Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Antarctica Edition

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Photo of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Antarctica Edition by Rohan Sood

Within each one of us lies a line, an imaginary one between who we are and who we want to be. Our planet has one too and it is called the Antarctic Circle. Beyond this circle lies a realm that embeds itself into your soul with insidious charm. The land spooned by the sea and caressed by snow; the coast speckled with carefree creatures that rises almost abruptly into elevated terrain.

Credit Rohan Sood

Photo of Antarctica by Rohan Sood

The Antarctic continent also happens to be the most remote, inhospitable environment on Earth. Harsh and inaccessible, covered by over 5 million square miles of solid ice, it is the world’s driest & coldest continent. No place on earth provides a more demanding environment for survival.

It is perhaps this that drew me towards the last great wilderness. I was chosen to be a part of the International Antarctic Expedition (IAE). The IAE was an exhilarating, unpredictable and a life-changing experience; the purpose of which was to engage and inspire the next generation of leaders to take responsibility to build resilient communities and in doing so, preserve Antarctica.

Over the course of the two-week expedition, I had a chance to explore spectacular sites across the Antarctic Peninsula. Our ship, the 'Ocean Endeavor' meandered across seas, giving me glimpses of the beauty and vastness of the continent. Antarctica is teeming with some of the most exotic animal species on the planet, all of which have evolved remarkably to thrive in such harsh conditions. While mammals such as whales and seals have a thick layer of fat for insulation, fishes have a naturally occurring anti-freeze in their blood. I had encounters with several species of whales, seals, birds and penguins during the expedition. Here are some of my favorite experiences:

1) Gentoo Penguin

The first thing that comes to most people’s mind when they think of Antarctica is penguins. Of all the Antarctic species, I was most excited to see them. Gentoos are the third largest penguins and are often between two and three feet high. They prefer living along the coast line and are famous for being monogamous, meaning that they pair exclusively to a single mate. Not just that, these birds are at the forefront of gender equality; incubation is shared equally by parents. They are social birds and during their breeding season, they form large groups, or “rookeries”, that include thousands of penguins. Due to moratorium on hunting in the Antarctic, Gentoo Penguins do not fear humans. So, don’t be surprised if one walks up to you to say hi!

Credit Rohan Sood

Photo of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Antarctica Edition by Rohan Sood

2) Crabeater Seal

Crabeater Seals are probably the most abundant large mammal on Earth, with some being over 2 meters in length. Their name is a misnomer, since they mostly feed on shrimp-like krill, which they catch by straining mouthfuls of seawater. These seals have a slender body, a distinct neck, and a pointed snout. Curious and playful, I couldn’t help but notice how they were basically doggos of the sea!

3) Southern Royal Albatross

The largest seabird in the world, the royal albatross has a wing span of over three meters. They are also some of the longest living birds, usually living well into their 40s. These birds usually pair for life, with new pairs performing elaborate courtship displays with full spreading of the wings, accompanied by a variety of mating calls.

Credit 2041

Photo of Ross Sea by Rohan Sood

4) Humpback Whale

Humpback whales are found abundantly in the Antarctic and can grow up to 20 meters long and weigh 35 tons. One may assume an animal this massive would need to eat large prey but humpback whales don’t even have teeth! Instead of teeth, they have baleen that are made of keratin; the same material as our hair. These whales take a mouthful of seawater, and squeeze it out while all the food remains inside.

5) Antarctic Tern

These majestic birds weighing about 100 grams on average are world record holders for the longest migration ever recorded. An Antarctic tern’s journey to the Arctic and back was recorded at a total of 95,755 km — more than twice the circumference of the planet. A tern could fly more than 3 million km over its lifetime; roughly the equivalent of four round trips to the moon.

Credit 2041

Photo of Petermann Island by Rohan Sood

6) Leopard Seal

Fearsome creatures, leopard seals are at the top of the Antarctic food chain. They are called so because of their spotted fur that resembles that of a leopard’s. I was fortunate enough to cross paths with this deadly beast since they are usually reclusive and prefer staying away from humans. The ends of their mouth are curled upward, creating the illusion of a smile. But beware, they cannot be trusted and are known to fatally attack humans when threatened!

Credit 2041

Photo of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Antarctica Edition by Rohan Sood

Credit 2041

Photo of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Antarctica Edition by Rohan Sood

7) Killer Whale

With their distinctive black and white pattern, killer whales are instantly recognizable and live in all the oceans. Along with the leopard seal, killer whales are top predators in the Antarctic. I was surprised to find out that their name is a misnomer and that they are in fact dolphins and not whales. They feast on marine animals such as seals and even whales, using teeth that can be up to five inches long.

Credit 2041

Photo of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Antarctica Edition by Rohan Sood

8) Fur Seal

Antarctic fur seals are more closely related to sea lions than seals, and share with them external ears, relatively long and muscular fore flippers, and the ability to walk on all fours. They are marked by their dense underfur, which unfortunately made them an attractive target for hunters.

Credit Rohan Sood

Photo of Brown Bluff by Rohan Sood

Preserving Antarctica

The history of human interaction with Antarctica is one of greed and gloom. Whale and seal hunting was the primary reason for the initial exploration of the land mass. Reports of abundant stocks drew the adventurous from the early 1800's onward. Before long, there were major crashes in the populations of some wildlife. For example, the Antarctic fur seal was almost wiped out at many locations by 1830. Once the most profitable species had been hunted to a point of great scarcity, the next species was hunted until it too was very rare, then the next and so on. Human activities in Antarctica are governed by an international agreement known as the Antarctic Treaty System, established in 1959. Currently there is a moratorium in place that bans hunting in Antarctica called the Madrid Protocol, established in 1991. The result is that Antarctica is one of the few places on our planet that has never seen war, where the environment is protected and where the priority is scientific research. The Antarctic Treaty has ensured that this has continued. However, this treaty can be reviewed after the 50‐year anniversary in 2041. We must come together to ensure this Treaty is renewed and that Antarctica is left alone.

Credit Rohan Sood

Photo of Deception Island by Rohan Sood

How to get there

The most popular way to reach Antarctica is by taking a ship from Ushuaia, Argentina. Ushuaia is the southern-most city in the world and goes by the name ‘The End of The World’. The two-day journey from Ushuaia takes you through the Beagle Channel and the legendary Drake Passage. Crossing the legendary Drake Passage is an unforgettable experience as well as a formidable challenge. Its rough nature has given it the name ‘Sailor’s Everest’.

Visa

Antarctica’s beauty lies in the fact that it is shared equally by all nations and peoples. No one ‘owns’ Antarctica and yet it is everyone’s. While entering Antarctica requires no visa, you need one to enter Argentina to board the ship for Antarctica. Depending on where you live in India, you will need to apply to the Argentinian Embassy in New Delhi or the consulate in Mumbai. Good news - Argentinian tourist visa is free for Indians!

Best time to visit Antarctica

The best time to visit Antarctica is between November and March - the months when sunshine is abundant and the sea ice melts enough to allow access to ships. Temperature returns to expected sub-zero levels, with seemingly endless nights marking the ‘no go’ months between April and September.

My Antarctica Video

A traveler at heart, I have been to 22 countries on 6 continents. My favorite experiences are plunging in to sub-zero Antarctic waters, renovating a Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka and hiking Borneon jungles. I am also an engineer, a public speaker, a sustainability believer and a polar explorer. Follow my misadventures on www.passportuncontrol.com and Instagram @geeknextdoor.

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