The Antarctic tourist season lasts from the beginning of November to the end of March, making it a rather short season of just five months. Throughout the rest of the year, the climate in Antarctica is incredibly inhospitable, with temperatures dropping as low as -50°F and darkness day and night. Ice closes in around the seventh continent as over 20,000 square kilometres of the South Polar ocean freezes, making the seas impenetrable until spring.
Arriving early in the tourism season to Antarctica is a unique opportunity to see the continent reborn, as gatherings of shore birds and mammals prepare for to make their nests and breed.
Spring comes first to the more northerly Falkland Islands and South Georgia in November, working its way down through the South Shetland Islands by early December. Finally, spring reaches the Antarctic Peninsula, bringing with it more tolerable temperatures and extended daylight.
Seabirds, whales, seals and penguins flock to the shoreline and surrounding waters to feed on krill and other zooplankton.
Here are a few of the sights, sounds and wonders you can expect to witness if you visit Antarctica early in the season, at its most pristine and untouched:
Pristine Ice & Snow Conditions are Perfect for Landscape Photography
Early summer in the Antarctic is a landscape photographer's paradise. The ice pack and thick continental ice sheet are not yet marred by animal and bird nests and droppings. Icebergs range from snow-white to the deepest aquamarine early in the season.
These spectacular blue tones are caused by air trapped inside the iceberg and this is the best time to see these brilliant hues, before the salt water of the ocean and the warmer air begin to erode the ice. By late summer, the icebergs will show cracks and pitting, but early on, they're clean and crisp, with sharp, jagged edges – perfect for photography.
Active Penguins, Seals & Whales Delight in Antarctica's Early Summer
Early in the season, the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands are teeming with wildlife at their most active, as they prepare to breed and nest for the summer. You may see massive colonies of penguins laying eggs, pointing and building their nests – or even mischievously stealing stones from one another!
Penguins lay their eggs in November and December, with the first chicks hatching in the north late in December. This is a great time to see them feeding just offshore, hunting the waters for fish and krill.
Crabeater seals are born between mid-September and November, while Southern Elephant seals give birth on sub-Antarctic islands in October. Weddell seals spend most of their time in the water, but early in the Antarctic travel season, emerge onto ice sheets to rest, molt or give birth.
Keep your eyes open for Minke and Humpback whales, as they return to Antarctic waters to feed in the summer season. The Southern Right whale feeds close to the surface and can often be seen from the shores of the South Shetland Islands and South Georgia.
Antarctica: Largely Untouched, Entirely Spectacular
Antarctica is the only continent on earth still largely untouched by man. The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 and the more recent Madrid Protocol of 1991 have helped preserve the South Pole as a place of peace, science, and environmental preservation and conservation.
Home to some 45 bird species and over 60 species of mammals, the Antarctic is a study in contrasts – a largely barren, seemingly inhospitable and frigid place where tenacious seabirds, seals and zooplankton thrive.
Visit early in the summer, when you can observe and experience Antarctica at its pristine, untouched best!