Leave your known world behind and discover a mind-boggling landscape of glittering ice teeming with wildlife—vast colonies of penguins; countless numbers of fur, leopard and elephant seals; and millions of courting and nesting seabirds. Antarctica travel brings you up close to this superlative landscape and its thriving inhabitants—all in utmost comfort, with little effort, and during the surprisingly mild austral summer. Even for the veteran traveler, a voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula has the power to transform as you count yourself among the lucky few to set foot on its shores.
Imagine walking among thousands of chattering gentoo or chinstrap or Adelie penguins. There’s no end to the mutual admiration when the remarkably fearless fuzzy chicks come close to investigate. Feel the power and majesty—and take the photos!— as you navigate narrow waterways amid towering icebergs that dwarf even your ship. Ride a Zodiac inflatable boat to hidden coves where crabeater, Weddell, and leopard seals take a break in the sun. Hike ashore for an amazingly close-up portrait of that two-ton blubbery breed, the elephant seal. Kayak down a serene passage and witness the graceful fluke of an orca, humpback or minke whale while a glacier calves in slow motion in the distance. Seabirds soar overhead—fulmars, petrels, sooty shearwaters and wandering albatross—seeming to pose in silhouette against the sky. No matter where you go here, or what you choose to do—even simply standing on the deck of your cruise ship—prepare to be wowed by the profusion of wildlife and Mother Nature’s determination to keep it thriving.
For travelers heeding the call of their inner explorer, who dream of visiting one of our planet’s last wild places and walking among the hardy creatures that call it home, Antarctic travel is an experience beyond the borders of your imagination.
Only 620 miles separate the world’s southernmost town, Ushuaia, Argentina (where most depart), from the Antarctic Peninsula—the northernmost part of Antarctica and its single finger that pokes out above the Antarctic Circle. The Drake Passage separates the two continents, a body of water legend for its extremes of either flat calm or a wild and woolly ride.
It was those ever-calculating ancient Greeks in about 350 BCE who believed that there must be a southern landmass to counterbalance the northern one, known by the constellation Arktos—The Bear, or Arctic. So they called it Ant- (opposite) Arktos and lo and behold, a couple thousand years later, the theory was confirmed.
In 1772, Captain James Cook left England aboard the Resolution in search of that mythical southern land (after Magellan and Drake had come close, but only as far as the South Shetland Islands). Cook was halted by impenetrable ice at the edge of the then-known world—a mere 150 miles from the Antarctic shore. He did later circumnavigate the continent, however, followed by Russian naval officer Captain Thaddeus Bellingshausen. On January 27, 1820, the Royal Navy’s Edward Bransfield claimed to see an “icefield covered with small hillocks...”—Antarctica for sure, but no one confirmed that this was the elusive continent until American seal hunter John Davis stepped ashore and laid claim to its “discovery” in 1821. Immediately after, sealers and whalers arrived in droves. Endless claim disputes among countries followed, but steady exploration—300 more expeditions to be exact—soon gave Ant-Arktos its permanent place on the world map.
The Antarctic Peninsula stretches across 1,200 miles and is geologically composed of a long continuous mountain range. Because it continues beneath the sea, scientists believe the Andes and the Antarctic mountains are part of the same range and the culmination of the Pacific Ring of Fire. The peninsula’s longer season of mild climate, relative to the rest of the continent, makes it possible for visitors to realize their dream of cruising to Antarctica—for many, the elusive 7th continent.
The coastal peninsula enjoys the most temperate climate, and the austral summer clears the rocks and shores of snow. Wildlife, which survives on food from the sea and not on vegetation, thrives in phenomenal numbers and, along with the magnificent icescapes, is the main reason travelers choose to make the journey.
Approximately 350 million birds comprise the 37 species of seabirds native to Antarctica. Of these, 175 million are penguins. The peninsula’s Petermann Island is home to the world’s southernmost colony of gentoos, and ideal for those picture-perfect penguin poses.
Humpback and minke whales frequent the narrow and scenically dramatic Lemaire Channel. Here crabeater seals repose on chunks of ice. On nearby Pleneau Island, leopard and elephant seals haul out on its shores. The Weddell species seems to prefer Neko Harbour. Hope Bay, home to 120,000 breeding pairs of Adelie penguins, lives up to its nickname, “Iceberg Alley,” for its dazzling array of sculpted icebergs. From Port Lockroy, a former whaling station, cruises often set out to cross the Antarctic Circle at 66.562° latitude. Who can resist sending a postcard home from here with an official Antarctica stamp?
Cruising to Antarctica is no small endeavor, though it’s a bit more comfortable today than it was a century ago. To see the continent for the first time with your own eyes is no less awe-inspiring than it was for those first explorers.
Recognizing that universality of spirit, the first International Geophysical Year was established in 1957. Scientists from 67 countries joined together for 18 months to study Antarctica. Twelve new bases were built, including the Amundsen-Scott base at the South Pole. In 1959 the 12 leading IGY nations signed the Antarctic Treaty in Washington, D.C. Its purpose: that Antarctica “shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.” The treaty, in full effect since1961, guarantees free access for scientific research everywhere on the continent south of 60° latitude. Today at least 28 nations maintain research stations in Antarctica. And 14 have bases on the Antarctic Peninsula or near its offshore islands.