The year is 1819. While attempting to round Chile’s Cape Horn, the English cargo ship Williams is caught in a fierce wind that sends it hurtling southward into uncharted waters. At the helm, Captain William Smith is beginning to course correct when, suddenly, shouts of “land!” ring out. In the distance, a snow-covered island breaks the horizon line—the first landmass within Antarctic territory ever sighted by mankind. The discovery of this island (eventually named in honor of King George III) inspires hundreds of voyages to the White Continent—from ambitious seal hunters seeking a rich harvest, to fearless explorers like Ernest Shackleton and Robert F. Scott yearning to learn more about this far-flung wilderness.
Today, Antarctica’s appeal is just as strong, attracting intrepid travelers who are eager to set foot on their seventh continent. But this pursuit requires patience and determination. With an average annual precipitation of just six-and-a-half inches, and temperatures dipping as low as -128 degrees Fahrenheit, Antarctica is a frozen and inhospitable desert. For most of the year, the continent is off-limits to all but penguins, seals, and a smattering of scientific researchers. But from November to March, when the icy ocean has thawed and the summer sun shines for 24 hours each day, visitors may approach its remote shores. For those who make it, an incredible reward awaits: the satisfaction of having explored one of the world’s last great frontiers.
Most Popular Films
Films featuring Antarctica from international, independent filmmakers
The South African team finally reaches the Seventh Continent—Antarctica—and marvel at its stark beauty.
Produced by Vanessa Stephen and Kirsten Horne
Friendliest Seals Ever?
Discover trusting elephant seal pups lounging by the water and a massive King penguin rookery.
Produced by Vanessa Stephen and Kirsten Horne
Penguins with Punk Looks
Join two South African filmmakers as they brave the extreme Antarctic climate to observe quirky rockhopper penguins.Produced by Vanessa Stephen and Kirsten Horne
Soaked Penguins and Mating Seals
A South African film team encounters molting penguins, families of fur seals, and breathtakingly blue icebergs.
Produced by Vanessa Stephen and Kirsten Horne
100 Wonders: Blood Falls
Marvel at Antarctica’s unusual natural wonder, Blood Falls—a blood red waterfall.Produced by Dylan Thuras
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Immerse yourself in Antarctica with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
When it comes to distinguishing penguins, it’s never as simple as black and white. See why for yourself.
The continent has turned into a playground for athletes strong and determined enough to challenge its pristine wilds.
Antarctica’s path to preservation required a unique international agreement that was decades in the making.
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At Home in the White Wilderness
Distinguishing Antarctica’s favorite denizens
by Magdalena Zoroza, Regional General Manager, South America & Antarctica
It’s an old joke among explorers that there are only two kinds of penguins: the white ones coming toward you, and the black ones walking away. But these flightless birds are more diverse than you might think, with 17 species found around the world, including six in the Antarctic alone. Travelers cruising to the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula are likely to see four distinct species of penguins. All of these species wear the “tuxedo” you’ve come to expect—but one wears a turban, another a helmet, and a third sports a “strap” across its chin.
First and foremost among Antarctic penguins is the Adélie, whose solid black head and white front most invoke the look of an old English butler. Unlike the majority of penguins, which inhabit the region only seasonally, Adélies live here year-round, with a population of two million ringing nearly the entire continent. During the winter, they huddle together to share body heat, rotating in and out of the cluster so those on the outside of the huddle get a chance to warm up.
The Adélies were named by 19th-century French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville for his wife, who was left behind in Paris while her husband went exploring for up to a year at a time. Adélie penguin couples rarely endure such lengthy separations, at least during mating season, when males and females share incubation, parenting, and foraging duties. Gentoo penguins are even more dramatically faithful than Adélies. They stay with their mates throughout the entire year, sometimes even reusing the same nesting site, which is rare among penguins. They use the same path to and from the sea so routinely that they wear a beaten path into the Antarctic landscape. Like a mini-highway, these clearly defined routes become the paths for other gentoos, who are easily spotted by their two defining features: an orange beak and their “turbans,” the white swaths on their glossy dark heads.
Chinstrap penguins have a different kind of headgear. Beneath their beaks, their white faces boast slender black markings resembling straps, making it appear that the birds are wearing helmets. Maybe they should be, as chinstraps are among the most aggressive species. Fast, strong, and not concerned with politeness, they’ll fight over the best spot, steal each other’s rocks, and even force other penguins off their nests.
Once you’ve explored Antarctic waters, you’ll find the differences in species easy to spot—and know that when it comes to distinguishing penguins, it’s never as simple as black and white.
