats as shelters and eating seaweed and stewed seal bones. The crew stayed on Elephant Island for 105 days until Shackleton was able to return for them.
Antarctica Gets Territorial
Antarctica’s oldest continuously occupied basecamp is the Laurie Island weather station, which was claimed by Argentina in 1904. That being said, the British made the first formal claim on Antarctic territory in 1908—ultimately handing over the Ross Dependencies to New Zealand in 1923. Territorial claims picked up with France laying claim to Terre Adlie in 1934, Australia claiming an extensive portion of territory in 1933, Norway claiming Dronning Maud Land in 1939, and Chile claiming sovereignty of the Antarctic Peninsula (along with Argentina and Britain) in 1940. In 1938, German planes dropped hundreds of swastika-inscribed aluminum darts over Dronning Maud Land in the hopes of claiming vast territories for the Third Reich. Meanwhile, the U.S. held no claims over Antarctica, though the government did establish the U.S. Antarctic Service in 1939.
WWII interrupted government research pursuits in Antarctica, but Antarctica didn’t disappear off the world stage. The Germans used the Peninsula and the sub-Antarctic islands as a home base to attack allied shipping vessels, and the British established secret bases at Hope Bay and on Wiencke and Deception Islands.
Exploration in the Age of Technology
Technological advancements brought Antarctica out of isolation. The radio, in particular, proved vital in helping explorers communicate. Further, aeronautical technology allowed for more accurate mapping with the use of aerial photography during reconnaissance missions. Richard Byrd’s 1934 expedition even saw the introduction of motorized transport as they used tractors to cross the ice pack.
Permanent Occupation and the Antarctic Treaty
After WWII, Antarctic exploration once again picked up and entered a new phase of permanent occupation. Though Britain had technically led the way with the establishment of their secret bases, Argentina followed up in 1947 with the construction of a base on Gamma Island. Only a week later, Chile set up a base in the South Shetlands. Thus began a scramble, and by 1955, Argentina, Britain and Chile had established 21 stations in the Antarctic Peninsula region.
A major motivator for international occupation was the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an event conceived in the same spirit of the International Polar Years of 1882-83 and 1932-33, though those scientific cooperations had largely centered around the Arctic. The IGY was scheduled for 1957-1958 with the intent of bringing international focus to the Antarctic. The incentive proved successful, and by 1956-1957 the IGY was underway and 42 bases supported 6,167 people.
The IGY eventually proved so successful that every participating nation established permanent research programs, and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) created the Special Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) in an effort to coordinate scientific cooperation between participating nations. This also lead to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, which neutralized territorial claims while dedicating Antarctica for scientific and peaceful purposes.
Everybody loves a penguin, the kleptomaniac of the Antarctic. Antarctica’s most common bird aren’t birds of a feather, however, as 7 different species are considered “Antarctic penguins” of the 17 penguin species found throughout the world.
Of the 7 penguin species found in Antarctica, only 4 species are considered “true” Antarctic penguins as they breed on or near continental Antarctica: chinstrap penguin, emperor penguin, gentoo penguin, and the Adélie penguin. The other 3 species nest and live on Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands: King penguin, Macaroni penguin, and the Rockhopper penguin.
Despite their variations, Antarctic penguins have some adaptations in common to survive the frigid conditions.
Penguin Waddle & Toboggan
While the penguin waddle may simply appear like a quirky, iconic gate, waddles from side to side is actually a big energy saver, conserving 80% more energy compared to a steadier walk. Penguins also “toboggan” on slippery surfaces, using their their claws and toes to push themselves forward on their stomachs. You wouldn’t be able to catch a penguin tobogganing by running.
Small penguins can bounce up out of rough waves onto rocky shores without being injured, a side-effect of being so small and blubbery.
Feet Up for Swimming
Penguins keep their feet tucked in close to their bodies when swimming to minimize drag, though they occasionally drop a foot like a rudder or a brake, helping them make quick turns in the water.
Preening isn’t Pretty
Well, ok—preening can make a bird pretty. But that’s not all it does! Penguins fluff our their feathers to collect air among them, especially before hopping in the water. Preening helps sustain insulation while also reduce drag in the water, as released bubbles lubricate the penguin’s passage through the water. It also helps the penguins gain a burst of speed to burst out of the water—a helpful tool for escaping predators.
Most penguins—besides emperor and king penguins—built nests to protect and incubate their eggs. The nests are constructed to rise above the landscape so that melting snow or other environmental changes will not flood the nests.
FUN FACT: Penguins often squabble over small stones used to nest, so kleptomaniac penguins often go around stealing nesting stones, re-claiming stones, and stealing them once again.
Emperor penguins may have partly earned their name as the largest of the penguin species, but they also warrant their name with their regal and staunch demeanor—possibly even the gold patches that crown their chest and heads.
Unlike Adélie penguins, who have a short nesting period, the emperor penguin has an incredibly long nesting period. It’s even more impressive when you consider that emperor penguins are the only penguins that breed during the Antarctic winter, meaning that long nesting period takes place during the Antarctic’s harshest conditions.
When nesting, males tend to the newly laid eggs while females head off—sometimes over great distances—to hunt for extended periods. Emperor penguins are incredibly effective hunters. At sea, emperor penguins can dive to 1,850 feet—deeper than any other bird—and stay under for more than 20 minutes.
During this time, males protect their eggs by balancing them on their feet and covering them with their brood pouch formed of feathered skin to keep them warm. During this 2-month interim, males eat nothing and lose up to 26 pounds protecting their egg.
The mothers don’t stay away filling their bellies, however; they return after two months full of food to regurgitate for their chicks. While males then go off in search of a well-earned meal, mothers take their place protecting their newly hatched chicks with their brood pouches.
Brood pouches aren’t the emperor penguin’s only adaptive behavior for surviving the Antarctic’s frigid conditions. To survive in the Antarctic’s fierce conditions, emperor penguins huddle together to block wind and preserve warmth, rotating positions from the exterior to the warmer interior.
FUN FACT: Some emperor penguins never set foot on land, making them the only birds to do so.
