Chinstrap penguin
It might come as a surprise that the penguins are not afraid of humans Photo: Friedrich Stucke Photo

Your Antarctica Cheat Sheet

Let's talk about what makes Antarctica unique.

You don't necessarily need to prepare yourself for a new culture when you head to Antarctica – after all, it's mostly researchers and penguins down there. However, it's interesting to know as much as you can about your destination before you get there, and, believe it or not, there's a sort of Antarctic ethos you'll need to follow. Let's talk about what makes Antarctica unique.


In 1959, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty, which dedicated the whole continent to peaceful collaboration for scientific investigation. In 1961, the treaty went into effect, and all territorial claims any country had made before that time were suspended. In 1991, the Treaty expanded to agree not to explore for oil or other minerals for at least 50 years. This is in effect until 2048, at which point it can be revisited. If all countries that are party to this agreement, of which there are 29, agreed otherwise, there could be mineral or oil exploration sooner. In total, there are 52 countries that have signed the treaty.

The treaty is meant to establish Antarctica as a zone free of military operations and nuclear development, to be used only for peace and international cooperation. It is also meant to ensure no countries dispute who owns Antarctica. The treaty means Antarctica has never been part of a war or a site of war.


Antarctica really isn't governed as we understand it, but there is an annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to talk about the state of things in Antarctica and make recommendations about what should happen to keep it in line with the treaty that governs it. There have been special meetings to address climate change and tourism, among other things.


Each visitor to Antarctica – including everyone on a cruise – must behave in a way that is in line with the Antarctic Treaty. This means protecting wildlife thoroughly, to begin with. You must be quiet and slow around animals, keep your distance, never block an animal's access to the sea, never feed them and never use guns or explosives. You must also protect vegetation by never touching it. Finally, you can't bring any non-native species with you, intentionally or not. You also need to respect protected areas, which should not be a problem as excursions are scheduled with this requirement in mind.