Antarctica is Earth's coldest and driest continent, and also has the highest average elevation. It is also the southernmost continent, overlying the South Pole. As visits are restricted, expensive and difficult, Antarctica is the only continent to be largely untouched by humans; the population consists of a few thousand scientists. Unlike the Arctic in the north, there is dry land below the ice in Antarctica.
|Antarctic Islands |
There are some islands around the Antarctica mainland that are south of 60 degrees latitude; north of them are the Subantarctic Islands
|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
|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
Note: All dots on the map represent inhabited research stations. In the map to the right, the Ross Sea is shown in salmon color.
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 — Unlike its northern cousin, the South Pole sits upon stationary ground, and therefore supports a permanent research station and a ceremonial "pole"
- 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
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. As the Antarctic Treaty prohibits most of its signatories from making any new claims to territory and claims to antarctic territory already made have little to no effect as long as the treaty stands, there are overlapping claims and a rather large swath that is not claimed by any country. The only other significant piece of dry land with that characteristic is Bir Tawil between Sudan and Egypt. There are no cities, just some two dozen research stations with a total population ranging from 1,000–4,000 depending on the time of year (more in the November–March summer than in the June–September winter). 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 (IAATO), a membership organization which regulates non-research travel to the region. According to the organization, 41,996, visitors traveled to Antarctica in 2017-18, an increase of 16% over the previous year.
Antarctica was the last continent to be discovered by humans. While explorers earlier reported sightings of the "unknown land in the south", the earliest certain sightings of land south of the 60° latitude are by either Russian, British or American ship crews in January 1820 (there's no reliable information of which sighting was first). The first person known to have set foot on the Antarctic mainland was an American sealer named John Davis in 1821.
The rough waters and the coast were explored throughout the 19th century. In 1897 a Belgian expedition overwintered on Antarctica and this was the start of the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration", culminating in the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his crew setting foot on the South Pole 14 years later. The scientific research station at the pole, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, is jointly named after him and the British explorer Robert Scott who arrived at the pole about a month later, but never made it back to the coast.
Eventually countries started setting up stations and claiming parts of the continent, with some claims overlapping. This was ended by the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959. The treaty makes the continent a scientific preserve, "doesn't recognize, dispute, nor establish territorial sovereignty claims" and prohibits any military activity there. Today most of the few thousand "inhabitants" are indeed transient researchers, given the remoteness and inhospitable environment it's no surprise. They are joined by some 40,000 tourists visiting each year, though most of them only make cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula and adjacent islands. A handful of people have been born on Antarctica, but this has thus far neither resulted in anything approaching a "native born" population, nor any serious demands for "Antarctic independence".
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 in the Arctic.) However, its shoreline serves as nesting grounds for many species of migratory birds and penguins (several species of which stay in Antarctica regardless of the season), 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 24 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).
Within the Antarctic Circle, the midnight sun can be seen during part of the summer.
For most people, reading about Antarctica is the only affordable means of experiencing the continent. Books range from wild works of fiction to non-fiction accounts of the extraordinary early missions of adventurers looking to conquer Earth's last land frontier.
- At the Mountains of Madness — the earliest science fiction/horror story to take place on the continent, written by H.P. Lovecraft, detailing the adventures of a geological expedition to Antarctic Mountains, where the researchers discover something so inconceivable that they lose their minds
- Antarctica, by Kim Stanley Robinson — science fiction account of 21st century Antarctica and the impact of global warming.
- Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
- Endurance, by Caroline Alexander
- A First-Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott & the Race to the South Pole, by Diana Preston
- Mawson's Will, by Lennard Bickel
- North Pole, South Pole: Journeys to the Ends of the Earth, by Bertrand Imbert
- Scott's Last Expedition: The Journals, by Robert F. Scott and Beryl Bainbridge
- Shackleton, by Roland Huntford
- South Pole: 900 Miles on Foot, by Gareth Wood and Eric Jamieson
- The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
- Terra Incognita, by Sara Wheeler
- South, by Ernest Shackleton
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.