In the penguin court, king penguins are second only to emperor’s in size. Despite their secondary stature, king penguins received their name when 18th century European explorers thought they had discovered the largest penguin species out there. It wasn’t until 1844 that the emperor penguin’s existence was verified. Much like the emperors, king penguins sport some gold plumage around their neck and ears, making them some of the brightest penguins out there.
King penguins live well north of the emperor penguins, keeping to the sub-Antarctic belt with breeding colonies found on Macquarie, Falkland, South Georgia, Prince Edward, Marion, Kerguelen, Heard and Crozet islands. There’s even been some new colonies popping up in Patagonia.
Much like emperor penguins, king penguins don’t built nests during their breeding cycle but instead incubate the eggs with their feet. During the extended breeding period, king penguins are territorial.
FUN FACT: Woolly, fluffy, brown coated king penguin chicks were mistaken for a completely different species in 19th century scientific books.
Their bright red-orange bill, pronounced white eye patches and peachy feet make gentoo penguins easy to spot and distinguish from their other white-and-black suited brethren and Antarctica’s relatively monochrome environment.
Though not as big as the towering emperor and king penguins, the gentoo penguin is the penguin kingdom’s third largest member and can weigh in at 12 pounds and reach up to 30 inches. It’s also the northernmost penguin of its cousins—the chinstrap and Adélie. Also unlike the chinstrap and Adélie, the gentoo sticks close to their breeding colonies throughout the year.
Gentoo penguins can be found throughout the Antarctic Peninsula and on many sub-Antarctic islands, though the largest populations can be found on South Georgia Island, the Falkland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. They prefer coastal plains and protected cliffs and valleys—areas free of ice—where their colonies can contain as few as a couple dozen pairs to several thousand.
FUN FACT: Gentoo penguins can dive faster than any other diving bird, reaching up to 22 miles per hour underwater.
The most numerous of the world’s penguins, the macaroni penguin can be found in many regions beyond the Antarctic, where they inhabit subantarctic islands as well as a small portion of the Antarctic Peninsula. You’ll know if you spot a macaroni penguin: they have a large, red-brown bill, pink feet and orange crests that tuft out like eyebrows in need of a trim.
Macaroni penguins are social, vocal and colonial, and they form nesting colonies on rocky cliffs numbering in the hundreds of thousands. When nesting, macaronis have a strange habit of laying two eggs, the first egg much smaller than the second egg. Despite the two eggs, macaronis only raise one chick, and the small egg rarely hatches, and only does so if the larger egg is gone. Scientists are still working on the “how” and “why” of this egg-laying trick.
FUN FACT: Macaroni penguins were named after the immense, powdered wigs dandies sported in the 18th century—a hairstyle forever memorialized in ‘Yankee Doodle’—of which their eyebrows were reminiscent.
Named for the signature black band of feathers running from their cheeks to under their chin seemingly holding their black hats on, chinstrap penguins are the smallest of their closest relatives, the Adélie penguin and the Gentoo penguin. Estimates also have them as the Antarctic’s most abundant penguin, with a populated of an estimated 8 million.
Chinstrap nests can be found on higher, rocky, ice-free slopes—even on some precarious spots they reach by using their claws and beaks. Like many other penguins, chinstraps return every year to the same colony to nest, and often settle down very close to the same nest site made up of small stones.
Most of the breeding colonies are found around the Antarctic Peninsula on the Scotia Arc, including South Orkney, South Shetland, South Sandwich and South Georgie Islands. Every winter, chinstrap penguins migrate north and stay at sea until the next breeding season.
FUN FACT: If you see a chinstrap penguin colony, you might be overwhelmed by a sea of black and white: some colonies can number in the hundreds of thousands.
It’s the southern rockhopper penguin who makes its way to the Falkland Islands and the subantarctic islands, its habitat preference clearly identified by its name. Much like macaroni penguins, rockhopper penguins are adorned with crests jutting out of their eyebrows and forehead. However, the rockhopper is ornamented with thin, spiky yellow and black crests. They are the smallest of the crested penguins, however, and have distinctive ruby red eyes sitting underneath their yellow plumage.
Rockhoppers gather to breed in vast colonies numbering in the hundreds of thousands, where they then built burrows in tally grassy areas near the shoreline. Though the breeding times can vary, rockhoppers return to the same breeding ground every year—and often to the same nest and mate. Rockhoppers, like other crested penguins, lay a smaller first egg and a second larger egg, with the first laid eggs usually being lost during incubation.
FUN FACT: The rockhopper penguin’s vulnerable population is in decline, with some research showing that populations have declined more than 30% in the past few decades.
Adélie penguins look awfully dapper with their black heads and back, white front and white eye-ring. They also have elongated feathers on the back of their heads that can be raised to form a small plume.
These true Antarctic penguins breed further south than any other penguins, so they’re highly adapted to those chilly temperatures. Of course, breeding in the harshest conditions means they also have the briefest breeding season, with males waddling many miles from the open water to reach the breeding grounds in preparation of a cursory courtship and short nesting time. Despite their short nesting time, Adélie’s are devoted parents: both male and female share egg and chick duties until the chicks are about 2 months old.
Adélie penguins are also quite mobile, in water and on land. In water, Adélie penguins can travel around 185 miles round-trip in search of a meal, and on land can waddle over 30 miles from the inland nests to reach the open Antarctic waters.
FUN FACT: Adélie penguins make their chicks work for their dinner: chicks must chase their parents before getting their vomited up meal of krill.
SOUTHERN ELEPHANT SEAL
The southern elephant seal is the largest seal in the world as well as
the largest extant carnivore, with males weighing on average 7,000 pounds. Females, on the other hand, are smaller, only weighing an average of 1,700. The largest bull ever recorded weighed 11,000 pounds and was nearly 23 feet long.
Elephant seal pups are born with thick, completely black coats that make it impossible for them to swim but protect them from the frigid temperatures. Their first molt corresponds with weaning and the ability to go swimming. Like all seals, the elephant seal’s cardiovascular system protects itself from the cold by enveloping the arteries with small veins, capturing the heat. This structure cardiovascular is especially important in the extremities.
Elephant pups can remain on land for quite a long time, sometimes as long as several weeks. Males will usually arrive first and fight for control and breeding rights over the forthcoming females. Though the most dominant males maintain control over the harems, this dominance does not ensure that only they will mate with the female cows. Many of the less successful males will attempt to mate when the dominant one is not looking or even out at sea, where they are much less likely to be spotted by the dominant male.
