Visit the 7th continent Antarctica to call yourself a truly world traveller!
It might be hard to believe, but Antarctica has now for a while been available for other visitors than explorers and researchers. During the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration just in the beginning of 20th century many explores did not survive during their expeditions. Nowadays it is not only possible to make your own expedition to Antarctica, but to do it relatively comfortable and safe.
There are a few ways to get to Antarctica.
The one I chose was to buy a tour from a known safe operator that arranges a cruise. In 2013 the cheapest tour that I found cost me 3500 EUR for 9 days with a bunkbed in a cabin for 4 on the lowest deck. The tour included 3 meals a day and snacks in between, 2 landings a day during the 5 days on the continent, and a lot of very interesting lectures connected to the exploration, history and biodiversity of South Pole, in between . The price of a tour with the same company now, but for 11 days (it seems that the 9 days one is not available any longer) costs 6200 USD and for the longer one of 21 days 12 000 USD in 2016. My journey began in the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, which is located in Argentina, accessible by air from Santiago de Chile or Buenos Aires. However you could check whether there are options to travel also from Australia.
If we stick to Argentina as a starting point, the second option is to fly to Ushuaia and look for a local cruise ship that is about to leave for the destination and offers last minute deals. In 2013 it was possible to find a tour for 1500 USD, I was told, but it did not guarantee you comfort nor safety, but still it was available for those on the budget who did not mind to take risks.
The third option that I found out about recently, through someone I met on my travels, is to gather a group of people (friends), who are interested in going to Antarctica and rent a yacht.
Finally, if you are wealthy, you can fly there.
The shorter cruise will be obviously cheaper, but will only take you to closer locations inhabited by mostly smaller species of penguins like Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo. The Emperor, King and Macaroni penguins live further away and it will cost you more to see them. The traveling is possible during the summer months from December to February. Your choice of time depends on what you want to see, mating of penguins, eggs incubation period or the chicks. My trip took place in February and it was the time to observe the baby penguins and the parenting. The lowest temperature that we got on our cruise was – 10 degrees Celsius, but mostly it was pretty comfortable -1.
The first challenge after embarking on the boat was to survive the Drake Passage crossing from South American continent to Antarctica. Due to roughness of the passage where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet a lot of people experience very strong vomiting due to the sea sickness and are not able to neither walk nor eat for 2 days on the way to the continent and 2 days on the way back. It is therefore crucial to use seasickness preventive medicine.
The first impression that I had landing for the first time on the “white continent”, that it was not at all as flat, as empty and as white as I imagined it to be. In fact Antarctica has different types of landscapes. There are about 35 volcanos on Antarctica, two of which are currently active, Mt. Erebus and Deception Island. I was especially surprised, that the land was quite colourful: green, brown, a bit of orange, black and obviously white. It was bursting with wildlife: various species of penguins, whales, as well as sea lions and elephant seals, many species of birds and plenty of fish. One lesson that I learned there was that one has to respect the nature the way it is. Being in Antarctica you will see unpleasant scenes when for example “bad” albatrosses chase and kill small cute penguin chicks and even though it might look cruel it is should accepted and respected as a circle of life.
Do not be afraid of being cold, as in addition to the warm close that you bring with you, there are special warm overalls that are provided on the cruise for each expeditioner. They are very useful during the landings and for the time you spend on the open decks for observing icebergs, jumping dolphins, swimming penguins (looking from further away it is hard to differentiate them from one another while they are jumping in the water in a distance), lots of birds etc.
The cruise is a combination of amazing activities. The lectures from the best experts in the exploration history, penguinology and many other related subjects are very educative, visual and memorable. Besides landings on various land spots and islands, there are at least couple of visits to Research Bases: one to the Gonzales Videla Antartic base that belongs to Chile and the other is to the British Base of Port Lockroy. Both of them have a small exploration’s museum, a souvenir shops and post office, from where you can send a postcard from Antarctica to your loved ones. It is very funny to see how people share the space with penguins that are everywhere. There might be several inflated boats’ tours that will take you around the icebergs or to take a closer look at the whales or sea lions. A festive lunch on the open air on one of the decks overlooking the deep blue-white icebergs is a special treat and definitely one of the most unique experiences you have ever had. The evenings are full of joy: tasty food, wines and deserts, good company of like-minded people and fun activities like singing or dancing together for those who still have energy after a long day. There was a library and a gym as well as an equipped lecture room, a nice dining hall and a possibility to visit the Capitan in his cabin.
One option that I did not know about was kayaking. One had to reserve and pay for it in advance separately from the cost of the cruise. It was not possible to join the kayakers on the spot as there was specific quantity of kayaks and the gear reserved.
That was my only regret on this tour of not being able to experience kayaking in Antarctica.
Other astonishing experiences were:
A night in a sleeping bag in a tent on land in the snow; and
An Antarctic Splash in the ocean on the Deception Island where the volcanic activity warms up the upper water level at the entrance from the beach (those who had guts to do it got a special certificate).
The Deception Island was full of history, we had a chance to visit abandoned houses and broken boats, it looked like a ghost town, spooky and exciting at the same time.
During our cruise there was also a wedding ceremony held by the captain. It happened on a beautiful morning on an upper deck of the boat when the light was absolutely beautiful. The bride was wearing a white dress, a white fur coat and yellow rubber boots. I guess it was the most original wedding wear I have ever encountered.
There were 160 of us on the boat and most of the people were of respected older age, but there were some middle age people like myself and a few young ones. Everyone was quite well-travelled. Most of the people came to Antarctica because they had already been everywhere else, so there were a lot of travel talks and sharing of experiences which was very inspiring and motivational for new travel ideas. Some of us developed stronger connections and are still in touch 3 years later.
The stuff of the cruise is most likely to be international. We had a fantastic experienced expedition leader from California, the Russian crew, lecturers and guides from all over the world and amazing locals (from South America) taking care of the kitchen and other services on the ship. The energy was great and it was hard to say good byes in the end of the journey.
Be aware of a bad weather conditions’ risk. For some unlucky expeditions the strong winds, waves and rains did not allow to accomplish part or full outdoor programme. It is not a fault of the cruise team and nobody to blame, it is just to accept the risk of not getting what you have paid for.
Prepare to be overwhelmed from how bad the cute penguins smell. However their cuteness will outweigh the smell and you will enjoy each and every of your landings.
Make sure to not fall into the water because the temperatures are so low, that there is a high risk of death from hypothermia.