The bottom of the world. The land of ice. The last continent. These are just a few of the descriptions for Antarctica. The remote continent is seen as one of the last untouched places on earth. No settlements exist, beyond some scattered research stations, and visitors are strictly controlled under international treaties.
The vast landscape is home to penguins and not much else. The harsh conditions discourage many animals from staking a claim. The waters surrounding the giant block of ice are full of life, from plankton and the way up to the mighty whales. There are likely still many species undiscovered my humans as well, as the waters are difficult to explore.
For many people who have visiting Antarctica on their bucket list, it is way down at the bottom. Usually this is due to distance, expense, or a combination thereof. But there are a few reasons why you should re-examine and move it higher on your priorities.
It’s getting more popular
Tourism in Antarctica has been steadily increasing. In the 2016/17 season over 45,000 people visited the continent, up from just under 38,000 in 2009/10, and only 28,000 in 2004/05. Like many other destinations, it’s also becoming more and more prevalent on social media. Where once it was a dream destination that many people hoped to visit during their retirement, that’s no longer the case. While there were quite a few of retirees on our boat, I was surprised at how many people fit in to the mid 20s to mid 40s age range. We even had a teenager on board.
If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that the ice shelf of Antarctica is melting… and fast! While it will take a while for any kind of significant “dent” to appear in the continent, ice flows and icebergs can impact how close ships can get. Our ship never dropped anchor except on top of a volcano (no icebergs there) because the captain wanted to be able to make a quick getaway if he had to. I’m not an expert, but I think this means it might become more dangerous to visit in the future and certain areas may become closed off to tourism all together. The melt is also likely to impact the wildlife patterns, perhaps making it harder to seek out all of the species in Antarctica Bingo.
There are penguins
Really? Do I need to explain this one? You are practically guaranteed to see these cuties on your trip. If you’re paying attention during the penguin lecture (yes, I’m pretty sure whatever boat you take will have one), you’ll learn that there are actually 5 different species of penguins living in Antarctica. An you will become an expert at identifying which ones you see… and will probably annoy your friends when you come back and start a 20 minutes story involving how you saw a lonely Adele penguin sitting next to a Chinstrap penguin colony and they were just hanging out being buddies, but then just the next island over there was a Gentoo penguin colony, but you didn’t see any Emperor penguins because they only live further south… (catch my drift?)
You can kayak or SUP
Most of the cruises down to Antarctica will at least offer the option to Kayak, while a few operators will also offer the option to SUP. If you even have the slightest inkling that you want to do either, definitely do it. Kayaking programs tend to have more outings, and are therefore more expensive, while the SUP option we had was just at one landing site. There is nothing quite like paddling in the calm waters while penguins zip back and forth underneath the surface. Plus, you get a chance to experience the quiet of Antarctica, since the engine is pretty much always running; the boat makes a surprising amount of noise. Typically, the paddling sports try to get further away from the ship and the constant humming, leaving just you and the ice bobbing in the ocean.
You can do a true Polar Plunge
I’m sure you’ve heard of your local Polar Bear Swim or Polar Plunge around New Years. Sure, the water is cold, and sometimes there is even snow on the ground, but usually they take place nowhere near either of the poles. On your cruise, you will have the option to participate in the true Polar Plunge in Antarctica (weather permitting). There is such a feeling of excitement on the boat as everyone trudges down to the loading platforms for one last disembarkation… into the water! There’s lots of high fives and congratulations as you pass people coming back up the stairs and you wait your turn. Don’t worry, they attach a belt to your waist so they can pull you back in if you go in to shock. And it’s definitely a shock…but imagine the bragging rights!
I know that’s not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of cruising to the Antarctic. However, there is lots of downtime while you cross the Drake Passage, and they will be filled with a variety of lectures. Our voyage had topics on everything from the Antarctic Treaty, to Whales, to How to See Over 6,000 Birds in One Year (okay that wasn’t actually the name of the talk, but that’s basically what it was.) We were even lucky enough to have the guys from Penguin Watch on our ship, and they gave a talk about their work helping to count the penguin population. You can help them out too, without ever setting foot in the antarctic. just head to www.penguinwatch.org for more details.
Pictures cannot do it justice
Seriously. There are a few places on earth where the pictures just cannot compare to the experience of being there yourself; Antarctica is one of them. I remember coming up on deck our first morning after we arrived. We were in a small cove with calm waters, towering ice-covered peaks, frolicking penguins, and a few friendly humpback whales. I cried it was so unbelievably beautiful. Even when the weather is not spectacular, there is still some otherworldly quality to it that cannot be captured with a camera.
One of my biggest take aways from my trip was a new appreciation for the planet. When you see a landscape that is so pristine and untouched by humans, you realize that there is so much more we can do to ensure that we keep this planet beautiful for generations to come. We all get so caught up in our day to day lives that this is a welcome reminder.
So did I convince you? Hopefully I did, and here are a few tips to keep in mind if you decide to head south of 60 degrees (the generally accepted limits of Antarctica… see, learning):
Do not skimp on the price. Antarctica is expensive and with good reason. If your cruise costs under $5000 USD, be sure to check that you’re actually going to Antarctica and it’s with a reputable company. Lots of the big cruise companies will bill the trip as heading to Antarctica, while only making one stop on the furthest island considered to be Antarctic territory.
Pack for all kinds of weather. While it will be cold, even in the summer, you will have lots of time inside on the ship, and there might even be a day where you’ll want to wear a t-shirt. Layers are key.
Waterproof means waterproof. You’ll be spending lots of time on the zodiacs and likely sitting in the snow. I brought a pair of gortex pants, but if you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, I heard from many people who had these and they worked great.
Stock up on seasickness medication. Even if you’re not prone to getting seasick, visit your doctor and get some meds, wristbands, or the patch. While they might have something on board, you don’t want to risk it. I tried the on-board medication briefly and I think it actually made it worse! So I stopped and I was mostly okay the rest of the trip.
Don’t be afraid to go solo. While I happened to be going with a small group, we met many people onboard who were solo. You get to know your shipmates pretty well and make fast friends.