Males must remain in their territory to properly defend it and will often go months without eating to do so. Some males will stay ashore for up to three months without food, protecting their territory from other males. Posturing and vocalization with coughing roars often solve fights between two high-ranking males. When conflict does arise, males use their teeth and their against each other and their weight to gain advantage. Conflicts are rarely fatal. The defeated will flee the scene to heal their wounds.
Due to their massive size elephant seals have few predators. Those they do have usually prey upon them in the water, such as orcas and sharks. Occasionally leopard seals have been known to prey upon smaller, adolescent pups.
The leopard seal is the second largest species of seal in Antarctica. While the southern elephant seals mostly live away from the Antarctica, only visiting for hunting, breeding, and resting, the leopard seal makes its home on the shores of the frozen desert Continent. They are much smaller than their elephant seal relatives, ranging from 440-1,300
For a number of reasons the leopard seal is much harder to survey than the southern elephant. In the first place, they are solitary animals. However, they also spend a significant portion of the spring and summer months, when scientific surveys most commonly occur,
underwater. While underwater males will vocalize, which has allowed them to be surveyed acoustically. Underwater, the seal will hang upside down and sing with his back bent, rocking from side to side.
Like birds, leopard seals have age-related differences in their calling patterns. Younger seals will have many different styles of calling; older seals have utilize only a few, highly stylized calls ranging from bird-like trills to low, piercing moans. Each male is capable of producing a distinctive song, believed to be linked to their breeding behavior.
In the water. leopard seals are bold, curious, and often playful. Their most common prey are fish, krill, and squid, but larger leopard seals will also eat penguins. Though they often prey upon penguins, leopard seals will sometimes play with a penguin it does not intend to eat. Though leopard seals have been known to attack divers, a leopard seal once famously developed a close relationship with a photographer for National Geographic, bringing him penguins in an effort, it is thought, to teach the photographer how to hunt.
Weddell seals belong to the group known as “true seals” along with the harp seals. They are circumpolar and tend to stick near the coast, where they enjoy inhabiting regions of fast ice with only short trips farther out into the ocean. Even when they haul out of the ice, they keep close to their access hole and breeding colonies.
As Weddell seals live under the fast ice, they stick close to their breathing holes and cracks in order to breath. During the winter, when cracks in the ice are much less common, Weddell seals use their shark incisor and canine teeth to tear open new breathing holes. Though this is hard on their teeth and keeps them close to “home,” it also protects them from air-breathing predators such as orcas and leopard seals.
ANTARCTIC FUR SEALS
Antarctic fur seals are the only eared seal that live in Antarctica, where they enjoy the nutrient-rich waters of the transition zone between the frigid Antarctic waters and the balmier northern waters. Though they can be found on several Antarctic islands including the South Shetlands, South Orkneys, South Sandwiches and Heard Island, about 95% of the entire population breeds on South Georgia island. When not breeding, Antarctic fur seals enjoy leading a largely oceangoing existence, traveling to where the krill is most abundant.
Antarctic fur seals can be identified by their ears, dense dark fur, and the ability to move around on “all fours.” While males tend to be dark brown, females and younger fur seals tend to be grey with light underbellies. Pups are actually black before molting to a silver-grey coat.
FUN FACT: Unlike other seals, Antarctic fur seals rely on their thick fur to keep warm rather than insulating fat.
Ross seals, named after the British explorer Sir James Clark Ross who led the Terror and Erebus expeditions to the Antarctic, are the least abundant of the Antarctic seals and possibly the most enigmatic. Little is known of their population distribution or behavioral patterns. Not only do they tend to be solitary creatures, but they keep to the thickest pack ice. If you do spot one, they can be identified by the unique streaked pattern that runs down their neck and throat—sometimes resembling a mask—rather than the mottled or spotted pattern decorating most other seals.
Ross seals are circumpolar and the only Antarctic seals that don’t stray beyond the Antarctic seas. They are well adapted to the Antarctic environment with needle-like teeth which they use to catch slippery squid and fish as well as their large eyes that serve them well for hunting in the dimly-lit waters.
Crabeater seals enjoy Antarctica’s pack-ice, where they spend their entire lives. Though they may not be one of Antarctica’s most iconic seals, they are the most abundant seal species throughout the southern ocean and most likely the most abundant large mammal in the world. Though they have high numbers, leopard seals are a significant predator to crabeater seals, especially the pups. Crabeaters tend to be scarred from unsuccessful leopard seal attacks.
Crabeaters have long snouts resembling a dog’s that match their slender bodies and well-adapted teeth whose sieve-like structure allow them to strain out krill when they swallow seawater, similar to baleen whales. Scientists consider a crabeater’s teeth to be the most specialized of any carnivore.
Crabeater seals prefer diving and feeding throughout the night before hauling themselves up on the pack ice to rest by midday. Though they enjoy diving into the water for a good meal, individual crabeater seals have been known to travel impressive distances around Antarctica and even make it pretty far inland.
FUN FACT: Despite their seemingly literal name, crabeater seals don’t eat crabs.
HOOKER’S SEA LIONS
Hooker’s sea lions, or New Zealand sea lions, are rare amongst seal species and one of the most localized as they breed in New Zealand’s subantarctic region. Though females stick closer to their breeding grounds, males venture further and can be seen on Macquarie Island.
Hooker’s sea lions were named after Sir Joseph Hooker, a botanist who went on a British expedition to the Antarctic. They can dive deeper and stay underneath the water longer than any other sea lion. That being said, Hooker’s sea lions generally stick relatively close to home as they prey upon squid, fish and octopus.
Before the whaling industry of the 19th and 20th centuries hunted them to near extinction, blue whales were common in almost all the world’s oceans. The largest populations were found in Antarctica’s waters, where it is estimated that over a quarter of a million of these incomprehensibly large mammals lived. A 2002 report estimated that there are now between 5,000 and 12,000 blue whales left in the world—and around 2,000 inhabit Antarctica.
