The Truth About Antarctica: Common Myths & Legends Debunked
- Antarctica Myths, Legends, and Ghost Stories
- Misconceptions About Antarctica
Given how vast, unpopulated, and (even today) little-known Antarctica is, it’s not really surprising that the White Continent boasts its own veil of myth, legend, and superstition—not to mention plenty of more garden-variety misconceptions.
In this myth-busting article, we’ll cover everything from unexplained creatures to the much-talked-about subjects of wisdom teeth and appendixes in relation to an Antarctic voyage. Let’s dive in!
You might assume that the lack of an indigenous human population in Antarctica, and the continent’s comparatively recent discovery, translate to a scarcity of myth and folklore around these icy parts.
Well, in point of fact, mythology and legend do enshroud the White Continent. Some of that is by association: The otherworldly scenery and pristine, primal majesty of Antarctica have inspired many placenames harvested from various mythological sources, such as Greek and Roman pantheons. From windy Neptune’s Bellows along Deception Island (named for Roman god of the sea) to the Asgard Range (an impressive divide among the McMurdo Dry Valleys named after the abode of Norse gods), examples abound.
But there’s also some “homegrown” Antarctica mythology out there as well, from rumored sea monsters to a few spooky accounts…
The great polar wilds of Antarctica, and its mysterious fringing Southern Ocean depths, have inspired more than a few tall tales of mythic monsters and alleged creatures (“cryptids”).
In 2016, for instance, a satellite photograph from the remote waters Deception Island in the South Shetlands convinced more than a few Internet users that it had captured the kraken: that titanic octopus-like sea monster of nautical folklore. Sure, you can sort of see a surfacing kraken in the photo, but the object’s no many-armed leviathan: It’s an isolated pillar of rock rising from the waves, the roughly 98-foot-tall (30-meter) sea stack called Sail Rock.
(There may be no kraken in Antarctica, but that’s not to say its waters don’t conceal hefty cephalopods: The Antarctic depths of the Southern Ocean are known stomping-ground of the colossal squid, the world’s most massive cephalopod. These supersized squid may reach 30 feet [9 meters] and weigh more than 1,000 pounds [454 kg]. The giant squid of more temperate waters grows longer, but it’s substantially smaller-bodied compared with the colossal. High-level predators in the Southern Ocean deeps, colossal squid themselves appear to be prized prey of the mighty sperm whale.)
Then there’s the ningen, a genuine Antarctic cryptid that’s best known in Japanese culture. The ningen legend seems to have sprung up in the early 2000s with online posts discussing alleged documentation of strange, humanlike creatures in the Southern Ocean by Japanese “research whaling” vessels.
These organisms, the Internet reports relayed, had been referred to as hitogata buttai (“human-shaped objects”) and—more enduringly as far as the general public is concerned—ningen (“human”). The chatter inspired a reexamination of the 1958 account of the Japanese icebreaker Sōya-maru, which had reported seeing what was described as an “Antarctic Godzilla.”
Ningen have been described in a few different forms ranging from huge, finned, and whalelike to more humanoid, with arms and other limbs; some representations suggest two-legged ningen that walk about in Antarctica. However, most alleged sightings and images—which include underwater video footage of dim hulks as well as a purported satellite picture taken off the Namibian coast—concern aquatic ningen. Essentially across the board, though, these cryptids—which, roughly speaking, seem to blend the human and the cetacean—are portrayed as a ghostly white or off-white hue.
Icebergs—in no short supply in Antarctic waters, of course, and often appearing in quite fantastical shapes (they’re one of the scenic highlights of many Antarctic cruises)—have been “floated” (if you will) as a possible explanation for at least some of the ningen sightings.
A 2020 paper in Shima Journal, which summarized the emergence of the ningen legend and examined its folkloric potential, suggested the creature may have gained some legit cultural significance in Japan, where ningen have appeared in manga, anime, and other art. The authors suggested the 21st-century interest in this sort of humanoid whale creature in the Antarctic, far from Japan itself but where the country had, until recently, harvested whales, might reflect complicated feelings regarding whaling in Japanese society.
Antarctica has its own stories of the paranormal—which kind of makes sense, when you think about it, given much of the continent sees 24-hour darkness during the long austral winter.
