Antarctica’s surreal remoteness, extreme cold, enormous ice shelves and mountain ranges, and myriad exotic life forms invariably challenge you to embrace life fully. Everyone – scientist, support worker, government official and tourist alike – who comes to this isolated continent, must ‘earn’ it, whether by sea-voyage or flight. Ice and weather, not clocks and calendars, determine the itinerary and the timetable of all travel here. Expect experiences unlike any other, whether whale-watching across the open sea, spying a penguin rookery, or framing that perfect photograph of an awe-inspiring ice-form. Today, it’s even possible for visitors to climb Antarctic peaks, or kayak icy waters. But there is nothing quite like the craggy crevasses of a magnificent glacier or the sheer expanse of the polar ice cap.
The names of explorers and their sovereigns and benefactors are written on Antarctica’s shores. Renowned explorers from Cook to Amundsen and Scott all tried to penetrate this vast, mysterious land: each with varying degrees of success. Visitors can follow in their footsteps and imagine what it was like to forge through the pack ice on a creaking wooden boat or man-hauling sledges across the polar plateau. Some of their huts actually remain, preserved in frozen rime, to tell the story of adventures long past.
Antarctica possesses an unnamable quality. Call it inspiration, call it grandeur…it is simply the indescribable feeling of being a small speck in a vast, harshly beautiful land. A land where striated ice towers float among geometric pancake ice, literally untouched mountains rear from marine mist, and wildlife lives, year in and year out, to its own rhythms, quite apart from human concerns. To let our minds soar in a place nearly free of humankind’s imprint: this is magic.
This continent, preserved by the Antarctic Treaty, is home to some of the world’s most extraordinary species, adapted to life in their unique home. Some migrate far and wide, like the enormous whales, others remain close to the continent, like the Weddell seal and the emperor penguin. Millions of seabirds skim the Southern Ocean, the world’s most abundant ocean; species like far-flung albatrosses and petrels circle these waters. Antarctic wildlife is generally unafraid of people. Visitors usually elicit no more than an uninterested yawn from seals and penguins focused on rearing their young and evading predators. The human reaction is, ironically, exactly opposite.
Snow Hill Island
On the fast ice about 400m from the low ice cliffs on Snow Hill’s south coast is Antarctica’s northernmost (and most accessible) emperor penguin rookery. First sighted from a small aircraft in 1997, it was finally visited in 2004 by a Russian icebreaker carrying tourists. The colony is estimated to hold more than 4000 breeding pairs
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
From 1975 to 2008, home at the Pole was known familiarly as ‘the Dome,’ or, affectionately, ‘Dome, Sweet Dome.’ Built from 1971 to 1975, the silver-grey aluminum geodesic Dome was 50m in diameter at its base and 15m high. It covered three structures, each two stories high, which provided accommodations, dining, laboratory and recreational facilities. Although the Dome protected these buildings and their occupants from the wind, it did nothing about the cold; it was unheated. It had a packed snow floor and an opening at the top to let out water vapor. Over time, as the base became submerged in snow and ice, parts of the complex became unsafe. Occasional power brownouts and fuel leaks threatened station security, and the drifting snow began to crush the Dome. Because of all these problems, the US government built a new above-snow facility.
The old Dome complex was dismantled over several years, with the final pieces removed in 2010 and shipped to Port Hueneme, California, where the top portion sits in the new Seabee Museum.
Work on the new US$174 million station began in 1997 and required 80 construction workers(25% of them women)to work nine-hour days, six days a week. In the 24-hour summer daylight, three crews worked shifts round the clock. Workers described how, among the unusual hazards of construction here, touching metal barehanded burns like a hot stove. The station’s normal winter population, meanwhile, nearly doubled with the extra staff devoted to construction. Hundreds of flights from McMurdo brought in the necessary building materials, which in turn had been planned, procured and shipped over many years to McMurdo. The station was built in phases, so the first group of occupants was able to take up residence in January 2003, and it was officially inaugurated in January 2008. Full summer operations began in October 2011 – during summer, the Pole can host up to 250 people.
