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Antarctica: The Last Frontier

The Antarctic is the last great wilderness, a hostile continent of snow, ice and treacherous weather

"The coastline is teeming with rare wildlife; gigantic icebergs and vast mountain ranges reflect in the freezing blue water; and the continent shivers under a blanket of snow and ice. It is like nowhere else on earth"

My passion for Antarctica was spawned in a blizzard in the Highlands of Scotland in the winter of 1985.

Or rather, a group of like minded people who had happened to come together then, as the wind howled and the tent shuddered under the blast of the driving snow, and talk about the need for further research expeditions to the uttermost south occupied our time.

I remember us squatting round the hissing primus stove and later cradling steaming mugs of tea gratefully in our mittened hands, and how the conversation came to centre on Antarctica – not surprisingly, perhaps in these hostile surroundings.


Several years later it was my good fortune to have sailed on “HMS Endurance” for a short time during one of her ice patrols in the Antarctic.

She was helping to maintain the British Antarctic Survey team’s bases on South Georgia, a scattering of other islands, and on the Antarctic continent itself. The Argentinians had long been repelled from the Falkland Islands and it seemed a splendid and civilised thing that a vessel, which was essentially a warship, should be devoting her energies to assisting scientists in their study of one of the few parts of the world where man’s influence is minimal and conditions so harsh that human beings need all the help and support they can muster.

The Antarctic is the last great wilderness, a hostile continent of snow and ice and treacherous weather. Yet it is also a place of great beauty, a land of breathtaking panoramas, wide sweeping glaciers, turbulent ice-falls and vast, majestic snow-covered landscapes. In summer these are seen under a permanent sun; in winter continuous darkness obscures everything. Encircling this remote continent is the Southern Ocean – wild, tempestuous and isolating and a major barrier even now to those who want to visit this hostile land.

Climatic conditions can be extreme. A record low temperature of -89.2˚C was recorded at the Soviet Vostok base on 21 July 1983; a wind speed of 200 mph was measured at the French Dumont d’Urville base in 1972. With its icecap, Antarctica is roughly circular with a diameter of about 4500 kilometres (2800 miles) and covers an area of 14 million sq kilometres (5.4 million sq miles). This makes it the fifth largest continent on earth.

Despite the persistent cold, some primitive forms of life still manage to eke out a precarious existence on the continent. A few microscopic animals survive in areas where the conditions are slightly more favourable than they are elsewhere – the continent’s largest permanent inhabitant is a wingless fly.

Primitive mosses and lichens are the most frequently found plants – one lichen even managing to grow on rocks just 400 kilometres (250 miles) from the South Pole. Some algae in the strange, ice-free dry desert landscape of Garwood Valley, close to Scott base, have taken to living inside rocks so they can escape the harsh conditions. There are, of course, numerous species of birds and seals to be found on and around the continent in summer, but only one, the emperor penguin, stays throughout the months of winter darkness.

It was Captain James Cook who, after crossing the Antarctic Circle in 1773 and spending a fruitless three years searching the southern seas for the lost continent, finally dispelled the enduring myth of ‘Terra Australis’. Although Cook was certain that there existed no massive southern landmass, he declared that he was firmly of the belief that “there is a tract of land near the Pole, which is the source of all the ice spread over this vast Southern Ocean”.

The first person to see Antarctica was probably the Russian explorer Thaddeus von Bellingshausen on 27 January 1820, although it seems that he did not recognise his discovery for what it was. The first landing on the continent may have been made only a year later, in February 1821, by an American sealer, John Davis. There is, however, doubt about the exact spot where Davis landed and it may not have been on the mainland at all.

If Davis did not land on the continent, then the first landing was not made for another 74 years, until January 1895. In that year a party under the command of whaler Henryk Bull stepped ashore beneath Cape Adare. Now some 5,000 people live on Antarctica during the brief, busy summer months. They inhabit some 40 bases on the continent and its surrounding islands. In winter the human population of Antarctica drops to a mere 1,200 or so.

For many people Antarctica is a great mystery – it often comes as a surprise to learn that the continent is so large, and that there are neither polar bears nor Eskimos at the southern extremity of the globe. When the early explorers arrived, in the 1900s, little more than the fringes of the continent had been seen; expeditions went south in sailing ships and dogs were the main means of overland transport. A century later huskies have been replaced by tracked vehicles and skidoos, ships are purpose-built, reliable and powerful and expeditions can make use of a variety of scientific and navigational aids.

When I first went to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey team in 1987, I had the privilege of sitting at the table in Captain Scott’s over-wintering hut at Cape Evans, where he was photographed in 1911, before setting off on his epic 800-mile (1,300 kilometre) journey to the South Pole. Scott and his four companions, Dr Edward Wilson, Edgar ‘Taff’ Evans, Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers and Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates, died on the return journey from the Pole long before I was born, but I have always been inspired by their courage and determination. Today, Antarctica is far more accessible and the continent has become an increasingly popular eco-tourism destination.

Cruises run during the Antarctic summer, from November to mid-March – the only way to reach unique landscapes such as the Ross Ice Shelf, a glistening mass of floating ice the size of France, and Paradise Harbour, Antarctica’s most beautiful bay. Retrace the routes of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Captain Scott on first class expedition ships. A hugely experienced captain, expedition leader and an expert team of naturalist guides will help you discover the region and all its wonders. Cross the Bransfield and Gerlache Straits. Explore the krill rich seas and spectacular landscapes around Marguerite Bay. Sail through the sheer cliffs of the Lemaire Channel to Petermann Island where you will see gentoo and adelie penguins and spectacular ice formations.

The coastline is teeming with rare wildlife; gigantic icebergs and vast mountain ranges reflect in the freezing blue water; and the continent shivers under a blanket of snow and ice. It is like nowhere else on earth.

But it is the spectacular wildlife that attracts most visitors to Antarctica and its surrounding islands and islets: you’ll be taken ashore in rubber Zodiacs to see some of the world’s rarest birdlife, including the endangered wandering albatross, giant petrel, blue-eyed cormorant, Antarctic tern, snow petrel and the pigeon-like sheathbill, plus an abundance of mammals adapted to the cold Antarctic waters such as the minke whale, killer whale, weddell seal, elephant seals and the leopard seal. This fearsome seal’s conspicuous spotted throat and shoulders give it its name. These are solitary predators, targeting exit and entry points at penguin rookeries. Having caught their prey, they shake it violently, in the process turning it inside out and making it easier to feed on.

Then there are the emperor penguins – literally thousands of them. Visit in November, the beginning of the Antarctic summer, to see them courting; through December and January to spot the chicks being born; and during the last days of the Austral summer, in February and March, to watch the impossibly cute youngsters head out to sea. 

Antarctic wildlife is uniquely adapted to survive in the harshest climate in the world and so far has proved resilient in the face of man’s excesses. If the growing knowledge about these creatures is applied with wisdom there is at least a hope that they and their habitat will be preserved for future generations.

This is Antarctica ... The Last Frontier.


- Peter Holthusen


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