Cruises to Antarctica
To say that Antarctica is a hostile and hard to reach location would be an understatement. But this does not seem to deter the growing numbers of visitors making their way to the world’s last terrestrial frontier for a once in a lifetime experience. Due to the plenty of potential hazards along the journey, virtually all tours are well-organized expeditions under the direction of experienced seafarers and polar travel experts.
There are a couple of important facts on Antarctica that every visitor needs to know before they do the trip. First, Antarctica is the only continent in the world with no indigenous population. The number of people on the mainland varies from less than 1,000 during the winter to more than 50,000 in the summer which is the tourism peak season. Other than tourism, the other significant economic activity is fishing.
The closest continental landmass to Antarctica is South America which is 1000 kilometres from the Antarctic Peninsula. There is no single government that holds territorial rights to the whole continent which means no visa is required. Instead, management is through a loosely organised 1959 framework bringing together 43 interested nations with 7 holding historical claims to some parts of the continent. The treaty neither recognizes nor rejects the claims but has placed a moratorium on the expansion of any claimed territory.
Expeditions to Antarctica are predominantly via small to medium sized ships carrying anywhere from 40 to more than 250 passengers. For safety, a single expedition may comprise close to 20 vessels travelling together. All ships are strengthened to withstand the impact of ice. Larger cruise ships carrying close to a 1000 passengers may make the journey but due to their size, the tour will often exclude on shore excursions. Antarctica cruises by yacht are rare due to the relatively fragile nature of such vessels and even when they do make the trip, cannot venture too far beyond the Antarctic Circle.
Passenger capacity is an important factor in one’s overall experience. And this has to do in part with certain rules set out by the IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) on conduct at Antarctica landing sites. For instance, the IAATO requires that there shall be no more than 100 passengers disembarking to a single landing site.
So for a ship carrying 500 persons, the time impracticality of fulfilling this rule may make it difficult for every passenger on such a ship to experience an on shore excursion. Conversely, travelling in a ship with 100 or less passengers means more opportunities for on shore exploration. Membership to the IAATO is voluntary but virtually every reputable expedition cruise operator is a member.
Port of departure
Majority of voyages depart from the Argentinean town of Ushuaia. Antarctica expeditions do depart from other ports in South America but this is rare. Alternatively, you can set off for Antarctica from Hobart (Australia), Perth (Australia), Auckland (New Zealand), Christchurch (New Zealand), Port Elizabeth (South Africa) or Cape Town (South Africa).
However, these have to cover a much longer distance to reach Antarctica’s mainland and are this considerably more expensive (at least $15,000 per person). Many Antarctica cruises departing from South America will include a tour of the Falkland and South Georgia Islands. Those from Australia and New Zealand will traverse the Ross Sea and the islands of Eastern Antarctica.
Cruises last anywhere from 8 to 31 days which is calculated as the time it takes for the vessel to return to its port of departure or (if different) destination port. The length of the expedition can however be slashed considerably if it includes an air cruise leg. A popular Antarctica flight departure point is Punta Arenas, Chile with the plane touching down two hours later on King George Island. From King George, tourists take a ship that will cruise along the Antarctica Peninsula, return to King George Island where passengers board the return flight to Chile.
There are benefits and drawbacks of taking a flight. The pros include avoiding the treacherous 48 hour long Drakes Passage crossing that has left several tourists sufficiently sea sick as to force a cancellation of the onward journey. It also saves on time. The disadvantage is that it takes aware somewhat the thrill that only an end-to-end cruise expedition can provide – like the gradual first sightings of icebergs, seals and penguins.
Factoring the changing seasons
Irrespective of where you approach the continent from, one certain thing is that the journey is not determined by calendars and clocks but by ice and weather patterns. Safety comes first meaning the itinerary may change several times a day and on shore landings may prove too dangerous.
To keep abrupt program changes at a minimum, Antarctic expeditions take place during the summer and are largely confined to the relatively ice-free zones. The summer runs from early November to late March with more than 20 hours of daylight per day at its peak. Outside of the summer months, a trip would be too risky with the real possibility of being trapped by sea ice all around which will not relent until the start of the next summer. In the winter, the ice extends as far as 1000 kilometres from the mainland, temperatures touch minus 90 degrees Celsius and there is near permanent darkness.
Within the summer itself, each month has its highlights. The start of November till early December is the mating season for seabirds. Fur and elephant seals mark out their breeding grounds and some can be seen atop the melting ice. As this period is also the end of spring, pack ice has started melting and the breakup creates gigantic icebergs. The landscape in South Georgia and Falkland Islands is enveloped by spring wildflowers.
Mid December to late January is Antarctica’s warmest period and the best time to visit. As the middle of the summer season, days are at their longest providing once-in-a-year prospects for breathtaking photography. Receded ice packs allow for more extensive on shore exploration. This is also the time penguin and bird chicks emerge on Antarctica itself as well as the Falklands and South Georgia.
Late summer (early February to late March) is the best time to see whales. The ice has receded far enough for expedition cruise fleets to sail closer to the magnetic South Pole.
How much does it cost?
The cost of an expedition cruise varies depending on several factors such as duration, on shore excursions, on board facilities and additional activities. You are however unlikely to pay less than $5000 even for the most basic cruise. High end cruises may cost well over $50,000.