Antarctica ~ ‘The White Continent’

Whenever I thought about Antarctica… all I could think of was the “Drake Passage”. The turbulence and drama of the Drake with potential seasickness, freezing cold unpredictable weather, and endless snow and ice!  I had no real interest to go there, it was at the bottom of my ‘places to go list’.

However, Ole Liodden (scientist, wildlife conservationist and photographer extraordinaire) of WILDPHOTO convinced me otherwise. So, I signed up for a small ‘photographer only’ expedition with WILDPHOTO.  The ‘small’ group turned out to be 75 photographers!  I was not disappointed with the trip and can highly recommend Ole Liodden and WILDPHOTO for any of their trips.

The Drake Crossing

My fears of the Drake were not unfounded as both my crossings were horrendous. Most of the passengers, including me were confined to our cabins for both crossings and were dosed up on a variety of anti seasick medications to prevent seasickness.

Crossing the 1000 km of the Drake Passage where the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Seas converge creating turbulent currents that have the potential to make you regret you boarded the ship. Commonly known as either the Drake Lake or the Drake Shake, it is one of the most treacherous and dangerous bodies of water in the world. The crossing takes around 48 hours depending on the weather. Around 1 in 4 crossings will be turbulent with swells that can reach up to 8 metres making the crossing very unpleasant. 

Sample video of same weather and conditions that I encountered on my 2 crossings.

The beauty of Antarctica

It is hard to describe the beauty of Antarctica – its vast white pristine landscapes covered with thick snow, ice, massive white icebergs and the amazing wildlife, in particular “the penguins” which are the most common birds in Antarctica. 

Sunrise in Antarctica
Sunrise in Antarctica

It is also very hard to adequately capture the true essence and beauty of this destination in a photograph or describe the immense grandness of Antarctica’s unspoiled natural beauty. 

As they say… sometimes one has to let the photos tell the story, which I will try and do in this post.

Map of Antarctica
Map of Antarctica

antarctica facts
  • Antarctica is known as ‘The White Continent’
  • It is the coldest, driest, windiest (wind speeds up to 322 km/hr) and iciest place on earth
  • It is the southernmost continent and the fifth largest continent, consisting of around 14 million sq.km 
  • There are approximately 30 different countries operating 80 research stations situated in Antarctica. During the summer months there are around 4000 people working in these stations, in winter there are around 1000 people
  • It is a desert – it has very little rain or snow 
Snowy Antarctic landscape
Snowy Antarctic landscape
  • It is the most remote region on earth
  • Antarctica is only accessible between November – March 
  • Made up of enormous amounts of ice which form as a result of snow that doesn’t melt. The ice forms into thick sheets which result in glaciers, ice shelves and icebergs 
  • It has no trees or bushes; the only plant life is algae and moss that can grow in such cold conditions 
  • This continent belongs to no country, has no currency, non-visa entry, no golf courses, no shopping – yet it attracts more than 55,000+ tourists annually (2018/2019 stats) with expected numbers of tourists to increase by 17% annually
  • The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959, with 48 countries as signatories, but only 29 countries (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay, and United States) control the decision making process
  • Purpose of this Treaty is to jointly be responsible for the continent to keep it protected, free from crime and exploitation… ‘a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’
  • Antarctica has never been to war, has no military presence, there has never been a murder
  • For many travellers Antarctica is the ultimate bucket list destination and is considered to be the most beautiful place on earth 
Antarctic Sunrise
Antarctic Sunrise
  • It is wild and has very unpredictable weather which can change at a moment’s notice 
  • The continent is uninhabited with humans apart from a few scientific bases, where scientists study ice and monitor the conditions and wildlife
  • Antarctica is home for whales, penguins, seals, albatrosses, birds and a variety of other wildlife. The wildlife have all well adapted to the harsh climate
  • It is home to the southern most active volcano in the world – Mount Erebus 
  • Weather can play a huge impact on daily activities and visitors need to be flexible. Some days the weather is too rough for going in zodiacs for landings.
  • Photographing from the ship is great, but some days the weather is so cold and windy that one cannot stay out on deck for too long
Old whaling station
Old whaling station
old whaling station
Old whaling station
Getting there