Distinguishing Antarctica’s favorite denizens
Athletic achievements at the “end of the world”
by Megan Mullin from Currents
At the bottom of the globe there is a land of ice and snow—a vast continent inhabited not by humans, but chinstrap, Adélie, and gentoo penguins, as well as seals, whales, and seabirds. While the polar sun never sets in the summer, the winter is six months of endless, frozen night. Antarctica, the seventh continent, seems like the (literal) last place on Earth to find recreation of any kind. But the realm once known only to explorers like Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton has not only become a popular vacation destination during its milder austral summer, it has also turned into a snowy playground for those athletes strong enough—and determined enough—to challenge its pristine wilds.
Work hard, play hard
Scattered throughout Antarctica’s rugged landscape, there are a handful of research stations. The primary U.S. base, McMurdo Station, houses the largest community on the continent. Working here year-round is, as one might imagine, a challenge in and of itself. Its remote location and harsh winters can make working conditions extremely difficult. Relaxation seems impossible, yet the landscape actually plays a huge role in keeping everyone on base healthy and entertained.
For people stationed in Antarctica, work-life balance is very different from what the rest of us are used to. Without homes to manage, children to raise, and gardens to tend to, the researchers have substantially more down time and energy. Sports play an important part of filling this time and expending this energy. Therefore, McMurdo Station was outfitted with first-rate sports facilities where people can enjoy playing basketball, soccer, volleyball, and even dodge ball. Gyms with weights, stationary bikes, and other cardio equipment also provide a healthy outlet at the end of a long day.
Once Antarctica’s summer arrives, the activities move outdoors. Softball games are very popular—and more fast-paced—as ground balls zoom over the ice with no green grass to slow them down. Rugby is a favorite too: New Zealand’s Scott Base research center is just a truck ride from McMurdo Station, and every year the two stations get together for a much-anticipated grudge match between McMurdo’s Mount Terror Rugby Club and the Scott Base Rugby Club.
The Ice Marathon
Extreme athletes are always on the lookout for the next seemingly-unsurmountable challenge. Antarctica’s annual Ice Marathon provides an exceptional outlet for these adventurous souls. The first and only organized footrace in the interior of Antarctica, the Ice Marathon is significantly more formidable than your average race. Runners must contend with snow, ice, an average wind chill of -4 degrees Fahrenheit, and the possibility of strong Katabatic winds—winds that carry high-density air from a high elevation down a slope under the force of gravity, and can sometimes rush down at hurricane speeds. Not exactly ideal race conditions.
Yet, determined runners from around the globe convene at Union Glacier every year to take part in a 26.2-mile race across of one of the last truly wild places on Earth. An event of this magnitude requires intensive organization, of course. Snowmobiles monitor runners along the course and keep track of each racer as he or she passes through marathon checkpoints. This doesn’t just offer runners their split times, but it ensures the athletes aren’t lost in the wilderness.
That wilderness itself is vast and hushed, for not even penguins venture as far inland as the route will take its participants. But for those intrepid runners, the profound stillness and breathtaking scenery make the experience all the richer.
Cycling the White Continent
After imagining marathon runners braving Antarctica’s icy terrain, cycling may not sound as extreme. But when you’re pedaling 500 miles through snow drifts, white-out conditions, and the threat of crevasses to contend with, it is quite an epic undertaking indeed—an undertaking that 35-year old British adventurer Maria Leijerstam not only welcomed, but achieved. She earned a world record by being the first person to cycle to the South Pole from the edge of the continent in just 10 days.
A born adventurer—her childhood dream was to become an astronaut—Leijerstam is no stranger to extreme sports in harsh environments, having taken part in the Marathon des Sables, a seven-day run across the Sahara Desert. But her training for that event did not prepare her for the challenge of pedaling her customized recumbent bike, the PolarCycle, across Antarctica. Instead of burning carbohydrates, she had to train her body to burn fat instead, and to get used to running longer on an emptier stomach. During the 10-day trek, Leijerstam heated freeze-dried food by melting snow on a small stove inside her tent. But despite her meager rations and the harsh conditions, Leijerstam persevered and earned a well-deserved place in the record books.
Antarctica has attracted adventure-seekers and record-breakers as far back as the 1800s. Many lives were lost in man’s quest for the South Pole. Today’s expeditioners have the benefit of technology on their side, but that still doesn’t make the journey any less physically challenging.
Just this past January, Welshman and former international rugby player Richard Parks became the 19th person to reach the South Pole solo. The 36-year-old made the harrowing 715-mile journey from the coastline to the pole in 29 days, 19 hours, and 24 minutes—a new British record.
