No matter what part you visit, Antarctica is one of the most rewarding wilderness destinations in the world. Since the 1990s Antarctic tourism has exploded and the number of options are mind-boggling.
There are companies from all over the world offering everything from giant cruise ships to ice breakers to bespoke expedition vessels to modified cargo planes that land at the South Pole. Unfortunately the costs are high due to the distance and environment taming technology but I have never heard anyone say they regretted the experience.
So there is a lot of confusion about what option is best. I’m often asked 'Where should I go?' 'Who is the best operator?' 'How much do I need to spend to have a good experience?' 'Who controls Antarctic tourism and what are the rules?' This blog will answer some of these questions from my perspective as an expedition doctor and EYOS field guide.
Under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, the continent is set aside as a natural reserve for peace and science. The Antarctic Treaty permits tourism under a Protocol of Environmental Protection provided the activities do not have adverse impacts on the Antarctic environment or on its scientific or aesthetic values. To support this, private visitors to the Antarctic are required to protect Antarctic wildlife, keep Antarctica pristine, be safe, respect protected areas and respect scientific research.
Antarctic tourism can be land based (fly in, fly out) or more commonly sea based using cruise ships, expedition ships or yachts. The 2 main areas for sea based Antarctic tourism are the Antarctic Peninsula and the Ross Sea. Since Antarctica is dark and cold and surrounded by pack ice (frozen ocean) in winter, most people visit in the 4.5 months from November to mid March. In a standard summer season, approx. 36,000 sea based tourists visit the Antarctic Peninsula. This is roughly equivalent to 2,000 tourists per week. So most visitors will see other ships and tourists. Managing the activities of this number of visitors in an environmentally sustainable manner is complex. This is where IAATO comes in. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators is an umbrella organisation with a number of objectives that govern member operations within the parameters of the Antarctic Treaty system and “facilitate appropriate, safe and environmentally sound private sector travel to the Antarctic”. IAATO membership is not compulsory but most reputable tour operators are members. So my first recommendation for anyone thinking of visiting Antarctica is to make sure the company you are traveling with is an IAATO member. This should ensure your environmental impact is minimal.
The Antarctic Treaty and IAATO guidelines recommend that a maximum of 100 visitors can visit shore at any one time. At some locations the number is even less. This is because there are limited sites that are not ice covered and these sites are valued by the wildlife (especially penguins for nesting). So my second recommendation is to travel on a vessel that accommodates less than 100 passengers. This will ensure you get more time ashore to visit the various historic, scientific and wildlife hotspots. Ships with more than 100 passengers usually have scheduling problems and are limited in the number of sites they can visit.
Selecting what vessel to travel on usually comes down to cost - how much can you afford? For most seasons on the Peninsula there are about 30 ships and a dozen sailing vessels (yachts) operating back to back tours over the 4 month period. The average tour length is about 10 days for ships on the Peninsula departing from Ushuaia in Argentina or Punta Arenas in Chile. Cabins are priced according to size, view and roll (chunder) potential. Prices vary significantly so shop around.
Due to the proximity of South America, the Antarctic Peninsula is much more accessible than the Ross Sea. Most ships can cross the Drake Passage from South America to Antarctica in around 2 days. However these can be two very wild (sea sickness inducing) days. The Drake Passage has some of the most notorious weather and wave conditions imaginable. A comfortable crossing usually has swells around 4 meters. An uncomfortable crossing can have swells around 10 – 13 meters while a seriously difficult crossing can have swells over 20 meters. Some operators try to time the passage for the comfort and safety of the passengers however the timetable pressure is significant so most ships will make the crossing if the captain thinks the conditions wont damage the ship. Be warned, be prepared and listen to the advice of the expedition leader or captain (I will write another post on motion sickness later). However once the vessel reaches Antarctica (usually at the South Shetland Islands) the wave conditions improve dramatically.
Most Peninsula tours spend a day or two around the South Shetland Islands before cruising the 80 miles to Antarctic Sound. This 35 mile sound is often referred to as ‘iceberg alley’ due to the large number of tabular bergs that come in from the Weddell Sea.
From Antarctic Sound most vessels head south west down the Davis and Danco Coasts visiting various scientific bases, penguin colonies, historic sites, islands, harbours, bays and bluffs. Whales, seals, penguins, sea birds and ice bergs are constant companions. Since most ships travel around 12 knots and the total distance down the Davis and Danco Coasts is about 240 miles, it takes surprisingly little time to travel between points of interest. The scenery varies from awesome to breath taking and almost everyone enjoys the zodiac landings no matter what the weather is doing.
Many ships passage through the Lemaire Channel and visit Petermann Island before heading back. Some tour operators offer hiking, kayaking, cross country skiing or ski mountaineering in suitable locations depending on the weather. Most landing and anchoring sites have to be booked in advance by vessels. The most popular sites need to be booked a year in advance and the timing is precise. Some sites have visits from 6 ships a day and IAATO recommend a minimum 30-minute gap between each visit. So the zodiac landing process must run like clockwork. If you are not ready for your slot, you might miss out.
The expedition leaders (ELs) set the itinerary and with the field guides, run most of the activities with the passengers. The ship’s crew usually work for a different company and have different responsibilities (ship operations, housekeeping and catering). Most IAATO registered ELs and guides are very experienced and have been to Antarctica many times. The plus side for passengers is that they are incredibly knowledgeable. The negative side is that they have seen it all before and sometimes can’t wait to get home. Also the expedition staff have to deal with variable weather, ice, other ships, demanding clients and complex schedules so they can be very busy. Sometimes experts and celebrities are employed to enhance the passenger’s experience. Since there is usually about 20 hours of daylight each day the ships buzz with activity so don't plan on getting too much rest.
The Ross Sea is a very different experience from the Antarctic Peninsula. It's further south and the sea voyage to get there is longer and usually more difficult due to the large bands of pack ice. As a result fewer tourism vessels travel to the Ross Sea and the itineraries are longer, more expensive and by necessity, more flexible. The ubiquitous pack ice often cuts off proposed landing sites and while this may be disappointing for some, it makes for a truer Antarctic wilderness experience.
The history of the Ross Sea is indelibly linked to explorers like Scott and Shackleton. Visiting their restored huts is an experience in time travel. If you have travelled to the Peninsula and want to delve deeper into the Antarctic experience then I recommend the Ross Sea. But it is not for the feint hearted or those who need a precision schedule. Everything is big – the waves, the mountains, the ice shelves, the pack ice, the penguin colonies and the scientific bases are all a couple of notches up from the Peninsula. Ross Sea tourists should expect the unexpected.
No matter what part you visit, Antarctica is one of the most rewarding wilderness destinations in the world. Put it on your 'Must-Do' List.
by Dr. Glenn Singleman
Dr. Glenn Singleman is a medical doctor specialising in remote and expedition medicine. He's been expedition doctor, documentary film-maker and guide on countless expeditions to the remotest regions of the planet. Glenn often works with bespoke antarctic exploration tour company EYOS EXPEDITIONS and recommends them highly for super yacht journeys.