The blue whale has a long, thin, tapering body that when compared to other whales stockier frames, appears almost stretched. The dorsal fin is small, less than a foot high. Due to their immense size, it is often difficult to weigh them accurately or even comprehend their
vastness. They are thought to weigh between 160,000 and 300,000 pounds, the largest animal ever known to exist. The largest known specimen is thought to have weighed over 400,000 pounds. At birth, calves weigh around 6,000 pounds, about the size of an adult male
hippopotamus. Females are generally longer than males, though males weigh more due to their heavier bones. In their adolescence, calves can grow as much as 200 pounds per day. Due to their immense size, several of their organs are also the largest ever recorded.
For example, the tongue of a blue whale weighs around 6,000 pounds.
Blue whales do not form the large groups seen in other whale species. They most commonly live alone or occasionally with one other partner, though it is not known for how long such relationships last. This relatively solitary existence carries them through their long lives, as scientists estimate that blue whales can live as long as 80 years.
They are also known to sing, though no one completely understands why. Some reasons suspected are individual recognition, contextual information such as feeding, courtship, and alarm, and location of prey.
FUN FACT: Though having a mouth able to hold over 100,000 pounds of food, a blue whale cannot swallow anything wider than a beach ball at one time.
These extremely popular animals are considered a cosmopolitan species as they can be found throughout the world’s oceans from the Arctic to Antarctica and everywhere in between. Highly social animals, orcas form matrilineal pods, which are considered to be the most stable animal society in existence. Furthermore they have highly localized hunting techniques passed down through generations that are often considered part of an orca culture.
Orcas have very famous, distinctive features and are not usually confused with any other type of marine life. They are the largest members of the dolphin family, weighing in at around 13,000 pounds. Their enormous size and prodigious strength combine to make them
one of the fastest marine animal.
The most common places to find orcas are off the coast of Norway in the Northeast Atlantic, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica. About 25,000 are thought to live around Antarctica.
Killer whales are apex predators, meaning they have no natural predators. Due to their tendency to live and hunt in packs, they are sometimes referred to as the wolves of the sea. Interestingly, different populations of orcas often have completely different diets, leading to speculation that what we refer to as an orca might actually be two or more closely related species. Mostly killer whales eat fish. However, a population of killer whale that mostly preys upon mammals, sea birds, or other whales might not even recognize fish as food.
There’s lots about the humpback whale that make it one of the better known large whales. They often hang out in large groups near coasts, and as slow swimmers who enjoy breaching, slapping their flippers and lob-tailing they are a traveler favorite. They are also known for their captivating songs—which only the male humpbacks “sing.” The humpback whale song is known as the most complex animal song of all.
Humpback whales are the most common baleen whale to be found off the coasts of the Antarctic Peninsula, where they spend the summers chowing down on krill. Climate change has somewhat altered the humpback’s migration patterns, however, as recent studies show that they are sticking around in Antarctica for a longer time before heading to northern waters.
FUN FACT: Humpback whales in the Arabian Sea are the only humpbacks who don’t migrate to chilly polar waters for feeding season.
Fin whales, another of the baleen whale family, are almost as big as the immense blue whale and can be found feeding in the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans during the spring and summer. Fin whales prefer open ocean, so they avoid waters close to ice pack.
Though large, fin whales are also incredibly speedy with their slender, streamlined bodies. They are able to cruise at 37kmh and reach up to 47kmh when sprinting.
FUN FACT: Called the greyhound of the seas, fin whales are the fastest of the large whales.
You’ll only find male sperm whales in Antarctic waters, as females and the calves stay up north where waters are warmer. Sperm whales got their name for the spermaceti organ in their characteristic bulbous heads. And out of these massive heads come the most distinctive “blow” of any whale, as it shoots forwards and to the left for about 5m.
Sperm whales are also the largest toothed carnivores in the world. Though other baleen whales are bigger—and considered carnivores—they filter their food in mass quantities rather than having teeth which they use to hunt down their prey. Though sperm whales only have teeth in their lower jaw, the large, conical teeth are incredibly strong and designed for grasping and then incapacitating individual prey. Even orcas, who occasionally hunt down even the massive blue whale, don’t attempt to take on the sperm whale. Sperm whales themselves often dive incredibly deep to hunt down squid. This is no easy feat, and sperm whales dive deeper and go longer without air than any other animal.
FUN FACT: Recently, scientists have suggested that their large spermaceti organ allows male sperm whales to use their heads as “battering rams” when they swim directly at one another, banging heads, when competing for females.
Of minke whales, it’s only the subspecies of the southern minke (pronounced mink-ey) whale, or Antarctic minke whale, who is found within the the Antarctic waters. Minkes are the smallest of the baleen whales, as well as the most common in the Antarctic and well-adapted to the icy waters.
During the warmer summer months, minkes favor the open pack ice, where plenty of open water can be found between ice. In the winter, when ice is heavier, minke whales breathe by finding narrow cracks in the ice, where they are able to vertically stick their pointy heads out of the cracks. Of course, scientists aren’t quite sure yet how the minke whales are able to discover and navigate their way to these ice cracks before running out of breath.
The rarest of all large whales, right whales can be recognized by their bulbous heads that lend to their distinctly un-streamlined bodies. Their immense heads, besides holding large amounts of baleen teeth, also hold large stretches of callosities where whale lace, barnacles and parasitic worms reside—giving them a whitish appearance.
Southern right whales were prime targets for whalers; slow swimming—and thus easy to catch—found close to shore, usually float when dead, and have large amounts of baleen, blubber and oil. The whaling days largely decimated right whale populations, and while they have experienced shown some population growth, they are still considered vulnerable.
FUN FACT: Early whalers went literal and named these whales because they were the “right” whales to kill.
Sei (pronounced “say”) whales are rather elusive. Not only do they rarely come close to land or hang out in large groups, but they are possibly the fastest of all whales or dolphins—able to hit 50kmh when sprinting.
Sei whales make it to both hemispheres, migrating to find the best food, and are relatively uncommon in Antarctica. As they favor deeper offshore, temperate waters, they don’t migrate as far south into the chilly polar waters as other rorqual whales and rarely enter icy waters.
Several species of albatross migrate to the Antarctic and subantarctic.
