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, 2022
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.
This steep-sided channel – just 1600m (5250ft) wide – runs for 11km (7 miles) between the mountains of Booth Island and the Peninsula. So photogenic that it's been dubbed 'Kodak Gap,' the passageway is only visible once you're nearly inside it. The channel was first navigated by the Belgian de Gerlache in 1898 and named after a Belgian explorer of the Congo. Unfortunately, ice sometimes blocks the way, so ships may be forced to retreat and sail outside Booth Island. At the northern end of the Lemaire are two tall, rounded and often snowcapped peaks at Cape Renard.
The great peat slip of 1886, a landslide which killed two people and damaged numerous buildings, wiped out Stanley’s Holy Trinity Church. The foundation stone for its replacement was laid in 1890 and the new, massive brick-and-stone Christ Church Cathedral opened in 1892. With its brightly painted, corrugated-metal roof and attractive stained-glass windows, the cathedral is the town’s most distinguished landmark. Plaques on its walls honor the memory of local men who served in the British Forces in WWI and WWII, as well as the great and good of the Falklands. The stained-glass windows are the church’s most vivid feature. As you enter from the main door you face the Post Liberation Memorial Window, with the Falklands crest and the islands’ motto, ‘Desire the Right.’ Below are the crests of the various British forces involved in the 1982 conflict and, below that, illustrations of three features of the Falklands and South Georgia: the Cathedral and Whalebone Arch represent Stanley; a typical farm settlement represents Camp; and Grytviken’s church and surrounding mountains represent South Georgia. At the other end of the same wall is the charming Mary Watson window, dedicated to a much-loved district nurse standing with her bicycle at the ready. For the cathedral’s centenary in 1992, members of the congregation stitched pictorial hassocks. The collection, picturing many aspects of life in the Falklands, has grown to more than 50 of the cushioned ‘kneelers.’
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.’ In November 2011, Frank Wild’s ashes were buried alongside Shackleton’s after a ceremony in the church attended by Shackleton’s and Wild’s descendants. Wild was Shackleton’s ‘right-hand man.’ There are 63 other graves here, several of which may belong to 19th-century sealers. Most belong to Norwegian whalers, including nine who died in a 1912 typhus epidemic. One grave holds the remains of an Argentine soldier killed during the Falklands War. The cemetery’s abundant dandelions come from seeds in the soil, some of which was imported from Norway to allow the dead whalers to be buried in a bit of home. The cemetery is surrounded by a fence to keep molting elephant seals from scratching against the gravestones. The cross on the hillside above commemorates Walter Slossarczyk, third officer on Filchner’s Deutschland expedition, who committed suicide at Grytviken in 1911; he rowed off in a ship’s dinghy one night and never returned: the boat was found three days later. The cross higher up the hill commemorates 17 men who died when their fishing vessel, Sudurhavid, sank off the island in 1998. The hillside is a good place to take panoramic photos of the station, but it’s quite steep.
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). Three original buildings from that era survive: two small magnetic huts, and another structure built in 1956 and known variously as the Mess Hut, Hut A or the TAE Hut. It housed not only the mess but also the base leader’s room and the radio room. It was restored (2015–16) and is a historic monument maintained by the NZ Antarctic Heritage Trust (www.nzaht.org). Scott Base accommodates 11 winterovers and up to 85 people in summer. In 2004 New Zealand built the Hillary Field Centre, a two-story, 1800-sq-meter heated storage building, the largest single construction project ever undertaken at Scott Base. The base flagpole incorporates an interesting historic relic: part of the flagpole from Scott’s Discovery hut, found on the ground near the hut and presented by the Americans at McMurdo to Hillary in 1957. As part of a major wind-power project, three wind turbines were installed on Crater Hill and became fully operational in early 2010. The turbines, which are also connected to McMurdo’s grid, should reduce the diesel required for power generation by approximately 463,000L per year and should cut annual CO₂ emissions by 1242 tonnes. Currently they provide about 90% of Scott Base’s power and 15% of McMurdo’s. Toilets at Scott are flushed with seawater to reduce freshwater consumption. Tourists can easily overwhelm a smaller Antarctic station like Scott Base, where staff must dedicate themselves to visitors when a ship is in. Still, the New Zealanders are very friendly and several hundred people visit annually. Once a week, Scott Base hosts ‘American night,’ when McMurdo residents are welcome; it’s a way to contain visits from its more populous neighbor. Conversely, the relatively few Kiwis have an open invitation to events at McMurdo. Although there are no mail facilities at Scott Base, there are two public telephones in the foyer of the Command Centre. Use phone cards purchased at the base shop, call collect (reverse charges) or use a credit card. The shop accepts New Zealand and US currencies, Visa, MasterCard and American Express.
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). Don’t miss the full-length portrait of Marilyn Monroe painted on the back of the generator-shed (gift shop) door, a memory aid for lonely winterers during Antarctica’s all-male era. Three UKAHT staff members live at Port Lockroy in the summer to maintain the historic site. They also run a busy post office (about 70,000 items are hand-stamped each year; postcards usually take several weeks to arrive) and a well-stocked souvenir shop, with the proceeds funding museum operations. Surplus profits help pay for the conservation of other British historic sites on the Peninsula. The shop accepts US dollars, and in a pinch British pounds and euros, although credit cards are preferred: Visa and MasterCard (no American Express). To manage the number of visitors, UKAHT allows up to 350 people to visit per day, but no more than 60 are allowed ashore at once. The base is also the staff members’ temporary home; respect their personal areas.
