So what is there to do in Antarctica?
Antarctica has to be one of the most amazing and diverse/unique places in the world. I was fortunate enough to make it there with the New Zealand Defence Force earlier this year on a Navy ship.
Although I did have an amazing experience actually getting to McMurdo on the ship, passing massive icebergs, penguins, pack ice and seals, I only got two days actually on land (or ice) in Antarctica.
You may be wondering what kind of things there are to do around McMurdo. Surprisingly, there is plenty to keep you occupied if you only have one or two days there. Here are my most recommended, and most accessible things to do.
Explore the Ice Shelf
If you want the icy Antarctica experience you imagined, you need to go to the ice shelf. I couldn’t believe that the thickest part is around 4.5 kilometres! No wonder they can land planes on there. The ice shelf is easily accessible from McMurdo and Scott Base. The road to the airfield goes right over the ice shelf. I was fortunate enough to get a shuttle over there with a friendly volunteer, but you could walk there in about 30 minutes from McMurdo. You can walk for miles along the side of the ice road, and maybe even spot some wildlife if you’re lucky. Some of the things you may see are penguins, seals, the airfield and if you have a vehicle, you may make it out to an aircraft wreck, the Pegasus, a C-121 Lockheed Constellation that crashed there in 1970.
Visit Scott’s Discovery Hut
Located right at the foot of McMurdo Station, Discovery Hut is the original base for Robert Falcon Scott’s 1901 Antarctic Expedition. There are tours of the hut once a day, you are only allowed inside during these specific times, but it is well worth it.
Stepping into the hut, you feel like you have been transported back in time. The smell of seal blubber confronts you as soon as you walk in the door to the dark, inhospitable hut. Wondering how the smell has lingered in the hut for so long, you soon realise when the tour guide points out the seal carcass on the wooden floor, which must be close to 100 years old. Wandering round inside the simple hut, you walk through a scientific room, the kitchen complete with blubber stove, and back around into the main living area. It is left as it would have been all those years ago, with remnants of science experiments on the shelves, and food stacked on the floor, including a bag of mummified potatoes in the corner.
Although it is quite dark inside the hut, the soft light coming in through the small windows is beautiful. It pains me that I left my camera back on the ship, and only have photos from my phone. The light is different depending what time of day the tour is, so if you get the opportunity, you could go back again and experiment with different lighting conditions. This is assuming you are into photography!
Search for penguins and seals
I was super excited to see seals and Penguins in Antarctica, so I was hoping it would be easy to get to a spot where I could spot them.
I was in luck. There was a big fat Weddell Seal sunbathing on the ice right in front of the ship when we arrived (which actually interfered with our berthing plan as they had to tie the rope somewhere else).
As I wandered around, I realised there was actually wildlife everywhere. There were a few Weddell Seals near our ship at McMurdo Station, and hundreds right in front of Scott Base. Even though there weren’t as many seals at McMurdo, they were easier to see because you could get closer to them. Not too close though, the rules say you have to stay at least 5 metres away from any wildlife in Antarctica, so you don’t stress out the poor seals and penguins. Probably not a good idea to get up close and personal with a huge seal anyway.
And yes, there were penguins! Just by the Discovery Hut, over a small hill there were about five Gentoo Penguins who looked like they were sitting on eggs waiting for their partners to return from sea. It was awesome to watch. I watched a couple of penguins emerge from the icy cold water and wander slowly up the hill, calling for their mate.
If you are hoping to see and Emperor Penguin, you might need some luck on your side. I was fortunate enough that I got to go on a tour across the ice shelf, where I did see one Emperor Penguin in the distance who was malting. We couldn’t get any closer because the guide said it is a very stressful time for them when they are malting. It was cool that I got to see one though! I just wish I had taken my super big telephoto lens on the tour.
Climb Observation Hill
Observation Hill is right beside McMurdo Station. It is a reasonably quick walk to the top, although it is a little steep and shingly in places. The hill itself is only 230 metres high. The view from the top is amazing, which is why it is called “Observation Hill” I guess. You can see McMurdo, Scott Base, Erebus, the Ross Ice Shelf, the Ross Sea, sea ice and beyond. There is also another interesting walk you can do that goes around Observation Hill.
On the top of Observation Hill is a huge wooden cross which was erected in 1913 as a memorial to Scott and his crew after they died on their return trip from the South Pole in 1912.
Explore the Hillary Hut and Scott Base
Scott Base is just over the hill from McMurdo Station, and if you had to walk I think it would take about 30 minutes. I was lucky enough to get a shuttle, which took less than five minutes to get there from McMurdo.
As a kiwi, it was exciting to go to Scott Base, the New Zealand base for Antarctic research. I guess it kind of felt like home. I had imagined for so long what it would be like to go there, so it was exciting to finally be standing right in front of the iconic green buildings.
