1. People go to Antarctica, like, on vacation?
Yes. In fact, Antarctic tourism is booming. Last year over 34,000 tourists visited the continent, as estimated by IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators.
2. Is there anything there besides snow?
Well, there is a lot of snow there. Ninety-eight percent of the continent is covered in ice and snow that’s, on average, more than a mile thick.
There’s actually a lot to see there, geography-wise. The Antarctic Peninsula — where the majority of tourists go — is a continuation of the Andes Mountains, meaning it’s quite mountainous. Peaks often rise out of the ocean, interspersed by enormous glaciers. It’s one of the most pristine places on Earth, in no small part because it’s mostly untouched by humans.
3. How do you get there?
On a boat! While big, traditional cruise ships do go to Antarctica, they aren’t able to bring passengers to shore. For this reason, expedition-sized boats that carry more than 13 but fewer than 500 passengers are popular.
4. Where do boats leave from?
Most cruises leave from the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina (above), which is located at the very tip of South America on Tierra del Fuego. Others depart from Punta Arenas, Chile, and Montevideo, Uruguay. These usually head across Drake’s Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. A small number of cruises also leave from Hobart, Australia, or Lyttleton or Bluff, New Zealand, and head toward the Ross Sea side of the continent. A very small number also leave from South Africa.
5. How long do cruises last?
It depends on the operator and the package, but generally speaking the shortest trips — from South America to Antarctica and back — last about 10–12 days. Some trips last up to three weeks, and those will generally go further south, or include excursions to the Falklands/Islas Malvinas and/or South Georgia Islands.
6. Isn’t it really expensive?
It’s not cheap, to be sure. It’s sort of in that once-in-a-lifetime travel category for most who do it, and price ranges a great deal depending on your carrier, package, length of trip, level of desired luxury or outdoor activity, and so on. That said, there are ways to buy last-minute spots on boats for a moderate discount; this guide breaks it down. (This is a novelty dollar, by the way.)
7. What time of year should you go?
Tourism season in Antarctica is during the austral summer from about November through March or April. During the summer’s height, the sun won’t really set, but things will get dusky through the wee hours of the morning, as in the shot above.
8. Is it dangerous?
While of course no travel, especially travel by boat to somewhere remote, is entirely without risk, Antarctic travel is not especially dangerous. If you go from South America, the most dangerous part is the open ocean between the Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula known as Drake’s Passage. While it has a reputation for being the most tumultuous ocean on earth, some voyages cross what’s fondly called “Drake’s Lake.” It takes about a day to cross each way in a medium-sized vessel.
9. What should you pack?
Your tour company will likely tell you exactly what you need. On our cruise, we had to wear at least two layers plus an outer wet layer — rubber boots as well as waterproof pants and jackets — and then sunglasses, gloves, hats. While in summertime temperatures generally hover around freezing, bad weather and/or the wet conditions in a Zodiac can make things feel colder. You’ll also want a camera, of course, sunglasses, and sunscreen, because of the high UV levels that far south. IAATO, of which our tour operator was a member, also has some tight biosecurity rules. We had to vacuum our outer layers, including our camera cases, and step through a disinfectant every time we exited or boarded the ship. (Because Antarctica is so isolated and relatively untampered with by humanity, its flora and fauna are very susceptible to invasive species.)
10. Is Antarctica a country? Who owns it?
There’s no simple answer. The Antarctic Treaty, signed by 12 countries in 1959 (now 49), suspended all territory claims on the continent. It also did other things like make the continent politically neutral, establish freedom of scientific investigation and environmental protection, and make the entire land mass — the fifth largest continent in the world — a bio preserve. That said, there are many territory claims that predate the treaty, many of which overlap each other. The short answer is that for now nobody’s fighting a war over Antarctica. Were something like oil to be discovered there, chances are this delicate balance would be upset.
11. Does anyone live in Antarctica?
About 1,000 to 5,000 scientists and others live there on a temporary basis at research stations controlled by numerous countries, most of which are located on the continent’s shores or islands. Some tours prearrange to visit various bases. The U.S.-controlled McMurdo Station, located on Ross Island, hosts an Ice Stock festival (above) each New Year’s Eve.
12. Where do the cruise ships land?
They don’t, really, because there aren’t docks big enough. Cruise ships with fewer than 500 passengers, though, will usually load passengers into rubber, motorized Zodiacs and zip them to shore, or take them cruising around.
13. So you can’t actually sleep on the continent?
You can. Our company, for example, let us “camp” for one night, for a price. Others have semi-permanent camps they access.
14. Did you see penguins?
So, so many. Penguins are very cute, but after a while they start seeming sort of stinky and loud. Some trips do go down further south specifically to see iconic Emperor penguins, though such tours are typically longer and more expensive.
Among the species that live along the peninsula are Adélies…
Penguin pairs often mirror each other, like the above chinstraps are, in order to sort of affirm their bond.
Baby penguins will be hatching in mid- to late December on the Antarctic peninsula so it’s fun to go in early January.
15. Are penguins afraid of people?
Not really. Because penguins don’t have any natural land predators, they’re totally indifferent to people. Either that or they’re mildly curious.
In the water, though, penguins are both predators and prey. They’re also way more elegant and a heck of a lot faster.
16. Did you see whales?
Many. The Southern Ocean around Antarctica is the largest marine mammal feeding ground on earth. The combination of oxygen-rich waters and near round-the-clock sunlight during the summer means it’s home to a big algae bloom and therefore attractive to everything up the food chain. Baleen whales like humpbacks and minkes are a very common sight, as are dolphins, such as orcas.
17. Did you see seals?
Many. Seals will hunt for hours on end and then come onto land to sleep, so most of the seals we saw at least were very sleepy.
18. Did you see the southern lights?
No. The southern lights are primarily visible during the non-tourist season, from March to September, and mostly at the South Pole (where the above was taken). It’s also not dark enough in summer to see them.
19. What sorts of things did you do?
Other than walk on Antarctica and Zodiac around, many companies offer additional adventure packages that may allow visitors to kayak, cross-country ski, mountaineer, scuba dive, and so on. This is in addition to all the amenities aboard the cruise ship itself, which in our case included lectures from experts about the history and science of Antarctica.
20. What else did you see?
Glaciers, icebergs, avalanches…and basically nothing man-made, which was a sight unto itself.
21. Was it worth it?
Yes. After having been there, it wasn’t hard to see why so many people go back again and again. Antarctica was one of, if not the, most memorable places I’ve ever been and anticipate I’ll go in my life. If you ever have the opportunity to go, don’t miss it.