As protected terrain, Antarctica remains largely untouched by humans. Yet the coldest, driest, southernmost continent still boasts a population of a few thousand, depending on the time of the year. Scientific researchers and base staffers occupy small settlements both winter and summer alike. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to disembark at one of these isolated points of civilization on your Antarctic voyage.
There are dozens of bases on and around the Antarctic Peninsula, run and maintained by many different countries. In the South Shetlands, you might visit Argentine Base Camara or Chilean Frei Station. Or, farther south on the Peninsula you might visit American Palmer Station or Ukrainian base Verdansky. All of these outposts are an interesting look into life on the White Continent.
Here are three bases to learn about before you go!
A historic base with a gift shop and a post office, this is a popular disembarkation spot for Antarctica cruises. The fresh waters of the small natural harbor made this an ideal environment for a whaling station from 1911 until 1931. In 1944, the British government established a military base — Base A — in the east of the harbor as part of Operation Tabarin, a wartime mission to establish a British presence in Antarctica. After the war, the base operated as a research station until 1962, where researchers investigated botany, geology, meteorology, and the ionosphere.
In 1994, Base A was recognized for its historical significance, and in 2006, it opened its doors as a living museum for Antarctic travelers. A team of four maintains the base during the summer months, taking care of historic huts, running the gift shop and post office, and collecting data (mostly penguin poop!) about the effects of tourism on penguins. They stay pretty busy – the post office sends over 70,000 postcards a year!
If the weather permits a stop at Port Lockroy, make sure to get an Antarctica stamp in your passport, and send a postcard to your friends at home!
An Argentine scientific research station in Paradise Harbor, Almirante Brown Station is an excellent stop for Antarctica travelers – and a continental landing! Cruise-ship passengers may climb to the lookout point at 84m and then slide down the human bobsled course on their stomachs, and then walk to see the gentoo penguins.
Legend has it that the base’s doctor burned down the station in 1984. Outraged that the team had been asked to stay for the winter, he waited until the last supply ship was about to leave, and then burned down the building so that the ship had to take them back to Argentina.
The base was originally a naval station and meteorological observatory from 1951-1960, but then the Argentine Antarctic Institute established a full biological laboratory there in 1965. Two decades of successful research were curbed by the 1984 fire, but the base reopened for the summer season in the following years. The unique gentoo penguin species have reclaimed the area, creating a unique fusion of wildlife and human presence in Antarctica.
Though not the most common tourist destination, this Argentine research base has quite a unique story. One of just two civilian settlements in Antarctica, Hope Base maintains a population of 55 during the frigid winter months and is home to the southernmost school in the world!
Hope was founded in 1953 as a military base. Fifteen years later, seven families (researchers and technicians) formed a small community by the bay, and a school opened up to educate the youngest members of the settlement. And on January 7, baby Emilio Marcos Palma became the first person born on the continent. During the rush to lay (symbolic) claim to Antarctica, Argentina sent a pregnant woman to Esperanza Base in retaliation to a visit to Antarctica by Augusto Pinochet, then dictator of Chile.
Today, the Escuela Provincial Nº 38 Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín is an Argentine school educating students from daycare through high school through a long-distance military education program. The base’s young residents also participate in the world’s southernmost scout troupe, Grupo Scouts 1556.
Each Antarctic base has a story of its own, and a visit to these stations is often a highlight of a voyage to the peninsula!