Surf, sand, and sun pretty much cover what most people expect out of a vacation. Ice? Frigid cold? Glaciers? Not so much. Yet destination Antarctica has proven to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for open-minded individuals. The continent's landscape is often described as magical, surreal, unforgettable, and a glimpse of nature in its purest form. There are no tourist shops, restaurants, or places to get a tan. Antarctica provides only scenic beauty, looming ice carvings, and select animal inhabitants. Its appeal lies in its unparalleled setting and atmosphere that have been a mystery to humans for centuries.
The number of annual Antarctic tourists has increased from a couple hundred in 1969 to over 20,000 at the start of the new millennium. Fortunately, in 1991 a group of seven Antarctic excursion directors founded the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), an organization that manages environmentally sound cruises to help protect Antarctica's pristine environment. It has become an esteemed voluntary organization with over 80 workers from 14 different countries. To ensure the safest travel (environmentally as well as physically), it is best to pick a ship or tour company that is an IAATO member. Visit their website, www.iaato.org, to find a complete member list.
Your Antarctic experience will depend a lot on what kind of voyage you take. There are basically seven different types of ships used for Antarctic tourism, each with its own benefits, shortfalls, and character.
- Dive Boats: If you are adventurous and outdoorsy, a dive boat is for you. Loaded with assorted scuba gear, the boat's main purpose is to support diving. Mountain climbing, camping, and kayaking are other activities associated with dive boat trips.
- Expedition Ships: Considered a more academic experience than most excursions, these ships best suit natural history and cultural buffs. With a crew of a 10 to 12 people with a wide variety of expertise, these ships cruise along isolated waterways, and also deploy zodiacs—small crafts used for forays to the shore. Most expeditions offer high-quality accommodations.
- Icebreakers: Also suitable for natural history and culture buffs, icebreakers appeal to people who love exploring, discovering, and learning. As the name implies, these vessels cut through ice, giving passengers access to some of Antarctica's most remote places, such as Far South, a region where emperor penguin colonies reside, is only accessible by icebreakers. Educational programs are available. Traveling by icebreaker means a longer time at sea, and consequently more expensive than some other options.
- Motor Yachts: These ships are family-oriented, with no more than 20 passengers on board at a time. Very comfortable and highly accommodating, they provide sea kayaks and a zodiac for family adventures off-ship. A captain, a deck hand, one naturalist guide in charge of the expedition, and a cook are designated to each ship.
- Russian Ships: Are you young and adventurous? This may be the voyage for you. Originally built for polar research, these boats are not luxurious. The tours, however, do provide fun, activity-based programs that appeal to a more youthful crowd. Because these ships carry only a small number of passengers, voyages tend to resemble a private voyage more than a more traditional cruise.
- Sailing Vessels: While not the most popular choice, people with a special interest in sailing may be intrigued by this option which combines sailing and motor power to cruise Antarctic waters. Before signing up with an expedition, make sure to inquire how much time is spent sailing versus motoring.
- Small Ships: Best for those who want a relaxing trip around Antarctica to enjoy its landscape, small-ship cruises are similar to more traditional tourist trips. While comparable to traveling on an expedition ship, small-ship voyages are not as educational in nature, though guides and naturalists are present. Zodiacs, however, are not available; kayaks and tenders are offered instead for recreational activities. These vessels also stick to less-remote regions and shallow waters, such as the Inside Passages and Sea of Cortez.
Most ships depart from South America, particularly Ushuaia, Argentina. However, ships also depart for Antarctica from Hobart, Australia, and Christchurch or Auckland, New Zealand. The number of passengers per boat can vary from as few as six to as many as 3,100. The principal destination is the Antarctic Peninsula region, which includes the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. An expedition can last from 10 days to three weeks. Trips of shorter or longer duration are available, but are less common. Some voyages venture beyond the Peninsula region into the Weddell and Ross Seas and to Indian Ocean islands. While only a few expeditions operate in these regions annually, the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov has been traveling to these remote areas for many years, giving passengers access to emperor penguin colonies, the Dry Valleys, historical huts, and many other extremely secluded places.
Shore visits occur one to three times per day, each lasting for several hours. Generally, one excursion operator from a staff typically comprised of ornithologists, marine biologists, geologists, naturalists, historians, general biologists, and glaciologists will accompany each group of 10 to 20 passengers that takes shore leave. For many of the travel options described above, educational activities are a crucial component, making an Antarctic excursion not only fun, but a valuable learning experience as well. Each voyage offers a wide variety of sights—active research stations, wildlife, historic sites, as well as breathtaking wilderness.
Expeditions are usually, if not always, offered in the austral summer season, November to March, traveling through ice-free shoreline sectors. It is too risky to journey by sea to Antarctica in the winter. Excess sea-ice is the principal reason, but fearsome winds and frostbite-inducing cold are also prohibitive. CoolAntarctica has devised a list (below) of what you can expect to see and expect during the summer months.
November and Early December (Late Spring/Early Summer):
- Winter pack ice is starting to melt and break up. The scenery is white, clean and pristine with pack ice and giant icebergs.
- Courting season for penguins and seabirds provides the ability to witness spectacular courtship rituals.
- Seals visible on fast ice, which is sea ice immediately after it freezes.
- Elephant and fur seals establish their breeding territory.
Mid-December and January (Mid Summer) :
- Normally, Antarctica's warmest months.
- Longer days create great light conditions and fabulous photo opportunities at midnight.
- Antarctic chicks hatch.
- South Georgia and the Falklands' first penguin chicks emerge, and fur seals are breeding.
- Seal pups visible on South Georgia and the Falklands.
- Receding ice allows for more exploration.
February and March (Late Summer) :
- Whale sightings are at their best.
- Penguin chicks start to fledge.
- Receding pack ice allows ships to explore further south.
- More fur seals on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Touring Antarctica is amazing, but costly. Depending on the company and type of ship you choose to take, expenses can range from $4,000 to over $11,000 (not including airfare to the ports). However, the cost of tourism extends beyond the monetary value. Touring the continent is taxing on its environment. When visiting, please be aware of the impact visiting can impose: pollution due to sewage and oil spills, disturbing landing sites, procuring biological and historic objects of considerable importance, disturbing wildlife (particularly during breeding season), carrying diseases, and littering. The unspoiled, exotic scenery is what captivates people and what motivates them to journey to such a foreign and foreboding locale. The pristine and exotic setting that is Antarctica's landscape makes it incomparable to any other place on Earth.