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Day by Day Itinerary

Journey to the pristine wilds of Antarctica and discover icebergs in a fantastic array of shapes, a pink-hued polar sun that never sets in summer, and a surprising abundance of marine wildlife. Our privately owned, 98-passenger Corinthian will bring you to remote landscapes inhabited by chinstrap, Adélie, and gentoo penguins, along with seals, whales, and seabirds. On this Antarctica cruise, you’ll travel to a realm once known only to explorers like Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton and witness the rugged, glacier-clad shores they saw. Antarctica will change you—with its extraordinary plenitude, profound stillness, and your sure knowledge that you are visiting one of the last pure places on Earth.

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    Your overnight flight to Buenos Aires departs in the evening.

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    View Plaza San Martin while touring Buenos Aires

    When you arrive in the morning, a Grand Circle representative meets you at the Buenos Aires airport and escorts you to your hotel. Relax until mid-afternoon, and then join a short orientation walk in the neighborhood around the hotel if you wish. Then join your Program Director and travel companions for a trip briefing.

    This evening, enjoy a Welcome Dinner hosted by your Program Director at a traditional Argentinean steakhouse.

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    Explore Buenos Aires colorful bohemian district La Boca

    After breakfast, set off on a tour of Buenos Aires, an elegant mixture of Spanish Colonial architecture and several traditional European styles. See the monument-filled Avenida 9 de Julio and the Plaza de Mayo, where many buildings important to Argentinean history stand. Your exploration continues in La Boca, a colorful bohemian district where you'll stroll streets filled with artists selling their work and performers practicing their tango. You'll then visit Recoleta, where you'll see elegant homes, fashionable shops and restaurants, and the famously ornate cemetery where Eva Peron is buried.

    Your afternoon is free. Later, you'll enjoy a discussion on the economy of Argentina. Dinner is on your own this evening, or join an optional tour to take in a tango show with dinner.

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    Explore Ushuaia and view Tierra del Fuego in the distance

    After a pre-dawn wake up, transfer to the airport for your flight to Ushuaia, Argentina. Known as the “City at the End of the World,” Ushuaia is a former penal colony whose name is a Yamana Indian word for “bay that stretches into the sunset.” Today, it’s a small but busy port with a frontier atmosphere. The snowcapped Andes rise on one side of town, while the magnificent Beagle Channel extends from the other.

    You’ll take a tour from the coastal area, overlooking Beagle Channel to Main Street in the city center. Then you’ll visit the Prison Museum, with exhibits on the area's early penal colonies. Tonight, dinner is on your own. Perhaps you'll try one of the many great restaurants specializing in local king crab.

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    View Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse in the Beagle Channel

    After breakfast, you'll visit Tierra del Fuego National Park. This is Argentina's only coastal national park, remarkable for its remote location, raging winds, and rugged landscape. The park protects unique flora and fauna including Austral parakeets and the Fuegian fox. After the visit to the park, you'll enjoy a traditional Argentine asado de cordero (lamb barbecue) lunch.

    In the late afternoon, you embark on your Antarctic expedition ship, the Corinthian. Your cruise begins with a thrilling passage through the scenic Beagle Channel as we head east for the storied Drake Passage. Onboard, you'll meet our Expedition Team, an enthusiastic group of explorers, researchers, and naturalists, many of whom return to the Antarctic every year. At this initial session, they'll preview your journey, outlining the course your ship will follow and detailing the stunning sights that lie ahead. Then, as we travel, they'll become your steady companions, teaching you about all aspects of your voyage.

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    Your first full day at sea takes you across the Drake Passage, named after the 16th-century English navigator Sir Francis Drake and the point where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet. This passage is notorious among sea captains and voyagers worldwide for having some of the most turbulent waters on the planet. If sea conditions are characteristically rough, the ship will roll considerably and, depending on the intensity, you’ll need to stay in your cabin until calmer waters are reached. For safety, all portholes will be closed while cruising the Drake Passage. (If you have problems with seasickness, we recommend that you carry—and use—patches and pills for seasickness.)

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    Discover the wildlife of Antarctica

    During much of this part of the trip, depending on the time of year, your ship may be accompanied by an impressive variety of sea birds—such as the magnificent Wandering Albatross. You have a good chance of spotting whales and dolphins; many different species have been encountered in these rich waters over the years. You'll also cross the Antarctic Convergence, a biological barrier where cold polar waters sink beneath the warmer waters of the more temperate zones.

