My ultimate dream, an explorer trip to Antarctica.
About Antarctica, from Wikipedia:
Antarctica (pronounced /ænˈtɑrktɪkə/ ( listen)) is Earth’s southernmost continent, underlying the South Pole. It is situated in the Antarctic region of the southern hemisphere, almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle, and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. At 14.0 million km2 (5.4 million sq mi), it is the fifth-largest continent in area after Asia, Africa, North America, and South America. About 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice, which averages at least 1.6 kilometres (1.0 mi) in thickness.
Antarctica, on average, is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation of all the continents. Antarctica is considered a desert, with annual precipitation of only 200 mm (8 inches) along the coast and far less inland. There are no permanent human residents but anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 people reside throughout the year at the research stations scattered across the continent. Only cold-adapted plants and animals survive there, including penguins, seals, nematodes, Tardigrades, mites, many types of algae and other microorganisms, and tundra vegetation.
Although myths and speculation about a Terra Australis (“Southern Land”) date back to antiquity, the first confirmed sighting of the continent is commonly accepted to have occurred in 1820 by the Russian expedition of Mikhail Lazarev and Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. The continent, however, remained largely neglected for the rest of the 19th century because of its hostile environment, lack of resources, and isolation. The first formal use of the name “Antarctica” as a continental name in the 1890s is attributed to the Scottish cartographer John George Bartholomew. The name Antarctica is the romanized version of the Greek compound word ανταρκτική (antarktiké), feminine of ανταρκτικός (antarktikos), meaning “opposite to the north”.
The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 by twelve countries; to date, forty-six countries have signed the treaty. The treaty prohibits military activities and mineral mining, supports scientific research, and protects the continent’s ecozone. Ongoing experiments are conducted by more than 4,000 scientists of many nationalities and with various research interests.
Will write occasionally about it, thinking often about it :-).
How to get there?
Aircraft and pilots need to be capable of landing on ice, snow, or gravel runways, as there are no paved runways. Landings are generally restricted to the daylight season (Summer months from October to March). Winter landings have been performed at Williams Field but low temperatures mean that aircraft cannot stay on the ice longer than an hour or so as their skis may freeze to the ice runway. Travel is normally by military aircraft, as part of the cargo. Passengers should anticipate carrying all their own luggage and may need to assist with freight as well.
Major landing fields include:
- Williams Field - Serves McMurdo Station and Scott Base.
- Pegasus Blue-Ice Runway - Serves McMurdo Station and Scott Base.
- Annual Sea-Ice Runway - Serves McMurdo Station and Scott Base.
Commercial overflights to Antarctica are limited - a handful of operators offer flights from Sydney, Melbourne, and Punta Arenas. These flights typically visit Antarctica and spend several hours flying over the ice. Passengers in most seating classes rotate their position in the row halfway into the flight, to give everyone a window or one-over-from-window seat for half of the time. Rates range from $5199 for first class, to $1399 for partially-obstructed-view economy class, or $899 for non-rotating center-section seats with window access depending on the courtesy of better-seated travelers. Keep in mind that these flights involve substantial risk: a successful search-and-rescue mission would be all but impossible in the event of a crash, which is what happened to one Air New Zealand flight in 1979. Due to a combination of low flying altitude and a navigational error, they hit Mount Erebus on Ross Island and all 257 people aboard were killed.
By cruise ship
Boat is the most common method of visiting the Antarctic. In the Antarctic summer, several companies offer excursions on ice strengthened vessels to Antarctica. Ice strengthened (not quite as tough as icebreakers) boats are preferred since icebreakers are round on the bottom — a configuration that amplifies the already massive wave action in the Drake passage. The ships typically offer a couple of excursions to the continent (usually the Antarctic peninsula) or Antarctic islands (e.g., Deception Island, Aitcho Island) each day over the course of a week. The views are phenomenal, the penguins are friendly (well, some of them are), and the experience is one that is unparalleled!
When traveling by boat, be aware that smaller ships (typically carrying 50-100 passengers) can go where the big ships can’t, getting you up closer to Antarctica’s nature and wildlife. Larger vessels (carrying as many as 1200 people) are less prone to rough seas but have more limited landing options. Many vessels include naturalist guided hikes, zodiac excursions and sea kayaking right from the ship, perfect for active, casual travelers.
