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Photo: Chregu

First question: Should you go? Second question: How should you go? Info and links to answer both.
The Debate: Should You Go?

There are several arguments against traveling to Antarctica, all of which need to be considered before trip planning begins:

Safety Concerns

Antarctica is an inhospitable place. There are no — nor have there ever been — permanent human inhabitants of the continent. Frequent storms on land and sea and the coldest temperatures, driest air, and strongest winds on the planet are a constant threat, even to those who know what they’re doing.

There’s no governing body in Antarctica, no one with unilateral authority to control where people go, what they do,…or to ensure their safety.

In November of 2007, the tourist vessel M/S Explorer struck an unidentified object. Its doubly reinforced steel hull was punctured, and 20 hours later the ship was completely submerged. Fortunately, all 154 passengers and crew were rescued by nearby vessels.

Is this the place for sightseers and amateur adventurers? Would you be better off sticking to Google Street View?

Environmental Concerns

Most of Antarctica is still pristine, untouched by human activity. Paradoxically, this makes the ecosystem more vulnerable to disruption.

According to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), 12,000 tourists made the journey to the 7th continent in ’00-’01. During the last summer season (’09-’10), that number had tripled. 3x the tourists means 3x the waste, pollution, and potential for disaster.

Though inhospitable to human life, Antarctica is home to hundreds of plant and animal species, many of which are found nowhere else. Are we crossing a line by claiming the continent as our own?

Ethical/Existential Concerns

In early 2008, Matador contributing editor Tim Patterson was due to take part in a press trip to Antarctica. He turned it down. Here’s his explanation why:

The full answer has to do with the difference between dreams and reality. Going to Antarctica — for free — meant that I would be totally “living the dream” as a travel writer. The ship was even called “The Antarctic Dream.”

Somewhere in Patagonia, though, where the gap between the luxury dream world of tourism and the real world of harsh, windswept land grew wider and wider the further south I traveled, I decided that living the dream wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I started to see all of these parallels — the dream world of the Internet, the dream world of ego, the dream world of advertising.

Better, I thought, to live a life, to engage the real world — to work in rich soil and warmth, to embrace places on their own terms rather than leveraging all my work and charm and access to technology to go somewhere that, by its nature, is totally inhospitable to human life.

So I went north instead and my travel writing career has never really been the same again.

1. Go as a Tourist

If, after weighing the arguments above, you decide a visit to Antarctica is worth the personal and environmental risks, chances are you’ll be going as a tourist. There are several methods open to you:

Photo: Devil.Bunny

Cruises/Sails

Ships bring the majority of recreational visitors to Antarctica. Many are giant cruise liners that float the Southern Ocean and give their 1,000+ passengers views of stormy seas, barren islands, and — with luck — a penguin colony or two. No landings are made.

(Note: Regulations set to take effect in August may keep such ships out of the region.)

It’s the smaller vessels (between a dozen and 500 passengers) that typically offer land- and sea-based activities. Most common are three-hour shore trips to the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands, made by Zodiac.

Ships that carry fewer than 100 paying passengers are preferable. This is because of IAATO guidelines that limit landings to 100 people at any given site at any given time. Additionally, smaller ships can get closer to shore and access more terrain, though they also make for a bumpier ride.

Just remember nothing is guaranteed. As Marie Javins discovers in Bragging Rights, whenever you go as part of the herd, you might end up with “canned awe.”

And whichever type of vessel you choose, expect to pay for it. Bargain berths start at around US$4,000 and quickly head north from there.

Photo: 23am.com

Finding a cruise: Make sure your company is a member of IAATO. This is the minimum you can do to protect yourself and the environment.

Oceanwide Expeditions, Journeys International, Adventure Life, Responsible Travel, and Quark Expeditions all advertise “environmentally responsible,” limited-passenger voyages, between 10 and 20 days in duration and starting around at US$5,000/person, with hiking, climbing, kayaking, and diving add-ons available.

Budget tip: Hang out in Ushuaia, Argentina (port of departure for most ships), during the Southern Hemisphere summer. Companies often offer last-minute discounts — sometime as much as half off — to fill any unsold berths. Look for adverts in hostels, or contact companies directly.

