A visit to Antarctica is not just a trip. It is an unpredictable journey. Visitors are rewarded with a world that includes thousands of penguins, elephant seals and icebergs, even volcanoes and thermal springs.
The landscape of Antarctica is reduced to the barest elements: ice, rock, water and sky. But within those elements are variations both subtle and dramatic. Ice in all its many colors takes on shapes from floes and bergs to sheets and shelves. There is old ice and fast ice, grease ice and pancake ice, striated ice and fractured ice. And, of course, there is thin ice—the element of the unknown that reminds travelers of their vulnerability on the coldest, driest, windiest, highest and most remote of continents.
In the past decade, Antarctica has become so popular, especially for nature-based tourism, that concerns have been raised about the continent's delicate ecosystem. To protect it, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators limits the number of people allowed ashore.
Tour operators are also supposed to ensure that travelers have as little impact as possible on the wildlife and the environment, and visitors are forbidden from getting too close to wildlife.
Antarctica's main attractions are ice, volcanoes, snow, birds (including albatross and terns), high mountains (almost none of which have been scaled by humans), penguins (seven species), seals (six species), glaciers, whales (orca, humpback, southern right, minke) and fascinating barren scenery.
Flexible, tolerant and adventurous travelers looking for a unique experience will enjoy Antarctica. It is not a good destination for inexperienced travelers unless they are interested in nature and willing to put up with discomfort and spend large sums of money to see it. A trip to Antarctica is a long and expensive venture that requires a lot of enthusiasm. There are no guarantees regarding wildlife sightings, but the likelihood is high that you'll see something remarkable.
Antarctica is about 50% larger than the U.S. and occupies nearly one-tenth of the world's landmass. Almost the entire continent (99.8%) is covered permanently by ice. With its mountains reaching heights of 16,066 ft, it's the highest continent in the world in average altitude. At its thickest point, the Antarctic ice cap is almost 3 mi thick. If Antarctica's ice were to melt, it would raise the level of the world's oceans about 200 ft.
The continent is vaguely round. Extending from the northwestern perimeter toward the tip of South America is the tail-like Antarctic Peninsula. The scientific outposts of 25 nations (Argentina, Australia, Chile, Japan, Russia and the U.S. all have multiple stations) ring the edges of Antarctica and adjacent islands clustering along the peninsula. However, with only three year-round research stations in the interior, most of the continent is uninhabited.
Though writings and maps of the ancient Greeks cryptically refer to a massive southern region of the world, Capt. James Cook was the first to find the "White Continent." He crossed the Antarctic Circle four times from 1772 to 1775 while circumnavigating the continent barricaded by icebergs. He later wrote, "I firmly believe that there is a tract of land near the Pole, which is the source of most of the ice which is spread over this vast Southern Ocean." The iceberg barricade held until 1820, when separate expeditions led by Thaddeus von Bellingshausen and Edward Bransfield caught sight of the continent. A year later, a ship skippered by John Davis landed on the continent. He was followed by sealers, whalers and explorers. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole, on 14 December 1911. (Robert Scott, an Englishman, reached the Pole just weeks after Amundsen but died on the way back.) Not until 1956 did the first tourists—a group of Chileans aboard a research vessel—make trips to Antarctica.
Antarctica is the only continent that does not contain a sovereign nation. Since Antarctica's discovery, seven nations—Norway, Great Britain, Chile, Argentina, Australia, France and New Zealand—have laid claim to various sections of it. Those claims were suspended in 1959, when the Antarctic Treaty set aside the continent for scientific study. Today, the continent is effectively a shared territory, governed by an international committee of 45 countries, 25 of which maintain research stations there. The participating countries cooperate in protecting Antarctica's many environmental treasures and its pristine beauty. The United States' National Science Foundation coordinates most research activities and works closely with the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) to provide some centralized consistency, but there is no official governing authority.
Antarctica has no official time zone, as all 24 of the world's time zones converge at the bottom of the world. Most inhabitants set their clocks to the time in their home country. Cruise ships usually keep their clocks on the same time as their port of departure.
The South Pole is colder than the North Pole by about 35 degrees F. The coldest temperature ever recorded was -129 F at Vostok, Antarctica, on 21 July 1983.
Since discovering a giant lake called Lake Vostok nearly 2.5 mi beneath Antarctic ice, researchers have found about 145 smaller ice covered lakes. Researchers believe the subglacial lakes could contain unknown forms of bacterial life that have thrived in the oxygenless, highly pressurized environment for millions of years.
