Antarctica’s remoteness and extremeness pretty much lend themselves to flights of imagination and conspiracy theories. After all, none of Planet Earth’s terra firma is left so barely explored as the White Continent’s. Herein we take a deep dive into Antarctica secrets, mysteries, surprising phenomena, and no shortage of downright zany theories about the bottom of the world. Ready? Let’s go!

Among the more outlandish but remarkably persistent myths about the White Continent is that the Nazis established a secret Antarctic base there, with high-level officials retreating to this remote, icebound sanctum after Germany’s defeat in World War II.

Speculation about this farfetched installation got going basically right on the heels of the war. Supposed “clues” included a Nazi expedition to Dronning Maud Land aboard the Schwabenland in 1938-1939, which proponents of the wild secret-base theory surmised may have been to scout the location for it; the appearance of two U-boats at an Argentine port in July and August 1945, months after Germany’s surrender, which fired theories they’d been transporting supplies and/or outlaw Nazis (maybe even a not-dead-after-all Adolf Hitler) to the Antarctic; and a purported (possibly apocryphal) reference by German naval commander Karl Dönitz during the Nuremberg Trials to some “invulnerable fortress, a paradise-like oasis in the middle of eternal ice.”

Conspiracy theorists have also proposed that the secret 1943-1945 British Antarctic operation code-named Tabarin was really about monitoring hidden Nazi operations on the White Continent, and that the U.S. Operation Highjump of 1946-1947 had the covert mission of destroying Dronning Maud Land’s rogue Nazi base.

Zanier yet, some have floated rumors that the U.S. military actually engaged with Nazi forces—maybe employing UFO technology (yes, you read that right)—during Operation Highjump, partly based on statements allegedly about flying saucers attributed to Admiral Byrd.

Well, let’s move on from the nonsense to the actual facts—clearly laid out, to try and put this secret-Nazi-Antarctic-base story to bed for good, in a peer-reviewed 2007 academic paper published in Polar Record and titled “Hitler’s Antarctic Base: The Myth & the Reality.”

There was indeed a 1938-1939 Nazi expedition to Antarctica, but it was an exploratory one aimed at establishing not a hidden military-fortress, but a whaling base, motivated by concern over the large territorial claims being made by Great Britain and Norway for their whaling industries.

The U-boats that showed up in Argentina in the summer of 1945 had fled there after their captains learned of Germany’s surrender, and made no dashes down to Antarctica in between.

Neither Operation Tabarin nor Operation Highjump were concerned with detecting or destroying secret Antarctic Nazi bases, there was no battle between Operation Highjump personnel and renegade Nazis, and the alleged reference to flying saucers made by Byrd was a mistranslation of a March 1947 article in a Chilean newspaper, wherein the admiral warned that enemy planes could potentially fly over the poles to attack the U.S.

Long story short: There was no undercover Nazi redoubt in Antarctica, and indeed Nazi Germany’s presence in Antarctic waters was fleeting, never advancing beyond the Schwabenland’s exploratory expedition.

Besides the wacky notion that Nazis had obtained extraterrestrial technology to fly UFOs out of their underground base in Antarctica, alien rumors continue to periodically swirl around the bottom of the world.

Numerous satellite photographs showing utterly unremarkable features of the White Continent—from ice cracks and nunataks (rock peaks rising out of surrounding ice) to existing research bases and supply convoys—have provoked frenzied talk of UFO crash sites and ice-hidden alien cities.

And we have a whole article dedicated to debunking the supposed pyramids discovered in Antarctica, which are simply naturally pyramidal mountains shaped by glacial and freeze-thaw processes.

The Bouvet Island Lifeboat

In 1964, a photo of an abandoned lifeboat was captured in a lagoon on one of the most remote islands in the world, Bouvet island. How did it get there?

Set almost midway between the Queen Maud Land coast of Antarctica and the tip of South Africa, Bouvet Island, an uninhabited Norwegian dependency, is the most remote island on Earth. It’s a volcanic landform mostly swaddled in glacial ice, and besides its sheer isolation, iciness, and the roughness of the surrounding Southern Ocean seas, the island’s steep sea cliffs make it tough to access indeed.

In 1964, the British Royal Navy’s HMS Protector visited Bouvet Island, and helicopters ferried a survey team under the charge of Lieutenant Commander Allan Crawford ashore. This was on the heels of a volcanic eruption on the island sometime in the mid- to late 1950s that had created a new, low bench of land—named the Nyrøysa—on the northwestern coast.

