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Antarctica

Photo © samham

Travel Guide Antarctica

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Introduction

Antarctica

Antarctica

© All Rights Reserved marlis

Antarctica is the world's biggest wilderness, the last of a dying breed. The bitter cold and discouraging conditions have made this a home for either the very foolish or the very hardy and neither of these two distinct groups come here for a casual visit - research is certainly the most common reason for living in Antarctica.

Tours of Antarctica allow for another two distinct types of people: those who want to enjoy the sights without suffering the cold, and those who'll brave the Antarctic conditions. For the former, flights from Australia are the way to go, since they do not set down but instead provide a powerful glimpse into the heart of Antarctica. For the rugged spirits, cruises from US$3,000 (if you're lucky) are a little more adventurous and a whole lot more rewarding.

Although Antarctica has inhabitants, ranging from around 1,000 in winter to about 5,000 in summer, there is only one permanent inhabitant: a priest!

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Brief History

The history of Antarctica started when it broke loose of Gondwana, and then drifted ever further south. If you imagine Antarctica, your first image will be of snow and ice, but it is good to keep in mind that in ancient times this massive continent was covered with trees and was of a tropical nature. The human history is a pretty short one, as it wasn't until 1820 that people visited Antarctica. It's not certain who first landed on the continent, but its existence was already known a couple of centuries before that first visit.

In 1903 the first permanent base was set up by Argentina on the South Orkney Islands, and soon after that the Race to the Pole broke loose. On 14 December 1911 an expedition led by Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, reached the South Pole. He was followed shortly after that, by the Englishman Scott, who died on the return trip.

The Antarctic Treaty was signed on 1 December 1959 and came into force on 23 June 1961. Among other provisions, this treaty limits military activity in the Antarctic to the support of scientific research.

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Geography

Antarctica is the southermost chunk of landmass in the world, almost entirely located south of the Antarctic circle and is about 14.4 million square kilometers big, approximately 1.5 times the size of Russia. About 98% of the total area is covered with ice, sometimes up to kilometers thick. It is also the continent with the highest average elevation. Vinson Massif in the Elllsworth Mountains is the highest point at 4,892 metres above sea level. Mount Erebus is the only active volcano on Antarctica. It is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. Antarctica is divided in two parts. The dividing raneg are the Transantarctic Mountains close to the neck between the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea. The area west of the Weddell Sea and east of the Ross Sea is named Western Antarctica. The other part is called Eastern Antarctica. These areas roughly correspond to the Western and Eastern Hemispheres.

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Regions

  • Antarctic Peninsula - Antarctica's principal destination, nearest to Tierra del Fuego, with the impressive topography of the Antarctic Andes, island hot springs, and the continent's densest concentration of research stations
  • East Antarctica - The Eastern Hemisphere's vast icy desert wasteland that makes up most of the continent is probably the least well known to tourists, but there are a few interesting destinations, including Mawson's Huts and the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility
  • Ross Sea - The principal destination for cruise ships leaving Australia and New Zealand has some of Antarctica's most impressive sights around volcanic Ross Island and the huge Transantarctic Mountain Chain
  • South Pole - Unlike its northern cousin, the South Pole sits upon stationary ground, and therefore supports a permanent research station and a ceremonial "pole"
  • West Antarctica - With the exception of the Antarctic Peninsula, West Antarctica is barren and empty, even of research stations (except for the Brunt Ice Shelf), but it does contain the continent's highest and lowest points, the former of which you can climb on a guided expedition

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Sights and Activities

The primary destinations for those visiting Antarctica will either be a research base (for those working on the frozen continent) or the Antarctic Peninsula or Ross Sea area (for those visiting by ship). Other destinations are reachable only by those blessed with extreme motivation and (most importantly) funding.

  • South Pole - needs no introduction.
  • Southern pole of inaccessibility - the furthest place in Antarctica from the Southern Sea (in other words the hardest place to get to in the world), home to an abandoned Soviet station, which although covered by snow, still bears a visible gold Lenin bust sprouting from the snow and facing Moscow (if you can find a way inside the building, then there's a golden visitor book to sign).
  • Mount Erebus - world's southernmost active volcano, on Ross Island right next to Mount Terror.
  • Anver Island / Anvord Bay - if any part of Antarctica is "touristy," this is it, home to Palmer Station (U.S.), the museum at Port Lockroy, Cuverville Island, and the only two cruise ship stops on the continent: Paradise Bay and Neko Harbor.
  • South Shetland Islands - another set of major attractions on the Antarctic Peninsula cruise ship circuit, including: penguins and hot springs at Deception Island, Hannah Point, Half Moon Island, Aitcho Islands, Artigas Base (Uruguay), and the ever friendly Polish researchers at Arctowski Station.
  • McMurdo Sound - McMurdo Station (USA) and Scott Base (New Zealand) on the mainland near Ross Island.
  • Mawson's Huts - the small encampment of Sir Douglas Mawson's ill-fated Australian Antarctic Expedition, of which he was the sole survivor, at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay.

