Life in Antarctica

Antarctica is one of the world’s most hostile environments – a vast, frozen desert that spends six months of the year bathed in blinding sunlight and six months in bleak darkness. It is not in any way designed to support human life, but people do live in Antarctica. In fact, the continent has a long history of human exploration and habitation, with whalers, adventurers and researchers all setting up bases on the ice.

Antarctica has claimed its share of lives, of course – including Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton. But babies have been born here too, couples have got married, and while the whale hunters have long since left, there are a growing number of researchers who spend not just the summer on this icy continent, but also the long, brutal winter.

An Antarctic cruise is an opportunity to meet the researchers who call Antarctica home, to see what remains of the rusted whaling stations, and to follow in the footsteps of some of the world’s bravest and most revered explorers.

Where do people live in Antarctica?

Grytviken, South Georgia

Grytviken, the main settlement on the remote island of South Georgia, is something of a pilgrimage for those who come to pay their respects at Shackleton’s grave. The famed explorer died here in 1922 on his way to commence another Antarctic expedition, and his wife, Emily, requested that he be buried in the Grytviken cemetery.

The ashes of Shackleton’s second in command, Frank Wild, were buried beside him. In 1915, Shackleton and Wild had sailed to South Georgia from Elephant Island – a distance of 1,500km in a simple wooden fishing boat, and subsequently trekked across the island to find help for his men who remained stranded on Elephant Island.

But Grytviken is also the best place to learn about life in Antarctica. Given its natural harbour and fresh water supply, it is one of the most hospitable places on the continent – which is why it was chosen by the Norwegians in 1905 as the location for a whaling station.
Hospitable Grytviken is one of the best places to learn about life in Antarctica.
During the Antarctic summer, up to 300 men worked here, hunting whales and elephant seals, and preparing the meat, bones and blubber. Every part of the animals was used, with the blubber boiled down to create valuable oil, and the whales’ baleen plates used to make whalebone, commonly used in corsets.

Ships would visit to drop off supplies and to carry the whalebone and oil, and a few brave souls remained here through the long, lonely winter to maintain the station and the ships. The whaling station remained in operation until 1966, when the whale population was so decimated that it was no longer possible to hunt them.

Today’s visitors will see the whale oil processing plants rusting on Grytviken’s wind-battered shore surrounded by the remains of bones and ships. The former manager’s house is now home to the South Georgia Museum.

These days, Grytviken has a population of around 30 people, with less than 10 clinging on through winter. They include research scientists, museum staff and a postmaster. (Remember to pick up a postage stamp while you’re in town – they’re in high demand with collectors!)

Stromness Bay, South Georgia

As well as the rusting ruins in Grytviken, there are several other whaling stations dotted around Antarctica – some of which can be explored on expeditions. Seven whaling stations were built around South Georgia’s Stromness Bay alone, with the station at Leith Harbour being the largest. At its peak, it incorporated a library, hospital and cinema – a vain attempt to keep the occupants of this isolated island entertained.

Deception Island, South Shetland Islands

The evocatively named Deception Island, in the South Shetland Islands just off the Antarctic Peninsula, also has its fair share of giant rusting barrels that were once used to boil whale blubber. Pitiful remains of wooden huts litter the beach, making you wonder how on earth people lived here a century ago and managed to keep warm.

Today, there are Spanish and Argentinean research bases on the island, which is the partially exposed crest of a submerged – and very active – caldera. Flows of hot water cause strange microclimates where temperatures soar to 40°C.

While this warmth and almost entirely closed harbour have their benefits, setting up base on a volcanic crater will always come at a price – Chilean and British research stations were destroyed during eruptions in the 1960s. You can see the remains of the British base, with evidence of the mudflows that ripped through it in 1969.
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Scott & Shackleton’s huts, Ross Island

It seems appropriate that the huts of these two legendary explorers are so remote and challenging to access. Adventurers must depart from New Zealand and spend weeks at sea to reach Ross Island. Mount Erebus (3,794m) towers over this island – one of the most southerly points reached on Antarctic cruises.

Sir Ernest Shackleton’s hut, dating back to 1907, still stands at Cape Royds, and is now inhabited by Adelie penguins. Captain Scott’s hut, on Cape Evans, was built four years later and was home to 25 men throughout the winter.

The hut was prefabricated in the UK and insulated with seaweed sewn into a quilt, which was then stuffed between the double-layered wooden walls. By all accounts it worked; the hut was said to be almost unbearably warm once the stoves were fired up.

Scott’s hut has been carefully preserved by the Antarctic Heritage Trust after it was dug out of the snow in 1956. Visitors can see the tins of food, preserved seal meat and scientific instruments left largely as they were on the departure of the last explorers.

Scientific research stations

Across Antarctica, more than a dozen countries operate close to 50 scientific research stations. Many cruises will include a visit to one of these on their itineraries – conditions permitting. These are a great way to learn about daily life on an Antarctic base, as well as finding out about the research being carried out here by biologists, meteorologists and geologists, amongst others.

Do be aware that you may not find out as much as you’d like – the researchers are often so happy to see new faces that they may just want to talk to you about what is happening in the “outside world”! If possible, try to speak to a researcher who has “overwintered”. It takes a very powerful kind of mental endurance to spend six months here, surrounded by the handful of other brave researchers who remain on the frozen continent long after the other researchers and tourist ships have left for the warmth and light away from the pole.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jens Bludau] [Intro: Christopher Michel] [Grytviken: Lexaxis7] [Scott & Shackleton’s huts, Ross Island: Eli Duke]