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    Explore the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands

    The following itinerary for your Antarctic cruise is for guidance only. Due to constantly changing weather, ice conditions, and wildlife-viewing opportunities, no two Antarctic voyages can ever be exactly the same—which is precisely what makes this trip such a unique experience. Flexibility is the key to creating the best possible trip, as all landings are dependent on the current weather. Your Captain and Expedition Leader continually assess daily weather conditions and wildlife opportunities to take full advantage of the almost continuous daylight and to maximize time ashore. Visits to research stations depend upon receiving final permission. Although it is impossible to guarantee precisely what you will see and when you will see it, because sightings and encounters inevitably vary from trip to trip, we are confident that your voyage to Antarctica will be an unforgettable experience.

    When you catch sight of land for the first time after crossing the Drake Passage, you will have reached the South Shetland Islands. This impressive group of islands, lying to the north and roughly parallel to the Antarctic Peninsula, is a haven for wildlife. You'll visit vast penguin rookeries, land on beaches ruled by Antarctic fur seals, and observe wallowing southern elephant seals. We also hope to visit one of the many research bases in the archipelago and look for either of Antarctica's only two flowering plants, Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis), which thrive here during the short southern summer. A highlight of your visit to the South Shetlands will be sailing through a narrow passage into the flooded caldera of Deception Island.

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    View glaciers and a wide variety of Antarctic wildlife

    You continue cruising the region of the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetlands. As we go, you’ll have plenty of time to experience the special magic of this awe-inspiring wilderness of snow, ice, waterways, and mountains, and you can expect to see a wide variety of Antarctic wildlife. Enormous rookeries of gentoo, chinstrap, and Adélie penguins; blue-eyed shags; kelp gulls; Cape petrels; snowy sheathbills; and Antarctic terns are just some of the many birds found here in abundance. You are also likely to see Weddell, crabeater and leopard seals. Depending on the season, you may also encounter orcas, humpback, and Minke whales at close range.

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    Explore the South Shetlands on zodiac expeditions

    You continue cruising the region of the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetlands. The Antarctic Peninsula has a remarkable history and, during the voyage, your Expedition Team will regale you with tales of the most important and dramatic expeditions to this remote corner of the world. As you watch from the ship and make excursions in Zodiacs, you will certainly feel the same sense of excitement as many of those early explorers.

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    View Antarctica's stunning landscape and wildlife during zodiac tours

    You continue cruising the region of the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetlands. If they are not choked with pack ice and icebergs, we plan to navigate some of the most beautiful waterways in the world: the Neumayer and Lemaire channels, narrow passages between towering rock faces and spectacular glaciers. You may also sail south of the Lemaire Channel to Petermann Island, where Adélie and gentoo penguins, skuas, and blue-eyed shags nest close to the landing site.

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    Begin your journey back to Ushuaia, crossing the Drake Passage. Known as the “Drake Lake”or the “Drake Shake” (depending on the severity of conditions), this famous passage is a travel milestone. Depending on the degree to which the seas are rolling, you may need to stay in your cabin during the crossing.

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    View southern right whales off the coast of Argentina

    As you cruise the Drake Passage, you can watch for birds and whales, enjoy some final lectures by your Expedition Team, and relax and reflect upon your discoveries.

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    You disembark the ship after breakfast to board a return flight for Buenos Aires. If you are ending your trip at this point, you will depart for the U.S. in the late evening. If you are continuing on the optional post-trip extension, you transfer to your Buenos Aires hotel for the night.

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Weather & Regional

Before you travel, we encourage you to learn about the region of the world you'll discover on this trip. From weather and currency information to details on population, geography, and local history, you'll find a comprehensive introduction to your destinations below.

Visit our “What to Know” page to find information about the level of activity to expect, vaccination information resources, and visa requirements specific to this vacation.

Currency Cheat Sheet: Submit

What to Know

For more detailed information about this trip, download our Travel Handbook below. This document covers a wide range of information on specific areas of your trip, from passport, visa, and medical requirements; to the currencies of the countries you’ll visit and the types of electrical outlets you’ll encounter. This handbook is written expressly for this itinerary. For your convenience, we've highlighted our travelers' most common areas of interest on this page.

Download the Travel Handbook

What to Expect

Travel considerations for you and your small group of no more than 25, on Antarctica's White Wilderness.

Pacing

  • 13 days, with 9 nights aboard the Corinthian, and 2 hotel stays, including a single 1-night stay
  • International flights from U.S. to Buenos Aires depart around midnight; 2 internal flights, 1 with pre-dawn wake up

Physical requirements

  • You must be able to walk 3 miles unassisted and participate in 6-8 hours of physical activities each day
  • We require passenger medical forms be signed and stamped by a doctor and emergency evacuation coverage of at least $50,000
  • Travelers using mobility aids or with medical conditions that might require immediate attention or evacuation will not be able to board the Corinthian

