A Brief History -- The history of exploration and the discovery of the Antarctic continent are littered with claims, counter claims, tall tales, intrigue, and suffering. Captain James Cook discovered the South Sandwich and South Georgia islands in 1773, but he never spotted the Antarctic continent. He did, however, set off a seal-hunting frenzy after providing reports of the large colonies he found there, and it's estimated that sealers discovered around a third of the islands in the region. Two sealers were the first to actually step foot on the continent: the American John Davis at Hughes Bay in 1821, and the British James Weddell at Saddle Island in 1823. During a scientific expedition in 1840, the American navy lieutenant Charles Wilkes finally concluded that Antarctica was not a series of islands and ice packs but rather a contiguous landmass.

The South Pole was not reached until 90 years later, on December 4, 1911, by Norwegian Roald Admudsen and his well-prepared five-man team. Though Amundsen's arrival at the pole accounted for one of the most remarkable expeditions ever to be completed by man, his feat at the time was eclipsed by the tragic finale of an expedition led by his rival, the British captain Robert Scott. Scott arrived at the pole 33 days later, only to find Amundsen's tent and a note. Scott and his party, already suffering from scurvy and exposure, finally froze to death on their return trip, just 18km (11 miles) from their ship.

No other destination has held such an adventurous cachet for explorers. One of the greatest adventures ever recorded was in 1915, led by the Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton, who pronounced Antarctica "the last great journey left to man." Shackleton attempted to cross the Antarctic continent but never achieved his goal: Pack ice trapped and sank his boat. The entire party miraculously survived for 1 year on a diet of penguin and seal before Shackleton sailed to South Georgia Island in a lifeboat to get help.

Today, 27 nations send personnel to Antarctica to perform seasonal and year-round research. The population varies from 4,000 people in the summer to roughly 1,000 in the winter. There are a total of 42 stations that operate year-round, and an additional 32 that operate during the summer only. The stations study world climactic changes, and in 1985, researchers at the British Halley station discovered a growing hole in the ozone layer.

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