Few would have guessed that the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s would be the catalyst to spawn tourism in Antarctica. But when Russian scientific ship crews found themselves without a budget, they spruced up the ships' interiors and began renting the vessels out to tour operators on a rotating basis. These ships (as well as others that have since come on the market) are specially built for polar seas, complete with antiroll stabilizers and ice-strengthened hulls. A few of these ships have icebreakers that can chip through just about anything.
Before you go, it helps to know that a tour's itinerary is a rough guide of what to expect on your journey. Turbulent weather and ice conditions can cause delays or detours. Wildlife sightings may prompt your group to linger longer in one area than the next. The ship's crew and the expedition leader of your tour will keep you informed of any changes to the program.
A journey's length is the determining factor for which stops are made. Tour companies offer roughly similar trajectories for cruises to Antarctica, with the exception of a few over-the-top cruises. (Got 2 months and $50,000? Quark Expeditions conducts a full circumnavigation of Antarctica.) Apart from the destinations listed below, cruises attempt a landing at research stations when convenient. Most Antarctic cruises leave from Ushuaia, Argentina, although a tiny fraction leave from New Zealand. The Ushuaia departure point is covered in chapter 4, and it is the quickest way to reach Antarctica. Although Chile used to be a departure site for Antarctica, few (if any) travelers now leave from Chile; those who do, make the journey aboard a military ship. Plan to leave from Ushuaia.
Remember to factor in 2 days (4 in total for the return trip if traveling to the Antarctic Peninsula) to cross the Drake Passage, during which time you'll not do much more than hang out, relax, take part in educational lectures, and suffer through occasional bouts of seasickness. Cruises typically last 8 to 13 days for the Antarctic Peninsula, and 18 to 21 days for journeys that include the Subantarctic Islands. Seasoned travelers have frequently said that 8-day trips are not much of a value; consider tacking on 2 extra days for a 10-day trip.
The Antarctic Peninsula -- This is the easiest site to visit in Antarctica, and due to its rich variety of wildlife and dramatic scenery, it makes for a magnificent introduction to the "White Continent." If you have a short amount of time and/or a limited budget, these trips are for you.
All tours stop at the South Shetland Islands. Historically, sealers and whalers used these islands as a base; today they're home to research stations, colonies of elephant seals, and a variety of nesting penguins and sea birds. Popular sites here are King Island, Livingston Island, and Deception Cove, a collapsed, active volcanic crater with bubbling pools of thermal water.
Tours continue on to the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, with a variety of stops to view wildlife such as Weddell and leopard seals and vast colonies of Adélie, chinstrap, and Gentoo penguins. At the peninsula, sites such as the Lemaire and Neumayar channels afford camera-worthy views of narrow, sheer-walled canals made of ice and rock. At Paradise Harbor, calving icebergs theatrically crash from the harbor's main glacier, and throughout the area, outlandishly shaped gigantic icebergs float by. Other popular stops include Port Lockroy, a former British base that is now run as a museum; Cuverville and Rongé islands, with their penguin colonies; and Elephant Island, named for the huge, sluglike elephant seals that inhabit it.
The Polar Circle -- Ships with ice-breaking capabilities can transport guests past the Antarctic Circle and into the zone of 24-hour sunlight. The highlight here is Marguerite Bay, with its abundant orca, minke, and humpback whales, and multitudinous Adélie penguins. Cruises typically stop for a fascinating tour of research stations, both ultramodern and abandoned ones.
The West Side & The Weddell Sea -- Longer tours to the peninsula might include visits to its west side, known as "iceberg alley" for the mammoth, tabular chunks of ice floating slowly by. Stops include the rarely visited Paulet Island, an intriguing crater island, and James Ross and Vega islands, known for their nesting colonies of Adélie penguins.
An even longer trip (or simply a different itinerary) takes travelers to the distant Weddell Sea, which is blanketed with a vast expanse of pack ice, looking much like a frozen sea. But that's just one of the highlights here; the real reason visitors pay extra time and money to reach this white wonderland is because of the colonies of emperor penguins that reside here. Rugged mountains and glaciers are also part of the view.
Subantarctic Islands -- Tours to the Subantarctic Islands begin or end with a trip to the Antarctic Peninsula and the Shetland Islands, which is the reason these tours run 18 to 21 days. A few of these faraway islands are little visited by tourists, and they instill a sense of adventure in the traveler for their remoteness and fascinating geography, not to mention their important historical aspects.
The first stop is usually the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands, to view birdlife, especially king penguins, and to tour the Victorian port town of Stanley. Some tours fly directly from Santiago, Chile, to the Falklands and begin the sailing journey there.
South Georgia Island is surely one of the most magnificent places on earth, and it is therefore a highlight of this trip. The island is home to a staggering array of wildlife and dramatic landscapes made of rugged peaks, fiords, and beaches. South Georgia Island is also subject to unpredictable weather, and therefore, trip landings here are at risk of being canceled far more frequently than at other sites. Some tours tack on visits to the South Orkney Islands and the South Sandwich Islands.
Tour Operators -- Prices vary depending on the length of the trip, the company you choose, and the sleeping arrangements you require. A 9-day journey in a room with three bunks and a shared bathroom runs about $4,100 per person, and a 21-day journey with lodging in a corner-window suite is about $14,000 per person. Shop around to find something to suit your needs and budget.
