As the southern most continent, Antarctica contains the geographic South Pole. Antarctica is surrounded by the Southern Ocean and being situated in the Antarctic Region of the Southern Hemisphere it is almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle. Antarctica is the fifth largest continent at nearly twice the size of Australia and about 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice that averages at least 1 mile in thickness.
Antarctica has the highest average elevation of all the continents and on average it is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent. With an annual precipitation of only 8 inches along the coast and much less inland, Antarctica is considered to be a desert. It is also very cold with temperatures in Antarctica having reached 129 degrees Farenheit below zero. Because of the frigid temperatures and extremely harsh environment, there are no permanent human residents on Antarctica. But it not surprisingly it is a hub for research and there may be anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 researchers who reside there throughout the year at the research stations scattered across the continent. Only organisms who have adapted to the cold can survive on Antarctica and these include many types of algae, animals (for example mites, nematodes, penguins, seals and tardigrades), bacteria, fungi, plants, and protista. The only type of vegetation that occurs is tundra.
The Allure of Antarctica
A trip to Antarctica affords travelers with the opportunity to witness one of the most beautiful, pristine, and remote wildernesses on the planet that not many others have set foot on before. The glaciers are gigantic, calving regularly and creating a spectacular splash in the water around you. The only thing as interesting as the exotic wildlife – including colonies of thousands of penguins, humpback and orca whales, leopard and elephant seals, among others – is the stunning natural beauty that is found everywhere you look. Those who have traveled to the 7th Continent before will agree that it’s not easy to get there. But once you do it’s like no other place on earth!
How to Visit Antarctica
The vast majority of visitors to Antarctica take a cruise from southern Argentina, usually Ushuaia. Small vessels that carry less than 500 passengers allow for actual landings on the continent and generally allow for 3-4 days actually on land. But everything in Antarctica is dependent on the weather and local climatic conditions. Larger ships that carry more than 500 passengers don’t actually make landings on the continent but they spend a couple of days cruising among the islands.
There is another way to actually step foot on Antarctica without having to spend the time to cross the notoriously rough Drake Passage. It is now possible to take a three hour flight from southern Argentina to King George Island of the South Shetland Islands. There visitors board a ship to make landings on various islands. This significantly shortens the Antarctic Adventure and the crossing of the Drake Passage which may be beneficial to some since the passage can be so turbulent that many people get very sea sick.
When to Visit Antarctica
Since Antarctica is in the southern hemisphere the season to visit is from November to March when tours are conducted during summer. During this time you can expect temperatures with lows around 5- 10 degrees Fareheit and highs of 35 to 60 degrees Farenheit. Days are also very long with a maximum of 18 to 24 hours of sunlight.
What you should expect to see will vary based on exactly when you go. The mating season for penguins and other birds is November so visitors may have the opportunity to see their offspring by going in December and January. February and March are the best months for whale watching.