The 6039-sq-m elevated station stretches 128m, facing the prevailing winds with an aeronautical design that helps scour snow from beneath it. The main entrance , sometimes called ‘Destination Alpha,’ faces the skiway . Another staircase entrance on the back of the station is ‘Destination Zulu.’ Two separate blue-grey, horseshoe-shaped modules are connected by flexible walkways and can be raised on stilts to prevent destructive snow buildup. They accommodate 150 people in summer and 50 in winter.
One module houses living quarters, a dining room, a bar, a hospital, a laundry, a store, a post office and a greenhouse (adding to the futuristic, space-station feeling of the new facility, the greenhouse is officially known as the ‘food growth chamber’). In the other are offices, labs, computers, telecommunications, an emergency-power plant, conference rooms, music practice rooms and a gym. Cozy reading rooms and libraries are scattered throughout both units.
The new station has triple-pane windows, 200kg stainless-steel outside ‘freezer’ doors and a pressurized interior to keep out drafts. At one end, a four-story aluminum tower, familiarly known as ‘the Beer Can,’ contains a stairwell, cargo lift and utilities. Photovoltaic panels take advantage of the summer’s 24 hours of sunlight. One wind turbine was added in the 2009–10 season, but the light winds of the polar plateau mean that the station would require a much larger windmill farm to support its needs.
This steep-sided channel – just 1600m (5250ft) wide – runs for 11km (7mi) between the mountains of Booth Island and the Peninsula. So photogenic that it’s been dubbed ‘Kodak Gap’, the passageway is only visible once you’re nearly inside it. The channel was first navigated by the Belgian de Gerlache in 1898 and named after a Belgian explorer of the Congo.
Unfortunately, ice sometimes blocks the way, so ships may be forced to retreat and sail outside Booth Island. At the northern end of the Lemaire are two tall, rounded and often snowcapped peaks at Cape Renard.
Shackleton erected this structure on his Nimrod expedition in February 1908. Fifteen men lived in the hut, which is much smaller than Scott’s at Cape Evans, and the feeling inside is still very atmospheric. All of Shackleton’s men left here alive (unlike Scott’s hut) , and apparently they left in a hurry: when members of the Terra Nova expedition visited in 1911, they found socks left hanging to dry and a meal still on the table. Members of the Ross Sea party of Shackleton’s 1914–17 Endurance expedition also stopped by, commandeering tobacco and soap, among other treats.
Since these long-ago stopovers (snow filled it during one long interval between visits) the hut underwent an extensive AHT conservation project (2004–08). The weatherproofed result completely retains the hut’s historical appeal.
As you step inside, if you’re tall, duck so you don’t hit your head on the acetylene generator over the entryway. It once powered the hut’s lamps.
Unlike Scott, Shackleton imposed no division between officers and men at Cape Royds, although as ‘The Boss’ he did invoke executive privilege to give himself a private room near the hut’s front door. Ask your AHT guide to point out Shackleton’s signature (which may or may not be authentic) in his tiny bunk room. It’s upside down on a packing crate marked ‘Not for Voyage’ which he had made into a headboard for his bunk.
A freeze-dried buckwheat pancake still lies in a cast-iron skillet on top of the large stove at the back of the hut, beside a tea kettle and a cooking pot. Colored glass medicine bottles line several shelves. One of the few surviving bunks, to the left toward the back, has its fur sleeping bag laid out on top. Many tins of food with unappetizing names such as Irish brawn (head cheese), boiled mutton, Army Rations, Aberdeen marrow fat, lunch tongue and pea powder lie on the floor (near the walls), along with still-bright-red tins of Price’s Motor Lubricant. A bench piled with mitts and shoes stands on the right. The dining table, which was lifted from the floor every night to create extra space, is gone. It may have been burned by a later party that ran out of fuel.
In January 2010, in a sensational find, conservators unearthed three crates of Shackleton’s Mackinlay’s whiskey and two crates of brandy from under the hut. After they had been thawed in Christchurch, in 2011 the master blender at Whyte & Mackay (owners of the Mackinlay’s brand) in Scotland analyzed and replicated the expedi-tion’s whiskey precisely!
