21o0´N/165o0´E 13,829,430 square km, Vinson Massif (4,892m) glacier, desert, mountain, plain, plateau, valley, nunatak
Birding Site Guide
Antarctica is the fifth largest continent and is nearly twice the size of Australia. At least 99.68% is permanently covered in an ice-sheet which averages 1.8km deep. Only 44,890 square km are ice free and most of this is located in the McMurdo Dry Valleys (Victoria Land). There are also many ice free oasis of varying size one of the smaller ones being for instance the Schirmacher warm oasis, Queen Maud Land East Antarctica which is about 25 km long and 3 km wide and includes much ice free land and 100 ice free lakes with the largest being 8 km long and at with a temperature of 3oC. The Vinson Massif in the Ellsworth range is the highest peak at 4,892m but much of the continent is high plateau of over 3km. The next highest mountains are Mt. Tyree 4,852m then Mt. Shinn 4,661m. The longest river is the Onyx. Temperatures of minus 89oC have been recorded in winter, when around 20,000,000 square km are added to the continent in the form of offshore pack-ice. This is when the only winter nesting Antarctic birds comes to lay its egg. Summer days may reach 5oC or more near the coast. Antarctica has 90% of the world's ice representing about 70% of the world's fresh water. Mawson Station is the windiest place on earth with a maximum gust of 248.4 km/h.
There are 31 large islands in the Antarctic Circle realm, and it is scientifically defined as starting at latitude 66o33'S, southward, as the area where the mid-winter sun does not appear above the horizon. For bio-geographies as with the Arctic opinions differ and there is no internationally agreed limit at where the Southern Ocean reaches to, so this is open to discussion. This also means there are two contenders for the deepest point in the Southern Ocean, the most Northerly being Meteor Deep at 8428m (55o40'S, 025o55'W) and the second further S is in the same South Sandwich Trench at 60o00'S, 024oW, with a depth of 7,235m. In his book 'A Complete Guide to Antarctica' (2002), Hadoram Shirihai considers 29 areas including archipelagoes and offshore islands (to 40oS):
- Prince Edward & Marion
- Amsterdam & St Paul
- Heard & McDonald
- New Zealand & offshore islands
- South America offshore islands
- Shag Rocks
- South Georgia
- South Sandwich
- Tristan da Cunha
- Peter I Øy
- South Orkney
- South Shetland
- Antarctic Peninsula
- Antarctic coast & offshore islands
For tours to Antarctic it is best to book at least a year ahead with a reputable tour company, prices are expensive into the several thousand pounds and this probably will not include travel to the embarkation point for the boat. Popular areas for tours are South America, particularly from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. This is because it is located closer to the Antarctic than anywhere else, with the Antarctic Peninsula being 1200 km away. From the tourist port in Ushuaia it is always possible to pick up a last minute booking on one of the imminent Antarctic cruises due to people cancelling. You will have to hang around and check every day, but with determination and persistence it should be possible to get a cruise half price.
Be aware that due to harsh weather conditions the captain may refuse to take your cruise boat to some of the scheduled stops, particularly those furthest S where the risk from ice is greatest. This means you could miss some species such as Emperor Penguin. Even ice-breaking boats can only get so far.
Birdwatching in Antarctica, though with a limited number of species to about 41, is still spectacular, especially for sea bird fanatics. The region hosts many species that are not found (or not often found) elsewhere. Most sought after are the Albatrosses, many of the 21 species (depending on source) of which are threatened with extinction mainly due to long-line fishing practices. Then there are the penguins, of which only a couple of species are found outside this region. The Emperor Penguin Aptenodytes forsteri is the only endemic bird and is the only bird to breed in the dark Antarctic winter in temperatures well below freezing, in colonies both on the mainland edge and the ice shelves. There are then the petrels, storm-petrels and skuas.
There are few species of mammals (27), all marine: Southern Right Whale Eubalaena australis, Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata, Sei Whale Balaenoptera borealis EN, Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus EN, Blue Whale Balaenoptera musculus EN, Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae, Spectacled Porpoise Phocoena dioptrica DD, Giant Beaked Whale Berardius arnuxii DD, Bottlenose Whale Hyperoodon planifrons, Commerson's Dolphin Cephalorhynchus commersonii DD, Hourglass Dolphin Lagenorhynchus cruciger, Orca Orcinus orca DD.
South American Fur Seal Arctocephalus australis, New Zealand Fur Seal Arctocephalus forsteri, Antarctic Fur Seal Arctocephalus gazelle, South African Fur Seal Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus, Australian Fur Seal Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus, Sub-Antarctic Fur Seal Arctocephalus tropicalis, Australian Sea Lion Neophoca cinerea, South American Sea Lion Otaria flavescens, New Zealand Sea Lion Phocarctos hookeri, Leopard Seal Hydrurga leptonyx, Weddell Seal Leptonychotes weddellii, Crabeater Seal Lobodon carcinophaga, Southern Elephant Seal Mirounga leonina and Ross Seal Ommatophoca rossii.
There are 2 flowering plants Antarctic Pearlwort Colobanthus quitensis and Antarctic Hair Grass Deschampsia antarctica. However there are bryophytes including 100 species of moss and 25 species of liverworts and algae, 1150 fungi (most are non-lichens).
Threats come from man, especially the many military and research stations and their waste. McMurdo station (US) was powered by a portable nuclear power station and has had many problems and caused much contamination. Many ex-navy men who worked there have died of radiation related illnesses.