Description of Antarctic destinations
The continent of Antarctica is the highest, coldest, driest, and windiest region on the planet. The greatness of this South Polar region fascinates the world with its massive ice formations, such as the sheets, shelves, caps, burgs, and peaks that reach as high as 5,000 meters. Glaciers account for more than 99% of the continent whose countless broken icebergs fill the surrounding ocean waters.
During the South Polar winter from June to September, more then 20 million square kilometers of the South Polar ocean is frozen and establishes an impermeable belt of packed ice, which separates the continent from the rest of the world. Most of the small land areas which are not covered by ice have been populated by penguins for hundreds of years. There are no permanent land mammals in Antarctica, only penguins, seals, and whales which inhabit the polar oceans. Temporary human inhabitation only began in the mid nineteenth century and consisted only of whalers and explorers followed by international researchers and scientists. However, since the 1960s there has also been an increasing number of tourists to the area. Due to the extreme weather, there have never been native inhabitants of Antarctica.
Antarctica is the only continent on earth whose majority remains untouched by mankind. In 1991 the Madrid Protocol was established by 42 nations all declaring the South Pole a place dedicated to peace and science leading to a milestone achievement in environmental conservation and protection.
This more modern agreement supplemented the preexisting Antarctic Treaty from 1959 in which various countries agreed that the continent would be used for peaceful research purposes and not for economic gain. The Madrid Protocol regulates human activity in the South Pole in order to preserve the fragile ecosystem that can so easily be thrown out of balance. For example, the mining of oil and ocean contamination are strictly forbidden in the area as they can severely harm the flora and fauna in the region.
Today, Antarctica is home to the largest open-air laboratory on the planet. Many important findings may be attributed to this laboratory, such as the discovery of the ozone hole in this region. Because of the widespread success in the research in this area, many companies have set up research stations that are often inhabited year round.
GEOGRAPHY AND NATURE
Unlike the Arctic region which is made up of several landmasses, Antarctica is made up of one massive body surrounded by the South Polar ocean. Geographically, the South Pole lies practically in the heart of the continent on the plateau's giant ice sheet at an elevation of 2,835 meters above sea level.
The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is the largest ocean current in the world and circles the continent in a clockwise direction. This current causes the waters of the ocean surrounding Antarctica to remain cold thus preserving the continent's frozen nature.
Antarctica is home to some 45 bird species and 60 species of mammals, and the seasonal changes that occur in the icy ocean have a strong impact on them. During the southern summer season, the sun does not set for months depending on the latitude and is known as the midnight sun. On the other hand, during the winter months, the sun will not rise, a period known as polar night.
GETTING TO ANTARCTICA
South America is commonly the main entry point into Antarctica. If you desire a visit to the Antarctic peninsula, South Georgia, or the Falkland Islands you will surely want to follow suit and start your voyage in South America.
The following destinations are considered the best gateways to Antarctica:
Punta Arenas, Chile
This lively port city along the Magellan Strait in southern Patagonia was built in 1948. Today the city is home to more than 120,000 inhabitants and is an important sightseeing spot for the Magellan penguin colonies and is also a common gateway for expeditions and cruises to Antarctica and the Fjords of Chile.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
This is an enjoyable stopover for any traveler. The huge city is home to some 11 million inhabitants.
Puerto Madryn, Province Chubut, Argentina
This Patagonian city is home to 60,000 people and is an excellent port city for excursions to the great animal kingdom of the Valdez Peninsula. This spot has also been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
Ushuaia, Province Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
Ushuaia, the most important departure harbor for Antarctic cruises is the province's capital with 65,000 inhabitants. This southernmost city in the world is referred to as the "fin del mundo" or "end of the world". Tierra del Fuego National Park lies around 12 kilometers west of the city of Ushuaia. The city hosts the museum "Museo Maritimo" which maintains an exceptional historical exhibit of Antarctica.
Expedition cruises from Ushuaia head through the Beagle Channel which is a beautiful 6-7 hour journey. The voyage then continues through the drake passage for roughly 35-45 hours until arrival at the Antarctic Peninsula.
The animals in Antarctica can be truly impressive. Though there are no terrestrial mammals in the continent, visitors enjoy a great amount of marine wildlife. For example, eight of the seventeen existing penguin species live in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic Islands and form massive colonies of several hundred thousand birds. Those species found in Antarctica include the King, Emperor, Adelie, Chinstrap, Gentoo, Macaroni, Rockhopper, and Royal penguin.
Visitors are able to take pictures very close to the penguins as they are very trusting due to the lack of any real predators. For that reason they feel very safe on the coastline and do not see humans as a potential threat.
The seals are another exciting creature to watch during your voyage to Antarctica. Of the 19 species that exist worldwide, 6 are found in Antarctica and include Antarctic and sub-Antarctic Fur, Southern Elephant, Crabeater, Leopard, Weddell, and Ross seals. Another fascinating animal is the sea bear which is commonly seen along the coast of South Georgia Island and the South Shetland Islands. Finally, whale encounters are very common. Visitors often enjoy the Humpback, Southern Right, Sperm, Killer, Sei, Fin, Blue, and Minke whales which are found in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic water bodies.
Because of the harsh Antarctic climate, plants are very scarce on the white continent. There are, however, 350 species of lichens, 100 varying moss species, and hundreds of species of algae. Of these algae species, 20 are of the snow algae category and form very colorful patches on the Antarctic earth. The sub-Antarctic islands have a much more perse flora with South Georgia Islands alone boasting at least 50 species of vascular plants.
CLIMATE AND TEMPERATURES
The Antarctic continent is home to what is commonly categorized into three climate zones. The inland areas, the coastal areas, and the Antarctic Peninsula are share slight variations in climate and weather patterns. Despite these variations, the majority of the continent is a vast desert. In fact, with the exception of its ice cap, Antarctica is considered the driest desert in the world due to the little annual precipitation it receives.
Early Summer Season
A very popular traveling season for voyages to Antarctica is the early summer season during the months of November and December. Many coastal areas in the South are often not accessible due to the thick ice drift. This is also an excellent time to enjoy the Emperor penguin colonies as summer is the season of courtship, nest building, egg laying.
Mid Summer Season
Another great traveling season is the mid summer season lasting from January to mid February when there is intense penguin activity in the Albatross colonies. Squabs can also be seen during this time with the adults staying very close to the nests. This is also the warmest season in Antarctica and thus passage through most of the canals and sounds is usually possible.
This traveling season occurs during mid February and is a great season if you would like to see penguin pups in the various colonies. However, as early as March, these colonies begin to break up as temperatures once again fall below freezing.
Maintaining the natural beauty of Antarctica is a permanent concern of ours. Both the North and South Polar regions are mostly untouched by humans which has allowed us to enjoy the area's pure wilderness. This gives us all the more reason to continue protecting the region to ensure that no sustainable harm is done to the fragile ecosystems that currently exist in harmony. Exceptional care should be taken in commonly inhabited areas to ensure that there are no lasting negative effects. Activity in the Antarctic region is subject to the terms of the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959.