Tailored Expeditions

For more cool factor, and substantially more money, many companies run specialty expeditions. These often involve tracing the routes taken by original Antarctic explorers like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen.

Photo: elisfanclub

Examples of specialty tours include the Shackleton Odyssey offered by Global Adrenaline — with the option of recreating Shackleton’s mountain crossing on South Georgia Island — and an 18-day trek to the South Pole run by Extreme Adventures. A spot on the latter costs US$57,000.

Airborne Sightseeing

This may be the cheapest way to check out the ice. A firm called Antarctica Flights does flight-seeing tours from Australia along a stretch of Antarctic coastline. Each flight features talks from “scientists, glaciologists, explorers, adventurers, or mountaineers” to “enhance” the experience. Tickets start at AU$1,000.

Read more in Antarctica Flights: Australian Sidetrip?

Others

If you’ve got your own boat, there’s nothing legally preventing you from sailing on down. I won’t pretend to be able to advise you on this.

And, though you’ve just missed it for this year, there’s the annual Ice Marathon. Runners are flown from Punta Arenas, Chile, to interior Antarctica. If 26.2 miles at 80 degrees south isn’t intense enough, there’s also a 100k. Registration costs €9,900.

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Sports + AdventureTrip Planning


 

About The Author

Hal Amen

Hal Amen is a managing editor at Matador. His personal travel blog is WayWorded.

  • http://www.cuadernoinedito.wordpress.com Julie

    Hal-

    Super resource, and I love the format of this article- the combination of practical advice with anecdotes.

    I recently met a journalist who’s going on the NSF trip this year, and others who have applied- for me, that’d be the way to go.

    For people who want two “from the ground” reports from travelers who’ve recently been there, I’d recommend checking out Audrey Scott’s and Dan Noll’s blog, Uncornered Market, and Karen Catchpole’s and Eric Mohl’s blog, TransAmericas.

  • http://expatheather.com Heather

    Excellent article Hal – this was my breakfast reading this morning. : )

    Like Julie, I really like how you approached the subject, not as a how to have your own ‘adventure’ in Antarctica, but a super-practical resource that encourages responsible travel and makes clear the issues at stake when traveling to Antarctica.

  • http://vagabonderz.com Carlo Alcos

    Superb Hal. Looks like you covered everything. And man Tim’s got some serious ethics. Props, Tim!

    • http://sleepinginthemountains.blogspot.com Tim Patterson

      I dunno if it was an ethical choice, really. More of a personal one.

      • http://vagabonderz.com Carlo Alcos

        Personal ethics then? Well, you know what I mean! It was a brave choice nonetheless, to really stand up for something you believe in like that.

  • http://michelleschusterman.com Michelle Schusterman

    Wow, several ways to go I hadn’t considered here. And I found Tim’s reason really interesting as well!

  • http://www.wanderingtrader.com wanderingTrader

    Thats actually incorrect.. rates start at roughly $3500 and on occassion I have seen rates as low as $3000

  • http://www.joshywashington.wordpress.com josh

    So when are we going? I will lead our brave party if you fund the expedition…deal?

  • http://abbiemood.com Abbie

    Hal, this is an amazingly information article – I really enjoyed reading it. I would love to see penguins, but I do hate cold weather and icebergs, so I don’t know if a trip to Antarctica is ever in the cards for this girl.
    And Tim – wow, I definitely just gained more respect for you because of your decision to turn down that trip.

  • http://UncorneredMarket.com Audrey

    Great piece so that people can evaluate for themselves whether to go to Antarctica and the issues on both side of the coin.

    As Julie mentioned, my husband and I went earlier this year when we found a last minute cancellation (from an Ushuaia travel agent) on the successor to the M/S Explorer (Gap Adventures M/S Expedition). On our boat we had a veteran Antarctica expert who used to work for the British Antarctic Survey and now works for IAATO – he was there to make ensure environmental and safety regulations. When we interviewed him about environmental issues connected to Antarctica tours, he noted some of the changes planned in the next years – no big cruise ships (already implemented), ships required to use environmentally safe fuel (which costs about 3x regular price), changing configurations of ships so that the fuel storage was not so vulnerable in case of an iceberg crash, etc. But he also mentioned that the biggest environmental risks to Antarctica come from people’s behaviors home and the widening gap in the ozone layer. He told us stories of how areas we went to this time were impossible to reach 25 years ago because the glaciers were so large. This isn’t to say that the cruises don’t do environmental damage – they try to reduce this to a minimum, but it’s inevitable.

