It can be an emotional, overwhelming, and quite literally once-in-a-lifetime experience visiting Antarctica. But it’s no longer the preserve of hardened explorers. Here’s WideWorld’s guide to get to the frozen continent
“When people who work on Antarctica leave the continent, they sometimes talk about “returning to the world”’, says Jeff Rubin. “It really is very different to anywhere else”.
Rubin has worked as a lecturer and guide on tours to Antarctica for the last twenty years and is the author of the Lonely Planet guide to the continent. Many visitors come to see the wildlife, he says, or through a simple desire to tick the seventh continent off their list. But above all, it’s perhaps the sense of remoteness – of being in an unspoiled, icy wilderness – that is the main draw.
Antarctic tourism has become increasingly popular in recent years, but it’s still something out of the ordinary. “Some people are very emotional when they finally get there,” says Rubin. “I’ve seen people out on the deck looking at the ice-covered mountains and they’re crying. They’re overcome.”
“Almost always,” he says, “people tell me that this is better than they even imagined.”
The Antarctic summer runs from November to March. Summer temperatures on the coast are around freezing. The Antarctic Peninsula (where most tours go) tends to be warmer and wetter than elsewhere. In the Antarctic interior, which is at a higher altitude, temperatures rarely rise above -20, even in summer. From December to January there are about twenty hours of sunlight a day. There is no tourism in the winter, when pack ice surrounds the continent. The Antarctic winter has little sunlight and very low temperatures.
Antarctica is covered in layer of ice thousands of metres thick, which creates landscapes unlike any other place on earth. There are three mountain ranges inland. There is no development on Antarctica apart from scientific research stations.
Antarctic wildlife includes penguins, seabirds, seals and whales. The Antarctic Peninsula has more wildlife than other parts of the continent due to its milder climate. Penguin chicks hatch in December and January, while February to March is the best time to see whales. Animals do not fear human contact, but disturbing them is illegal.
Most boat tours to Antarctica leave from Ushuaia in Argentina, and cross the Drake Passage to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. (This is the easiest place to get to and also happens to be a reliable spot for seeing wildlife.)
The ships then stop off at various points off the coast, and drop small rubber boats off to shuttle people on to land for a few hours (100 people are allowed on shore at one time). The amount of freedom or guidance provided varies between tour operators. Itineraries also vary and are, in any case, dependent on weather and ice. There are no set points to disembark, though there are popular spots.
A typical tour lasts 10-11 days – but you’ll need to subtract the time taken for the crossing, which takes 2-3 days each way.
Cruise only trips (often part of a longer South American cruise) do not stop on the coast at all (boats containing 1,000 passengers are not allowed to allow people off).
The crossing of the Drake Passage can sometimes be rough. “But it’s part of the adventure,” says Rubin.
The vast majority of Antarctic tour operators are members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) which regulates tourism, and are listed on the organisation’s website www.iaato.org.
“You don’t have to be some kind of explorer to visit Antarctica”, says Rubin. “We have people in their nineties who come on trips.” But while you do not have to be especially fit, Antarctica is a unique and sometimes harsh environment. Tour operators will give advice on kit, and may provide some of it, but as a guide, you will need:
Warm, layered clothing
Sunglasses (essential for the glare from ice and water )
Sea sickness remedies
If seeing Antarctica isn’t enough in itself, more adventurous trips include scuba diving and mountaineering (both of which require previous training and experience).
The underwater landscape beneath the Antarctic ice remains relatively unknown. Highlights include seeing leopard seals and diving penguins, and the submerged icebergs themselves. At 16,050 ft, Mount Vinson is the highest peak in Antarctica. Cold temperatures and the risk of strong winds increase the challenge of climbing it.
Other companies also fly into the Antarctic interior (usually from Cape Town) to run expeditions such as skiing to the south pole or visiting emperor penguin colonies. These include Adventure Network International (www.adventure-network.com) and White Desert (www.white-desert.com).
Another out-of-the-ordinary option is a cruise on the ‘Europa’ tall ship. It is manned by a professional crew, but passengers can choose to help out if they wish.
Companies such as Antactica XXI offer ‘fly cruises’ to Antarctica. Passengers fly from Punta Arenas in Chile, (which allows them to miss the Drake Passage crossing) before boarding a boat on King George Island.
A small number of Antarctic boat tours leave from Tasmania.
The only permanent residents on Antarctica are those working on research projects. Antarctica’s unique environment is a valuable research topic in its own right, and provides insights into areas like climate change that affect the rest of the planet. Most tour operators include a visit to a research station in their itinerary. (Visits need to be pre-arranged.)
The increasing interest in travel to Antarctica has prompted concerns that tourism could affect the delicate balance of the ecosystem. But IAATO has strict rules governing behaviour, which tour operators stick to.
Rubin says “On the ship people are taught very carefully how to behave, and they take their responsibility seriously.” Tour operators, he points out, have a vested interest in keeping Antarctica clean. “If it gets polluted, no one will want to go.”
Peter Convey is a biologist at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) whose work focuses on the impact of human activity. “Tourism actually hasn’t caused a lot of problems,” he says.
Historically, it is the scientific community that has left a heavier footprint, and non-native species like reindeer have been brought to the subantarctic islands. Today that would not happen, but animals can still arrive accidentally. Rats from ships can have an impact on bird populations, and dogs (which are banned but occasionally turn upon yachts) carry viruses that can affect seals. Perhaps most dangerous of all are small invertebrates and microbes.
The cost of Antarctic travel continues to be a limiting factor on tourist numbers, which are still relatively small. Prevention is better than cure and the most important thing is that care continues to be taken. Convey says “I don’t think we should try to limit tourism, we just need responsible tourism.”
The beauty of the Antarctic is not lost on most of those who work there. “I probably take as many photographs as the average tourist does,’ says Convey. I’d be a hypocrite if I said that people couldn’t go. There’s nothing else like it on the planet.”