Traveling to Antarctica is one of the most exhilarating trips you will ever take. Although it is expensive, it is truly spectacular and it's something that you and your traveling companions will never forget. In this article, you'll get an overview on what to think about when planning a trip to Antarctica, along with some steers in the right direction to continue your research.
1 : Choose the right time to visit
Antarctica's tour season covers about five months, mostly over the Southern Hemisphere summer (November to March). All other times of the year are extremely cold, dark, and the pack ice freezes out a long way. Be aware that while there will be less people around later in the season, much of the wildlife will already have left for the sea. During these months, some of the things you can expect include:
- During November, the pack ice starts to break up and it's mating season for the penguins and other birds.
- During December and January, the penguin chicks hatch and are fed and nurtured in the breeding grounds.
- During February and March, the penguin chicks fledge, the adult penguins molt, and the whales are easy to spot.
2 : Expect a large hole in your budget
This is one travel destination where budget travel is not much of an option unless you're hired to work hard. At a minimum, you will probably be facing at least US$5,000 and that is for the bare necessities and not necessarily the best seating or opportunities.
- If you can't travel with someone to reduce the costs through shared accommodation, expect to pay a premium for a single berth on a boat or ship.
- Airline ticket prices vary depending on the good to bad visibility from your seat, as well as the usual economy and business class distinctions.
- If you don't want to visit as a tourist, think of other options, such as joining a government expedition to Antarctica. For this, you'll likely need suitable technical, scientific, medical, or other relevant skills like cooking for a large group, as well as having a suitable background for government employment. Another possibility is to travel as an invited part of a crew. Some people get asked to come along as journalists, photographers, artists, etc., and their trip is covered by whoever invited or sent them along. Again, this will depend on your skills.
3 : Decide how you'd like to travel to Antarctica
Most visitors to Antarctica travel by ship, with a few intrepid travelers taking yachts across. Each option has its benefits and drawbacks but none of them will save you many pennies, so it really comes down to preferences on comfort, shore visits, and other amenities offered by the tour organizations in question. Most voyages to the Antarctic Peninsular region leave from Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands and a few leave from Punta Arenas in Chile, Buenos Aires in Argentina, or Puerto Madryn in Argentina. There are also voyages on ice breakers and sometimes using helicopters for tourists that visit the Weddell Sea, Ross Sea region and East Antarctica on occasion, to see Emperor penguin colonies, historic huts, the Dry Valleys, etc. These voyages leave from places such as Bluff or Lyttleton in New Zealand, Hobart or Fremantle in Australia, or Cape Town or Port Elizabeth in South Africa. The best way to find ship options is to visit the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) at http://www.iaato.org and to look at its "membership directory".
- Traveling on a large ship will provide you with the highest level of comfort but you'll also need to spend time with the highest number of people. In high seas, these ships are the most comfortable but the strict guidelines on how many people can visit the shore will limit your opportunities for shore visits.
- Smaller ships allow for more time on shore. This is because tourist guidelines limit landings of tour groups to 100 people.
- It is possible to reach Antarctica by yacht but this is not commonplace, with only 200 yacht visits in the past 30 years. This is a private party affair and needs to be arranged direct with the relevant yacht owners. Don't expect a fond welcome from stations; they have so many visitors now that they require several months notice in advance of your intended arrival. Yachts tend to leave from Ushuaia or Stanley and are only for the very courageous and adventurous.
- It is possible to travel on French resupply vessels as a tourist, leaving from Reunion in and taking about 1 month. The limit is around 30 tourists and guides accompany the boat. There are choices of staying at the French base Port-aux-Francais and even hikes with overnight stays in refuges.
4 : Consider air travel
There are various companies that fly to Antarctica, from Punta Arenas in Chile; from Cape Town in South Africa, and from Qantas in Australia. Some flights are simply fly overs and you can see Antarctica from the air, while some are fly-cruise options. Other flights fly straight into Antarctica and you get to stay at the base or camp set up just for the tourism purposes. Be aware that flights are subject to cancellations due to weather and other safety issues. The best approach to assessing flight options is to read guidebooks written specifically for Antarctica, or check the Lonely Planet site, as the details change yearly depending on availability and interest, etc. As with the voyages, the one thing you can expect again is to pay a considerable amount!
5: If making shore expeditions, prepare well
Shore visits tend to be short in duration (around 3 hours or less) and will always be accompanied by a guide unless you've made a private expedition.
- Wear appropriate clothing, such as wicking-away layers next to your skin, warm tops, and winter-weight snow jackets. It is most likely that the tour company will provide you with an expedition coat for shore visits and deck warmth.
- Wear suitable snow walking boots. If you are issued with crampons, use them. Ask if you don't know how to use any equipment provided to you by the tour company, including asking to be shown individually if you didn't grasp a group demonstration.
6 : Understand the health and safety issues
The Antarctic environment is dangerous for human beings. The weather is extremely changeable and it is always cold, even in the summertime (highs in the summer along the coast generally range from 41-56oF). There are dangers such as crevasses on ice fields and glaciers and fire hazards are high in the very dry environment, so handling anything flammable must be done with care.
There are no vaccination requirements for Antarctica but you should be fit and in good health because medical treatment will be basic and spread thin among all your passengers. Any medical conditions that you do have should be detailed by your doctor in letter form, especially if you need to bring along medication.
7 : Respect the fragility of the Antarctic environment
The Antarctic environment is fragile and apart from expeditions, bases, and some tourists, there has been little human change. Wildlife remains unafraid of humans because of the lack of long-term negative interaction. It is important to respect the pristine nature of Antarctica and to ensure that tourism doesn't have a negative impact. There are Visitor Guidelines adopted under the Antarctic Treaty that regulate visitors' actions at Antarctica and it is worth reading them as part of your preparation for the visit. Some of the basics to keep in mind include:
- Don't go too near wildlife and don't do anything to disturb wildlife.
- Don't litter. Pack out all your trash.
- Don't deface anything - all human-built structures have historical value and many huts, etc., have heritage listings. Do not engrave anything into rocks or other land features.
- Take photos and nothing else. Leave all eggs, shells, plants, rocks, fossils, soil, etc., where they are.
8: Enjoy your trip of a lifetime
This is one of those trips that people who take it can never forget or stop talking about. If you love pristine beauty, amazing sights, incredible wildlife opportunities, and you don't mind a bit of cold, this might be the perfect trip that will create a lifetime memory.