Small Ship Cruising

  • Crossing the Drake Passage involves a total of four days of usually rough seas, so good agility, balance, and strength is needed
  • Accessing the Zodiacs will require the use of a steep staircase. Agility and balance are required for embarking Zodiac boats; all landings in Antarctica are wet landings, so weatherproof clothing is recommended.
  • Weather conditions and tides may require adjustments to your itinerary

Climate

  • Daytime temperatures range from 30-45°F during cruising season
  • Expect high winds and rain in Ushuaia

Terrain

  • Travel over uneven surfaces, including ice, slippery rocks, sand, and snow

Transportation

  • Travel by 45-seat coach, 98-passenger small ship, and Zodiac
  • 2 internal flights of 4 hours each

Cuisine

  • Meals will be a mix of local specialties and familiar American standards
  • Meals onboard feature a variety of entrée options, including vegetarian

Travel Documents

Passport

Your passport should meet these requirements for this itinerary

  • It should be valid for at least 6 months after your scheduled return to the U.S.
  • It should have the recommended number of blank pages (refer to the handbook for details).
  • The blank pages must be labeled “Visas” at the top. Pages labeled “Amendments and Endorsements” are not acceptable.

Visas

U.S. citizens will need a visa (or visas) for this trip. In addition, there may be other entry requirements that also need to be met. For your convenience, we’ve included a quick reference list, organized by country:

  • Antarctica: No visa required.
  • Argentina (main trip/optional extensions): No visa required. Note: Argentina charges an advance reciprocity (entry) fee.
  • Brazil (optional Iguassu Falls extension): Visa required. (Necessary to visit the Brazilian side of the falls.)

Travelers who are booked on this vacation will be sent a complete Visa Packet with instructions, applications, and a list of visa fees—approximately 100 days prior to their departure. (Because many countries limit the validity of their visa from the date it is issued, or have a specific time window for when you can apply, we do not recommend applying too early.)

If you are not a U.S. citizen, do not travel with a U.S. passport, or will be traveling independently before/after this trip, then your entry requirements may be different. Please check with the appropriate embassy or a visa servicing company. To contact our recommended visa servicing company, PVS International, call toll-free at 1-800-556-9990.

Vaccinations Information

For a detailed and up-to-date list of vaccinations that are recommended for this trip, please visit the CDC’s “Traveler’s Health” website. You can also refer to the handbook for details.

Before Your Trip

Before you leave on your vacation, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:

Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)

What to Bring

In an effort to help you bring less, we have included checklists within the handbook, which have been compiled from suggestions by Program Directors and former travelers. The lists are only jumping-off points—they offer recommendations based on experience, but not requirements. You might also want to refer to the climate charts in the handbook or online weather forecasts before you pack. Refer to the handbook for details.

Insider Tips

Accommodations

Main Trip

  • Corinthian

    The Corinthian is an ice-strengthened, ocean-cruising vessel with the latest navigational, communications, and safety equipment. The ship is 290 ft. long and carries 98 passengers in 49 outside-facing cabins. Each of these cabins is at least 215 sq. ft. and has portholes, a window (some with partially obstructed views), or a balcony. The cabins have a sitting area, queen-size bed (convertible to twin beds), a closet, flatscreen TV, a DVD/CD player, telephone, mini-refrigerator, and a private bath with shower, hair dryer, and toiletries. An elevator serves all passenger decks. Common areas include a restaurant and two lounges. During the cruise portion of your trip, you will need to tender to shore via Zodiac craft. Your landing will be “wet,” which means you’ll need to step into water up to ten inches deep and wade ashore.

Main Trip

  • Panamericano Buenos Aires

    Buenos Aires, Argentina | Rating: Superior First Class

    Situated in the heart of vibrant Buenos Aires, the Superior First-Class Panamericano Buenos Aires offers a central location to the city, with amenities such as air-conditioning, coffee- and tea-making facilities, an in-room safe, satellite TV, and high-speed Internet access. There is also concierge service, as well as laundry facilities and a business center with computers for your use.

  • Cilene del Faro Hotel

    Ushuaia, Argentina

    We'll spend a night in Ushuaia at the Cilene del Faro Hotel, conveniently located on the waterfront next to the Maritime Museum. Relax inside at the Glass Bar—a former lighthouse converted into a cocktail lounge with panoramic views of the Andes, the Beagle Channel, and the city. The hotel has 48 rooms, each equipped with a safe, high-speed Internet access, kitchenette, and private bath.

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  • Amerian Buenos Aires Park Hotel

    Buenos Aires, Argentina | Rating: Superior First Class

    The 152-room Amerian Buenos Aires Park Hotel is just steps away from Florida Street and Plaza San Martin, offering easy access to Argentina’s capital. An inviting atrium lobby greets you, and its rooms are accented with wood, marble, and granite touches. Hotel amenities include a gym, sauna, bar, and laundry service.

