Under the Antarctic Ice

Antarctica is a land of extremes: it is the coldest and driest continent on Earth and has the highest average elevation. As the fifth largest continent in the world, Antarctica is also the most Southern, overlying the “South Pole”. Scarcely touched by humans, the frozen land boasts breathtaking scenery, broken by only a handful of scientific bases and a “permanent” population of scientists numbering only a few thousand. Visitors to Antarctica generally must brave rough sea crossings aboard ice-strengthened vessels, but those who do are rewarded with amazing scenery and tremendous and unique wildlife.

Although several countries have laid claim to various portions of Antarctica, it is governed by the 1958 Antarctic Treaty, which establishes the continent as a peaceful and cooperative international research zone. There are no cities per se, just some two dozen research stations with a total population ranging from 1000-4000 depending on the time of year. These are maintained for scientific purposes only, and do not provide any official support for tourism. The laws of the nation operating each research station apply there.

Antarctica is notable for being the only continent with no significant land plant life and no native land mammals, reptiles, or amphibians. (There are no polar bears; they are only at the North Pole.) However its shoreline serves as nesting ground for many species of migratory birds and penguins, and the Southern Ocean surrounding it is home to many fish and marine mammals, including whales.

Aircraft and pilots need to be capable of landing on ice, snow, or gravel runways, as there are no paved runways.There are 28 airport landing facilities in Antarctica and all 37 Antarctic stations have helipads. Landings are generally restricted to the daylight season (Summer months from October to March). Winter landings have been performed at Williams Field but low temperatures mean that aircraft cannot stay on the ice longer than an hour or so as their skis may freeze to the ice runway. Travel is often by military aircraft, as part of the cargo. In this situation passengers should anticipate carrying all their own luggage and may need to assist with freight as well. Commercial flights to Antarctica are rare, but available. Aerovías DAP and Adventure Network International offer commercial flights to Frei Station on King George Island and the ANI Union Glacier Camp, respectively. If taking the Aerovías DAP flight as part of a tour with Antarctica XXI, the tour company transfers all checked luggage to your lodging.

The most common method of visiting the Antarctic. In the Antarctic summer, several companies offer excursions on ice strengthened vessels to Antarctica. Ice strengthened (not quite as tough as icebreakers) ships are preferred since icebreakers are round on the bottom — a configuration that amplifies the already massive wave action in the Drake passage. The ships typically offer a couple of excursions to the continent (usually the Antarctic peninsula) or Antarctic islands (e.g., Deception Island, Aitcho Island) each day over the course of a week. The views are phenomenal, the penguins are friendly (well, some of them are), and the experience is one that is unparalleled!

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Christine Remy

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