Exploring the Nyrøysa, the survey team found a seal-plied lagoon and, partly waterlogged within it, “a whaler or ship’s lifeboat,” as Crawford described it.

While a pair of oars, a 44-gallon barrel, and a copper buoyancy tank were found along the rocky shores of the lagoon, the team could find no human remains or other evidence of human occupation in the vicinity.

The lifeboat had no motor or sails and lacked markings, making its presence in that ends-of-the-Earth spot a perplexing mystery. But it had to have come to the island, one way or another, sometime between the eruption that built the Nyrøysa and the 1964 visit by Crawford: a relatively narrow window of time.

Another expedition visited the lagoon in 1966, and no mention was made of the lifeboat: lost to the mists of time. It remained an utterly mysterious, though admittedly very obscure, piece of sub-Antarctic arcana until the 2010s, when online researchers tracked down the likely explanation.

It turns out that a “scientific reconnaissance vessel” with a Soviet Antarctic whaling fleet, the Slava-9, visited Bouvet Island in late November 1958 and sent a party ashore. Bad weather—a regular occurrence on Bouvet—set in, and the shore party ended up temporarily stranded, hunkering down near Cape Circoncision (to the immediate north of the Nyrøysa).

After a few days, a helicopter was able to rescue the crew—apparently leaving that lifeboat behind in the lagoon.

A gravity anomaly—where there’s a discrepancy between the predicted value of gravity at a particular site and what’s actually observed there—was noted in northern Wilkes Land in East Antarctica back in the late 1950s. It’s been the subject of much speculation and research ever since.

Much evidence suggests that this gravity anomaly and its associated “mascon”—area of enhanced mass—reflect the presence of a giant impact crater. At more than 450 kilometers across, it’s more than twice the size of the Chicxulub Crater in Mexico, which many scientists believe marks where the asteroid that caused the end-of-Cretaceous mass extinction (the one that took out the dinosaurs, except for birds) struck Earth.

An estimated 250 million years old, the Wilkes Land impact crater—if that’s indeed what it is—may be connected to the even more devastating end-Permian mass extinction, which wiped out perhaps 90 percent of all marine and terrestrial life on the planet.

There’s some evidence that southern Australia encompasses a continuation of the Wilkes Land gravity anomaly, and it’s been theorized that the likely asteroid impact that produced the anomaly may have helped sunder Antarctica and Australia, once joined as a remnant of the supercontinent Gondwana.

In the late 1600s, the first Europeans to land on the Falkland Islands, set some 300 miles (480 km) off the eastern Patagonian coast of South America along the cusp of the sub-Antarctic zone, made the earliest recorded observations of that archipelago’s native canid: the so-called Falkland Islands wolf or warrah.

This “large wolf-like fox,” as Charles Darwin described it, was the only known native terrestrial mammal in the Falklands, and it didn’t have all that long for the world: Hunted for its fur and persecuted by shepherds, the warrah went extinct by 1876.

How this doomed beast made it to the remote Falkland Islands in the first place was long debated, as no other island group of comparable distance from a continental coast is known to have had its own indigenous canid.

A 2013 study utilizing DNA analysis suggested the warrah split from a mainland ancestor, Dusicyon avus, quite recently in the geologic scheme of things, perhaps only 16,000 years ago, which coincided with the Last Glacial Maximum of the Pleistocene.

At this time of lowered sea level, Argentina’s coastal plain dramatically expanded, and the Falkland Islands covered significantly more above-water area. Evidence suggests the archipelago then was only separated from the mainland by a narrow and shallow strait, which quite likely would have frozen over with sea ice. So perhaps it was by such an ice-bridge that the ancestors of the Falkland Islands wolf trit-trotted their way to the islands.

Or maybe not. In the past, some had proposed that humans may have brought warrahs to the Falklands, but until recently evidence for human occupation before their European discovery was lacking. In 2021, though, researchers published evidence suggesting people indeed may have lived on the islands centuries before Europeans arrived, and again raised the possibility that they brought the animal over. The debate continues…

In the mid-1970s, after the launch of the very first satellites, the first “mystery hole” in the winter sea ice of Antarctica’s Weddell Sea was documented: a massive, New Zealand-sized void of open sea when one would think ice cover would be thickest and most continuous.

