Antarctica, the fifth largest continent in the world, has 98 per cent of its area covered in ice. Located in the Antarctic region of the Southern Hemisphere, this ice desert does not have any plant or animal life; only its shoreline serves as a nesting ground for penguins, whales and migratory birds. An interesting fact about Antarctica is that it is one of most uninhabitable regions on earth.
Today, it is home only to temporary residents; scientists and researchers. With the discovery of this remote continent, expeditions began from various countries, who claimed different parts of it. As a result of which, the Antarctic Treaty was tabled in 1958. This agreement established that the continent would be treated as a cooperative and peaceful international research zone. There are more than two dozen research stations in the haunting landscape of Antarctica, with the total human population ranging from 1000 to 4000, which depends on the different times of the year.
Since the region has no permanent residents, it has no native language. English has become the common language for communication between people of different nationalities. However, at each research base, communication happens in the native tongue, be it Norwegian, French or Russian.
Tourism is largely possible here only between November and March, but even during this period one has to be thoroughly prepared to face umpteen challenges that this region throws up. Tourist activities began in this region in the 1950s with not more than 500 people travelling here from Argentina and Chile. However, today, approximately 40,000 tourists visit this unspoiled marvel. This land of vast wilderness, snow, ice, water and rocky terrain gives visitors a certain feeling of insignificance owing to its sheer enormity.
Tourists coming to this region focus more on indulging in demanding expeditions across its landscape or taking part in adventure activities, including scaling peaks and kayaking the icebergs. Undertaking a journey to this continent does not only mean facing tough challenges, but also spending a lot of money to do so. However, this does not deter many a globetrotters to come to this breathtaking, untouched region.
Tourism here largely depends on the mode of arrival of the visitors. Those coming on cruise ships focus more on Antarctic Peninsula areas and Ross Sea, with halts at two important ports, namely Neko Harbour and Paradise Bay. Those, flying into the interiors of the region, get a chance to take small flights to places like the South Pole and Vinson Massif.
Proper clothing is an important aspect when one is coming here owing to the extremely low temperatures. In summers, woollen undergarments, trousers and shirts with windproof layer on top is suitable. On the other hand, in winters, one has to wear clothing in layers, topped with a quilted, thick freezer suit.
It was in 1773, when Captain James Cook with his crew, passed the Antarctic Circle for the first time. However, it is believed that they did not reach the mainland of Antarctica; missing it by 150 miles. In 1820, a Russian naval officer, Captain Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, led an expedition to this part of the world and claimed to sight the continent.
In a matter of days, two British naval officers, Edward Bransfield and William Smith claimed to achieve the same feat, followed by an American sealer, Nathaniel Palmer, a few months later. However, the first known landing on the newly found continent was made by an American sealer called Captain John Davis; though, many historians do not acknowledge this fact.
In the 1840s, several expeditions to Antarctica were undertaken by the French, American and British people, who established the existence of this continent. In 1841, a British naval officer James Clark Ross, managed to identify the approximate location of the Magnetic South Pole, but could not reach it. During this expedition, he did manage to discover two volcanoes, Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, which were named after Ross’ two ships.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the continent became an international affair with 17 major expeditions launched for its geographical and scientific exploration. On December 14, 1911, a Norwegian polar explorer, Roald Amundsen-led ship, became the first to reach the South Pole.
This southernmost continent in the world has a coastline measuring 17,968 km, dominated mostly by ice formations. Approximately 98 per cent of the region is covered in an ice sheet, which on an average is at least 1.6 km thick. According to records, 90 per cent of the world’s ice is in this continent. The region is divided into two parts by the Transantarctic Mountains, which lie close to the Weddell Sea and Ross Sea. The portions that lie to the east of the Ross Sea and west of the Weddell Sea form West Antarctica while the remaining portion is East Antarctica.
Vinson Massif, the highest peak in the continent, with an elevation of 4892 m above sea level, lies in the Ellsworth Mountains. The region has similar other mountains, both on its mainland as well as the surrounding islands. The southernmost active volcano in the world, Mount Erebus lies here on the Ross Island. Another similar volcano in the region lies on the Deception Island, which last erupted in 1970. Another potentially active underwater volcano was found by Canadian and American researchers in the Antarctic Peninsula in 2004.
This region has over 70 lakes, which are located at the base of the ice sheets. One such lake called Vostok was found beneath Russia’s Vostok Station in the year 1996. It is believed to be the largest sub-glacial lake in this continent.
This coldest continent in the world faces extreme climatic conditions, with temperatures dropping to -88 degree Celsius. The region receives little rainfall, with South Pole only getting an annual precipitation of four inches. On the other hand, its coastal areas in comparison to areas of high elevation and the interiors have less severe temperatures. However, strong winds and heavy snowfall are common in these areas. In the summer season, the region gets 24 hours of sunlight while it is the opposite in winters.
The peak season to come here begins from mid-December through mid-February owing to calm seas, long daylight hours, chance to see new-born penguins and other wildlife species. However to enjoy these, bookings on cruise ships are required to be done, months in advance.
November to mid-December and mid-February to March are the other times when visitors can come here. During the former period, crowd is less; making it the best time to explore the region, especially the icebergs. However, this period also sees rougher seas, colder temperatures and less wildlife activity. The latter period is not the best time for spotting penguins, but an excellent time to witness whales in activity.
From April till October, the continent remains off-limits for tourists as the icebergs prevent ships from accessing the landing points. During this period, daylight is minimal while temperatures remain extremely low, and there are frequent storms, coupled with strong winds.
How to reach
Most tourists arrive in this continent, courtesy cruise ships, but flying here is also an option. Those opting for flight service get a chance to travel to the interiors of the continent. Such flights can be boarded from Punta Arenas in Chile or Novo Airbase in Cape Town, South Africa. However, cruise ships remain the preferred choice as it gives tourists the opportunity to disembark at various landing sites.
Only 58 approved vessels are allowed to enter the region, and most of these come via the popular sea route from Ushuaia, Argentina. Large cruises remain stable in adverse weather conditions, in addition to being spacious, luxurious and faster. Some of these also carry hovercraft or helicopters, while others come fully equipped with kayaks, diving equipment and snorkels. On the other hand, those opting for small boats get the best experience, as travelling in these offers greater freedom to explore the region, without having to adhere to a strict itinerary, which cruise ships follow.
There are a lot of choices for tourists when it comes to choosing between vessels. While some have a capacity of 200 passengers, others have 50 to 100 or anything in between. In recent times, private sailboats with a capacity to carry 4 to 12 passengers have become a favourite among visitors to this place.
Only a limited amount of transport options are allowed in this continent owing to its vulnerable environment. Skis, tractors, sledges and dogs, ponies, snow cats and similar other tracked vehicles are used to travel around Antarctica. Helicopters and ski planes also serve the same purpose. Many cruise ships come to this region by using zodiac boats to ferry their passengers from the ship to shore.