Preserving Antarctica’s Pristine Landscapes
By Stephen Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Associate Editor
People who have toured Antarctica describe it as a life-changing experience — an unspoiled continent unlike any other.
“There is no place on Earth like Antarctica,” says Kassandra Magruder of Adventure Life in Missoula, Montana, which operates many different Antarctic tours. “What makes it so unique is that there is so little evidence of human habitation or impact on the landscape.
“It literally feels like you’re on another planet, a planet where no humans have lived, that is dominated by only the forces of weather and wildlife.
“My favorite memory is kayaking amongst the icebergs, having penguins jumping over the bow of my boat, inches from my face. Looking down into the water and seeing leopard seals peering curiously upward, trying to make sense of what this foreign object was bobbing on the waves above.
“Of course the thousands of penguins at the landing sites, toddling over to poke and prod at my backpack — looking for snacks? Trying to suss out if it would make a suitable mating partner?
“It’s an unreal environment. If I could go back to only one place for the rest of my life, it would be Antarctica, hands down.”
The Antarctic Treaty System
Keeping Antarctica unspoiled is the joint responsibility of the 52 nations which are signatories of the Antarctic Treaty System. In that respect, the effort to protect the continent is a model of international cooperation.
Manuel Lois, who took the Adventure Life tour of the Antarctic Peninsula with his son Eti, says the experience provided a hopeful vision of the future:
“The most striking thing about our trip is how all the countries involved and the tourist industry have worked together to protect Antarctica and keep it virgin and untouched by humans (except in the scientific stations).
“The respect for animals and landscape was incredible. The silence. The fresh clean air. The crystal waters. The first thing one discovers is that every place is different and unique. Each beach, glacier, iceberg, mountain has its unique geology ecosystem and charm.
“Your mind soars above the glaciers, the fresh crisp cold clean air enters your lungs as you breath, filling you with new energy and love for life and respect for nature. Then the silence… enveloped in the silence at the top of a summit with a breathtaking view that humbles you and make your tears flow in awe at the beauty of nature.
“The crack of ice as the glacier melts forming new icebergs, the multicolor and majestic forms of each iceberg reminding you of how frail and temporal we are, the thousand songs of penguins chattering all around you, the majestic dance of whales as they jump and dive in front of you, the speed and beauty of hourglass dolphins, the fun of a polar plunge in the chilling waters of the hidden Deception Island…
“All memories of a lifetime and a reminder that we are part of it all, that we all live in one country named Planet Earth and that we are all connected to one another and that our selfishness can destroy it all.
“But it also fills us with hope as this magic kingdom has proven that when we all reach for the same goal we can all promote healthy respectful relationships with one another and mother nature for generations to come.”
Antarctica was first discovered in 1820. In that year the continent was sighted by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, a captain in the Russian Imperial Navy, Edward Bransfield, a captain in the British Royal Navy, and Nathaniel Palmer the captain of a sealer out of Stonington, Connecticut.
Numerous expeditions explored the continent in the 19th century, and in 1911 a British expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott arrived at the South Pole, only to find that a Norwegian expedition led by Roald Amundsen had arrived there a month earlier. Tragically, all the members of Scott’s advance party perished attempting to return to their base.
The region was visited mainly by whale- and seal-hunting vessels in the 19th century, and the 20th brought scientists from all over the world who set up research stations to study biology, geology, oceanography, physics, astronomy, and meteorology.
Since Antarctica has the highest elevation of any continent, and is the dryest, the air has less moisture than anywhere else. Add to that the lack of light pollution, and you get the clearest view of space anywhere in the world. It’s also a great place to find and study meteorites.
There are about 1,000 scientists on the continent during the winter, which lasts from April to October, and as many as 5,000 in the summer from November to March.
The Treaty System
Although several nations claim sovereignty over parts of Antarctica, these claims are not internationally recognized and the continent is governed by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and related international agreements that prohibit mining and military activities.
The treaty was originally signed by Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, and since then by 40 other countries. The Antarctic Treaty Secretariat has its headquarters in Buenos Aires.
Tourism is regulated by treaty protocols and by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which works to maintain the continent’s pristine environment.
Planning Your Trip
If you’re planning a trip to Antarctica, you should do some homework to figure out how long you want to take and what kind of vessel you want to travel on. You should also decide what time of year you want to visit.
There’s no better place to do this than the Adventure Life website’s travel planning page.
Most Antarctic tours require four days at sea to get from South America to Antarctica across the Beagle Channel and the rocky seas of Drake’s Passage. The seas are so rough there that Drake actually took a more inland route through the Strait of Magellan.
Usually, the time at sea is taken up with safety briefings and presentations from the expedition team about the places you’ll be exploring.
For those who want to avoid the additional time at sea, Adventure Life now offers Fly-Sail Cruises that take passengers by air from Chile to St. George’s Island in Antarctica.
There they embark on expedition vessels to explore the Antarctic Peninsula and other locations like Paulet Island, Hope Bay, Port Lockroy, Petermann Island, Paradise Bay, and Deception Island on daily zodiac boat excursions.
Antarctic cruises can’t take predetermined routes because weather and ice conditions are so variable. The Lemaire Channel, for example, is known as “Kodak Gap” because of its dramatic landscapes; but it’s only about a mile wide and it’s sometimes blocked by ice.
Short or Long
Whether you choose the six-day air cruises or the 37-day Atlantic Odyssey, you’ll want to do some research about the Antarctic Region to decide whether you want to visit places like South Georgia Island, the Falklands, the South Shetland Islands, St. Helena, and Ascension Island.
Then you need to decide what type of ship you want to sail on. Research ships carry about fifty passengers for a more personal cruise. There’s probably a bar and lounge area and a viewing deck, but many cabins are shared.
Ice Breakers carry about 100 passengers with more space and more amenities like a laundry and an exercise room. Expedition cruise ships (about 120) are larger and make for smoother sailing. They also have fine dining and internet access.
Luxury expedition ships carry up to 200 passengers and have just about everything: queen-size beds, televisions, climate control, pool, sauna, hair salon, you name it.
No matter what type of cruise you choose, your Antarctic voyage is bound to have you reaching for superlatives to describe the experience of a lifetime.