The Wandering albatross, identified by their white bodies, wedge-shaped tails and long pink beaks, can be found across the Southern Ocean over Antarctic, subantarctic and subtropical waters. They breed only once over two years, heading to Antarctic and subantarctic islands such as South Georgia, Macquarie and Iles Kerguelen. Though they stick closer to home during breeding season, the wandering albatross can venture off for up to 50 days at a time on foraging trips.
The Light-mantled sooty albatross, a smaller albatross once known as “Blue Bird” by 19th century sealers for their blue-tinted plumage, can often be found on Macquarie Island, where around 1,000 pairs next every year.
The Black-browed albatross received their name for the prominent black eyebrow contrasting to their white bodies. They can be found throughout Antarctic, subantarctic and sub-tropical waters. However, they prefer to breed on Antarctic and subantarctic islands such as Heard, Macquarie, Iles Kerguelen, the McDonald Islands and the Falkland Islands. Over 85% of the black-browed albatross population can be found on the Falkland Islands, their most significant breeding grounds.
The aptly named Grey-headed albatross has a blue-grey head and neck, a white body and a dark grey tail and back. They breed on many subantarctic islands with the largest populations on South Georgia, Macquarie and Campbell Islands. Grey-headed albatrosses remain over subantarctic waters throughout the year, where they feast on the sea surface with a diet of fish, squid and crustaceans.
Antarctic terns, with their bright red bills and orangish-red feet and legs, stand out amongst the Arctic landscape. Unlike its northern peer, the Arctic tern, the Antarctic tern doesn’t undergo incredible trans-continental migrations every year after breeding. Rather, Antarctic terns stay pretty close to their breeding islands throughout the year.
BLUE-EYED CORMORANT/MACQUARIE ISLAND SHAG
Blue-eyed cormorants, sometimes known as imperial or Macquarie Island shags, have black backs that contrast to their white breasts, white necks and white cheeks. They are relatively large birds, reaching 69-74 cm in length with a wing span of 1.1m. Blue-eyed cormorants breed on the western coast of southern South America and further south on South Georgia, South Sandwich, South Shetland, South Orkney, Heard, Macquarie and Iles Kerguelen Islands as well as on the Antarctic Peninsula.
FUN FACT: Leopard seals are known to attack blue-eyed cormorants at sea.
Kelp gulls, with their white head, neck, underbelly, rump and tail topped with their black upper wing and saddle, were named after Dominican friars who wore white and black habits. Kelp gulls can be found throughout subtropical and subantarctic regions. In the subantarctic, Kelp gulls lay eggs from November-December after constructing conical or bowl-like nests of seaweed, grass, shells, sticks and other detritus.
FUN FACT: Kelp gulls prey on other seabirds and even their own eggs and chicks as well as their normal diet of mollusks and fish.
Antarctic petrels can be found flying over the Antarctic’s icebergs, ice floes and pack ice, and you can also spot massive flocks of Antarctic petrels numbering in the thousands perched on the ridges of icebergs. You’ll recognize them by their rich brown and white wings and white tail tipped with brown-black feathers.
FUN FACT: Antarctic petrels only lay one elongated, oval egg.
Cape petrels can be identified by their distinctively dotted black-and-white upper body and white underbelly. Their tails, chin throat, bill, legs and bill are also all black. Cape petrels breed in Antarctica, subantarctic islands, subtemperate islands off New Zealand and in the South Indian and South Atlantic Oceans—a much wider distribution area than the Antarctic petrel.
FUN FACT: Cape petrels cannot recognize their own eggs, and so they occasionally rear other species’ chicks.
SOUTHERN GIANT PETREL
Southern giant petrels breed on the Antarctic continent, Antarctic Peninsula and on subantarctic islands such as South Georgia, Heard, Marion Islands and Iles Crozet. They nest in ice-free regions such as the coast, rocky bluffs, offshore rocks and plateau edges.
Southern giant petrels have two color phases: white and dark. Dark phase southern giant petrels have grey-brown bodies with white necks and heads against a brown-speckled chest. White phase southern giant petrels are almost completely white except for some scattered dark brown feathers.
FUN FACT: Southern giant petrel parents will continue to sit on nests completely covered in snow in an effort to protect their eggs.
The aptly named snow petrel is completely white whose small black bill, dark eyes and blue-grey feet stand out against their snowy appearance. They also blend in with their habitat, as they spend almost all of their time over antarctic waters and perching on ice floes, pack ice and icebergs. They breed throughout the Antarctic continent, Antarctic Peninsula and on South Georgia Island, South Sandwich Islands, Balleny Islands, Bouvet Island and South Orkney Islands.
FUN FACT: Storm petrels fly low over the water but high over land to avoid predators.
Subantarctic skuas can be grey-brown or dark-brown and are dotted with white patches. They are a far-ranging bird who can be found as far south as the subantarctic and as far north as the subtropics. Though subantarctic skuas have been spotted on Antarctic islands, they are not known to breed there.
Southern fulmars breed on the Antarctic Peninsula and the Antarctic continent as well as the South Sandwich, South Orkney and South Shetland Islands as well as South Georgia, Bouvet and Pete 1 Islands. While southern fulmars nest on steep coastal cliffs, they head north away from pack ice during the chilly winter months. You can identify southern fulmars by their pink bill and pink-blue feet, largely pale grey bodies and characteristic white patch on the wings.
Fish and Squid
The colossal squid, sometimes called the Antarctic squid, is thought to be the largest
species of squid in the world. Relatively little is known about this species and what is known
has been gleaned from only a few specimens. Analysis of the smaller, immature specimens
estimate that they can grow as large as 40 feet long and weigh around 1,700 pounds. The squid’s arms are lined with sharp hooks to aid with capturing prey. Further, the colossal squid has the largest eyes in the animal kingdom, measuring 12 to 16 inches across. These eyes are thought to be used for predator detection rather than for hunting due to the fact that it ingests around an ounce of food a day. It’s small food intake is due to its relatively slow metabolism.
The colossal squid is thought to range at a depth of around 7,200 feet, though immature specimens can only reach depths of 3,200 feet. Juveniles are preyed upon by many types of animals, including sperm whales and southern elephant seals. However, only sperm whales and sleeper sharks are capable of taking down an adult.
