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Discover Peter I Island on an Antarctic Cruise

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Peter I Island is a sub-antarctic volcanic isle located about 280 miles off the coast of West Antarctica. Discovered in 1821 by Russian explorer Fabian von Bellingshausen and named for Peter the Great, the island was the first to be discovered south of the Antarctic Circle. Because Peter I Island is surrounded by 25 miles of pack ice for most of the year, landings were exceptionally difficult before the invention of technologies such as icebreakers and helicopters. Today, lucky travelers on an Antarctic cruise are allowed to visit the island with the help of icebreakers. More than a century passed before Ola Olstad made a successful landing on February 2, 1929, and claimed the land for Norway. In the following years the Norwegians set up and maintained automated weather stations on Peter I. This changed with the passing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, which states that all land south of the 60th parallel is part of Antarctica, and is therefore part of a scientific preserve that can be used by any country and claimed by none.

Every several years, a group of amateur radio operators make an expedition to Peter I. As it is an extremely difficult place to visit, the expeditions there are years in the making, as the radio operators work to find sponsors for their travel, resources for their work and survival, and transportation to the island. The latest expedition was in January and February of 2006.

The island is tiny, only eleven miles long by five miles wide. Travelers on an Antarctic cruise will notice that the island is dominated by the huge, dormant volcano, called Lars Christensen Peak, which soars to a height of 5,757 feet above sea level. Peter I Island is nearly 95% glaciated, with ice fields reaching to the sea almost all the way around the island, though there are three small, rocky beaches where zodiacs may land. Even in the summer, around January and February, the weather is so chill that snow and ice cover the landscape. During the few short weeks when the ocean’s pack ice recedes, dark cold waves splash against the shore, and pale icebergs float past the land.

The eastern coast is the steepest, with two flat-topped ice-free rock columns in the sea just a little farther to the east. The western side consists of a high central plateau, while glacial ice shelves rest on the north and south coasts. Not surprisingly, the climate is harsh. Strong winds, freezing temperatures, and much snow characterize the weather patterns, and little vegetation exists. However, in the brief summer months this island comes alive with extremely hardy varieties of moss and lichen that have adapted to the conditions on Peter I Island.

A few birds can be seen on the island. The South Polar skua nests there, and cliff-breeding southern fulmars can be found in large numbers. The snow petrel, Wilson’s storm-petrel, and the Arctic tern may also nest there occasionally. Very fortunate visitors may be able to see Adelie or chinstrap penguins, but their numbers are small and they have been only rarely observed. The waters are not home to many whales, but a great number of seals can be found on land and in the surrounding waters, including the crabeater seal, leopard seal, and southern elephant seal.

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