Outside the hut lie the remnants of the pony stables and the garage built for the Arrol-Johnson motorcar (Antarctica’s first car). Shackleton had brought Siberian ponies, unfortunately unsuited to Antarctic labor: they managed to pull loads a considerable distance but did not have the stamina or versatility of dogs. Pony oats spill from feed bags onto the ground. One of the car’s wheels leans up against a line of provision boxes, its wooden spokes scoured by the wind. Two wooden doghouses sit nearby.
On the hut’s south side, the wood has weathered to a handsome bleached grey. Boxes of rusting food tins stand against the side and back. Although rust has completely destroyed the labels, one wooden carton is literally spilling its beans.
Cables running over the hut lash it to the ground, and the AHT put on a new roof in the summer of 2005–06. The front door is also a replica, made of the same Scots pine timber as the original.
Cape Royds is the least visited of the Ross Island historic huts (about 700 people yearly). For conservation reasons only eight people are permitted inside at one time, and only 40 are allowed ashore at once.
With its majestic icebergs and reflections of the surrounding mountains in the water, Paradise Harbor is undeniably beautiful. Even the early-20th-century whalers operating here recognized its extreme splendor, as its name indicates.
This is a favorite place for Zodiac cruising around the ice calved from the (receding) glacier at the head of the bay. You may pass beneath blue-eyed shags nesting on cliffs, which can be colored blue-green by copper deposits, emerald green by moss and orange or yellow by lichens.
The original portions of Argentina’s Brown Station (formerly called Almirante Brown) were destroyed on April 12, 1984 by a fire set by the station’s physician-leader, who didn’t want to stay another winter. Station personnel were rescued by US ship Hero. Gentoos nest among the ruins.
Climb the hill for a great view of glaciers. The broken memorial stone commemorates Jostein Helgestad, who died in 1993 on Monica Kristensen’s private expedition when his snowmobile plunged down a crevasse en route to the South Pole.
Easily recognized on any map by its broken-ring shape, Deception Island’s collapsed volcanic cone provides one of the safest natural harbors in the world, despite periodic eruptions.
To reach this secret haven, however, vessels must navigate a tricky 230m-wide break in the volcano’s walls, known since the early 19th-century sealing days as Neptunes Bellows for the strong winds that blow through this strait. A British visitor to Deception in the 1920s called the Bellows ‘a veritable death-trap to the uninitiated,’ thanks to hull-piercing Ravn Rock (named by Charcot in 1908 for the whale-catcher Ravn), which lies just 2.5m beneath the surface in the center of the narrow channel. The ‘deceptive’ entrance to the island has been known since the early 19th century, when it was called Hell’s Gates or Dragon’s Mouth.
The southern headland, called Entrance Point, harbors evidence of how dangerous the constricted channel can be: the wreck of the British whale-catcher Southern Hunter, which ran aground on New Year’s Eve, 1957, while avoiding an Argentine naval vessel steaming in through the Bellows. The British whalers yelled for help after hitting the rocks, but the Argentines assumed that the shouting and waving was part of the New Year’s celebrations and continued past. Nearby is the site where the cruise ship Nordkapp ran aground in February 2007, ripping a 25m gash along the hull of the vessel and ending the cruise for her 280 passengers.
As you enter the harbor, notice the striking colors of the rock faces on either side. Watch too for the pintado petrels that nest on the cliffs on the starboard side of the entrance; the birds often wheel above the sea.
Upon reaching this interior sea, visitors may land at Whalers Bay on a black-sand beach cloaked in mysterious white clouds of sulfur-scented steam. Dig your boots into the sand to find heat escaping from subterranean volcanic vents. The island’s sloping, snow-covered walls, which reach 580m, rise above the beach.
Few marine animals venture into Port Foster, because volcanic vents heat the water. Chinstraps are Deception’s most common penguins, with several rookeries exceeding 50,000 pairs each. Rookeries are on the southwestern coast at Vapour Coland on the eastern coast at Macaroni Point and Baily Head (also called Rancho Point), a natural amphitheater with a melt stream Srunning through it. Visiting Baily Head, home of perhaps the largest chinstrap rookery on the Peninsula, can be difficult due to heavy surf even in calm seas. Just south of Baily Head, the seastacks named Sewing Machine Needles once included a natural rock arch; it collapsed in 1924 after an earthquake.