Why Antarctica Is a Hot Spot for Discerning Travelers

More than 50,000 travelers from across the globe journeyed to the distant land of Antarctica last year. For those who relish traveling to remote and unconventional locations, the seventh continent offers a type of pristine beauty and off-the-grid adventure that exists practically nowhere else.

Antarctica’s appeal as a travel destination is increasing. According to statistics from the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), the number of visitors to the continent has risen by more than 50 percent over the past four years.

Antarctica, however, still receives only a tiny fraction of the tourism that descends upon the world’s most visited destinations. Tour operators who visit the region are committed to doing so responsibly under the Antarctic Treaty System. Consequently, visitors won’t have to share Antarctica’s breathtaking vistas with millions of others; instead, they can revel in the destination’s sense of serenity.

Silver Explorer sailing the Errera Channel at sunset/Denis Elterman

In many ways, Antarctica remains the final frontier. Read on to discover why the continent beckons the most discerning of travelers:

1. Enchanting Animals Are the Star Attractions of Antarctic Expeditions

Without a doubt, the opportunity to observe the continent’s spectacular wildlife in its natural habitat is the biggest reason travelers head to Antarctica.

For most, the seventh continent conjures images of penguins, adorned in fuzzy black-and-white plumage, waddling across the slippery ice. Antarctica’s brush-tailed penguins can be quite comfortable in the presence of human visitors and often approach inquisitively. Whether diving off icebergs, swimming among kayaking adventurers or assembling nests of rocks for future chicks, penguins offer indelible memories for those fortunate enough to make their acquaintance.

Less discussed, but equally as interesting, seals are another star attraction on an Antarctic expedition. The wily leopard seal, the dog-like fur seal, the curious Weddell seal, and the crabeater – with their cheeky grin – will capture your imagination. Unafraid, they might play excitedly as they swim in close proximity to your Zodiac.

Whales, too, are also magnificent. You’re bound to see many different species on an Antarctic expedition, like the graceful minke whales, the gentle orcas, and those playful humpbacks who wave their flukes in breathtaking displays.

Antarctica is also the ultimate birders’ paradise: Snow Petrels, Southern Giant Petrels and Skuas are bound to greet you as you cross the Drake Passage into the white wilderness.

Gentoo Penguins jumping into the ocean at Cierva Cove, Antarctica/Lucia Griggi

2. It’s One of the Last Few Places on Earth That Bear Few Traces of Humankind

Famously cloaked in a massive ice sheet that stretches across 98 percent of the continent, Antarctica appears practically untouched by humankind. That, in itself, is a rare occurrence these days.

The remoteness of the vast continent overwhelms as you approach the Peninsula and realize you’re more than 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) from the tip of Cape Horn in South America. Feelings of tranquility, awe and beauty then strike all at once.

You might wonder how, during more than two centuries of exploration below the Antarctic Circle, the entire continent has remained largely unspoiled? Antarctica is under close protection and scrutiny from 53  nations around the world through the Antarctica Treaty System (ATS). It ensures the monitoring of commercial tourism and limits scientific research, protecting the regions fascinating flora and fauna. Most importantly, it guarantees that, for years to come, anyone visiting Antarctica will be able to enjoy the sight of both the wildlife and the dramatic icy landscapes.

Lemaire Channel, Antarctica
Lemaire Channel/Denis Elterman

3. Stunning Natural Wonders Forged from Ice and Stone Are Constants on the Voyage

Antarctica’s icy veneer makes frozen water one of the main characteristics of this dramatic polar ecosystem. From the moment you clear the legendary Drake Passage, the ice begins to follow you and continues to do so throughout your voyage.

Molded over centuries, sculptured ice formations of all shapes and sizes mesmerize with their sparkling blue and white hues. Just like snowflakes, no two icebergs are the same. Their provenance, deterioration, and stories of origin dictate their shapes— some are tabular and blocky, others look like domes, while others are evocative of the pyramids of Giza.

You’ll find it impossible to ignore the unmistakable sound of calving icebergs and glaciers. The crackle starts slowly and quietly; it’s almost silent at first but culminates with an almighty crescendo.

Antarctica is also home to several breathtaking, snow-covered mountains and volcanoes. Mount Erebus on Ross Island is the southernmost active volcano in the world and, closer to the peninsula, Mount Vinson is the highest mountain on the continent, reaching 16,050 feet (4,892 meters).

What lies beneath that thick ice sheet retains a sense of mystery. With dozens of active research stations across the continent, Antarctica still manages to amaze even the most experienced of scientists who continually find new volcanoes and other discoveries both underneath the surface and undersea.

An iceberg dwarfs a Zodiac at Cierva Cove, Antarctica/Denis Elterman

4. Tales of Epic Explorers Echo Across Whitewashed Landscapes

It’s that untamed allure of Antarctica that has long obsessed the most tenacious explorers. Starting in the mid-1800s, British explorer James Clark Ross participated in several treacherous expeditions charting the Antarctic coastline. His efforts paid off— he discovered a bay on the western side of Antarctica. The Ross Sea remains his namesake to this day.

Ross never attempted to reach the South Pole, however. That particular target instead tempted courageous polar explorers like Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, who both organized expeditions to reach it. Amundsen ultimately prevailed in December 1911. Scott arrived just one month later in January 1912 but tragically passed away shortly after reaching his destination. A single cross on Observation Hill on Ross Island commemorates his life. Stories of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s famous exploits still echo throughout the world of expedition too.

5. The Weather Is Milder Than You Think

Antarctica is of course known for frigid weather, so it might be hard to imagine the sun could shine brightly while you explore. While the lowest natural temperature ever recorded on Earth was indeed taken in Antarctica in July 1983, tourist season only runs during austral summer (between November and February) when temperatures are considerably milder.

Rest assured that temperatures never get anywhere near this cold at that time of year when they range from about 14 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius below zero) to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). North Americans from Canada or even the colder reaches of the United States might find December in Antarctica warmer than back home. During the warmer parts of the day, the weather is even pleasant enough for heart-pounding hikes, thrilling kayak rides, or simply observing the abundant wildlife. Plus, once you lay eyes on those first snow-drenched views of the White Wilderness, you’ll soon forget all about the weather and crave exploration.

Sunset view near Ronge Island/Denis Elterman