The grueling trek pitted Parks against the harsh Antarctic terrain, weather, and icy emptiness. Against all odds, he put one foot in front of the other—even after one of his skis was damaged, two days before he reached the South Pole marker—to achieve his goal. And achieve it he did, completing the second-fastest unsupported solo trek to the South Pole in history.
Athletic achievements at the “end of the world”
The politics of preservation in Antarctica
by Laura Chavanne from Currents
Long before humans laid eyes on Antarctica, early explorers were convinced of the existence of a vast, southern continent—Terra Australis Incognita, the “Unknown Southern Land.” When Captain James Cook circumnavigated Antarctica between 1772 and 1775, he never actually sighted the peninsula. He did, however, conclude that the world was probably not missing much: The landmass was most likely small and uninhabitable, rendering it of little use to anyone.
Mariners first began sighting Antarctica in rapid succession beginning in 1820—but it was not the “Unknown Southern Land” they were seeking. Rather, it was the next stop on a journey further and further south in search of untouched seal colonies, as hunters had decimated all they’d encountered between Cape Horn and the South Sandwich Islands—a story that would repeat itself with whalers in the 1870s.
While exploitation led to the age of Antarctic discovery, science would eventually prevail. And while today we refer to Antarctica as “the last pure place on Earth,” the path to preservation required a unique international agreement that was decades in the making.
Governing a land with no population
Once the extent of Antarctica’s seal and whale populations became known, James Cook would be the last to dismiss the continent as worthless to humankind. He was correct, however, in assuming that the land was unfit for permanent habitation. Antarctica would have no settlements, no population, and no government. How, then, would various world leaders stake and protect their claims upon the barren land?
Argentina boasts the longest continuous occupation in the region, with a weather station in the South Orkney Islands built in 1903. It was actually established by a Scotsman, Dr. William S. Bruce, whose expedition team was forced to spend a winter there when their ship, the Scotia, was damaged and became icebound. The party constructed a 20-square-foot stone building called Ormond House (after the director of Edinburgh Observatory), which served as living quarters for six researchers who remained at the station when the Scotia eventually broke free. Upon reaching Buenos Aires, where the Scotia underwent repairs, Bruce persuaded the Argentine government to assume responsibility for the station, which they dubbed Orcadas Base and have operated ever since.
The United Kingdom, however, made the first official claim to a portion of the continent, which included the South Orkneys and several other island chains in the South Atlantic, as well as a portion of the continent itself. The British crown laid further claims on behalf of its colonies of Australia and New Zealand, on the grounds of these being the nearest occupied territories to Antarctica. Between 1923 and 1942, France, Norway, Chile, and Argentina followed suit. The United States, despite having its own “Little America” Antarctic research station founded by Admiral Richard Byrd in 1928, pursued no official claims on the continent. It did, however, establish the U.S. Antarctic Service in 1939, placing all American exploration under government control. The Service’s first expedition sent Admiral Byrd back to Antarctica to establish two additional bases.
Despite the fact that three different nations—Great Britain, Argentina, and Chile—claimed sovereignty over Antarctica, and certain portions of the seven territorial claims overlapped, activities on the continent were generally peaceful … until the onset of World War II, when the German Navy infiltrated the peninsula and attacked Allied shipping vessels. In retaliation, the British set up secret military bases. Almost immediately following the war, the United States launched “Operation Highjump” in 1946, which brought 13 ships, 23 aircraft, and more than 4,700 men to the continent for military training—with the overarching goal of establishing an indisputable U.S. presence in Antarctica. It remains the largest single operation in Antarctic history.
In general, however, scientific activities took precedence on Antarctica—with the unfortunate exception of whaling, which would continue in earnest until the 1970s. But with more and more countries establishing permanent, continuously occupied bases, the race to control the continent was on—which set the stage for a unique international agreement, all in the name of science.
The International Geophysical Year and the Antarctic Treaty
The year was 1957, and top-ranking scientists from 12 countries descended upon Antarctica for an unprecedented period of research and collaboration. The occasion was known as the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a worldwide event that actually involved 18 months of gathering and sharing data concerning the earth’s natural phenomena. While studies took place all over the world, Antarctica received special attention because of its remoteness and unique characteristics—and the dozens of permanent research stations scattered throughout the continent certainly didn’t hurt either.
The IGY was an undisputed success, with research in Antarctica contributing to advances in meteorological prediction, glacier analysis, and the understanding of seismologic phenomena. The spirit of cooperation, however, had another lasting effect on the international community.
