Antarctica: An Introduction

Adventure
September 21, 2010 10:00 am

It’s common enough to find yourself drowning in adjectives when asked to describe any locale. It is rare, however, when not a single word exists capable of adequately embodying any part of a place, let alone an entire continent. Antarctica is that loss for words, whether you’ve been or not. No adjective does it justice, so for most people it is a few New York Times articles, global climate change bar graphs, calendars with photos of penguins and an 80-minute love story narrated by Morgan Freeman. For me, it has become a feeling.

Antarctica is no longer the “hidden gem” of tourist destinations, as it was when I went with my adventurous grandmother in December of 2006. In the last few years, Antarctica has undoubtedly become one of the world’s hottest tourist destinations. In 1992/1993, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) recorded fewer than 7,000 tourists, staff and crew landing on the Antarctic peninsula or continent. During the 2009/2010 season, over 59,000 landed. (Even by the time I had gone in 2006/2007, Antarctic tourism nearly doubled since 2002/2003.) Though the U.S. in 2009 tried unsuccessfully to cap the number of tourists that could arrive on the continent, the IAATO believes this category of niche tourism won’t continue to expand at this rate and responsible tourism actually helps awareness and research efforts.

So how can you get yourself there?

Antarctica is not a weekend trip, nor is it a cruise. The Falkland Islands and South Georgia, though beautiful and abundant in bird species, are British territory and not part of the Antarctic continent or peninsula. The only way to get to the continent is on an icebreaker, like the National Geographic Explorer. The best trips are not cruises, but rather expeditions, meaning the itinerary is subject to wild change based on the conditions of the oceans, ice, wildlife and “ports.” The main purpose of most expeditions, especially to Antarctica, is to allow researchers to collect another round of data for their decades-long projects on weather, penguin migration, erosion and other topics. Passengers provide the extra funding necessary to make the trip possible.

Expeditions to the continent generally require a minimum of two weeks to cross the Drake Passage (for which I highly recommend you pop seasickness pills like Tic Tacs), explore the outlying islands, break through frozen ocean water, reach a few open parts of the continent and return. Trust me, when the two weeks is up you’ll be begging for more. Despite living in Buenos Aires, New York City, Chicago, Florida and Wisconsin, my screen saver has repeated these Antarctic images and nothing else for almost four years.

While throngs of people spill into Antarctica as vacationing in remote areas becomes popular, “untouched” and “pristine” somehow remain the two most commonly used descriptors. Antarctica deserves more thought (and photos), and that is what you’ll find here in the coming weeks.

I can’t possibly give you the feeling of being on the deck of the National Geographic Explorer and listening to researchers, naturalists and environmentalists burst with excitement over newly documented numbers or a great photo opportunity after returning from excursions each day. But I hope that over the next few weeks, as I post more about the ice formations, polar research and wildlife, I can inspire you to save every dime you have and book this trip. Come back thirsty.

Tara for TKGO

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