While Antarctica has no government or border controls, visitors to any land or sea south of 60°S need permission from an Antarctic Treaty member country. An application should be filed six months in advance.
Aircraft and pilots need to be capable of landing on ice, snow, or gravel runways, as there are no paved runways; see general aviation. Most flights to Antarctica leave from Christchurch, Cape Town or Punta Arenas. 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:
- 1 Teniente Rodolfo Marsh Martin Aerodrome (TNM IATA). 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.
- 2 Williams Field. Serves McMurdo Station and Scott Base.
- 3 Phoenix Airfield. Replaced the Pegasus Airfield which served McMurdo Station and Scott Base.
- 4 Annual Sea-Ice Runway. Serves McMurdo Station and Scott Base.
- 5 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 USD1400 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 cruise ship
Boat is the most common method of visiting the Antarctic. In the Antarctic summer, several companies offer excursions on ice strengthened vessels to Antarctica. Ice-strengthened (not quite as tough as icebreakers) boats are preferred since icebreakers are round on the bottom — a configuration that amplifies the already massive wave action in the Drake passage. The ships typically offer a couple of excursions to the continent (usually the Antarctic peninsula) or Antarctic islands (e.g., Deception Island, Aitcho Island) each day over the course of a week. The views are phenomenal, the penguins are friendly (well, some of them are), and the experience is one that is unparalleled!
When traveling by boat, be aware that smaller ships (typically carrying 50–100 passengers) can go where the big ships can't, getting you up closer to Antarctica's nature and wildlife. Larger vessels (carrying as many as 1,200 people) are less prone to rough seas but have more limited landing options. Many vessels include naturalist guided hikes, zodiac excursions and sea kayaking right from the ship, perfect for active, casual travelers.
You'll need warm clothing: boots, hoods, glove, water repellent pants, parka and warm underwear. Most of these items can be bought or hired in Ushuaia, but sometimes — in the high season — it is not always easy to get the right sizes. So bring whatever you can from your own stock.
Cruise operators typically only allow 100 people on land at any one time to comply with IAATO agreements. Consequently if you are in a boat with more than 200 people the chances are you will only spend a couple of hours at most per day off ship. Generally the smaller ships will try to ensure 2 different locations per day around Antarctica, although this is of course dependent on the weather and you may expect a 60% success rate on landing people for any given visit.
Many shipping companies are now offering fly/cruise options, which entails a one-way or round-trip flight from either Santiago or Punta Arenas to King George Island. These are often pricier than typically cruises that cross the Drake Passage both ways, but cut 1–3 days off the total travel time.
Companies offering cruises to Antarctica include:
- Abercrombie & Kent. Full member of IAATO with 20 years of Antarctica operating experience, providing enrichment and educational programs.
- Antarctic Shipping. Full member of IAATO, Antarctic Shipping operates the 78 passenger M/V Antarctic Dream, an expedition vessel with ice strengthened hull built specifically for Antarctica exploration and totally refurbished to add the comfort of a small cruise ship. The size of the vessel allows for several landings in Antarctica and opportunities to do camping and kayaking.
- Antarctic Unbound. Traveling aboard Ocean Nova, full member of IAATO, Antarctic Unbound offers 11 and 22 day itineraries. These trips do get off on the continent and offer opportunities to hike, walk and kayak.
- Antarctica Bound Cruises. A small company offering cruises on most ships cruising the Antarctica Peninsula.
- Antarpply Expeditions. Members of IAATO, Antarpply Expeditions is a leading operator of small ship expedition cruises to Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands. Antarpply is based in Ushuaia and specializes in taking small groups and individual passengers to some of the most spectacular, remote and pristine parts of the world on board the USHUAIA.
- Aurora Expeditions. Aurora Expeditions are the pioneers of ship-based adventures, and are committed to small, low-impact groups keen to experience the Antarctica. They take a maximum of 54 passengers, departing Australia, New Zealand and South America and also offer a range of activities including sea kayaking, camping, photography, climbing and scuba diving.