  • Cacique Inacayal Hotel

    Bariloche, Argentina

    With Nahuel Huapi Lake as its backdrop, the 67-room Cacique Inacayal Hotel welcomes guests with water views and friendly service. A light-flooded six-story atrium is just one of the appealing features in this hotel, which also offers a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, and sauna, as well as a Patagonian restaurant. Each room includes private bath, cable TV, and wireless Internet.

  • Panamericano Buenos Aires

    Buenos Aires, Argentina | Rating: Superior First Class

    Situated in the heart of vibrant Buenos Aires, the Superior First-Class Panamericano Buenos Aires offers a central location to the city, with amenities such as air-conditioning, coffee- and tea-making facilities, an in-room safe, satellite TV, and high-speed Internet access. There is also concierge service, as well as laundry facilities and a business center with computers for your use.

  • Amerian Portal del Iguassu

    Puerto Iguassu, Argentina

    This modern-style hotel sits amid the lush vegetation of the Iguassu Falls area, and boasts a spectacular view of the junction of the Parana and Iguazu rivers. Take a dip in either an indoor or outdoor pool, relax in the hot tub, or enjoy a cocktail at either of the hotel's two bars and restaurants that offer both local specialties and international cuisine. Each of the 102 rooms is comfortably furnished and features a private bath.

Flight Information

Flight Options to Personalize Your Trip

You can choose to stay longer before or after your trip on your own, or combine two vacations to maximize your value.

  • Extend your vacation and lower your per day cost with our optional pre- and post-trip excursions
  • Choose our standard air routing, or work with us to select the airline and routing you prefer
  • Make your own international flight arrangements directly with the airline, applying frequent flyer miles if available
  • International airport transfers to and from your ship or hotel, including meet and greet service, are available for purchase
  • Stay overnight in a connecting city before or after your trip
  • Request to arrive a few days early to get a fresh start on your vacation
  • Choose to "break away" before or after your trip, spending additional days or weeks on your own
  • Combine your choice of Grand Circle Cruise Line vacations to maximize your value
  • Upgrade to business or premium class

The air options listed above may involve additional airfare costs based on your specific choices.

Or, when you make your reservation, you can choose our standard air routing, for which approximate travel times are shown below.

Photos From Our Travelers

On location in Antarctica

Here’s how Grand Circle travelers have captured moments of discovery, beauty, friendship, and fun on previous departures of our Antarctica's White Wilderness adventure. We hope these will evoke special travel memories and inspire you to submit your own favorite Grand Circle trip photos.

  View chinstrap penguins on Antarctica's Peterman Island  

On Peterman Island, 4-time traveler Sue Straw of Riverside, California, caught these two chinstrap penguins looking both ways before crossing the ice.

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How to submit your photos:

Please submit individual photos in jpeg format to: GCTtravelerphotos@gct.com.

Please be sure to include the name of your Grand Circle vacation, along with the travel dates. Tell us where you took the photo and, if you’d like, tell us why. And don’t forget to include your name and contact information.

Please note: By submitting a photo, you (i) represent and warrant that the photo is your original work created solely by yourself and does not infringe the intellectual property rights of any party; (ii) grant to Grand Circle LLC and its affiliates a worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, transferable, irrevocable, non-exclusive and fully sublicensable right and license to use, in any and all related media whether now known or hereafter devised, in perpetuity, anywhere in the world, with the right to make any and all commercial or other uses thereof, including without limitation, reproducing, editing, modifying, adapting, publishing, displaying publicly, creating derivative works from, incorporating into other works or modifying the photo and (iii) hereby release and discharge Grand Circle LLC and its affiliates, officers and employees from and against any and all claims, liabilities, costs, damages and expenses of any kind arising out of or relating to the use by Grand Circle LLC of any photo submitted.

Our Antarctic small ship

Discover Antarctica aboard Grand Circle’s expedition ship

Get a closer look at Antarctica’s White Wilderness during your 9-night cruise aboard the Corinthian, a 98-passenger expedition ship featuring all outside cabins, a fleet of Zodiac rafts for shore landings, and an expert onboard Expedition Team. When you join Grand Circle to explore Antarctica, you’ll enjoy the greatest access to the richest discoveries as you cruise aboard this well-appointed small ship. It’s an incredible experience no other travel company can match at the value we offer.

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Here are a few of the features you’ll enjoy aboard the Corinthian:

• All outside cabins. Each of the ship’s 49 cabins measures at least 215 sq. ft., features a sitting area, and has portholes, a window (some with partially obstructed views), or a balcony.

• Regionally-inspired dining. Enjoy a variety of Continental and South American cuisine, with all meals included during the cruise, and complimentary wine, beer, and soft drinks during lunch and dinner.

