Antarctica will make you feel small. The frozen continent is the size of the US yet it has only been a part of human history in the last few centuries – and even then it has been restricted to the brave. It is the one place on the planet that has withstood human exploitation. Not only does a treaty prevent interference, the forbidding environment itself guarantees its isolation.
It is a continent versed in self-preservation. Nothing lives in the interior, nothing can. The coast is where you will find its wildlife, and these creatures are not timid. After surviving biting blizzards and the fiercest conditions on earth, Antarctic animals are not exactly fazed by humans.
1. WILDLIFE GAZING: SOUTH GEORGIA
The man who conquered Antarctica is buried in the icy tundra of South Georgia. Sir Ernest Shackleton could well have died on the treacherous expeditions he undertook across the frozen continent, but instead he had a rather prosaic and premature end. In 1921 at the age of 47 he suffered a heart attack onboard a ship anchored at King Edward Cove, South Georgia. To this day visitors pay their respects at Shackleton’s grave, which is easily accessed and marked by a headstone of Scottish granite.
There is a history of whaling here and a former station and museum provide a gateway to a bloody past. Despite this, the north end of South Georgia is estimated to hold more wildlife per square metre than anywhere else on Earth. This is the place to see King penguins, one of the most majestic of aquatic birds. They have markings similar to the Emperor penguin but they are slightly smaller in stature. Albatrosses, the great fisherman of the ocean, spend 95% of their life hunting for fish but you should see them hover over this island.
Described as the Alps in the ocean, South Georgia’s postcard vistas and teeming wildlife make it one of the most visited spots in Antarctica. At Right Whale Bay southern fur seals bask on the heat-keeping black sand beaches and are joined by elephant seals, sea birds and more King penguins. The contrast of these animals on dark sand makes for a rare photographic opportunity. There is also a pebble beach at Stromness Bay on the island which attracts its own fur seal colony.
2. HOT AND COLD: DECEPTION ISLAND
With a name fixed for a Hollywood blockbuster, this island has a history of danger and drama, which explains the name. The landmass is actually a submerged volcanic crater and from the air it resembles a nibbled donut covered in icing sugar.
But this island is all about deception and it remains an unpredictable and active volcano which erupted in 1969 and 1992. The sunken crater’s harbour is called Neptune’s Bellow and the underworld theme continues with the hot springs found on the island. If you would like to be able to say that you swam in Antarctica, this is the place to do it a little more comfortably than elsewhere on the continent. At Pendulum Cove hot volcanic water below the surface mingles with sub-zero seas making it bearable for a dip. Black sand and rocks are another testament to the molten spread here. The still harbour is also ideal for kayaking – just avoid rocking the boat unless you want a frosty dunk.
3. ICE CATHEDRAL: LEMAIRE CHANNEL
Statuesque icebergs rising almost one kilometre high fence in this narrow waterway. The bergs mimic the sky, glowing blue in the sunlight and white when overcast. On this condensed stretch of sea, visitors are likely to share the channel with Humpback whales, Minke whales and Fin whales.
Most Antarctic cruises will travel through the Lemaire Channel thanks to its pancake-flat waters and overpowering scenery. The ship cuts through ice floes which make for some intrepid manoeuvring. You will sail toward twin snow-capped peaks called Una’s Tits – and that’s an official term. Legend has it they were named after the assets of a certain Una who worked on the British Antarctic Survey. Judge whether it’s an honour or an insult as you sail past. The end point of the channel is Petermann Island, which is populated by Gentoo penguins who line the coast like a welcoming party.
4. THE WELCOME MAT: SOUTH SHETLAND ISLANDS
Lying beneath the curl of South America’s most southern point, this group of 11 islands are stepping stones to Antarctica that are almost permanently ice-covered. King George Island is the largest and 12 countries operate research bases on it. It may be freezing but the growth of moss and algae in the tundra pull in wildlife such as Antarctic terns and blue eyed shags – that’s a type of bird to you and I.
On Penguin Island visitors can walk 170 metres up Deacon Peak and get some great photos of the surrounding solid seas. En route visitors will see Adelie penguins, fur seals and southern giant petrels. Hannah Point on Livingston Island is a great place to see Gentoo penguins and Macaroni penguins, so called for the yellow mohawk atop their heads. Half Moon Island is another must-see in this island group. Home to a rookery of Chinstrap penguins, you will be charmed by the helmet wearers of the animal world. It is also apt that they appear built for battle as they are considered to be the most aggressive of penguin species. Despite this reputation, two male Chinstraps at the New York Zoo recently began a well documented relationship and ended up hatching a fertile egg placed in their enclosure – the first recorded Chinstrap gayby.
5. THE LONG BERG: ROSS ICE SHELF
This is the world’s largest body of floating ice and the numbers are as imposing as the ice itself. Measuring 800km wide and rising 60 metres high, you could spend a few days travelling the length of this white wall. Like a raft, it is loosely linked to neighbouring land from where it is fed by glaciers and streams. And only a fraction of it is on show – some 90% of its mass is beneath the ocean’s surface. While it covers an area the size of France, it’s size is restrained by its movement north which causes the ice to collapse or melt.
You may not see much wildlife here but you will see the natural phenomenon of calving. Sizeable chunks of ice – the largest on record was the size of Belgium – dislodge from the shelf. The first clue of calving is a cracking noise followed by the slide and an inevitable theatrical crash into the ocean.