- Bark Europa. A square rigged sailing ship offering 22 day trips to Antarctica and other Sub Antarctic destinations like South Georgia and Tristan da Cunha.
- Cheesemans' Ecology Safaris. Offers in-depth itineraries that stress maximum time ashore and Zodiac cruising with a large staff of Antarctic veterans. They offer various itineraries on different years, including The Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia and Falkland Islands; Extended South Georgia and Falkland Islands only; and Extended Antarctic Peninsula and Continent only. They charter the entire ship that is the best fit for the expedition and always take less than 100 people so all can land at once to provide more time ashore.
- Compagnie du Ponant. Offers multiple itineraries on luxury vessels, as well French and German speaking departures.
- Expedition Cruise Specialists. Offering a selection of small group Antarctica expedition cruises from both South America and New Zealand.
- G Adventures. Operates trips on their ship, the M/S Expedition. The maximum number of passengers is 120 and the there are by lectures by staff and naturalists on board.
- Geographic Expeditions. Among GeoEx's popular Antarctica adventure trips is an expedition to the Ross Sea and McMurdo Sound.
- Hapag-Lloyd Cruises. Members of IAATO, their small expedition ships have the highest ice class ranking for cruise ships, and each vessel offers 4-5 cruises to Antarctica between December and March every year, including Antarctic peninsula, South Shetland Islands, Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and the Weddell Sea.
- Heritage Expeditions. New Zealand's award winning expedition travel company. They specialise in worldwide natural history small group expeditions and their expertise and experience of the Subantarctic Islands, the Ross Sea and East Antarctica is unsurpassed. They operate their own ice-strengthened polar research vessel the Spirit of Enderby with trips to the Ross Sea and Commonwealth Bay (famous for Sir Douglas Mawson's historic hut) several times a year.
- Intrepid Travel. Their ship is a tough icebreaker allowing for freedom of movement even in polar regions. The ship's small size (max. 100 persons) gives you the opportunity to go where many others can't. To get you even closer, they have a fleet of 10 sturdy inflatable motorized boats (Zodiacs) to provide access to small or shallow areas and landings.
- Lindblad Expeditions. Lindblad pioneered travel to Antarctica in 1966 and offers multiple trips to the Antarctic Peninsula, and longer trips which also include the Falklands and South Georgia aboard the new 148-guest National Geographic Explorer.
- National Geographic Expeditions. This trip also includes a visit to South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. The site has all the information you'll need for the trip.
- Oceanwide Expeditions. Oceanwide Expeditions, for many years elected the "World's Leading Polar Expedition Operator" at the World Travel Market in London, has been organizing expedition cruises for almost two decades. Areas of operation include Antarctica, South Georgia, Spitsbergen and Greenland. The fleet consists of several comfortable ice-strengthened ships including Plancius, Ortelius, Rembrandt van Rijn and Noorderlicht. Because of its long tradition of pioneering the polar regions the expedition staff has gained in-depth knowledge of Antarctica and the Arctic.
- Orion Expedition Cruises. The Orion is a purpose built vessel designed to access remote locations in 5-star luxury. Orion Expedition Cruises operate a number of summer-time cruises to Antarctica, departing from Australia and New Zealand.
- Polar Cruises. A small company offering trips on most of the ships cruising the Antarctica Peninsula and occasionally the Ross Sea. Great insights into Antarctica cruises and travel to this unique area.
- Quark Expeditions. The leader in Polar adventures since 1991, operates multiple vessels and itineraries each season to various parts of the Antarctic peninsula.
- Rockjumper Birding tours. Operates out of South Africa and is aimed at those interested in birding.
Most cruise ships depart from the following ports:
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.
- Ocean Expeditions. Expedition support yacht Australis purpose-built for high latitudes. Specialising in private or commercial expeditions involving film making, scientific research, adventure activities, wildlife enthusiasts or just an intimate experience of the Antarctic.