• Our seasoned Expedition Team. The ship’s staff includes a six-member Expedition Team—experts in Antarctica’s wilderness and wildlife who will lead us ashore aboard sturdy Zodiac rafts.

• More shore landings. Our small ship allows us to easily comply with guidelines stating that only 100 passengers may go ashore in Antarctica at a time, meaning all 4 groups of no more than 25 travelers will be able to go ashore when weather allows, with two landings scheduled per day.

• The latest safety features. The Corinthian is outfitted with the most current navigational and communications technology, retractable fin stabilizers, and an ice-strengthened hull.

• The best season for exploring Antarctica. Our trip operates during Antarctica’s austral summer—November through February—when the weather is warmest and wildlife activities are in full swing.

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The Lowest Price & the Best Value

You can explore {{data.Title}} from only $8099 per person—that’s only $578 per person, per day!

GOOD BUY PLAN

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FREQUENT TRAVELER CREDITS

When you return from a trip, you receive a credit worth 5% of that total trip cost that you can apply to your next trip. On average, that’s $607 in savings.

VACATION AMBASSADOR REFERRAL PROGRAM

Earn $100 for your first referral—plus increasing CASH or credit rewards for each additional traveler you refer.

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Refer more travelers and see your rewards add up—earn up to $5900 or a FREE TRIP.

BEST PRICE GUARANTEE

We’re confident that our bottom line can’t be beat. If you think you’ve found a lower price on a comparable vacation, tell us: If you have, we’ll match it.

INNER CIRCLE BENEFITS

Our most loyal travelers—members of our Inner Circle—can now save even more:

  • Multiple Trip Credits
    Save up to $350 on your second trip reserved in a calendar year—and on any additional trips you take within the year.
  • 6% Frequent Traveler Credits
    You’ll begin to earn extra credit after you return from your fifth trip—and on every subsequent vacation.

See How Much You'll Save

Watch these savings add up using the tool below. Simply click the blue box on the scale below to drag to each month to see your potential savings. Remember, the earlier you pay in full prior to your final payment due date, the more you save:

Our Travel Counselors will help you find your savings.
Call toll-free at 1-800-221-2610. Or, start building the trip that’s right for you

Dates & Prices

*All figures and savings shown are examples only. Vacation Ambassador and Frequent Traveler savings shown are based on the average credits earned by Grand Circle Travelers. Good Buy Plan savings are calculated after Frequent Traveler Credits, Vacation Ambassador rewards, and multiple trip credits are deducted from your initial tour price; some benefits cannot be combined. For your specific savings, contact a Traveler Counselor. Every effort has been made to produce this information accurately. We reserve the right to correct errors.

History, Culture & More

Learn more about the history, art, culture, and more you’ll discover on this trip by reading the features below. These articles were collected from past newsletters, Harriet’s Corner, and special features created for Grand Circle by our team of writers.

At Home in the White Wilderness

When it comes to distinguishing penguins, it’s never as simple as black and white. See why for yourself.

Read More »

Extreme Antarctica

The continent has turned into a playground for athletes strong and determined enough to challenge its pristine wilds.

Read More »

Population Zero

Antarctica’s path to preservation required a unique international agreement that was decades in the making.

Read More »

History, Culture & More

At Home in the White Wilderness

Distinguishing Antarctica’s favorite denizens

by Magdalena Zoroza, Regional General Manager, South America & Antarctica

It’s an old joke among explorers that there are only two kinds of penguins: the white ones coming toward you, and the black ones walking away. But these flightless birds are more diverse than you might think, with 17 species found around the world, including six in the Antarctic alone. Travelers cruising to the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula are likely to see four distinct species of penguins. All of these species wear the “tuxedo” you’ve come to expect—but one wears a turban, another a helmet, and a third sports a “strap” across its chin.

First and foremost among Antarctic penguins is the Adélie, whose solid black head and white front most invoke the look of an old English butler. Unlike the majority of penguins, which inhabit the region only seasonally, Adélies live here year-round, with a population of two million ringing nearly the entire continent. During the winter, they huddle together to share body heat, rotating in and out of the cluster so those on the outside of the huddle get a chance to warm up.

The Adélies were named by 19th-century French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville for his wife, who was left behind in Paris while her husband went exploring for up to a year at a time. Adélie penguin couples rarely endure such lengthy separations, at least during mating season, when males and females share incubation, parenting, and foraging duties. Gentoo penguins are even more dramatically faithful than Adélies. They stay with their mates throughout the entire year, sometimes even reusing the same nesting site, which is rare among penguins. They use the same path to and from the sea so routinely that they wear a beaten path into the Antarctic landscape. Like a mini-highway, these clearly defined routes become the paths for other gentoos, who are easily spotted by their two defining features: an orange beak and their “turbans,” the white swaths on their glossy dark heads.

