Antarctica (also known as the South Pole), was officially only discovered by humans 200 years ago, the final large undiscovered land. It’s uninhabitable for humans, really, but it’s paradise for whales, penguins and seals. They’re remarkably tolerant to humans.
The rich fauna here is thanks to its large presence of krill, tiny crustaceans that form the most beloved food source for many animals. Since recently, tourists can visit this icy paradise.
Kalle Ljung took this wonderful drone footage while he travelled from Ushuaia (Argentina) to Port Williams (Chile), via Cape Horn and the Melchior Islands to Antarctica. See for yourself how amazing it is.
For many people the place is magical, a white world of wonder and extremes, but despite this you can see all kinds of creatures. Much of Antarctica’s flora and fauna is unique. And it’s mainly the domain of the penguins, of which there are seven different breeds here. You can stand among a mass of millions of penguins here, and get lost between the floes of drift ice and vistas.
Antarctica is as large as its reputation makes you believe. It’s a vast area (including surrounding islands) that doesn’t belong to any country, though many countries try to lay a claim to parts of it. This is not because of the ice or natural beauty, but because of the natural resources that can be found here, like oil and gas.
The landscape is untouched and very wild: it’s intersected with glaciers, mountain peaks, fjords and icebergs. There are natural works of art everywhere, the wind plays sculptor with the ice and snow. It’s considered the final frontier of the ‘real’ wilderness in the world, because it’s not yet in the grasp of humankind.
Accepted is that Antarctica was discovered only 200 years ago, but it’s possible that Dutchman Dirck Gerritsz was the first there. He was an explorer and lived from 1544–1608. According to the log book of the merchant Jacob Lemaire from Amsterdam, captain Gerritsz and his crew saw Antarctica from their ship in 1599. They were trying to navigate their ship Het Vliegend Hert along the bottom of South America to find a trade route to India.
But bad weather caused the battered ship to drift aimlessly for five weeks, taken further and further south by the wind. Though this account of events isn’t quite taken as fact in the history books, despite Jacob Lemaire’s good reputation at the time. He was on board the first ship, as was Cornelisz Schouten, to pass Cape Horn in 1616, a journey that confirmed that Tierra del Fuego is an island.
Explorers have always been drawn to Antarctica, wanting to map this continent, or be the first to reach the South Pole, or find the South Magnetic Pole.
These explorers include many names that are now world renowned, and have seas, mountain ranges, or other landmarks named after them.
These days, this area that has been declared a nature reserve has become quite easily reachable by boat for tourists from South America and Oceania. And increasingly by plane as well. But despite this, it’s still a relatively exclusive travel destination.
Most tourists spend several weeks on a ship and making many excursions, either by zodiac (a small rubber boat) or on foot.
You can get here from South America or New Zealand. And you can do a daytrip from Australia, where a Boeing 747 takes daily flights for excursions to Antarctica, where you can soar over the icy landscape.
The climate on the Antarctic Peninsula only allows for two kinds of plants to grow: Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort. The only other thing that grows there is moss, you can find about 350 kinds of moss on the peninsula. The winter freeze-dries these mosses, and it comes back to life in spring time. Scientists have discovered that some of the mosses may be more than 2.000 years old.
One of the highlights of Antarctica is the peninsula, where it’s a lot less cold than it is on the south pole. In summer, some parts are even free of ice, this areas is mountainous and popular with researchers.
Scientist view the Antarctic Peninsula as a mountain range, and practically an extension of the Andes in South America. As the start of the peninsula you’ll find the 4.897-meter-high Vinson massif.
You’ll find large colonies of Adelie penguins, gentoo penguins and chinstrap penguin on the Antarctic Peninsula. At Brown Bluff you’ll find mostly Adelie penguins and gentoo penguins. And the remarkable harbour of Port Lockroy, a post office and museum, is surrounded by a colony of gentoo penguins. The distance between the Antarctic Peninsula and South America is 997 kilometers.