    But, this discussion made me realize how interconnected our world is and how my behaviors at home affect the habitat of penguins down in Antarctica. I had read this beforehand, of course, but it’s another thing to see the changes happening before your eyes.

    • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

      Great points, Audrey. I had some links re: global warming and Antarctica, but ended up cutting those paragraphs. You’re right, though–the ultimate fate of the continent may have little to do with tourism.

  • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments. Antarctica has been coming up a lot for me lately. Curious to figure out what I should do with all this info I’m getting.

  • http://onceatraveler.com Turner

    This is excellent overview of your options. I’d love to run a marathon down there.

    Tim – you’re crazy, but I can understand you wanting to be somewhere warmer.

  • http://www.beachhotelsandbeaches.com Eos Masteri

    It looks beautiful and sounds like quite the adventure. I am ready to go.

  • http://www.conditiononefilm.com Frida Waara

    This trip to Antarctica as a writer and artist through NSF has changed my life. I’ve skied to the North Pole, but what Antarctica and the South Pole have to offer is more than the average travel writer can digest in a 1,000 word article: the place and the people. McMurdo may look like a mining camp on the north shore of Lake Superior, but from here springs stories that would make Robert Service and Jack London proud.

  • http://letssitoutside.blogspot.com/ Jackie Rose (@letssitoutside)

    Going to Antarctica is definitely a personal choice. I went in 2009 with Quark Expeditions on a boat with 112 passengers. It seemed that some travelers ended up in Ushuaia and jumped on a boat because it was the next thing to do, lots went after retiring because they couldn’t figure out what else to do with their money, and a small number of people went because they were born with a dream or some kind of intuition that led them to Antarctica.

    I was born with the dream so after college I came up with the idea to work three jobs for one year and apply to graduate school, then head out on a seven-month adventure, traveling from Antarctica back up through South and Central America by land. It was a hard year of work and sacrifice, during which I did lots of research about how to get to Antarctica, when to go, with what company, etc. and I’m very happy with my choice.

    Part of the experience is the atmosphere on the boat. I met some amazing people during my 12-day trip. Brazilian explorers, professors, photographers, many staff members who had wintered in Antarctica numerous times…so many amazing people.

    You decide if you are going to have a canned experience or not. Antarctica is huge and the silence is overwhelming. You choose what to look at and how to fill your mind. During landings I often found a quiet place to sit and enjoy, well, everything. When 95% of the passengers were dining, I’d go up to the top deck and dance around, looking at everything. When offered a polar bear swim, a friend and I stripped down naked and splashed in the water, laughing from the heart. It’s up to you to make the experience your own. The easiest way to have a canned experience is to hide behind your camera…

    Anyway, this comment is long enough. Great post. Thanks so much for sharing. Going to Antarctica is such an intimate encounter with nature, only you can decide to go or not.

    Jackie Rose

    • http://www.facebook.com/victoreekhof Victor Eekhof

      Hola Jackie!

      My friend Josh and I are traveling from the North Pole (Alaska) to the South Pole promoting green lifestyle and raising money for Ecosia.org, the green search engine.
      As we’re now in Nicaragua, the second half of our trip is fast approaching, and it’s time to make arrangements for the South Pole (don’t really want to wait for the last minute for that..). I saw that you have been there and it seems you have some knowledge on how to get there..

      Our first priority is trying to get there for free, a.k.a sponsored or hitchhiking. If that fails though, we would still like to go, and we would have to find a good deal (I heard about a rare $2200 deal!)..

      Have you gained some knowledge you would like to share? Any tips are welcome :)

      If you want to know more about the project we’re doing: http://www.couchsurfing.org/news/article/141

      Hope to hear from you!

      Victor

  • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

    Wonderful to read about your experience, Jackie. That’s what I wanted this piece to be about–exposure to as many different perspectives as possible. Thanks!

  • Anna Bell

    Jackie, I really enjoyed your comment as well… even if it is long! The aricle over all did open my eyes to many things to think about. I think it is important for travelers to realize the impact they have on the world. But, more important, in my heart, is basing your own decision from your own heart. I think the people you travel with also have a huge impact… So it was neat to consider the diffierent possibilities. I can’t wait to make it there one day, it looks amazing! Thanks for the great post!