I wasn’t allowed to go inside because of quarantine rules at the time, but I did get to go inside the Hillary Hut which was super interesting.
To be honest, I didn’t even know about Sir Edmund Hillary’s Antarctica Expedition until I went to the Hillary Hut. If you don’t know either, Sir Edmund Hillary led a New Zealand team as part of the the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1955 to 1958, and the Hilary Hut is where they based themselves.
When you get to the box shaped orange and yellow hut, you enter through a door which leads you into a strange tin tunnel that guides you into the hut where you instantly get the feeling you are in an old Kiwi Bach (New Zealand holiday home).
There are paintings of New Zealand Landscapes on the walls, comfy retro furniture, and a large kitchen stocked with old food. Off the main living area are two small rooms, one radio room, and Hillary’s room. There are heaps of interesting bits and pieces all throughout the hut. It is just like Sir Ed is still living there.
Visit the aquarium
I will admit, I didn’t actually get to do this, but I was gutted when I heard from friends about all the cool things I missed out on seeing there!
McMurdo Station has a small aquarium (I hear). It is not your traditional aquarium, as you would imagine, it is set up for science, not for tourists. It is a room full of small pools, rather than glass enclosures.
Every now and then they run a short presentation where you can go and learn about the sea creatures they have there, and the research the scientists are conducting.
The most exciting thing they saw were the sea spiders which (usually) live deep down at the bottom of the sea below 1800 metres. The ones my friends saw were the size of their hand!
Go for an icy dip
When in Rome right? Ok, here is where I have to admit that I didn’t actually go for a swim in the icy water. But now that I am home I wish I had. I mean, how many people can say they went for a swim in Antarctic waters right? Of course you need to do this safely, not by yourself, or in blizzard conditions. But on a nice sunny day, why not? Well, because I’m a wimp.
Disclaimer: if you decide to swim in Antarctic waters, you do it at your own risk. You need to undertake your own risk assessment to decide if it is safe, and have safety measures in place.
Get a coffee
At McMurdo Station they have a coffee house! The volunteers that work there do an amazing job, and actually make a surprising selection of yummy drinks. The latte I had was surprisingly delicious and frothy considering they don’t have any fresh milk in Antarctica, it is all powdered.
And if you are looking for a menu, or price list, well, there isn’t one. Coffee is free here, yes free. All they ask is that you give them a little tip in their tip jar.
The coffee house itself is super cosy and has a relaxed vibe. There are no windows in there, so it may take your eyes a while to adjust if you are there in the summer and it is sunny outside.
Buy a souvenir at the craft market
Yes, they have a craft market at McMurdo! A small group of crafty people stationed at McMurdo get together every now and then and sell some of their creations in a little market. I was excited to check it out, and get some gifts to bring back to my kids.
I ended up buying them a little stuffed seal and whale that were made from used shirts and jeans. Such a cool idea, and they look so cute!
There was a variety of other felt animals, woven snowflakes and little keychains. The sellers said there are different people selling each time, so it could be a surprise what you might find.
And who doesn’t love a surprise?!
Get your passport stamped
I’m not gonna lie, I do like to brag about all the stamps in my passport. So when I got the opportunity to get a McMurdo stamp in my passport, I was over the moon.
All you need to do is take your passport to the post office at McMurdo and the lovely staff there will point you in the right direction of the stamp.
There is also a stamp at Scott Base which they put in the Hillary Hut for us. I’m not sure where it usually lives, but I’m sure if you ask someone they can point you in the right direction.
Both stamps are free of charge.
Antarctica is such a magical place. I will definitely have to get back there one day do to some landscape photography. Because I was there with the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), all the photos I took are property of the NZDF and I am not allowed to use them for my business. But at least I have an idea now of how I would shoot the landscape next time I am there. Trust me, it’s gonna happen.
If you are interested in going to Antarctica, the best way to get there is on an Antarctica cruise. This is the best way to experience Antarctica, because you get the whole experience. Of course i was on a Navy ship, but you would have the same visual experience on a commercial Antarctica cruise. You get to see icebergs as you start getting closer, then navigate through pack ice, and if you are lucky you will get to see the Ross Ice Shelf rising like a cliff out of the water. that is truly amazing, and another highlight of my trip. If you just fly straight to the continent, you miss all the amazing sights out at sea.
Next time I make the journey I think I will go on Antarctica cruise. I want to photograph icebergs, the ice shelf, wildlife and the uniqueness of the Antarctica desert, the largest desert on earth.
Of course I love New Zealand landscape photography, and I am so lucky to live in such a beautiful place, but Antarctica is like another world. An ever-changing world of ice and snow and icebergs. Oh and penguins.
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If you have any questions or comments about Antarctica, please feel free to comment on this post. I will reply to you as soon as possible.