Mackerel icefish belong to a group of “white-blooded” fishes—fishes that can survive without red oxygen carrying pigment hemoglobin in their blood cells. Thus, their blood isn’t necessarily “white,” but colorless. They can largely be found around Iles Kerguelen, Heard and McDonald Islands and South Georgia. They are a significant food source for seals, marine birds and other larger fish.
ANTARCTIC AND PATAGONIAN TOOTHFISH
The Antarctic toothfish and the Patagonian toothfish can be found in the Antarctic region. While the Antarctic toothfish is found at high altitudes closer to the Antarctic continent, the Patagonian toothfish is largely found in subantarctic waters—particularly around island shelves and submarine banks.
FUN FACT: The Antarctic toothfish, unlike the Patagonian toothfish, has antifreeze proteins within its blood and tissues as the seawater is below the tissue’s normal freezing point.
Antarctic cods, an abundant fish, aren’t actually true cods. Antarctic cods are another Antarctic fish whose blood contains antifreeze as a way to prevent it from freezing in the frigid temperatures.
Antarctica has very little in terms of vegetation. A combination of poor soil, lack of lighting during the long winters, extreme temperatures, and ice inhibit the growth of plants. However, about 100 species of moss and 25 species of liverwort do grow, along with three types of flowering plant. Growth is limited to the few weeks in summer where temperatures rise above freezing. Over 1,000 species of fungi also grow in Antarctica, along with several hundred species of multicolored algae that are abundant along the coast and in some rivers.
ANTARCTIC ICE SHEET
Surrounded by the Southern Ocean, Antarctica is home to about 90%
of the world’s ice and 70% of the world’s freshwater. 98% of the continent is covered by the
Antarctic ice sheet. On average this sheet of ice is about one mile thick, though can reach 2.5 miles thick in places. If all this ice were to melt, sea levels would rise two hundred feet. The
continent’s coast is over 95% ice; this ice safeguards the South Pole positioned almost perfectly at the heart of the continent.
RIVERS, LAKES, MOUNTAINS & VOLCANOES
There are more than four hundred lakes in Antarctica, a large number of rivers and extensive mountain ranges. In keeping with Antarctica’s massive size and tendency for one-upmanship, we’re going to tell you about the biggest, highest, and longest.
The longest river is the Onyx, though the Onyx only stretches for twenty miles despite its claim to fame—and can also only be found during the continent’s short, paltry summer. It flows through the Wright Valley as meltwater from the Lower Wright Glacier. No fish live in the river, due to it being frozen for most of the year. However, like most Antarctic rivers, the Onyx does support a
number of microscopic lifeforms, most notably algae.
Located at the Pole of Cold, Lake Vostok is the continent’s largest lake as well as one of the largest subglacial lakes in the world. The surface of Vostok is over 13,000 feet below the
surface of the ice, putting it at almost two thousand feet below sea level. Due to its depth, Vostok was not discovered until 1993, though Soviet explorers and scientists first posited its existence in 1959 almost forty years prior. Sealed off from earth’s surface for millions of years, Vostok remains a location of scientific inquiry and significance; if life of any kind is discovered in its depths, it would be a breakthrough and would also support theories of the existence of life on
Jupiter and Saturn’s moons Europa and Enceladus.
The Ellsworth Mountains are the continent’s highest mountain range. Over two hundred miles long, thirty miles wide, and over 16,000 feet high at Mt. Vinson Massif, the range is bisected by the Minnesota Glacier, splitting it into the northern Sentinel Range and southern Heritage Range.The Sentinel Range is much larger and also houses the towering Vinson Massif. With an average temperature of -20 °F, the best time to attempt a summit of these mountains is in the summer months from November to January.
There are also several active volcanoes in the region, with Mount Erebus being the world’s southernmost active volcano. The most recent major eruption was from Deception Island in 1970. However, minor eruptions are more common and lava flows have been observed frequently in recent years. Several underwater volcanoes have also been discovered; the underwater volcano most recently discovered in 2004 off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula might even be active.
Almost two hundred million years ago, Antarctica was part of the supercontinent Gondwana. At this time Antarctica was much further north and not the dry, cold wasteland of the present-day. Instead, Antartica experienced a tropical climate and was covered by forests and inhabited by ancient lifeforms. Over the course of millions of years Antarctica gradually moved south from near the equator. Sandstone, limestone, and shale built up and the continent grew swampy. As the landmass moved south, the world warmed, leading to much of Antarctica to become a dry, hot desert. Islands began rising from the ocean depths and dinosaurs roamed during this time.
25 million years ago, Gondwana broke apart, though Antarctica, Africa, India, and Australia still formed one landmass. 160 million years ago, Africa was the first to go, followed closely by India about 35 million years later. 66 million years ago Antarctica and Australia still had subtropical climates dominated by coniferous forests and dinosaurs. About 40 million years ago, what is now New Guinea and most of Oceana broke off from Antarctica.
Glacial spread began in stages, first starting around the time New Guinea broke off from the rest of the continent. Ocean currents began to isolate Antarctica from Australia and the ice began to spread, replacing the continent’s coniferous forests. This glacial spread occurred around the same time as the Eocene–Oligocene extinction event 34 million years ago. This extinction event mostly affected aquatic life and resulted in declining levels of carbon dioxide, exacerbating the region’s rapidly expanding ice. For the last 15 million years the continent has been completely covered by ice.
When to Go
November-December: Landscape photography is at its best as massive fields of icebergs have vibrant colors ranging from iridescent white to aquamarine and animals have not yet begun to move on the snowscapes. Weddel seals and southern elephant seals have begun to bask on the ice fields, penguins begin to court and nest, and orcas begin to return for the summer feeding season.
January- mid-February: This is the best time to travel to Antarctica. With around 20 hours of sunlight beaming down through January, glaciers calving and icebergs melting, Antarctica has plenty of ever-changing landscapes to bewitch you. Penguins begin to hatch late December, so this is a great time to watch the young play onshore. Whale watching is also incredible at this time, particularly in Wilhelmina Bay.
Mid-February-end-of-season: This is a great season to visit the Antarctica if you were hoping to delve further south along with receding ice. Though the days are shorter, the sunsets are amazing. Humpback whales, orcas, and minke whales are plentiful, and you may sight blue whales, sei whales, sperm whales, southern right whales, and fin whales as well.
