Even for the well-seasoned traveler Antarctica provides an experience that is surprising and unique. The landscape here is seemingly unearthly and, for most people, is unlike anything they have ever seen before.

In recent years it seems that the word has gotten out about the wide variety of amazing sights in an area that was previously thought to be entirely stark and desolate. Historically speaking, Antarctica has become the goal of explorers only in recent times. In fact, the South Pole was not even reached until my grandfather’s lifetime!

During the 1997-1998 tourist season only 9,600 people visited the continent. One decade later, from 2007-2008, 32,000 tourists set foot in Antarctica while another 13,000 took part in over-flights or cruised through. In 2010, up to 80,000 tourists are expected to visit Antarctica.

It is for this reason President Obama announced that stricter modifications to the Antarctic Treaty were needed.

The Antarctic Treaty was first created 50 years ago in order to protect Antarctica’s fragile environment and diverse wildlife. It is the interest of many countries around the world to continue to ensure that tourism to Antarctica is conducted in an environmentally responsible way that does not disrupt the continent’s delicate ecosystem.

Despite this, Antarctica is still a magical place to visit. It is important for visitors to simply understand their environmental impact and do their best to limit this impact. Because Antarctica really doesn’t have any “residents” so to speak, it is the responsibility of visitors to insure that their activities are environmentally friendly and not invasive.

Antarctica offers a landscape and wildlife habitat that is literally unlike any other in the world. The ethereal destination is filled with towering mountains, sparkling icebergs, and looming glaciers. More than 99% of Antarctica is covered with ice, and this contains about 70% of the world’s fresh water.

The thick ice that covers Antarctica makes it the highest of all continents. Its average elevation is about 7,500 feet. Antarctica has no trees or bushes at all, with its only plant life consisting of algae, lichens, and mosses.

So just how cold does it get in Antarctica?

It’s both the coldest and windiest continent. The lowest temperature on earth was recorded here in 1983 at the Russian base at the Southern Geomagnetic Pole. The temperature was recorded at -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit!

Now you would think that in these extreme conditions there would be a lack of wildlife in Antarctica. But it is actually quite the contrary. In fact, it is the continent’s wildlife that really attracts the most visitors. There are no land-based vertebrate animals here; all vertebrates are dependent on the sea.

The ocean surrounding Antarctica is teeming with life. Six species of seals and 12 species of birds live and breed in the Antarctic. Crab eater seals are the second most numerous large mammal on the planet (after humans). The population of krill here has been estimated as outnumbering the human population on earth!

When many people think of Antarctica, the first animal that comes to mind is the penguin. Indeed, penguins are perhaps the area’s most famous inhabitants. Early Antarctic explorers actually thought the penguins were fish and classified them as such.

Penguins do travel more like fish than like birds as penguin are superbly designed to “fly underwater.” Penguins are able to propel themselves underwater at speeds up to 25 miler per hour. There are four species of penguins that live and breed in the Antarctic: Adelie, Emperor, Chinstrap, and Gentoo.

If you have always wanted to see whales in the wild, then Antarctica has something extra special in store for you. Eight different magnificent species of whales live in the waters surrounding the continent: Blue, Fin, Humpback, Minke, Orca, Southern Right, Sei, and Sperm.

Today the entire area around the continent of Antarctica has been declared an international whale sanctuary. Whaling activities are closely monitored by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Tagged: Stuart