Fire is a hazard in Antarctica. The dry air and high winds make it difficult to control a fire once it starts. The extremely low temperatures require the use of chemicals to put out fires.
All plants and animals not native to Antarctica are banned by treaty. The last of the famed husky dogs were flown out in 1994.
The growing hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole was discovered in 1981 by British scientists working at the U.K.'s Halley Station.
The Antarctic Peninsula has warmed about 5 degrees F in the past 50 years, causing glaciers to melt and allowing plants to spread.
Though 80% of the world's freshwater is locked in Antarctica's ice, the continent is considered a desert. Less than 1 in of snow falls at the South Pole annually, and the cold air is some of the driest in the world. Because the water in Antarctica is frozen, dehydration is one of the greatest health risks.
Fossilized tree stumps, dinosaur bones and coal have been discovered in Antarctica, indicating it was once a much warmer place. The most recent theories hold that it was joined to what is now North America about 750 million years ago—some mineral deposits there are an exact match to those found in Texas.
Antarctica's otherworldly landscape has become the poor man's space program. More meteorites have been found there than anywhere else in the world, partly because the dark rocks stand out against the white ice. The cold, dry conditions are similar to Mars, giving researchers a chance to test theories about the red planet. NASA tests instruments and astronauts in the harsh, isolated conditions.
For tourists, the most popular—and practically the only—way of seeing Antarctica is by ship. Antarctic cruises visit ice-free coastal areas and sub-antarctic islands primarily October-March. The harsh weather, daunting logistics and lack of on-site support facilities discourage most other types of travel. Most trips depart from Ushuaia, Argentina, or Punta Arenas, Chile. For longer voyages, travelers may board in Australia, New Zealand or the Falkland Islands.
There are about 30 cruise lines worldwide that belong to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), the best-known of which include U.K.-based Footprint Adventures, U.S.-based Quark Expeditions, and U.S.-based National Geographic Expeditions. These companies offer a variety of voyages, generally on icebreakers or research vessels that have been transformed into passenger ships. This isn't Caribbean-style cruising with floor shows and shuffleboard—it's more an expedition than a cruise. Travelers will, however, almost always receive many informative lectures on the region's geology, history, climate and the like. For those willing to pay extra, there are a few upscale cruise options with luxury-type amenities. Everything from large cruise ships to multi-masted tall sailing ships have plied the Antarctic waters. All-inclusive cruise packages run US$3,500-$50,000 and up. These must be booked at least six months in advance, and a hefty deposit is usually required.
Itineraries vary depending on the type of vessel. Those who want to venture beyond the Antarctic Peninsula, for example, will probably wind up on an icebreaker. Cruises can be one to four weeks in length, stopping at various points of interest or bases on the peninsula, coast or islands. Activities on the various tours include viewing penguins, elephant seals and other polar animals, as well as ice walks and opportunities to visit some research bases and meet the scientists who work there. Cruises offer the chance for spectacular iceberg views, and travelers may get to see an ice shelf or glacier calve into a new iceberg. Many icebergs are beautifully colored, showing many shades of blue—or yellow or green—and crevasses where the seawater has hollowed them out or melted them into fantastic shapes.
Much of the sightseeing is done in Zodiacs—small inflatable boats powered by outboard engines. Many of the tour operators also offer kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding. Some of the larger icebreakers even have helicopters for transporting passengers ashore to visit research stations. Some tours visit sites made famous by such explorers as Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. (Remnants of their doomed expeditions are still visible.) Shore visits are required by international treaty to be supervised and conducted by shipboard staff, which typically includes one staff member for each group of 10-20 passengers. Such staff generally includes ornithologists, marine biologists, general biologists, geologists, glaciologists, historians, naturalists and professional mountaineering or kayaking guides. IAATO guidelines do not allow tour operators with 200 or more passengers to make landfall because of the impact to the environment.
It is important for travelers to be realistic about the rigors a particular trip will entail and to be honest with the tour operator about their abilities and desires to partake in the more difficult parts of the trip. Because of the rigorous requirements regarding environmental impact, passengers are not allowed to relieve themselves on the continent, and there are no bathrooms on the ice floes, which can become problematic on three- and four-hour excursions.