- Expedition Sail. Sailing yacht SEAL is a purpose-built expedition sailboat offering private expeditions, support for research, filming, or climbing projects, and also offers "by the bunk" trips for individuals.
- Spirit of Sydney. Australians Darrel and Cath own and operate Spirit of Sydney, an expedition support yacht for film crews, mountaineers, skiers and snowboarders, sea kayakers, dry suit divers, scientists, sailors of all experience levels, and whale watchers. They typically carry kayaks on board, and offer private charters, and group trips for individuals.
One way to get into Antarctica, although difficult, is through the various research stations in which you can join research teams for. Note that this is not a tourism trip, and is only for people who wish to see the beauty of Antarctica and wish to help study & preserve it.
- Great Wall (62°13'S, 58°58'W) (China)
- Zhongshan (69°22'S, 76°23'E) (China)
- Kunlun (80°25'S, 77°07'E) (China)
- McMurdo (77°51'S, 166°40'E) (USA)
- Palmer (64°42'S, 64°00'W) (USA)
- Comandante Ferraz (62°05'S, 58°23'W) (Brazil)
- Arctowski (Poland)
- St. Kliment Ohridski, (Livingston Island) (62°38'29"S, 60°21'53"W) (Bulgaria)
- Port Lockroy (UK)
- Baia Terranova (Italy)
- Mawson (67°36'S, 62°52'E) (Australia)
- Davis (68°35'S, 77°58'E) (Australia)
- Casey (66°16.94'S, 110°31.5'E) (Australia)
- Aboa (73°03'S, 13°25'W) (Finland)
- Esperanza (Argentina)
- Jubany (Argentina)
- Marambio (Argentina)
- San Martin (Argentina)
- Comandante Ferraz (Brazil)
- Arturo Prat (Chile)
- Vostok (Russia)
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 also provide cold-weather clothing.
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 mainland, and research bases will not generally house guests. Most visitors sleep aboard their boat, although land expeditions will use tents for shelter.
It is possible to obtain employment with scientific expeditions and research bases in Antarctica. Positions are often competitive and may only be open to very qualified candidates.
Induction and training need to be undertaken before departure for Antarctica. Most positions are summer positions, lasting for the northern-hemisphere winter/southern-hemisphere summer while the bases are fully staffed. A few positions are for people who want to "winter over" in the dark, brutally cold Antarctic winter.
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.
- See also Cold weather
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 60–70 feet (18–23 m). 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.
In Antarctica, 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.
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. The fact that there is not as much ozone over Antarctica and some of the nearby islands than other regions of the world means that there is not such a strong block against the sun's rays. 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.
Antarctica has a very fragile environment. Pollution should be avoided if at all possible. Expeditions should anticipate the need to remove all waste from the continent when they leave. Waste disposal and sewage facilities on the continent are severely limited and restricted to permanent installations. Of particular concern to tourists is the danger of introducing foreign organisms into the fragile Antarctic environment. Many tour operators will require visitors to do a boot wash after every landing to avoid carrying seeds or other items from one location to another. In addition, visitors should examine all clothing before embarking to avoid bringing any plant or animal material to the Antarctic; invasive species have devastated many regions of the planet, so it is particularly important to protect Antarctica from this danger.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is a voluntary organization of tour operators which promotes safe and environmentally responsible tourism in Antarctica. It publishes standards for member tour operators on responsible practices for private visitors to the continent.
The top-level Internet domain for Antarctic sites, .aq, is assigned to organizations that conduct work in Antarctica or signatory governments to the Antarctic Treaty. Generally, its servers are hosted elsewhere; a satellite connection may be possible from some Antarctic locations but connectivity is limited at best.
Post offices are few and far between, but you can send home a postcard (with a truly unique postmark) from the Chilean town of Villa Las Estrellas or the British base of Port Lockroy, both on islands off the Antarctic Peninsula.