Where to go
King George Island
Named for the infamous King George III, this island is home to elephant, leopard, and Weddel seals, along with Adelie, chinstrap, and Gentoo penguins and other birds that nest during the summer months. Many research stations from a variety of different countries around the world are found on King George Island. A Russian Orthodox Church was built on the island in 2004, making it the southernmost church in the world and one of Antarctica’s few permanent structures. During the summer the island hosts the Antarctic Marathon, open to employees of the United States Antarctic Program, United States Air Force personnel on duty at McMurdo Station and Kiwis from New Zealand's nearby research station.
Also known as Kodak Gap, Lemaire Channel is one of Antarctica’s top tourist destinations, now famous for its steep ice cliffs and remarkably still waters. Despite the stillness of the waters, navigation is still treacherous, due to the abundance of icebergs in the water. Those lucky enough to pass through the channel will be awed by the pristine beauty of the glaciers and profound stillness of the waters.
Previously a whaling station, Deception Island is now a scientific outpost, where Antarctica’s first fossilized plants were discovered. Tourists visit the island for its colonies of chinstrap penguins, active volcano, and the island’s volcanic bath phenomenon. On this island’s beaches, visitors can dig into the sands of the beach and take warm volcanic baths. The shallow water provides the strange, simultaneous sensation of the volcano’s steam and island’s freezing weather.
Graham Land and Wilhelmina Bay
Off the coast of Graham Land, the northernmost portion of the Antarctic Peninsula, closest to South America, is the famous Wilhelmina Bay. Known for its spectacular scenery and the abundance of whales in its waters, Wilhelmina Bay is one of the most popular destinations for Antarctic travelers. The bay is surrounded by steep cliffs mounded with snow and topped with glaciers
Neko Harbor and Paradise Harbor
Neko Harbor is a small inlet near Andvord Bay. Since most of the Antarctic coast is covered in glaciers, and the few areas free of ice are locales comprised of steep rock, Neko Harbor remains one of the few areas where visitors may walk on the actual coast of the southernmost continent. The scenery of a glacier’s splitting front a few hundred feet from the shore is sure to amaze newcomers to Antarctica and set the tone for a trip full of similar natural beauties. Nevertheless, the site is also dangerous, and visitors must use caution, as calving glaciers may cause huge waves.
However, visitors should enjoy this snapshot of Antarctica while they’re there. Here you may see a colony of over one hundred penguins which breed their and maybe a couple leopard seals lurking in the waters, waiting for an unsuspecting penguin to drift too close. Minke whales are also known to frequent the waters of the inlet. The nearby Paradise Harbor is another popular stop for tourists and cruise ships.
Half Moon Island
A tiny island north of the Burgas Peninsula, Half Moon Island has developed a reputation for cuteness due to the bird colonies that make their home on the island. Of particular importance are the chinstrap penguins. Barely over two feet tall these tiny, flightless birds have been winning hearts long before Roy and Silo earnestly tried to hatch a rock at the Central Park Zoo in 2004. Other birds, such as the blue eyed shag and the south polar skua make their homes here and whales are often seen patrolling the shores. A mile long walking path grants explorers a close view of the wildlife and breathtaking surrounding scenery.
Named for the migratory elephant seals sighted by early explorers, Elephant Island supports no significant wildlife or flora, save for the seals, penguins, and other birds that pass through on their migratory journeys. Whale levels are still low due to decades long illegal whaling by the Soviet Union and Japan. What the island lacks in flora and fauna it makes up with stunning views of the surrounding land. However, Elephant Island is most famous as the desolate refuge of British explorers Ernest Shackleton and his crew. In 1916 Shackleton and his crew spent over four months stranded on the island in the depths of winter before being rescued by the supply ship Yelcho in late August of 1916.
HEALTH AND SAFETY FOR ANTARCTIC/ARCTIC
No vaccinations are required for traveling to the polar regions of the Antarctic or Arctic. However, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that travelers should be up-to-date on routine vaccinations. The CDC also advises the following inoculations for visiting many of polar region’s gateway countries: yellow fever, hepatitis A and B, typhoid, rabies.
Please check with the CDC’s website to find out more health information pertaining to individual countries.
Taking out travel insurance before setting off on your adventure protects against injury, illness, loss, theft and more. While travel insurance policies cover problems such as loss of baggage, tickets and cancellations, many exclude activities considered as “dangerous sports” unless you pay an additional premium. Make sure that your travel insurance covers the range of activities you may be participating in, such as as kayaking, as well as emergency evacuation. While ships provide basic medical supplies and on-board physicians, serious treatment necessitates evacuation.
As always, keep receipts for any medical treatment and medicines you receive while traveling. and obtain a statement from the police if later need to make a claim.
As travelers spend much of their time in the Arctic and Antarctic at sea, seasickness is a common symptom. Consider the best remedies for you, such as wristbands, medication, patches or ginger.
The CDC has reported Zika outbreaks in Argentina and advises travelers to practice appropriate precautions. Check out the CDC's website for updated travel alerts, and please review our prepared Zika Virus Travel Tips on the Health & Safety dropdown menu to help you travel healthy.
While the cold may be deceiving, the sun’s harsh rays can be made more intense as they reflect off of snow, ice and water. Protective sunglasses and sunscreen go a long way toward keeping your skin safe from sun exposure.
Preparing your body for the activities awaiting you and being in good physical shape go a long way toward enjoying your polar adventure. Activities such as trekking, kayaking and boarding zodiacs can be physically taxing, so preparing your body and being in shape is highly recommended.
Make sure to pay attention to your guides’ safety orientations. The environment and the wildlife can be fierce, so stay with your group and don’t approach wildlife. Also, seasons can change
quickly throughout the Arctic, so pack additional layers.
You’ll be passing through either Punta Arenas, Chile and Ushuaia, Argentina on your way to Antarctica as these two cities serve as our primary gateways for our Antarctic adventures.
Visas are not required to gain entry into Chile or Argentina for citizens of United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and most European countries if you are going to stay for 90 days or less.
You’re required to have a passport valid for the duration of your stay to enter both Chile and Argentina.
Chile Power Outlets only accept rounded 3 or 2-pin plugs.