Antarctica ghost stories include a few tales of haunted huts and research bases. During the Antarctic portion of the Transglobe Expedition in 1980, for example, Virginia (“Ginny”) Fiennes talked of an unsettling sense of being watched and followed while overwintering at the Ryvingen base camp as the expedition’s radio operator. And Sir Edmund Hilary, most famous for being the first person, along with companion Tenzing Norgay, to reach the summit of Mount Everest, told of seeing the ghost of famed explorer Ernest Shackleton—a “welcoming” presence—upon first entering the hut Shackleton and his men built at Cape Royds during the 1907-1909 Nimrod Expedition.
Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters may claim their own phantom ship, too. In 1840, a piece of regional maritime lore goes, a British whaleship called Hope allegedly came across an ice-trapped schooner near the South Shetland Islands. The frozen bodies of the starved-to-death captain and crew—some still upright—were found aboard, so the story goes; the logbook was examined, revealing the schooner to be the Jenny and a grim last entry by the captain reading: “May 4th, 1823. No food for 71 days. I am the only one left alive.” The Hope left the Jenny in its icy resting place, and some say the schooner haunts the Southern Ocean.
But probably the best-known Antarctic ghost story—though it may be a stretch to call it that—technically took place in the sub-Antarctic. It was the origin of the so-called Third Man Syndrome, in fact: the sense that people in perilous situations sometimes have of a watchful, protective spirit accompanying them.
The “original” Third Man account was that of Shackleton, in fact, who reported such a benevolent presence accompanying him in May 1916, as he and two companions crossed the harsh, unknown spine of South Georgia to seek rescue of the shipwrecked Endurance crew. “I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that there were four, not three.”
Later discussion revealed that Shackleton’s partners, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, had independently experienced a similar sensation. Shackleton’s account of the South Georgia crossing inspired a passage in T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land, credited with introducing the “Third Man” terminology: “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”
(You can think of us as a sort of NON-ghostly “Third Man” for your Antarctic cruise experience: We’re here to give you all the information and resources you need for a successful journey, and to otherwise look after you on this once-in-a-lifetime experience!)
From the more fantastical realm of Antarctica giant squids, ghosts, and humanoid whales, let’s round things out with a rapid-fire dispeling of more ho-hum, but nonetheless commonplace, misconceptions about the White Continent.
Despite all the cartoons and advertisements you’ve likely seen showing polar bears hanging out with penguins on ice floes, there are in fact no polar bears anywhere near Antarctica. Those huge “ice bears” are strictly an Arctic species, living literally as far away from the White Continent as you can get on the globe. (And, conversely, the Arctic is 100% penguin-free: Those marvelous aquatic birds are almost entirely confined to the Southern Hemisphere, and don’t get farther north than the Galapagos Islands.)
The closest thing Antarctica has to a polar bear is probably the leopard seal, a formidable carnivore fond of munching penguins and other seals. (You can learn about leopard seals and other Antarctic pinnipeds here.)
Antarctica is indeed the coldest, driest, and windiest of Earth’s continents, and there are definitely vast tracts that are decidedly unfriendly to life, especially in winter. But Antarctica’s a big landmass, and while great swaths of it exist under an extreme ice-cap climate, there are balmier zones—not least the maritime-influenced Antarctic Peninsula that most tourists visit, which is comparatively mild and comfortable during the summertime. Heck, more than a few cruise passengers land a one-of-a-kind photo op by taking a dip in Antarctic waters!
(Read more about Antarctica’s weather and climate right here.)
This is a surprisingly dogged misconception. You absolutely do not need to have your wisdom teeth yanked or your appendix surgically removed to visit Antarctica as a tourist, thankfully.
Now, certain personnel who’ll be overwintering at Antarctic research stations may sometimes need to undergo these measures, given the extreme difficulty of a medical evacuation during the austral winter. But a cruise passenger or other tourist—and, indeed, many seasonal workers in Antarctica—face no such requirements. (Learn more here.)
The Drake Passage separating the southern tip of South America from Antarctica has a reputation for holding some of the roughest seas on Earth. That can be intimidating for travelers joining a cruise to Antarctica that departs from Ushuaia, Argentina.
The thing is, modern cruise ships and expedition vessels are well-designed for the sometimes heavy seas of the Drake, and their sturdy hulls and stabilizing technology make the notorious “Drake Shake” less of an issue than it was back in the day. That’s all the more true given how adept these ships are at routing around and waiting out ocean storms, more accurately forecast and tracked than ever before.
And, in fact, many Antarctic-bound cruise passengers end up encountering not those infamously big waves but rather the Drake Passage in its relatively calm guise, resulting in the frequent “Drake Lake” experience.
(Get the lowdown on crossing the Drake Passage—and various alternative ways to reach the Antarctic—here.)
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