This mysterious hole in Antarctica reappeared in the mid- and late 2010s, with a 13,000-square-mile (33,000-square-km) gap opening in August 2016, and a 19,000-square-mile (50,000-square-km) one appearing in September and October of 2017. Another mystery hole opened up in 2019, too.

Those more recent mystery holes offered a unique opportunity to study what was going on. The technical term for these sea-ice holes is polynya, derived from the Russian language. They’re best known from coastal locations, but the main Weddell Sea hole opens well off the coast: a so-called mid-sea polynya.

Recent research suggests a variety of factors are at play in forming and maintaining these winter gaps in the sea ice, with powerful storms and the topsy-turvy oceanic circulation they set in play an important one.

Scientists continue to study midsea Antarctic polynyas, partly to scrutinize what effects they may have on the climate: It’s possible these windows in the ice outgas significant amounts of the carbon otherwise stored away in Antarctic deep water.

A portion of a 1513 nautical chart of the world made by Ottoman admiral Piri Reis, rediscovered in 1929, became a piece of “evidence” in the 1950s and ‘60s for the possibility of a bygone Antarctic civilization.

Considered utterly bogus by experts, this theory proposes that the southern landmass depicted in the bottom left corner of the Piri Reis Map shows an ice-free section of Antarctica, and that the Ottoman mapmaker used cartographic information from an ancient people inhabiting that polar realm to draw that portion.

Piri Reis’s own notes confirm he used multiple sources to compile his world map, including charts from Christopher Columbus, but none of the evidence put forth by proponents of that ancient-Antarctic-civilization theory holds water. Indeed, map scholars point out that the strange eastward jog that the map’s southern landmass takes may well simply reflect the fact that otherwise Piri Reis’s coastal line would have run off the edge of the parchment.

In 2012 a Russian drilling crew historically breached the subglacial Lake Vostok, the first ever to probe a subglacial lake. The world was awash with fanciful notions that, having been completely cut off from the surface world for an estimated 14 million years, any life found there might be something out of the realm of science fiction—prehistoric creatures or life forms that could have a potentially devastating effect on mankind.

Rumors quickly surfaced of the team having a deathly encounter with a bizarre and deadly life form—a shape-shifting monster octopus mysteriously labeled as Organism 46b—and have been exaggerated further in recent years to say that the cryptid was actually captured and is subsequently now being militarized by the Putin regime.

Thankfully this is a widely accepted as a work of fiction as the origin of this story can be traced back to C. Michael Forsyth, a former writer for the sensational and widely discredited tabloid World Weekly News. Whilst colossal squid certainly exist in the Southern Ocean, the extreme conditions in such a subglacial lake, including the lack of sunlight and extremely cold temperatures, make it highly unlikely for such complex organisms to survive. Microbial life was discovered in Lake Vostok, however, and continues to be found across Antarctica in places previously thought to be devoid of life, so never say never!

Compared to other continents, Antarctica doesn’t really boast that many deaths and disappearances: a reflection of how relatively few people spend much time down in this grand polar wilderness. But they’ve happened, for sure: not only due to the harshness of the Antarctic environment, especially in winter, but (in a handful of instances) some cabin-fever crazies within the pressurized confines of a research station.

There are unsolved vanishings here on the White Continent, too. A notable example is the case of Carl Robert Disch, a physicist with the U.S. National Bureau of Standards who, in the winter of 1965, was working out of Byrd Station in West Antarctica.

On May 8th, he left the radio noise station, presumably to follow the handline linking that structure with the main station complex some 7,000 feet away. This was a commute he’d done many times before. But he never showed up at the main Byrd Station complex.

Search parties picked up traces of footprints, which didn’t show any unusual hastened or otherwise panicked-seeming stride. Bad weather, underway when Disch set out from the radio noise station and continuing thereafter, hampered search efforts. No other trace of the young scientist was ever found. Memorial services were held in Antarctica as well as in Disch’s hometown of Monroe, Wisconsin.

Perhaps the dark, blizzardy conditions caused Disch to lose his way along the handline. We’ll never know.

We’ve really only scratched the surface when it comes to Antarctica mysteries and oddities, but fear not: We’ve got more for you to explore on this murky front! Read about, for example, the “ghost ship” Mar Sem Fim here; the crimson outflow of Blood Falls here; and the decidedly unsettling Ice Finger of Death here.

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