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Weather

The weather is probably the only disadvantage of going to Antarctica. You won't experience warm weather here.

When visiting during the summer months of December to February, temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula can reach 10 °C, or slightly higher if you are lucky. With the normal boat trips, you will visit during this time anyway, or maybe in November or March. Other months are almost out of the question due to waters frozen solid. Still, in summer, temperatures can drop below 0 °C, especially if you are lucky enough to go more inland.

During winter, temperatures can drop way below -50 °C. The all-time record in the world still stands at -89 °C, at Russia's Vostok weather station, located at higher altitude and with winds blowing all the time. The windchill might as well be much lower than -100 °C!

Antarctica is not only one of the windiest continents, but also one of the driest, mainly because it's too cold to have any rain or even snow. The Dry Valleys are known to have been dry for at least thousands, if not millions of years, making it the driest area in the world - even drier than the Atacama desert in Chile.

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Getting There

Basically, you can either go to Antarctica by plane or by boat. Both are expensive. In the case of flying, most people tend to be in a hurry and just want to visit Antarctica for a day or so (some just fly over the continent!). If paying that amount of money and you have time, it's best to settle for a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the most popular and (relatively) affordable options.

By Plane

There are no scheduled services to Antarctica, but there are options to visit Antarctica on brief trips by plane, usually from Punta Arenas or Ushuaia. These trips sometimes only include a brief stopover of one night, though you can also opt for either flying to Antarctica and return by boat, or vice versa. If you really have money to burn, there are options (usually in summer only) to fly directly to the South Pole itself.

Aircraft and pilots need to be capable of landing on ice, snow, or gravel runways, as there are no paved runways; see general aviation. There are 28 airport landing facilities in Antarctica and all 37 Antarctic stations have helipads. Landings are generally restricted to the daylight season (Summer months from October to March). Winter landings have been performed at Williams Field but low temperatures mean that aircraft cannot stay on the ice longer than an hour or so as their skis may freeze to the ice runway. Travel is often by military aircraft, as part of the cargo. In this situation passengers should anticipate carrying all their own luggage and may need to assist with freight as well. Commercial flights to Antarctica are rare, but available. Aerovías DAP and Adventure Network International offer commercial flights to Frei Station on King George Island and the ANI Union Glacier Camp, respectively. If taking the Aerovías DAP flight as part of a tour with Antarctica XXI, the tour company transfers all checked luggage to your lodging.

Major landing fields include:

  • Teniente Rodolfo Marsh Martin Aerodrome (IATA: TNM) - Serves Frei Base, Bellingshausen Station, Great Wall Base, General Artigas Station, King Sejong Station, Jubany Base, Commandante Ferraz Base, Henryk Arctowski Base, and Machu Picchu Base. It's distinguished by being the only place in the whole continent of Antarctica with an IATA code.
  • Williams Field - Serves McMurdo Station and Scott Base.
  • Pegasus Blue-Ice Runway - Serves McMurdo Station and Scott Base.
  • Annual Sea-Ice Runway - Serves McMurdo Station and Scott Base.
  • Union Glacier Blue-Ice Runway - Operated by Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions LLC

Commercial overflights to Antarctica are limited - a handful of operators offer flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Punta Arenas. These flights typically visit Antarctica and spend several hours flying over the ice. Passengers in most seating classes rotate their position in the row halfway into the flight, to give everyone a window or one-over-from-window seat for half of the time. Rates range from USD5200 for first class, to USD1,400 for partially-obstructed-view economy class, or USD900 for non-rotating centre-section seats with window access depending on the courtesy of better-seated travellers.

By Boat

Although there are possibilities to get to Antarctica from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Chile, the most popular way is by boat from Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego, southern Argentina. Prices usually start at around US$3,000 for which you get a triple room, sometimes without views. Prices tend to be somewhat lower in November and March, but higher from December to February, peaking around Christmas and Newyears. Prices go up fast and booking a trip will set you back at least US$5,000 or more in most cases, much more if you want some luxury or a cabin to yourself with great views! Trips usually last around 10 to 12 days, longer if you add some of the islands in between South America and Antarctica, like the South Shetland Islands, Falkland Islands or South Orkneys Islands. In the latter case, prices are much higher again. Boats from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula take around 2 to 3 days at least and taking some precautions against seasickness is highly recommended.

Boat trips from other countries, like Australia and New Zealand, tend to be much more luxurious, longer and thus much more expensive with US$8,000 being somewhat the best bargain you can find.