You’ll need warm clothing: boots, hoods, glove, water repellent pants, parka and warm underwear. Most of these items can be bought or hired in Ushuaia, but sometimes - in the high season - it is not always easy to get the right sizes. So bring whatever you can from your own stock.
It must also be remembered that cruise operators typically only allow 100 people on land at any one time in order to comply with IAATO agreements. Consequently if you are in a boat with more than 200 people the chances are you will only spend a couple of hours at most per day off ship. Generally the smaller ships will try to ensure 2 different locations per day around Antarctica, although this is of course dependent on the weather and you may expect a 60% success rate on landing people for any given visit.
About a dozen charter sailboats, many of them members of IAATO, offer three to six week voyages to the Antarctic Peninsula from South America. Most offer “expedition style” trips where guests are invited to help out, although usually no prior sailing experience is required. Yachts take individuals on a “by the bunk” basis and also support private expeditions such as scientific research, mountaineering, kayaking, and film-making. Compared to the more popular cruise ships, a small yacht can be more work and significantly less comfortable, but typically allows more freedom and flexibility. For the right people this can be a far more rewarding experience.
Antarctica is an extreme environment, and accidents are unavoidable. Every year numerous people are injured or even killed visiting the Antarctic, and while this should not dissuade people from visiting, it should encourage visitors to exercise caution and make a realistic evaluation of their own abilities when choosing a trip.
As most visitors to Antarctica will arrive by boat, the greatest dangers occur due to storms at sea. The weather in the Southern Ocean is nature at its most extreme, with the potential for hurricane force winds and waves as high as 60-70 feet (18-23 meters). With modern safety and ship design the odds of sinking are low, but the odds of being thrown about by a wave are high. When on a boat in rough weather always make sure that you have at least one secure handhold, and avoid opening doors during storms as a sudden shift in the waves can easily bring a heavy door crashing back onto a body part. In severe weather stay in your cabin and wait for the storm to subside. Similarly, be extremely cautious when returning to ship via a zodiac and follow crew instructions - a landing platform in rough weather can be deadly should you slip and fall.
Weather on the continent is equally extreme, although most visitors pack appropriate gear. For expeditions there are limited search-and-rescue options, so expeditions must plan for all contingencies. There is no formal government or legal system in Antarctica, but the laws of the country of origin or departure as well as those of a claimant government may apply. Rules regarding protection of the environment and of historical sites will be strictly enforced, and fines can be extreme.
Also note that when visiting Antarctica that a hospital is usually days away. Most ships and research stations have a doctor, but facilities are limited. In cases where evacuation is required (if even possible), costs can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Those with pre-existing conditions should strongly consider the risks of venturing into a land where medical help may not be available prior to embarking on an Antarctic journey.
Antarctica has an extreme environment. The cold is a major health hazard. Visitors should be properly prepared and equipped for any visit. Waterproof and windproof gloves, coat, pants, and boots are an absolute necessity. Other necessities that are often overlooked include sunscreen and sunglasses - summertime visitors will be exposed to the sun’s rays from above and from reflections off of snow, ice, and water. Additionally, for those arriving by boat seasickness medicine is strongly encouraged - even the most seaworthy individual will feel queasy in a severe storm; check with your doctor before visiting to determine what medicine is appropriate.
Antarctica has a very fragile environment. Pollution should be avoided if at all possible. Expeditions should anticipate the need to remove all waste from the continent when they leave. Waste disposal and sewage facilities on the continent are severely limited and restricted to permanent installations. Of particular concern to tourists is the danger of introducing foreign organisms into the fragile Antarctic environment. Many tour operators will require visitors to do a boot wash after every landing to avoid carrying seeds or other items from one location to another. In addition, visitors should examine all clothing prior to embarking to avoid bringing any plant or animal material to the Antarctic; invasive species have devastated many regions of the planet, so it is particularly important to protect Antarctica from this danger.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is a voluntary organization of tour operators which promotes safe and environmentally responsible tourism in Antarctica. It publishes standards for member tour operators on responsible practices for private visitors to Antarctica.