Still basking in the afterglow of the IGY, the United States initiated a global discussion surrounding the governance of Antarctica. With the Cold War still underway, could all nations work together toward a common goal of preserving this pristine wilderness—peacefully and without territorial claims? On December 1, 1959, representatives from twelve nations signed the Antarctic Treaty—a truly unique document that would legally bind these countries to cooperate, rather than compete, with regards to Antarctic research and exploration. It officially took effect in 1961.
In the words of the treaty itself, each participating country recognized “that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” To that end, the treaty effectively internationalized Antarctica, suspending all territorial assertions and forbidding further claims to sovereignty. It stated that the area would be used for peaceful purposes only, with no military exercises or weapons testing allowed.
Of the 49 nations that have signed the treaty since its inception, 28 have the right to actively make decisions during consultative meetings, which are held yearly to ensure the articles of the treaty are being upheld. Beyond the original terms of the treaty, some 200 new agreements have been added over the years, in response to evolving environmental concerns. These have included waste management—which was largely ignored until as late as the 1980s—and the protection of plants and animals. The mining of natural resources was banned in 1991.
There is no doubt that the Antarctic Treaty has had an enormous impact on the preservation of Antarctica. But the concerns of conservationists are ever-evolving. While seal populations have recovered to the point where they are no longer endangered, whales have seen no such resurgence; due to their long lifespan (up to 80-100 years, depending on the species) and low reproductive rates, it will take considerably longer to see marked improvement.
In recent years, researchers have become concerned that depleted stocks of krill could pose new threats to the Antarctic ecosystem. These small, shrimp-like crustaceans are the primary food source for whales, penguins, and seals—and while humans don’t consume krill, they do value its oil, rich in omega 3 fatty acids; and its effectiveness as a food source in fish farms when ground into meal. Today, a number of scientific and charitable organizations have joined forces under the Antarctic Krill Conservation Project, devoted to understanding and managing changes in krill population.
Of even greater concern is the fact that Japan continues to practice whaling in Antarctica—despite the fact that commercial whaling has been banned since 1986. Due to a controversial loophole, killing whales for scientific purposes is still technically legal, provided the participating country can prove that the data they collect cannot be otherwise obtained by non-lethal methods.
Not surprisingly, the practice is surrounded by international controversy from both government and environmental groups.
The impact of tourism, too, has been constantly monitored since Antarctica first became a popular destination in the early 1990s. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) enforces strict regulations that govern behavior both on the water and on the ice. In 2009, an addendum to the Antarctic Treaty banned ships carrying more than 500 passengers from landing in Antarctica (meaning that large cruise liners can explore by sea only). In 2011, further legislation required ships to burn lighter-grade fuels that have less impact upon the environment. By remaining ever vigilant, the ultimate goal of the IAATO is to ensure that responsible tourism can continue well into the future, and that Antarctica’s purity will be preserved for future generations.
A look toward the future
While much has been done to minimize the impact of activities contained within Antarctica, some of the most troubling concerns involve factors far beyond the continent’s borders. Namely, climate change—which is currently the biggest question facing scientists as they look to the future of research. The melting of the Antarctic ice sheet would significantly impact the level of the world’s oceans, and scientists predict that certain species, including the Emperor penguin, would suffer negative consequences from even a slight increase in average air temperature.
In April of 2012, the U.S. Antarctic Program conducted a thorough review of its current program in hopes of mapping a research trajectory over the next two decades. To fully understand how Antarctica is reacting to climate change, their findings suggest that large-scale robotics projects—which allow for remote research—will be greener and more cost-effective than the deployment of additional human researchers. The U.S. also plans to install its first solar panels on Antarctica. While the review panel likened Antarctic research to the space program due to the harshness of the environment, all agree that their investments there are crucial to the understanding of climate change worldwide.
A new environmental organization called the Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA)—which has garnered some celebrity clout with the support of actor Edward Norton and business magnate Richard Branson—petitioned to increase the protected marine area around Antarctica from 210,000 square miles to 1.36 million square miles.
While preserving the world’s “last pristine wilderness” in this day and age will always require special vigilance, the world—at least for now—seems united on at least this one front: Antarctica is a land to be respected, rather than exploited. And as travelers fortunate enough to actually set foot on the former “Unknown Southern Land,” we, too, can do our part to protect it. After all, those who visit this part of the world don’t just return home with memories and photographs; they become, as the IAATO maintains, “ambassadors of goodwill, guardianship and peace.”