Chinstrap penguins have a different kind of headgear. Beneath their beaks, their white faces boast slender black markings resembling straps, making it appear that the birds are wearing helmets. Maybe they should be, as chinstraps are among the most aggressive species. Fast, strong, and not concerned with politeness, they’ll fight over the best spot, steal each other’s rocks, and even force other penguins off their nests.

Once you’ve explored Antarctic waters, you’ll find the differences in species easy to spot—and know that when it comes to distinguishing penguins, it’s never as simple as black and white.

History, Culture & More

Extreme Antarctica

Athletic achievements at the “end of the world”

by Megan Mullin from Currents

At the bottom of the globe there is a land of ice and snow—a vast continent inhabited not by humans, but chinstrap, Adélie, and gentoo penguins, as well as seals, whales, and seabirds. While the polar sun never sets in the summer, the winter is six months of endless, frozen night. Antarctica, the seventh continent, seems like the (literal) last place on Earth to find recreation of any kind. But the realm once known only to explorers like Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton has not only become a popular vacation destination during its milder austral summer, it has also turned into a snowy playground for those athletes strong enough—and determined enough—to challenge its pristine wilds.

Work hard, play hard

Scattered throughout Antarctica’s rugged landscape, there are a handful of research stations. The primary U.S. base, McMurdo Station, houses the largest community on the continent. Working here year-round is, as one might imagine, a challenge in and of itself. Its remote location and harsh winters can make working conditions extremely difficult. Relaxation seems impossible, yet the landscape actually plays a huge role in keeping everyone on base healthy and entertained.

For people stationed in Antarctica, work-life balance is very different from what the rest of us are used to. Without homes to manage, children to raise, and gardens to tend to, the researchers have substantially more down time and energy. Sports play an important part of filling this time and expending this energy. Therefore, McMurdo Station was outfitted with first-rate sports facilities where people can enjoy playing basketball, soccer, volleyball, and even dodge ball. Gyms with weights, stationary bikes, and other cardio equipment also provide a healthy outlet at the end of a long day.

Once Antarctica’s summer arrives, the activities move outdoors. Softball games are very popular—and more fast-paced—as ground balls zoom over the ice with no green grass to slow them down. Rugby is a favorite too: New Zealand’s Scott Base research center is just a truck ride from McMurdo Station, and every year the two stations get together for a much-anticipated grudge match between McMurdo’s Mount Terror Rugby Club and the Scott Base Rugby Club.

The Ice Marathon

Extreme athletes are always on the lookout for the next seemingly-unsurmountable challenge. Antarctica’s annual Ice Marathon provides an exceptional outlet for these adventurous souls. The first and only organized footrace in the interior of Antarctica, the Ice Marathon is significantly more formidable than your average race. Runners must contend with snow, ice, an average wind chill of -4 degrees Fahrenheit, and the possibility of strong Katabatic winds—winds that carry high-density air from a high elevation down a slope under the force of gravity, and can sometimes rush down at hurricane speeds. Not exactly ideal race conditions.

Yet, determined runners from around the globe convene at Union Glacier every year to take part in a 26.2-mile race across of one of the last truly wild places on Earth. An event of this magnitude requires intensive organization, of course. Snowmobiles monitor runners along the course and keep track of each racer as he or she passes through marathon checkpoints. This doesn’t just offer runners their split times, but it ensures the athletes aren’t lost in the wilderness.

That wilderness itself is vast and hushed, for not even penguins venture as far inland as the route will take its participants. But for those intrepid runners, the profound stillness and breathtaking scenery make the experience all the richer.

Cycling the White Continent

After imagining marathon runners braving Antarctica’s icy terrain, cycling may not sound as extreme. But when you’re pedaling 500 miles through snow drifts, white-out conditions, and the threat of crevasses to contend with, it is quite an epic undertaking indeed—an undertaking that 35-year old British adventurer Maria Leijerstam not only welcomed, but achieved. She earned a world record by being the first person to cycle to the South Pole from the edge of the continent in just 10 days.

A born adventurer—her childhood dream was to become an astronaut—Leijerstam is no stranger to extreme sports in harsh environments, having taken part in the Marathon des Sables, a seven-day run across the Sahara Desert. But her training for that event did not prepare her for the challenge of pedaling her customized recumbent bike, the PolarCycle, across Antarctica. Instead of burning carbohydrates, she had to train her body to burn fat instead, and to get used to running longer on an emptier stomach. During the 10-day trek, Leijerstam heated freeze-dried food by melting snow on a small stove inside her tent. But despite her meager rations and the harsh conditions, Leijerstam persevered and earned a well-deserved place in the record books.

