Occupying a land area about the size of the United States and Mexico combined, Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest, windiest and brightest place on Earth. It is completely covered by a layer of ice that averages more than one mile thick, but is nearly three miles thick in some places. It is without question the loneliest place on the planet.
Over the past decade the frozen continent has hosted less than forty-five thousand researchers and visitors per year. The requirements that define and manage how visitors travel in Antarctica is controlled by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. One of the rules is that any vessel holding more than five hundred people is not allowed to put anyone ashore while visiting.
Just imagine that we live at a time when we can actually take a vacation to the continent of Antarctica. Never in our wildest dreams would we have thought something like this possible. Today there are a number of options for visiting.
If you would like to visit and go ashore there are a number of expedition boats that travel to Antarctica that carry about one hundred passengers and land using Zodiac rubber boats. We talked to several people while making our way south that were taking advantage of that option and indicated that the fare runs between $10,000 and $20,000 per person for a week-long trip. Luxurious accommodations can also be booked on major cruise ships starting at about $3,000 for a two week cruise.
On of the reasons that Antarctica is so isolated and harsh is that it is ringed by the Southern Ocean with a circular current that races around the continent. Some of the worst weather on Earth is in Drake Passage, that is the gap between Cape Horn in South America and Antarctica, that is often afflicted with high winds and heavy seas.
Many of the expedition trips to Antarctica start from up the Beagle Channel at the city of Ushuaia at Terra Del Fuego. This city has grown to a population of almost 100,000 with a lot of help from the Argentine government. It is also usually a last port of call for large cruise ships heading south to the frozen continent.
We chose to travel with a bit more luxury and a lot more stability and cruised with the Celebrity Eclipse out of Buenos Aries in January (summer season). After a port stop in Ushuaia we headed out for our first destination in Antarctica, Paradise Bay. Passing the “light house at the end of the world” and the Mariners Monument, we entered Drake Passage facing high winds and twenty foot plus seas for a rocky afternoon and evening. The next morning the Sun broke out as we approached Antarctica with ice bergs the size of Manhattan in the distance. The seas calmed, the sky turned blue and the temperature soared to 35°F as the Eclipse became the largest ship to ever enter Antarctica waters.
breaching Stark, snow drifted mountains towered above the horizon and ice floated everywhere with many icebergs being as big as our ship. We sailed for hours up the channel toward Paradise Bay and were told the area had the most snow covering along the shoreline for this time of year that’s been seen in a long time. The water around us was full of whales and penguins that shot by like little black torpedoes. Albatros and other sea birds where everywhere. The professionals that were with us said they hadn’t seen such a beautiful day in over six years and we couldn’t imagine how it could have been any better.
Just a decade or two ago a visit to Antarctica was something never considered possible by tourists. Who would have thought that this incredible, isolated, frozen continent could become a travel destination? There is really no way to describe this experience in words so I’ll close by simply suggesting that this should be added to wanderers bucket list.