There are two ways to get to Antarctica.  The most popular way is by ship departing from Ushuaia (southernmost tip of Argentina), taking 4 days return in total crossing the Drake Passage.  The other is fly/cruise, where one takes a 2 hour flight into Antarctica and boards ones ship in Antarctica for the duration of their visit. Upon return will take a 2 hour flight back to Ushuaia. This avoids the horrendous Drake Passage crossing. However, often the weather is unsuitable for planes to fly in and out which does affect meeting one’s boat in the Antarctica and missing days of touring.  

MS Ushuaia Ship
MS Ushuaia, my home for 2 weeks
When is the best time to go?

Antarctica has only two seasons – summer and winter. Summer is from October – February when the temperatures are around -7° to 2°C.  It is only possible to visit Antarctica in summer. Winter temperatures range from –15°c to -20°c, when it becomes too treacherous to visit.

It is preferable to go at the beginning of summer, as being one of the first people to land on the snow will guarantee unspoiled ice with no human footprints.  

Wildlife

My personal favourite were the penguins. All visitors are required to maintain a distance of 10 metres or more from all wildlife. The penguins were not at all concerned with human presence as they are so used to visitors. They are very inquisitive and often will come quite close to you if you sit still, remain quiet and wait.

Gentoo penguins
Gentoo penguins
Gentoo penguins courting
Gentoo penguins courting
Gentoo penguin highway
Gentoo penguin highway
A trio of gentoo penguins
A trio of Gentoo penguins
Chinstrap penguin portrait
Chinstrap penguin portrait
Chinstrap penguins traversing the ice
Chinstrap penguins traversing the ice
Chinstrap penguin
Chinstrap penguin
Penguin predators

While the penguins have fear of humans they are at risk of predation by elephant seals and Weddell seals. The skuas and sheathbills prey on penguin eggs and chicks.

Elephant seal
Elephant seal
Majestic Weddell seal
Majestic Weddell seal
Skuas ~ predatory birds
Skuas ~ predatory birds
Sheathbills ~ predatory birds
Sheathbills ~ predatory birds
blue-eyed cormorants
Blue-eyed cormorants
Icebergs
Icebergs
Antarctic sunset
Antarctic sunset

Antarctica Conservation Status

Prior to the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, some species of whales and seals were close to extinction, garbage was discarded and left on land and in the ocean, fishing was unregulated and penguin and other bird colonies had their eggs harvested due to human activities. Once the Antarctic Treaty was created it raised greater environmental awareness which has led to more strict regulations.

For example:

  • No wildlife can be captured or killed without permits and only for scientific reasons
  • No or minimal interference with any wildlife
  • All discharges from ships and bases into the seas around Antarctica is strictly prohibited (toxic chemicals, oils, plastics, rubbish)
  • Treated sewage and food waste from ships may only be discharged 23 nautical km off shore
  • Mining is prohibited
  • No removal of any flora or fauna
  • No introduction of any non-native flora or fauna
  • No entry to protected areas
  • No dogs or domestic animals allowed due to the possibility of introducing diseases, such as canine distemper which can infect seals
Enormous icebergs
Enormous icebergs
Antarctic reflections
Antarctic reflections

 Antarctica still remains a remote, lonely and desolate continent. A place where it’s possible to see the splendours and immensities of the natural world at its most dramatic and, what’s more, witness them almost exactly as they were, long, long before human beings ever arrived on the surface of this planet. Long may it remain so” ~ Sir David Attenborough

Harsh weather
Harsh weather conditions
Please enjoy this short video on Antarctica

References

https://www.livescience.com/43881-amazing-antarctica-facts.html

https://www.britannica.com/place/Antarctica

https://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/science/conservation.php

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