Most travelers opt for the shorter, less strenuous cruises that depart from South America, with two days at sea, coming and going through Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. On these cruises, travelers cross the Weddell Sea to visit the islands and coastal areas on the east side of the peninsula or cross the Bellingshausen Sea to visit the islands and coastal areas on the west side of the peninsula. A cruise through Le Maire Channel is a great option, as it passes mountains, spectacular scenery and huge blocks of floating ice. For longer voyages, the best bet is to board in Australia or New Zealand. These routes present the best opportunity to see the historic sites of the Ross Sea area, including Sir Ernest Shackleton's hut and the penguin rookery at Cape Royds. Travelers can also take in the sprawling American research base and Capt. Robert Scott's century-old huts, now ghostly and evocative. As these structures are historic sites, no "souvenirs" may be removed.
Given the small number of Antarctic tour operators, the short tourist season and the limited number of tourists that can be accommodated, many cruises fill up fast. Travelers should plan at least six months ahead when making arrangements to take an Antarctic cruise and research options carefully, particularly if they will take part in specific excursion activities, such as kayaking, camping, mountaineering or cross-country skiing
Dos & Don'ts
Do be prepared for some rough seas—and possible gale-force winds. Even standard seasickness preventatives may be found wanting on rougher voyages. Travelers who can't abide seasickness should think twice about going.
Do watch for several rare varieties of albatross—the seabird with the huge wingspan. Contrary to the Ancient Mariner's experience, sighting one is said to be a good omen.
Do be prepared for changes in itinerary. Vessels that are not icebreakers have to avoid waters with thicker ice.
Do be on the lookout for whales in the waters around the continent. Currents bring nutrient-rich waters to the surface, so the sea life has rich feeding grounds.
Don't approach wildlife in any way that would cause the animals to react. It's a good rule of thumb to stay at least 16 ft away. According to the Antarctic Conservation Act of 1978, violators are subject to a US$5,000-$10,000 fine.
Do stop and wait quietly if penguins approach. They are curious birds and will often walk right up to people. If they approach travelers, there's no fine.
Don't be surprised that the summer sun doesn't set. The phenomenon is similar to the midnight sun of Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska and Northern Canada. Take along eyeshades and earplugs to help with sleep.
Do take your passport when going ashore to a research station or flying to the South Pole. Though nobody will check it, there is often an official passport stamp travelers can get.
Do think twice before taking small children (younger than age 10) on cruises or flights. The possibility of delays and cramped quarters makes Antarctic travel with small children stressful. Private expeditions are not suitable for children younger than age 16, and those who do participate must meet the same skill and health standards as adults.
Don't forget to take along a good but small camera with a telephoto lens for wildlife and lots of film or memory cards. Take along plenty of camera batteries and carry them close to the body when outside, as the cold drains batteries.
Do read up on the history of Antarctica and the exploration of the continent in the early part of the 20th century. There are few more thrilling adventure stories.
What to Wear
The combination of extended daylight hours, glare from the water and ice, and the ozone hole make the sun dangerously strong in the Antarctic. Travelers should take along and use sunscreen and polarized sunglasses.
Layers of modern fabrics, such as Capilene long underwear, polypropylene midlayers, fleece sweaters, a down-filled parka and a wind-and-rain resistant outer layer are recommended for warmth and dryness. The mountaineering adage, "cotton kills," rings true. Synthetics or wool will dry faster and keep their thermal properties better than cotton. Outdoor chic is the fashion standard.
A hat, balaclava and neck gaiter are recommended to protect the face. Instant heat packs in the pockets are great for warming cold hands. Insulated, waterproof hiking boots are also suggested
Passport/Visa Requirements: No passports or visas are needed for Antarctica, but they are likely needed for the countries where tours begin. Travelers should reconfirm travel document requirements with the carrier before departure and check for reciprocity fees before leaving their home country. Both Chile and Argentina require payment of a one-time reciprocity fee for Canadian and Australian citizens or proof they have already paid it on a previous trip. Chile requires all foreigners to keep their pre-delivery inspection receipt from entry to show to vendors for value-added tax (VAT) exemption and to present to customs on exit.
Languages: Varies with the nationalities of the research stations. Tours are generally offered in English, but other languages are available based on the tour company.
Predominant Religions: Varying, depending on nationality of base.
Time Zone: GMT to 23 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT through +23 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is observed only to stay in sync with the home countries of the various nationalities represented.
Voltage Requirements: Voltage requirements vary with the tour operators and the origin of their ships. Most small electronic chargers, such as cameras, phones, laptops and e-readers, can handle the range of voltages with just an adapter. However, travelers should research their devices prior to the trip.
Telephone Codes: 672, country code
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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
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