Modern-day expeditions

Antarctica has attracted adventure-seekers and record-breakers as far back as the 1800s. Many lives were lost in man’s quest for the South Pole. Today’s expeditioners have the benefit of technology on their side, but that still doesn’t make the journey any less physically challenging.

Just this past January, Welshman and former international rugby player Richard Parks became the 19th person to reach the South Pole solo. The 36-year-old made the harrowing 715-mile journey from the coastline to the pole in 29 days, 19 hours, and 24 minutes—a new British record.

The grueling trek pitted Parks against the harsh Antarctic terrain, weather, and icy emptiness. Against all odds, he put one foot in front of the other—even after one of his skis was damaged, two days before he reached the South Pole marker—to achieve his goal. And achieve it he did, completing the second-fastest unsupported solo trek to the South Pole in history.

But perhaps the most extreme Antarctic adventure—and the most recent—was a two-man trek inspired by the famous, and famously tragic, Terra Nova expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

History, Culture & More

Population Zero

The politics of preservation in Antarctica

by Laura Chavanne from Currents

Long before humans laid eyes on Antarctica, early explorers were convinced of the existence of a vast, southern continent—Terra Australis Incognita, the “Unknown Southern Land.” When Captain James Cook circumnavigated Antarctica between 1772 and 1775, he never actually sighted the peninsula. He did, however, conclude that the world was probably not missing much: The landmass was most likely small and uninhabitable, rendering it of little use to anyone.

Mariners first began sighting Antarctica in rapid succession beginning in 1820—but it was not the “Unknown Southern Land” they were seeking. Rather, it was the next stop on a journey further and further south in search of untouched seal colonies, as hunters had decimated all they’d encountered between Cape Horn and the South Sandwich Islands—a story that would repeat itself with whalers in the 1870s.

While exploitation led to the age of Antarctic discovery, science would eventually prevail. And while today we refer to Antarctica as “the last pure place on Earth,” the path to preservation required a unique international agreement that was decades in the making.

Governing a land with no population

Once the extent of Antarctica’s seal and whale populations became known, James Cook would be the last to dismiss the continent as worthless to humankind. He was correct, however, in assuming that the land was unfit for permanent habitation. Antarctica would have no settlements, no population, and no government. How, then, would various world leaders stake and protect their claims upon the barren land?

Argentina boasts the longest continuous occupation in the region, with a weather station in the South Orkney Islands built in 1903. It was actually established by a Scotsman, Dr. William S. Bruce, whose expedition team was forced to spend a winter there when their ship, the Scotia, was damaged and became icebound. The party constructed a 20-square-foot stone building called Ormond House (after the director of Edinburgh Observatory), which served as living quarters for six researchers who remained at the station when the Scotia eventually broke free. Upon reaching Buenos Aires, where the Scotia underwent repairs, Bruce persuaded the Argentine government to assume responsibility for the station, which they dubbed Orcadas Base and have operated ever since.

The United Kingdom, however, made the first official claim to a portion of the continent, which included the South Orkneys and several other island chains in the South Atlantic, as well as a portion of the continent itself. The British crown laid further claims on behalf of its colonies of Australia and New Zealand, on the grounds of these being the nearest occupied territories to Antarctica. Between 1923 and 1942, France, Norway, Chile, and Argentina followed suit. The United States, despite having its own “Little America” Antarctic research station founded by Admiral Richard Byrd in 1928, pursued no official claims on the continent. It did, however, establish the U.S. Antarctic Service in 1939, placing all American exploration under government control. The Service’s first expedition sent Admiral Byrd back to Antarctica to establish two additional bases.

Despite the fact that three different nations—Great Britain, Argentina, and Chile—claimed sovereignty over Antarctica, and certain portions of the seven territorial claims overlapped, activities on the continent were generally peaceful … until the onset of World War II, when the German Navy infiltrated the peninsula and attacked Allied shipping vessels. In retaliation, the British set up secret military bases. Almost immediately following the war, the United States launched “Operation Highjump” in 1946, which brought 13 ships, 23 aircraft, and more than 4,700 men to the continent for military training—with the overarching goal of establishing an indisputable U.S. presence in Antarctica. It remains the largest single operation in Antarctic history.

In general, however, scientific activities took precedence on Antarctica—with the unfortunate exception of whaling, which would continue in earnest until the 1970s. But with more and more countries establishing permanent, continuously occupied bases, the race to control the continent was on—which set the stage for a unique international agreement, all in the name of science.

The International Geophysical Year and the Antarctic Treaty

The year was 1957, and top-ranking scientists from 12 countries descended upon Antarctica for an unprecedented period of research and collaboration. The occasion was known as the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a worldwide event that actually involved 18 months of gathering and sharing data concerning the earth’s natural phenomena. While studies took place all over the world, Antarctica received special attention because of its remoteness and unique characteristics—and the dozens of permanent research stations scattered throughout the continent certainly didn’t hurt either.