Argentina Power Outlets accept rounded 2-pin and diagonal 2-pin plugs.
Chile's Punta Arenas serves as the primary gateway into the Antarctic.
Argentina’s Ushuaia serves as the primary gateway into the Antarctic
Antarctica itself doesn’t have any official currency. However, Punta Arenas, Chile and Ushuaia, Argentina serve as our primary gateways for our Antarctic adventures. Here’s what you need to know for these countries:
Chile’s official currency is the Chilean Peso ($ or CLP) and Argentina’s official currency is the Argentinean Peso (ARG$).
When traveling to either city, it’s helpful to carry local currency as well as some USD currency.
CREDIT CARDS & ATMS
Visa and Mastercard are the most widely accepted credit cards in both Chile and Argentina, though Diners Club and American Express can also be accepted. You can find ATMs throughout the cities.
It is customary to tip around 10-15% at restaurants in Argentina and Chile.
Antarctica is the coldest of Earth’s continents—far colder even than its polar opposite, the Arctic. In summer the warmest it can get is nearly 60 °F, while in the winter the temperature can drop to as cold as -128 °F.
Three primary reasons cause the difference in temperature between the two poles: first of all, much of Antarctica is nearly 10,000 feet above sea level; secondly, the Arctic is almost completely covered by the Arctic Ocean, and the ocean’s relative warmth transfers through the ice, preventing the extreme temperatures of Antarctica from occurring in its northern counterpart; thirdly, the Earth is closer to the sun during an Arctic winter and further from the sun during an Antarctic winter. This orbital difference makes the Antarctic the more extreme of the two poles. With the Earth physically closer to the sun during an Arctic winter, it also makes an Antarctic summer moderately warmer than an Arctic summer.
Beyond its chilly temperatures, the continent is a frozen desert that receives little precipitation. The South Pole itself receives less than four inches of precipitation per year. Precipitation is much more common along the coast, where as much as 48 inches of snow in 48 hours has been recorded. Katabatic winds are also common along the coast. Though mostly moderate, these winds can reach hurricane intensities.
Because of its higher elevation, eastern Antarctica is much colder than the western half of the continent. The mountains prevent weather fronts from penetrating deep into the continent, leaving its interior cold and dry.
Due to its southern latitude, constant periods of either darkness or sunlight creates highly unusual climates for humans. Sunburn is a problem throughout the year due to the ice reflecting much of the sun’s ultraviolet light.
Meet Our Guides
Can Children Travel on Small Ships?
Yes. Although the voyages are not directed towards children, we do encourage families with children on our voyages. Please contact us for more information if you are thinking of traveling with anyone under the age of 16.
How Difficult Is It to Get In and Out of the Landing Zodiacs?
Assistance getting in and out of the Zodiacs will be offered by our staff. There are possible wet landings where you will be required to disembark the zodiac into ankle deep water - making rubber boots a necessary item.
Is there Email/Internet Access Onboard the One Ocean Expeditions Ship?
Yes, there is email access available through our satellite communication equipment for a charge.
Does Polar Unbound Accommodate Single Travelers?
A good number of our clients come alone and some purchase the single cabin option on our cruise ships. For those wishing to share, we will pair single travelers of the same gender together at no charge.
How Much Room is There for Luggage Aboard Cruise Ships?
There is storage space for empty luggage in the cabins under your bunk. Alternatively we can stow your baggage safely elsewhere on the ship. There is ample space for your clothing in cupboards and drawers in your cabin.
Should I be Concerned about Sea Sickness?
If you feel that you are particularly susceptible to seasickness, then it is a good idea to talk to your own doctor. Come armed with motion sickness tablets. There will be a doctor on board and the ship is equipped with a small treatment facility.
What is Antarctica Kayaking Like?
Antarctica kayaking is completely dependent on weather and sea conditions. A typical kayak trip ranges from 30 minutes to one hour. Our goal is to give those guests who wish to kayak an opportunity to do so at least twice during our Antarctic voyage.Do I have to have previous kayaking experience? It's best if you have had previous kayaking experience. If you don't have previous experience, then find a class or other way to kayak prior to the trip. The kayaks are covered sea kayaks, so it's also helpful if you know how to do a wet exit in the remote chance that you tip over.
How Far in Advance Should I Book My trip?
There are many travel arrangements that must be coordinated for any Antarctica trip. Space on our vessel is limited. Generally we recommend that you book four to twelve months in advance. However, space may be available closer to the departure date, so don't hesitate to check with us.
Is Polar Unbound Able to Arrange Extensions for Antarctic Tours?
We have been working with partners in the southern hemisphere since 1992, and have plenty of ideas for extending your trip whether it be hiking in Peru or snorkeling in Galapagos. Guests often combine a trip to Antarctica with a visit to Machu Picchu. Another popular destination to consider is the Easter Islands. We are passionate about travel and are eager to hear about your interests to help you plan your adventure.
Do the Cruise Ships Have Amenities?
Yes. For instance, addition to our fascinating ongoing lecture series, there is also a bar and a gift shop onboard the Sea Explorer. You can purchase wine or beer and enjoy observing the passing scenery in one of the many observation areas onboard while sailing along the Antarctic Peninsula. There is also a gift shop on board where guests can shop for gifts for family and friends. The Ocean Nova also has internet access available for purchase.
What Clothing is Provided?
We provide dry suits for the kayaks as well as water-proof boots. If you prefer to rent a parka from our ship, please let us know, and we will make sure there is one available for you.
What Kind of Clothing Will I Need?
We will provide you with a complete packing list. Here are a few tips: Bring loose, breathable layers of wool, silk or fleece as opposed to cotton polar fleece is a very popular choice. Waterproof pants are required for zodiac expeditions and kayak trips. You have the option of bringing your own parka or renting a coat on board. If you do choose to rent a parka, please let us know as soon as possible so we can reserve one for you. If you are bringing your own parka, look for one that is lightweight, roomy, and wind and weather resistant. Bright colors are more visible, so they are a safer option for use in the Polar regions. Bring a wool or polar fleece sweater. No one likes cold hands, so bring gloves to keep your hands warm and dry. We suggest wearing a polypropylene liner under gloves so your hands will be protected when you remove gloves or mittens to take photos. A wool Cap is great for protecting ears.