Prices include passage, meals, guides, and all excursions. Some tours offer scuba diving, kayaking, overflights, or alpine trekking, usually at an additional cost. When researching trips, also consider the size of the ship: Tour companies offer space for anywhere from 50 to 600 passengers. Most travelers like to share their space with fewer people; although some enjoy the camaraderie of a crowd, more than 100 to 150 guests is just too many. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators limits landings to 100 people, meaning large ships must conduct landings in turns.
A few well-known tour operators include:
Abercrombie & Kent, 1520 Kensington Rd., Suite 212, Oak Brook, IL 60523-2141 (tel. 800/544-7016 or 630/954-2944; fax 630/954-3324; www.abercrombiekent.com). Like Quark, A&K offers deluxe journeys, with trips that run from 14 to 18 days.
Aurora Expeditions, 182A Cumberland St., The Rocks, NSW 2000, Australia (tel. 02/9252-1033; fax 02/9252-1373; www.auroraexpeditions.com.au). This is an Australian company with a variety of educational, photographic, and climbing tours for small groups.
Geographic Expeditions, 1008 General Kennedy Ave., San Francisco, CA 94129 (tel. 800/777-8183 or 415/922-0448; fax 415/346-5535; www.geoex.com). Tours vary between 11 and 28 days, with small-boat cruising, trekking, and climbing options.
Lindblad Expeditions, 96 Morton St., 9th Floor, New York, NY 10014 (tel. 800/397-3348 or 212/765-7740; www.expeditions.com). This venerable Swedish-run company was the first to bring tourists to Antarctica. It offers 15- to 30-day tours, with trekking.
Mountain Travel Sobek, 1266 66th St., Emeryville, CA 94608 (tel. 888/687-6235 or 510/594-6000; fax 510/525-7710; www.mtsobek.com). This well-respected company has been operating Antarctic tours for 15 years. It offers 11- to 21-day tours, with zodiac rides.
Oceanwide Expeditions, 15710 JFK Blvd., Suite 285, Houston, TX 77032 (tel. 800/453-7245; fax 281/987-1140; www.ocnwide.com). This Dutch company operates a variety of journeys to Antarctica and elsewhere.
Peregrine Adventures, 258 Lonsdale St., Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia (tel. 1300/854444 in Australia; 03/9663-8611 outside Australia; fax 03/9663-8618; www.peregrine.net.au). This Australian company is the only operator that doesn't charge solo travelers a single supplement.
Quark Expeditions, 1019 Boston Post Rd., Darien, CT (tel. 800/356-5699 or 203/656-0499; www.quarkexpeditions.com). This highly esteemed company offers the industry's most outrageous trips.
Argentine Operators -- Last-minute bookings with discounts are a rare occurrence nowadays. It's wise to book your trip at least 6 months in advance. Two agencies to try are Rumbo Sur (tel. 2901/421139; fax 2901/434788; www.rumbosur.com.ar) and All Patagonia (tel. 2901/433622; fax 2901/430707; www.allpatagonia.com).
For well-informed advice in English, talk to Zelfa Silva (54-11/4806-6326; www.antarcticacruises.com.ar). Based in Buenos Aires, Zelfa and her husband Gunnar are seasoned Antarctica travellers and experts in helping people plan their trip.
Apart from working for a research station, one of the few ways to get out and really explore the Antarctic continent is by plane, and there are a handful of companies that offer a small selection of astonishing and out-of-this-world journeys to the Antarctic interior and beyond.
Flights to the Antarctic can be divided into two distinct categories: flights that access man-made airstrips on certain islands close to the peninsula, and flights that penetrate the frigid interior, relying on natural ice and snow runways for landing areas. The logistics involved in flying to the Antarctic are complicated to say the least, and fuel becomes an issue. Make no mistake, air travel to the Antarctic is a serious undertaking; however, the rewards can be unforgettable.
From Punta Arenas, King George Island on the peninsula is the preferred destination. The island houses a number of research stations, some of which you can visit, and it boasts extraordinary wildlife and sightseeing opportunities. The average stay is 1 or 2 days, but weather delays can alter itineraries.
The severity of the landscape and the remoteness of the interior of the Antarctic continent call for special considerations when planning and preparing for an unexpected prolonged stay. All travelers attempting a trip to the interior should be aware of the extreme climatic conditions. Travel delays caused by severe weather are the norm. However, these trips represent adventure travel in its purest form.
Tour Operators -- Prices vary depending on the company and the destination. In general, flights to the peninsula are much cheaper than those to the interior. These all-inclusive trips can cost anything from $15,000 to $38,000 per person, depending on the destination. Logistical support for extended expeditions can easily run to over $40,000. Prices typically include transportation, meals, and guides.
Adventure Network International, 4376 South 700 East., Suite 226, Salt Lake City, Utah 84107 (tel. 801/266-4876; fax 801/266-1592; www.adventure-network.com). This company began as a private plane service for climbers headed for Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica. They now include several 9- to 15-day tours, such as flights to the South Pole and the Transantarctic and Ellsworth mountain ranges, an emperor penguin safari, and a 60-day ski trip to the South Pole. Activities planned during these trips can include hiking, skiing, and skidoo trips; overnight camping; and ice hockey, igloo building, and just about anything else related to ice.
Aerovías DAP, O'Higgins, Punta Arenas (tel. 61/223340; fax 61/221693; www.aeroviasdap.cl). This small Chilean airline specializes in flights to the peninsula, in particular King George Island.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.