With its massive icebergs, jagged mountain ranges, and vast expanses of empty polar planes, Antarctica presents some of the most awe-inspiring landscape on the planet. While it is the coldest, driest, windiest, most uninhabitable continent on earth, such extreme conditions provide for dreamlike vistas and an undisturbed frozen wonderland populated by only the most adaptable creatures. It is the largest remaining wilderness, spanning 13.6 million square kilometers around the South Pole and covered with a sheet of ice 4 kilometers deep at its thinnest. While icy terrain and bone chilling temperatures make it inhospitable to most, a wide variety of penguins, seals, whales, seabirds, and a small handful of brave humans call Antarctica home.
Antarctica has maintained a special mystique since before its existence was even confirmed. Long before anyone set eyes on the continent, Pythagoras and Aristotle postulated that the earth would topple over if there weren’t a substantial land mass at the bottom of the globe to balance the northern continents. Though never sighting land, James Cook became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle in 1773. It wasn’t until 1820 that Russian explorer Fabian von Bellingshausen became the first person to see the lands of the Antarctic, stirring curiosity and prompting expeditions from many European nations.
Though several countries have since made territorial claims over areas of the region, no single nation has definitive control over any part, as is maintained by the Antarctic Treaty of 1961. Today Antarctica is host to international scientific research sites among several nations sharing curiosity and increasing concerns about the future of the region.
Antarctica is not easy to access and relatively few make the journey, adding to its austere beauty and allure. Adventurous travelers will find endless untouched lands of otherworldly landscapes marked by gaping glacial deserts, luminous carved icebergs, and towering mountain peaks. Whether exploring by boat or by aircraft, a trip to Antarctica is bound to be a magical, unmatched experience.
Spots not to miss on your trip to Antarctica:
The Antarctic Peninsula is outlined by jagged mountaintops and glaciers and offers some of the best wildlife-viewing opportunities on the continent. Visit the Lemaire Channel, Hope Bay, Paradise Bay and Wiencke Island to witness historical sites and museums.
The historically rich Falkland Islands, made up of over 700 islands, are not considered sub-Antarctic but are still a common stop for tourists. Travelers can enjoy wildlife viewing, trekking, horseback riding, fishing and scuba diving. Wildlife zealots should not miss a visit to Sea Lion Island.
Two mountain ranges outline the narrow landscape of the South Georgia Islands creating a breathtaking view. In spite of its dark whaling and sealing history, which nearly drove the animals into extinction, wildlife now flourishes. Witnessing the animals in such impressive numbers is an experience not to be missed.
The South Shetland Islands are worth visiting as well. View the remains of the Endurance, ship wreckage from the famous journey of Ernest Shackleton at Elephant Island. Visit King George Island, one of the most populated locations in Antarctica. Livington Island is an important historic site with a museum set up by scientists and researchers. A favorite destination is Deception Island where travelers can see the ghostly remains of whaling stations as well as take advantage of the rare opportunity to take a dip in the Antarctic Ocean. The warm waters are heated by the island’s volcanic activity.
Depending on your itinerary, opportunities for kayaking, on-shore camping and scuba diving are available as well.
Travel to Antarctica is somewhat limited with cruise ships departing Ushuaia, Argentina from November through March, as polar ice blocks ship traffic and temperatures plunge into the negative degrees during other months. There are several options for exploring the region, depending on your budget and the amount of time you have to spend. Cruise ships range from small research to luxury expedition ships, and cruises can last as long as three weeks, while shorter trips are generally 9 to 12 days. Plan for at least two days of sea travel each way, and be sure to take advantage of the lectures on natural history, weather and wildlife available on board. Once in the Antarctic region, zodiac excursions transport travelers from the ship to land and provide up-close encounters with wildlife and icebergs. Though several travel agencies offer outings, trips are similar and many commission the same ships. Most shorter cruises depart from Ushuaia, traveling through the Beagle Channel, into the South Shetland Islands, around the Antarctic Peninsula and back through the Drake passage to Argentina.