About a dozen charter sailboats, many of them members of IAATO, offer three to six week voyages to the Antarctic Peninsula from South America. Most offer "expedition style" trips where guests are invited to help out, although usually no prior sailing experience is required. Yachts take individuals on a "by the bunk" basis and also support private expeditions such as scientific research, mountaineering, kayaking, and film-making. Compared to the more popular cruise ships, a small yacht can be more work and significantly less comfortable, but typically allows more freedom and flexibility. For the right people this can be a far more rewarding experience.

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Getting Around

Ponies, sledges and dogs, skis, tractors, snow cats (and similar tracked vehicles) and aircraft including helicopters and ski planes have all been used to get around Antarctica. Cruise ships use zodiac boats to ferry tourists from ship to shore in small groups. Bring your own fuel and food, or arrange supplies in advance. You cannot purchase fuel or food on the continent. Cruise ships come fully prepared with landing transport, food, etc. Some (but not all) even provide cold-weather clothing.

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Sleep

Antarctica has 24-hour sunshine during the southern hemisphere summer, and 24-hours of nighttime during the winter. Visitors should ensure that they take steps to keep regular sleeping hours as continuous daylight disturbs the body clock. There are no hotels or lodges on the continent, and research bases will not generally house guests. Most visitors sleep aboard their boat, although land expeditions will use tents for shelter.

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Language

The native languages of the nations' operating bases are used. English is the lingua franca used between different stations. As there is no indigenous antarctic population and only a handful of people were ever born here, there is no official or indigenous native language for the continent whatsoever.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

Antarctica is an extreme environment, and accidents are unavoidable. Every year numerous people are injured or even killed visiting the Antarctic, and while this should not dissuade people from visiting, it should encourage visitors to exercise caution and make a realistic evaluation of their own abilities when choosing a trip.

As most visitors to Antarctica will arrive by boat, the greatest dangers occur due to storms at sea. The weather in the Southern Ocean is nature at its most extreme, with the potential for hurricane force winds and waves as high as 18-23 metres. With modern safety and ship design the odds of sinking are low, but the odds of being thrown about by a wave are high. When on a boat in rough weather always make sure that you have at least one secure handhold, and avoid opening doors during storms as a sudden shift in the waves can easily bring a heavy door crashing back onto a body part. In severe weather stay in your cabin and wait for the storm to subside. Similarly, be extremely cautious when returning to ship via a zodiac and follow crew instructions - a landing platform in rough weather can be deadly should you slip and fall.

Weather on the continent is equally extreme, although most visitors pack appropriate gear. For expeditions there are limited search-and-rescue options, so expeditions must plan for all contingencies. There is no formal government or legal system in Antarctica, but the laws of the country of origin or departure as well as those of a claimant government may apply. Rules regarding protection of the environment and of historical sites will be strictly enforced, and fines can be extreme.

Also note that when visiting Antarctica that a hospital is usually days away. Most ships and research stations have a doctor, but facilities are limited. In cases where evacuation is required (if even possible), costs can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Many Antarctic cruise operators require passengers to obtain evacuation insurance. Before embarking on an Antarctic journey, those with pre-existing conditions should strongly consider the risks of venturing into a land where medical help may not be available.

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Health

See also Travel Health

Antarctica has an extreme environment. Cold weather is a major health hazard. Visitors should be properly prepared and equipped for any visit. Waterproof and windproof gloves, coat, pants, and boots are an absolute necessity. Other necessities that are often overlooked include sunscreen and sunglasses - summertime visitors will be exposed to the sun's rays from above and from reflections off of snow, ice, and water. Additionally, those arriving by boat are strongly encouraged to take some seasickness medicine on their journey, as even the most seaworthy individual will feel queasy in a severe storm; check with your doctor to determine what medicine is appropriate for you to bring.

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Work

It is possible to obtain employment with scientific expeditions in Antarctica. Induction and training need to be undertaken before departure for Antarctica. The following agencies are responsible for staffing bases in Antarctica:

  • Antarctic Support Contract - Agency responsible for staffing all United States Antarctic bases. Applicants can apply through the web site or at one of the Antarctic job fairs held around the country.
  • British Antarctic Survey - The British Antarctic Survey staffs bases in the Antarctic and surround region including the Falklands and South Georgia.

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Quick Facts

Antarctica flag

Map of Antarctica

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Capital
None
Government
None (Antarctic Treaty System)
Nationality
None
Population
1,000-5,000, depending on season
Calling Code
Dependent on the base

Contributors

as well as Peter (6%), Hien (6%), Herr Bert (2%), Lavafalls (1%)

Antarctica Travel Helpers

  • vagamundo

    Have been travelling there about 50 times. Let me know if you have any questions about the expedition cruises.

    Also about Pagatonias coast/fjords (Chile, Argentina), Buenos Aires, Ushuaia and my favourite: Salta & region (Argentina).

    Ask vagamundo a question about Antarctica

Community Activity

This is version 14. Last edited at 11:56 on Aug 3, 17 by Utrecht. 41 articles link to this page.

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