What to Watch for When Going Ashore in Antarctica
In Antarctica, access to most of the shoreline is obstructed by tidewater glaciers. Ice-free landing sites are highly prized by tourists and animals alike. While guidelines are in place to prevent you from encountering people from other ships while ashore, it's likely you will be sharing your landing sites with an abundance of animals! It's also likely that explorers from the Age of Discovery had previously set foot where you will be standing. When enjoying a landing in the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetland Islands or South Georgia, watch for these special features of the unique Southern Ocean environment.
During the breeding season in Antarctica (October to March), penguin colonies can be found almost any place where a landing is possible. Penguins live at sea but come to shore during the austral summer to make nests and raise their chicks. Species found on the Antarctic Peninsula include Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie Penguins. On South Georgia, enormous colonies of King Penguins can be found alongside millions of Macaroni Penguins. Depending on the month, watch for adult penguins on eggs or with downy chicks. Throughout the season, you can see parades of penguins coming and going between their nests and the sea. Watching the entertaining antics of gumptious penguins is one of the great joys of being ashore in Antarctica. Just remember to give penguins enough space and the right of way!
The waters of the Southern Ocean are home to millions of marine mammals, including huge numbers of seals. Unlike in the Arctic and other parts of the world, the seals of Antarctica feel free to come ashore at just about any landing site because there are no large terrestrial predators roaming the shorelines. Sometimes, seals can be found a considerable distance from the sea. On the island of South Georgia, tens of thousands of fur seals and elephant seals may gather on a single beach. These species can also be seen on the Antarctic Peninsula, along with leopard seals, weddell seals and crabeater seals. It is amazing to see these large animals reposing without fear on a wild Antarctic beach. But some seals can be dangerous during their breeding seasons, so always follow the rules set by your expedition guides.
You may be surprised to see plants when you come ashore anywhere south of the Antarctic Convergence. South Georgia supports an abundance of plant life, including large stands of tussock grass, especially near penguin colonies. Also on the South Shetland Islands and on the Antarctic Peninsula itself, there are some very hardy plants to be found. The Plant Kingdom is represented here mostly by mosses, but there are also a few species of vascular plants. Great care should be taken not to trample the rare and fragile greenery on the White Continent. While not technically plants, lichens are also important members of the ecological community and can be found on exposed rock surfaces. Be careful not to crush them underfoot, as they grow extremely slowly and specimens might be hundreds of years old. You’ll also be asked by your guides to thoroughly clean the pockets and cuffs of your outdoor clothing, particularly those items using Velcro, to ensure you are not transporting any seeds from back home. These are considered invasive species, and are definitely to be avoided when traveling to Antarctica.
Antarctica never had an indigenous population, but explorers and entrepreneurs have left evidence of their visits. Though the weather can be severe in Antarctica, the cold temperature actually helps to preserve historical remains. Explorers’ huts, wooden rowboats, shipwrecks, whaling equipment and other evidence of early exploration can be found in places throughout the Antarctic Peninsula and on South Georgia. You can also keep an eye out for inscriptions in rock faces – but under no circumstances leave one of your own!
Keep a look out while ashore in Antarctica and you will discover the unique biological and historical treasures of this amazing continent!