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. As part of Chile’s policy of trying to incorporate its claimed Territorio Chileno Antártico into the rest of the country, the government has encouraged families to live at Frei station. The first of several children was born here in 1984. Families are housed in a group of cream-colored single-story buildings called Villa Las Estrellas (Village of the Stars), built in 1984, that are clustered at the back of the station. Today, Frei accommodates as many as 170 people, but normally only 120 live here (mostly military personnel and their dependents). Among the few civilians are air-traffic controllers and teachers for the children, who make up nearly 25% of the population. Parties of station kids sometimes greet tourists upon arrival. When seen from afar, Frei looks like a small village, with more than 40 buildings, including 15 brightly painted chalets on the hillside. In the center, red-orange buildings include a hospital, a school, a bank, a post office and a tourist shop. The original base complex, also in the center, houses a supermarket, a canteen, a kitchen and a recreation area. Frei also has a chapel and a large gymnasium (the scene of a weekly soccer tournament played among the local stations). The station’s Marsh section includes a 1300m compacted-gravel runway, a hangar, a garage, a hostel, a control tower and parking for Hercules C-130 aircraft, which have landed here since 1980. The first UN secretary-general to visit Antarctica, Ban Ki-moon, was greeted at Frei on November 9, 2007, with a glass of whiskey served with 40,000-year-old ice. Not until 1995 was a scientific annex added to Frei’s sprawl. The five blue-roofed buildings of the summer-only Professor Julio Escudero base lie along the bottom of a steep hill southeast of Frei.
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. Despite the building’s expense and the effort required to erect it, Scott’s men never used it for accommodations because it was difficult to heat efficiently. Instead, it was used for storage, repair work and as an entertainment center (called ‘The Royal Terror Theatre’). In fact, the Discovery hut was used more heavily by several later expeditions. Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition, based at Cape Royds, found it a convenient en-route shelter during sledge trips to and from the Ross Ice Shelf in 1908, as did Scott’s Terra Nova expedition in 1911. The Ross Sea party of Shackleton’s ill-fated Endurance expedition benefited most: they holed up here from time to time in 1915 and 1916. The men, unaware of vast quantities of stores buried in the ice that had accumulated in the hut, nearly starved – despite the hidden bounty lying literally underfoot. They did find a bit of food, cigars, crème de menthe, sleeping bags and a pair of long underwear. The interior of the hut is soot-blackened and smells from the smoky blubber stove they used trying to stay warm. Because it is the hut closest to McMurdo Station and has received the most visitors (and light fingers) over the years, the relatively barren Discovery hut is the least interesting of the three Ross Island historic sites. The AHT estimates that 1000 people visit the hut each year and there are few remaining artifacts. The hut sharply conveys the hardships endured by the early explorers. As you enter, stores line the right-hand wall. The central area is occupied by a stove, piles of provisions and a sleeping platform. A square hole in the floor was used for pendulum experiments. A mummified seal lies on the open southern veranda. For conservation purposes, only eight people are permitted inside at a time, and only 40 are allowed in the area of the hut.
Palmer was built in 1968 on the island’s southwest coast to honor American sealer Nathaniel B Palmer, who in 1820 was one of the first to see Antarctica. The new station replaced the prefabricated wooden huts of ‘Old Palmer,’ established in 1964 about a kilometer across Arthur Harbor from the present station. Old Palmer itself superseded Britain’s Base N, occupied from 1955 to 1958 (no longer in existence). Palmer accommodates 44 people in summer but only about 25 people winterover. The station is accessible by sea year-round and is resupplied by ship every six weeks. Palmer comprises two main buildings, as well as a boathouse, a dive locker, workshops, a clean-air laboratory, a sauna and storage buildings all placed close together. The three-story BioLab includes a laboratory, a dining area, offices, and communications and sleeping facilities. The two-story GWR building (the acronym stands for garage, warehouse and recreation) also houses generators, sleeping facilities, a small medical facility and the station store. Research focuses on long-term monitoring of the marine ecosystem (mainly seabirds and krill), atmospheric studies and the effects of increased ultraviolet radiation (caused by the ozone hole) and climate change on marine and terrestrial communities. Only 12 ship visits are permitted annually to avoid disruption to research. Tourists get a walking tour, including an interesting peek into two aquariums filled with anemones, mollusks, sea urchins, krill and fish. You may also shop at the station store (which accepts credit cards and US dollars) and taste the locally famous ‘Palmer brownies’ in the dining room. You can’t overlook the leaping orca mural on the station’s giant fuel tank. Palmerites sometimes watch outdoor movies projected onto the side of the tank, when weather permits. Also, look for the metal krill weather vane atop the sauna.
The Swedish South Polar Expedition’s prefabricated black-walled hut, the Antarctic Peninsula’s oldest remaining building, is a protected historic site. This dwelling, in which five Swedish and one Argentine scientist spent an unplanned two years, sits on a fragile beach terrace easily eroded by footsteps. The 6m-by-8m hut contains three double bunks, a kitchen and a central living room. Two large metal signs in Spanish describe the site’s history, as do leaflets in English inside the hut. Two angled wooden planks, original to the design, support the northeast wall. The Argentine government, whose Marambio Station on Seymour Island is 21km northeast, maintains the hut. No more than five people are allowed in the hut at a time, with no visits between 7pm and 8am. Behind the hut is a snowless ravine, where visitors can pluck fossils of clams and ammonites from the gravel to show to one another (but not take them!).