This is the latest post in my series about Antarctica. The trip was made possible thanks to Adventure Life, the small group adventure tour company that specializes in, among other things, Antarctica cruises.
1. Alive with wildlife – I think most of us realize there are penguins in Antarctica, a lot of them in fact. But I personally don’t think I fully appreciated just how diverse and interesting the wildlife is on the 7th Continent. I always just imagined a white wasteland, which is far from the truth. Penguins are probably the continent’s most famous resident, and with good reason. There are seven species of penguin that call Antarctica home, totaling more than 20 million penguins. I can personally attest to just how many penguins there are and by the last day standing next to them on the shore became wonderfully commonplace. The penguins aren’t alone though, there are 40 million cute seals, hundreds of thousands of birds and even a robust whale population. Wildlife is actually at the heart of any Antarctic trip and seeing these amazing creatures in the wild is truly a wonderful experience.
2. Dry – It’s true that 61 percent of all fresh water on Earth is held in the Antarctic ice sheet, but it’s also the driest place on the planet. It seems strange but the valley surrounding McMurdo Station is one of the most extreme deserts in the world. That’s why as a guest one has to be prepared as it’s very easy to suffer from dehydration. Be sure to always have a water bottle close at hand and try to drink more water than you would normally. Also bring lotion or other moisturizer for your face and hands and be mindful of the effects extreme cold and dry weather can have on your body. This is also the reason why fire and smoking isn’t allowed on the continent; it’s so dry that whatever can burn will burn quickly and violently.
3. You can fly there – Sure, it may be an inhospitable place on the bottom of the world, but you can still get there by plane. For those who don’t want to deal with the inherent nausea and time wasted with the Drake Passage, a Fly-Cruise is a viable option. Passengers fly down to Punta Arenas, Chile and then board another flight to Frei Station in the South Shetland Islands of the Antarctic Peninsula. Once at Frei guests meet their cruise ship and begin their exploration of the continent. Flights are impacted by the fickle nature of Antarctic weather though and delays are possible, although it is very rare for a trip to be cancelled because of it. I loved this option because it saved me a lot of time and I didn’t have to deal with the boredom and seasickness associated with the Drake.
4. It can be warm(ish) – It is true that winters in Antarctica are brutal and unforgiving. That’s also why no one goes there during the Austral winter, instead cruises take place between November – March. The average temperature when I went in February was around 5C or 41F. This was an average though and there were days when the wind and rain made it feel much colder, but on the whole it wasn’t a brutally cold experience. In fact, it was colder at home in Washington, DC that same week. That doesn’t mean you can leave the cold weather gear at home, far from it, but you don’t have to dress like Shackleton either.
5. Tourists – More than 30,000 intrepid souls from around the world visit Antarctica each year, a number that probably surprises you but for different reasons. Given how far away it is and the cost involved with visiting Antarctica, that number was higher than I imagined. The boats that visit aren’t super large cruise ships, they’re small, expedition style vessels and it takes quite a few sailing from South America to hit that number. But when put in the broader context of international travel, which claimed 1 billion (with a B) tourists last year, that number is paltry. It’s nothing really, a rounding error when compared to the mega-tourist spots. I hope it stays that way though. Antarctica is a wonderfully diverse and dynamic place, but it’s also a fragile one. I’m sure as technology improves so will our ability to visit Antarctica on vacation, but let’s hope it is always a little bit aloof and hard to reach so that it remains a truly pristine natural wonder.