Campbell Island is a volcanic island with unique flora and fauna. It was a notorious place for seafarers in the olden days. To help castaways who were shipwrecked, the government placed sheep and goats on this island, but they all died. Its vegetation consists of tussock grass and many large herbs known as megaherbs.
It is home to king penguins, yellow-eyed penguins, macaroni penguins, gentoo penguins and yellow-crested penguins. It is also the breeding ground for several species of albatross, Mollymawk, fulmars and cormorants (including the Campbell cormorant).
Ross Island (Oceania)
Tourist come here to visit the island and the Ross Ice Sheet, and also to leave footprints on the eternal ice. The transantarctic mountains on this island are very imposing, and consists of four volcanoes. You can also find the huts of the famous explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton here.
The most famous of the volcanoes is Mount Erebus (3.794 m), one of the five volcanoes in the world that as a lake of lava in its crater. The massive chimneys of ice, more formally known as ice fumaroles, are a bizarre sight, towering up to ten meters high and formed by gasses and steam. The other three volcanoes on Ross island are dormant. The Ross Sea is the gateway to the heart of Antarctica, as the most southerly anchorage in the world is on Ross Island.
This area has been claimed by New Zealand and houses a research site called Scott Base. You can visit this area, it’s 3.000 kilometer south of New Zealand. You can take a ship here, but most travel is done by plane.
Macquarie Island is famous for its many penguin colonies. There are four types of penguins here including the Macquarie penguin, the rockhopper, the king penguin and the gentoo penguin.
The island is 34 kilometers long and 5 kilometers wide, and this small island was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997. It’s considered part of Tasmania, which in turn is part of Australia. You need a permit to visit this island, which you can easily obtain as a tourist in either Tasmania or elsewhere in Australia, or even via the island’s website. This is done to limit the amount of tourists on this island.
The most interesting islands of the sub-antarctic islands south of New Zealand are the Auckland Islands. This ancient shipwreck graveyard is now the breeding ground for seventeen kinds of albatrosses, four kinds of petrels and the rare Auckland teal.
This is also where the world’s southernmost forests grow. These forests consist mostly of f southern rata, one of the most strange-looking trees on the planet. All of the islands are protected land.
The best time to visit
Antarctica can be reached from South America as well as Oceania. The best, and only, time to visit is spring and summer time, which roughly last from November to March.
- South America
For South American areas, including the Antarctic Peninsula, the best time is November to March. December and January are considered peak season, when there is about 20 hours of daylight to enjoy. The rest of the time there are mainly scientists in this area.
Because there is no peninsula on this side of Antarctica, the best travel time starts in December here.
Antarctica’s ecosystem is very vulnerable. The rising popularity of tourism here means that the chance of the spread of disease, as well as pollution, is increased. Make sure you find out from your touring company how they manage this, so that your visit has minimal impact on this landscape and its animals.
In summer the weather is less changeable, and in the ‘tourist area’ the temperature lingers around 0 °C. The maximum is around 5 °C, and in winter it can be -10 to -30°C.
What’s there to see?
November and early December
– The winter ice melts and splits, with causes huge icebergs to form. The landscape is remarkably white and clean.
– Penguins and other seabirds start mating, showing extraordinary courtship rituals.
– You’ll see many seals on the ice.
– The limited amount of flowers that grow on some of the islands will flower.
– Elephant seals start marking their territories, often with many displays of dominance.
Mid December to end of January
– Many penguin chicks are born.
– You can see the Antarctic fur seal pups, for example on South Georgia.
– More places become accessible with the retreating of the ice.
– This is the warmest time of the year, with temperatures above °C during the day.
February and March
– Best time to spot whales.
– Penguin chicks start exploring.
– You’ll see tons of Antarctic fur seals, along the Antarctic Peninsula amongst other places.
– Due to the receding ice, it’s easier for ships to reach the most southern parts.
How do I get there?
- South America:
Most ships leave from Ushuaia (Argentina) en Punta Arenas (Chile). The trip to Antarctica itself takes around two days. Flights also leave from here.
- New Zealand:
There are flights from Christchurch.
There are flights from Sydney and Melbourne.