Antarctica is a land of extremes: it is the coldest and driest continent on Earth and has the highest average elevation. As the fifth largest continent in the world, Antarctica is also the most Southern, overlying the “South Pole”. Scarcely touched by humans, the frozen land boasts breathtaking scenery, broken by only a handful of scientific bases and a “permanent” population of scientists numbering only a few thousand. Visitors to Antarctica generally must brave rough sea crossings aboard ice-strengthened vessels, but those who do are rewarded with amazing scenery and tremendous and unique wildlife.
Although several countries have laid claim to various portions of Antarctica, it is governed by the 1958 Antarctic Treaty, which establishes the continent as a peaceful and cooperative international research zone. There are no cities per se, just some two dozen research stations with a total population ranging from 1000-4000 depending on the time of year. These are maintained for scientific purposes only, and do not provide any official support for tourism. The laws of the nation operating each research station apply there.
Private travel to Antarctica generally takes one of three forms:
- commercial sea voyages with shore visits (by far the most popular)
- specially mounted land expeditions, or
- sightseeing by air.
Approximately 80 companies belong to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, a membership organization which regulates non-research travel to the region. In the 2005-2006 summer season, an estimated 26,250 people visited Antarctica or the surrounding waters.
Flora and fauna
Antarctica is notable for being the only continent with no significant land plant life and no native land mammals, reptiles, or amphibians. (There are no polar bears; they are only at the North Pole.) However its shoreline serves as nesting ground for many species of migratory birds and penguins, and the Southern Ocean surrounding it is home to many fish and marine mammals, including whales.
Don’t be fooled by all the ice: Antarctica is a desert. The region’s moisture is all tied up in frigid seawater and the huge sheets, shelves, and packs of ice which cover nearly all of the continent plus surrounding waters. There is little snowfall here, and even less rain.
For tourists, Antarctica is accessible only during the austral summer season from November to March, during which sea ice melts enough to allow access, coastal temperatures can rise up to highs of 14°C (57°F) and there are twenty four hours of daylight. During the winter the sea is impassable. Temperatures can fall to -40°C/F and there are twenty four hours of darkness.
The above temperatures apply to the islands and coastal regions that tourists ordinarily visit. Temperatures in the interior, such as the South Pole, are far harsher, with summer highs of around -15°C (5°F) and winter lows plummeting to -80°C (-112°F).
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