  • Brietta Perez

    This has been #1 on my personal bucket list for a long time. A very big thank you!

  • pankaj bhaban

    Your post making my mind go there!!!!!

  • Shel1082

    I am an eighteen year old and was able to travel there as part of a program called Students on Ice. Even though I am still very young it was the most glorious place I’m sure I will ever go. Its ineffable. And while the environmental concerns are huge and I think the number of people allowed to go each year should be limited, the vast beauty of Antarctica will be worth it for people who do go because it opens your mind and soul to how beautiful the world we live in is and could be humanity starts to clean up.

  • Ala

    Hi! I am looking for sb from US who could take sleeping bag produced by my company for tests to Antarctica. If you know sb who is going to  go there and would like to test it there or in some other extreme conditions, it would be nice, if you could send me  message on xaocc@wp.pl    Regards! Ala

     

  • F Pasotti

    I am a marine biologyst, researcher at the University of Ghent, Belgium. I have been already on 2 expeditions to Antarctica for my research and I am also taking part for the organization of the 2013 meeting for the Antarctic Treaty where also matters as tourism will be discussed. From my point of view, which is a quite close one, I strongly argue that TOURISM should be BANDED from Antarctica completely. We have already seen the appearance of big fields of yellow flowers which are tipical of the American Continent..how? the shoes of the tourists are bringing them along…moreover, tourism is mainly based on the formula “satisfied or money back” which means the tour operators always take tourists in the hot spots of biodiversity such as rockeries of penguins or places where seals group together to give you the best picture ever…this means that the animals are stressed in very delicate moments like reproduction and it has been alreadey recorded that stress can lower the reproduction ability of the birds..another arguement I can provide is that most of the travelling is carried out via ships and then zodiacs to the landing spots or around the ocean…well, this is a lot of gazoline released in those very delicate and extremely peculiar waters…if degradation of pollutants is already slow in temperate regions where water temperature is higher (the higher the temperature, the higher the metabolism) then imagine how slow it is in 0°C waters….I am sorry, but to be honest, I would band research as well from Antarctica, but off course, that’s somehow an important activity to take place in such a precious and unknown ecosystem since there are still loads of thing we can learn from Antarctica…but I would say that if you say “I want to go to Antarctica because I love nature”, well, be honest enough and ask yourself why you really want to go there, because if you love your child, you would not give him/her a sigarette or alcool to drink..;you would like him/her to reamain as pure as possible…therer is no way we will prevent Antarctica from dramatic losses if we are about to go there more and more…just to give you some numbers, each year 40 000 tourists go to Antarctica, mainly the Peninsula sice it is easier to access and less extreme and it holds (unfortunately for itsenf) the highest biodiversity of the Continent…and off course, nevertheless, it is experiencing the highest changes due to global warming)…and to compare that to scientific activity, we have about 6 000 scientists each season (austral summer) in the WHOLE CONTINENT….so guys…think about it, because every action you take on this Planet comes back to each one of us, animals and humans…Francesca Pasotti  f.pasotti@gmail.com 

  • Ashfaque Qureshi

    i wanted to see Antarctica, much helping article

  • Grovick12

    Also check out PolarCruises.com

  • TemariHot

    it doesn’t say any disadvantages

  • Share Moss

    I’d take the Antarctica Unbound trip. ROW’s Unbound tours are amazing and some of their itineraries offer free kayaking which you don’t get from anyone else.

    Travel to Antarctica with ROW.

  • John_d_serb

    Antarctica is definitely something to see. But I’d hate to be there on a sightseeing flight  and go through a crash just as one of my close friends who crashed in a sightseeing trip in the Appalachians. Anyway he contacted a sightseeing flight injury lawyer and sued the company, but in Antarctica I’m afraid there’s no way you can do that. You’d have to go Bear Grylls up until the rescue party arrives. Sorry for the bleak scenarios… I’ll stick to the US for my sight seeing flights!

  • Capri Rasmussen

    We loved our trip to Antarctica with National Geographic. I blogged about it http://www.voyagevixen.blogspot.com

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