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What Makes Up Antarctica?

4 min read

The southernmost continent—which has long become known as the 7th Continent—was the last to be discovered and remains a source of fascination and inspiration to all who have the opportunity to explore its pristine polar landscapes.

The name Antarctica literally means “opposite to the Arctic,” and the two Polar Regions really don’t have much in common other than temperatures.

While much of the Arctic is water (and ice, of course) surrounded by land, the Antarctic continent is primarily a land mass covered by ice and surrounded by water. In fact, 90 per cent of the world’s ice can be found in Antarctica.

Iceberg in Antarctica by Samantha Crimmin

The size of Antarctica varies, based on the growing and shrinking Antarctic ice sheet, but it is accepted that it is the fifth largest continent – larger than Australia/Oceania or Europe.

Although it was believed for centuries that an icy continent was situated at the bottom of the planet Earth, there’s scant evidence to indicate Antarctica was explored prior to the 19th century.

The first sightings are believed to have happened in 1820, and the first landing reputedly took place in 1821 making John Davis the first person to set foot on the Antarctic continent.

The South Pole was not reached until 1911, capping an intense period of Antarctic exploration that began in earnest in the late 1890s.

Antarctic Regions and Seas

Antarctica is physically divided into two regions – West Antarctica and East Antarctica – by the Transarctic Mountains, a range that spans the whole continent. The Transarctic Mountains range is about 3,500 kms long and between 100 and 300 kms wide. 

The land mass of East Antarctica is estimated to be roughly the size of Australia. West Antarctica, underneath the ice, is an archipelago of islands. Its prominent feature is the Antarctic Peninsula, which reaches toward the southern tip of South America. 

The Antarctic Peninsula is mountainous and covered in ice, but its shores and waters are home to incredible wildlife including minke and humpback whales, other marine mammals and, of course, penguin colonies. You can explore the wildlife of the Antarctic peninsula on the 11-day Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent expedition.

The ice sheet covering the continent is the largest single piece of ice on Earth. It ranges in size between 3 million and 19 million square kms, depending on the season. 

Antarctic travel (if you're reaching the 7th Continent by ship) first involves traversing the Drake Passage, which extends about 600 miles between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands.  Many polar operators offer opportunities to cross the Drake Passage by plane, which makes of course for a shorter crossing. These are called Fly/Express voyages.

On these time-saving voyages, you'd be flying over Drake Passage by charter plane before exploring the Antarctic Peninsula by ship on the 8-day Antarctic Express: Fly the Drake expedition. Learn more about this exciting exploration option by watching this video.

The Southern Ocean surrounds Antarctica, and its long coastline is notched with bays and seas of varying sizes. The two largest and most prominent inlets are the Weddell Sea (Quark Expeditions was first to offer a passenger voyage here - and still offers some of the best expedition cruises to Antarctica!) and the Ross Sea.

What Countries are part of Antarctica? 

Many people wonder "Are there settlements in Antarctica?"

Antarctica is the only continent without a native population, or any true native Antarcticans. To this day, there is still no permanent human settlements or permanent residents, due to the unforgiving Antarctic environment, climate (the Antarctic is considered the coldest place in the world) and terrain.

There are a few thousand humans that live temporarily in Antarctica while they work at the many scientific stations or research stations across the continent including scientists, marine biologists and support staff. Only wildlife permanently live in Antarctica. Yet, Antarctica has many amazing places to for you to explore.

The early exploration of Antarctica took place in what is now called the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, between 1897 and 1922. Many expeditions originated from the United Kingdom, which made the first territorial rights to parts of the continent and its surrounding islands. Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand and Norway have since made similar claims. 

Many countries listed above recognize each other’s claims, but the claims of Argentina, Chile and the U.K. overlap. Other countries do not recognize any territorial claims at all. Some, like Russia and the United States, have reserved the right to make claims of their own at a future date.

The Antarctic Treaty, established in 1961, was intended to set aside the continent as a preserve intended for scientific research . It does not recognize, dispute or establish territorial sovereignty or claims, and no new claims may be made while the treaty exists. Military activity and mining are forbidden in Antarctica except for the purposes of peaceful scientific purposes and research.


Antarctica’s Environment

The south pole is the coldest in the world and it is largely due to the extreme cold and harsh conditions during the winter that no people live in the Antarctic continent permanently. But when Quark Expeditions visits, temperatures rarely drop below -10 degrees Celsius, which is important to keep in mind when you're packing for an Antarctic adventure.

Thanks to the Antarctic Treaty, Antarctica's environment is well protected.

The Antarctic treaty established that nuclear waste caused by nuclear fission must not be disposed of in Antarctica. It was an early attempt to maintain the purity of the continent’s ecosystem.

In 1998, the treaty was supplemented by the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. It was spearheaded and promoted by Greenpeace and has been signed by all major treaty members. 

Many other resolutions have been implemented to preserve Antarctica’s ecology and wildlife. Commercial fisheries are strictly controlled, and other animals, including birds, may not be killed or captured without a permit.

As well, strict measures are taken to ensure that waste from ships and bases is properly treated and broken down before it is disposed of to reduce its environmental impact. In some cases, this means removing it entirely from the continent. It's important to check a polar operator's sustainability policies before booking. Quark Expeditions offers the most comprehensive sustainability in the Polar Regions. It's called Polar Promise.


Antarctica is a massive, diverse region that changes with the sun, wind and sea ice each and every time we visit, yet we are never left disappointed.

To plan your Antarctic vacation, or learn more about Antarctic wildlife, regions and the voyages we offer, visit the Quark Expeditions website.

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