Antarctica


 

Antarctica is our early-warning system. The coldest, driest, windiest place on the planet is where we can most tangibly track and understand how global climate is changing. The Antarctic Peninsula, a curving chain of mountains that extend south of the Andes, is just about the fastest-warming place on Earth, seeing temperature rises of up to 3C over the last fifty-odd years.

But that’s all just words, until you’re there. Your first time travelling in a desert, standing on a mountain-top, experiencing the power of the sea – Antarctica is all of that, redoubled. There’s somewhere in the world that is, still, utterly pristine: Antarctica is wilderness, elemental and stunningly beautiful.

I’ll spare you any more purple prose. I was lucky enough to visit Antarctica in December 2013. It changes your life, like I guess being an astronaut would.

But visiting is much easier than outer space. Here are some things to think about.

THE BASICS

Almost all Antarctic tourism starts from port towns at the southernmost tip of South America – most commonly Ushuaia in Argentina, which has regular flights to/from Buenos Aires.

Antarctica has no roads, no towns, no villages, no airports, no infrastructure, no indigenous people – nothing. It has a lot of penguins and a lot of ice.

That means it’s impossible to visit independently: you can’t get there by yourself, and even if you could, there’s nowhere to stay and no means of moving around.

And anyway, for nine months of the year, temperatures are too low and conditions too harsh to even get there. Antarctica is only accessible during the southern hemisphere summer – roughly December to early March.

At that time, this far south, there is almost 24 hours of daylight: sunsets last for hours, until midnight or later, with sunrise following soon afterwards.

HOW TO GET THERE

The easiest way is by ship: small expedition vessels take about two days to cross the Drake Passage, a notoriously choppy stretch of ocean south of Ushuaia. Then the usual method is to cruise the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula for about a week, stopping in at glaciated bays and icy islands along the way, perhaps visiting one of the scientific research stations on the coast, generally buzzing around in rigid inflatables known as Zodiacs while going back to the ship to eat and sleep on board. Then there’s the two-day voyage back north across the Drake Passage to end the trip back in Ushuaia.

Some companies offer the alternative of flying in a light aircraft from the southern Chilean town of Punta Arenas to a Chilean base in the South Shetlands, to join a cruise there. This saves time (and potential seasickness) by overflying the Drake Passage, but it’s more expensive – and why hurry? Stick to the ocean voyage.

Tourism to Antarctica is strictly regulated, with all ships required to use a special light marine diesel that will evaporate in case of spills, plus laws about dumping of waste, recycling, respect for wildlife, and more.

Huge ocean-going liners (carrying more than 500 passengers) cruise Antarctic waters, but they are prohibited from landing anyone ashore: you can only watch from the rail. Not much fun.

Midsize ships (200-500 passengers) can take people ashore – but a key Antarctic regulation decrees that a maximum of 100 people are allowed to be onshore at a specific landing site at any one time, so on these vessels you might either miss out on some landings or be forced to hang around for hours waiting your turn.

Your best bet is to choose a smaller ship (under 200 passengers): by shuttling passengers onshore in groups, these allow everyone to experience every landing site – and they usually offer two landings a day, maximising your time on the ice.

HOW TO CHOOSE

IAATO, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators – to which every reputable operator signs up – has a handy listing of members here. It names 19 cruise companies that operate smaller ships.

Shop around: some offer luxury onboard, others have simpler facilities but better activities – perhaps the option to go kayaking or snorkelling beside icebergs, for instance, or to spend a night under canvas onshore.

Check, too, about perks: many operators loan (or give) every passenger a parka, and some also offer loans of insulated snow-boots – both pretty essential items.

HOW MUCH

For a typical 12-day itinerary out of Ushuaia, reckon on a minimum of around US$5,500-6,000 per person. That buys you a berth in a shared cabin on a lower deck, with bathroom down the hall, including all meals and shore excursions.

However, if you’re prepared to hole up in Ushuaia for a while in the season, and ask around at the numerous travel agencies, you could get lucky and pick up a last-minute fare knocking US$1,000-1,500 off that.

Almost all itineraries stick to the South Shetlands and the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. For a slightly longer voyage, that might include a glimpse of the ice-bound Weddell Sea on the east side of the Peninsula, prices start nearer US$8,000-10,000pp.

Some cruises stop in at the Falkland Islands and/or South Georgia, both amazingly rich in wildlife. Add another US$2,000-3,000 for these.

Either way, don’t forget to add in the cost of getting to Ushuaia – and also the expense of ski pants, mitts, neck garters, merino base layers and other cold-weather gear, if you don’t already have it.

There’s no mobile phone reception in Antarctica itself (though a couple of research stations have their own mast), but most ships generate their own 3G signal via satellite, even in open ocean. Obviously, beware high rates for roaming. Many ships also create hotspots for onboard wifi, which is chargeable (I paid US$85 for a 250-minute package) but usually pretty reliable, if slower than you might be used to.

 

 

Chris Stanley, a Canadian filmmaker, who was on the same trip as me in December 2013, made and edited a short video (7min) – definitely worth a look (click on the image above)

THE LAST WORD

It’s worth it.

Whatever you spend, however long you have to save to make it work, visiting Antarctica is worth it.

 



 

You can get Ushuaia as a stopover on the Discoverer round the world which is almost £1000 cheaper than airline round the world tickets