The IGY was an undisputed success, with research in Antarctica contributing to advances in meteorological prediction, glacier analysis, and the understanding of seismologic phenomena. The spirit of cooperation, however, had another lasting effect on the international community.

Still basking in the afterglow of the IGY, the United States initiated a global discussion surrounding the governance of Antarctica. With the Cold War still underway, could all nations work together toward a common goal of preserving this pristine wilderness—peacefully and without territorial claims? On December 1, 1959, representatives from twelve nations signed the Antarctic Treaty—a truly unique document that would legally bind these countries to cooperate, rather than compete, with regards to Antarctic research and exploration. It officially took effect in 1961.

In the words of the treaty itself, each participating country recognized “that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” To that end, the treaty effectively internationalized Antarctica, suspending all territorial assertions and forbidding further claims to sovereignty. It stated that the area would be used for peaceful purposes only, with no military exercises or weapons testing allowed.

Of the 49 nations that have signed the treaty since its inception, 28 have the right to actively make decisions during consultative meetings, which are held yearly to ensure the articles of the treaty are being upheld. Beyond the original terms of the treaty, some 200 new agreements have been added over the years, in response to evolving environmental concerns. These have included waste management—which was largely ignored until as late as the 1980s—and the protection of plants and animals. The mining of natural resources was banned in 1991.

Modern-day challenges

There is no doubt that the Antarctic Treaty has had an enormous impact on the preservation of Antarctica. But the concerns of conservationists are ever-evolving. While seal populations have recovered to the point where they are no longer endangered, whales have seen no such resurgence; due to their long lifespan (up to 80-100 years, depending on the species) and low reproductive rates, it will take considerably longer to see marked improvement.

In recent years, researchers have become concerned that depleted stocks of krill could pose new threats to the Antarctic ecosystem. These small, shrimp-like crustaceans are the primary food source for whales, penguins, and seals—and while humans don’t consume krill, they do value its oil, rich in omega 3 fatty acids; and its effectiveness as a food source in fish farms when ground into meal. Today, a number of scientific and charitable organizations have joined forces under the Antarctic Krill Conservation Project, devoted to understanding and managing changes in krill population.

Of even greater concern is the fact that Japan continues to practice whaling in Antarctica—despite the fact that commercial whaling has been banned since 1986. Due to a controversial loophole, killing whales for scientific purposes is still technically legal, provided the participating country can prove that the data they collect cannot be otherwise obtained by non-lethal methods.

Not surprisingly, the practice is surrounded by international controversy from both government and environmental groups.

The impact of tourism, too, has been constantly monitored since Antarctica first became a popular destination in the early 1990s. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) enforces strict regulations that govern behavior both on the water and on the ice. In 2009, an addendum to the Antarctic Treaty banned ships carrying more than 500 passengers from landing in Antarctica (meaning that large cruise liners can explore by sea only). In 2011, further legislation required ships to burn lighter-grade fuels that have less impact upon the environment. By remaining ever vigilant, the ultimate goal of the IAATO is to ensure that responsible tourism can continue well into the future, and that Antarctica’s purity will be preserved for future generations.

A look toward the future

While much has been done to minimize the impact of activities contained within Antarctica, some of the most troubling concerns involve factors far beyond the continent’s borders. Namely, climate change—which is currently the biggest question facing scientists as they look to the future of research. The melting of the Antarctic ice sheet would significantly impact the level of the world’s oceans, and scientists predict that certain species, including the Emperor penguin, would suffer negative consequences from even a slight increase in average air temperature.

In April of 2012, the U.S. Antarctic Program conducted a thorough review of its current program in hopes of mapping a research trajectory over the next two decades. To fully understand how Antarctica is reacting to climate change, their findings suggest that large-scale robotics projects—which allow for remote research—will be greener and more cost-effective than the deployment of additional human researchers. The U.S. also plans to install its first solar panels on Antarctica. While the review panel likened Antarctic research to the space program due to the harshness of the environment, all agree that their investments there are crucial to the understanding of climate change worldwide.

A new environmental organization called the Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA)—which has garnered some celebrity clout with the support of actor Edward Norton and business magnate Richard Branson—petitioned to increase the protected marine area around Antarctica from 210,000 square miles to 1.36 million square miles.

While preserving the world’s “last pristine wilderness” in this day and age will always require special vigilance, the world—at least for now—seems united on at least this one front: Antarctica is a land to be respected, rather than exploited. And as travelers fortunate enough to actually set foot on the former “Unknown Southern Land,” we, too, can do our part to protect it. After all, those who visit this part of the world don’t just return home with memories and photographs; they become, as the IAATO maintains, “ambassadors of goodwill, guardianship and peace.”