No place on Earth compares to this vast white wilderness of elemental forces: snow, ice, water, rock. Antarctica is simply stunning.
Antarctica’s surreal remoteness, extreme cold, enormous ice shelves and mountain ranges, and myriad exotic life forms invariably challenge you to embrace life fully. Everyone – scientist, support worker, government official and tourist – who comes to this isolated continent, must ‘earn’ it, whether by sea voyage or flight. Ice and weather, not clocks and calendars, determine the itinerary and the timetable of all travel here. Today, it’s even possible for visitors to climb Antarctic peaks or kayak icy waters. But there is nothing quite like the craggy crevasses of a magnificent glacier or the sheer expanse of the polar ice cap.
Preserved by the Antarctic Treaty, Antarctica is home to some of the world’s most extraordinary species. Some, such as the enormous whales, migrate from afar, while others, including the Weddell seal and emperor penguin, remain close to the continent. Millions of seabirds skim the Southern Ocean, the world’s most abundant, and species such as albatrosses and petrels circle the waters. Wildlife is generally unafraid of humans: visitors usually elicit no more than an uninterested yawn from seals and penguins focused on their young.
The names of explorers and their sovereigns and benefactors are written on Antarctica’s shores. Renowned explorers from Cook to Amundsen and Scott all tried to penetrate this vast, mysterious land: each with varying degrees of success. Visitors can follow in their footsteps and imagine what it was like to forge through the pack ice on a creaking wooden boat or to haul sledges across the polar plateau. Some of the historic huts actually remain, preserved frozen in rime ice, to tell the story of adventures long past.
Antarctica possesses an unnameable quality. Call it inspiration, call it grandeur…it is simply the indescribable feeling of being a small speck in a vast, harshly beautiful land. A land where striated ice towers float among geometric pancake ice, literally untouched mountains rear from marine mist, and wildlife lives, year in and year out, to its own rhythms, quite apart from human concerns. To let our minds soar in a place nearly free of humankind’s imprint: this is magic.
This is your brain on Antarctica: penguins, icebergs, and a lifetime supply of awe
17 min read — Published Apr 4
On a trip to Antarctica, editor-at-large Sebastian Modak found himself in a perpetual state of awe.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Antarctica.
Scott’s hut from the Terra Nova expedition is steeped in an incredible feeling of history. Here, dog skeletons bleach on the sand in the Antarctic sun, evoking thoughts of Scott’s death march from the Pole. Stand at the head of the wardroom table and recall the famous photo of Scott’s final birthday, with his men gathered around a huge meal and their banners hanging behind.
Shackleton erected this structure on his Nimrod expedition in February 1908. Fifteen men lived in the hut, which is much smaller than Scott’s at Cape Evans, and the feeling inside is still very atmospheric. All of Shackleton’s men left here alive (unlike at Scott’s hut), and apparently they left in a hurry: when members of the Terra Nova expedition visited in 1911, they found socks left hanging to dry and a meal still on the table.
The South Pole station was built in phases, so the first group of occupants was able to take up residence in January 2003, and it was officially inaugurated in January 2008. Full summer operations began in October 2011. The 6039-sq-meter, elevated station stretches 128m, facing the prevailing winds with an aeronautical design that helps scour snow from beneath it. The complex accommodates 150 people in summer and 50 in winter.
In February 1899, four years after Kristensen’s landing here, Borchgrevink was back at Cape Adare as the leader of the Southern Cross expedition. It took the men two weeks to erect two prefabricated structures, the remains of which can be seen today just back from Ridley Beach, which Borchgrevink named for his mother. These two huts are the oldest buildings in Antarctica.
Shackleton’s grave is the highlight of the whalers’ cemetery at Grytviken. ‘The Boss’ is buried at the left rear of the graveyard. On the back of the granite headstone (engraved with the nine-pointed star that Shackleton used as a personal emblem) is one of his favorite quotations, from the work of poet Robert Browning: ‘I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize.’
Compared to McMurdo’s ‘urban sprawl,’ just 3km away by gravel road, New Zealand’s Scott Base looks positively pastoral. An orderly collection of lime-green buildings, Scott Base – named for Robert Scott – was established in 1957 by Edmund Hillary as part of Vivian Fuchs’ Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE).
Britain beautifully restored the original station building, Bransfield House, the main building of Base A, in 1996. Displays on the station’s history hang inside. Artifacts include clothing from Operation Tabarin, a clandestine 1944 radio transmitter, a wind-up HMV gramophone with Noel Coward 78rpm records, and wooden skis purchased from the Grytviken Whaling Station Stores on South Georgia in 1957. A scientific highlight: a restored ‘Beastie’ (an early apparatus for upper-atmospheric research).
Chile constructed this station, known as Frei station, in 1969 on the nearly ice-free Fildes Peninsula at the island’s southwestern tip, and 10 years later it added Teniente Rodolfo Marsh Martin station less than 1km across the peninsula. Frei has since incorporated Marsh, and thus the station’s name appears as either Frei or Marsh on charts. Together with the Escudero base, Frei/Marsh is one of the Peninsula region’s largest and most complex stations.
Scott’s National Antarctic Expedition built this hut in February 1902 on aptly named Hut Point. The prefabricated building, purchased in Australia, is of a type still found in rural Australia, with a wide overhanging veranda on three sides. It was originally painted a terracotta color, but wind has scoured it bare.