Antarctica the Ultimate Final Frontier in Travel


Baby Penguins

Baby Penguins

As a global traveller, on this planet there is nothing more remote than Antarctica.  It is way bigger than it looks on any common map.  That place is just so vast. 14 million square miles and 1.5 times the size of the U.S. and is 98% ice and 2% barren rock.  In fact we learn that the largest countries in the world are Russia, China, Canada, but actually if Antarctica was a country it would be #2! See largest countries by area.  According to the CIA’s World Fact Book there is a population of 4,400 in summer to 1,100 in winter, with an additional 1000 in research boats off the coast.  In January, I had the chance to visit Antarctica on a research and speaking mission.  I wrote about the background details of this trip on my technical blog in a post called – Sharing The Point Antarctica.  We stayed on the Antarctic Russian base right next to the Chilean base and small Chilean village Villa Las Estrellas, and visited the Chinese base “The Great Wall” station, and saw the Uruguayan base.  It was an incredible experience as you can imagine.  Ice and barren rock sounds pretty boring, but this was anything but boring.

Villa Las Estrellas

The recent 100 year anniversary of the race to the south pole, and the Russian drilling at lake Vostok with 400,000 year ice history that may have been burried in ice for 15-25 million years, have put Antarctica in the media.  In 2012-2013 the Russians want to put a robot in the massive lake under the ice.  The lakes in Antarctica are recognized as the most ancient and inaccessible ecosystem. Exciting times! (Villa Las Estrellas  Chilean Base and village with blue roofs, grey buildings in the back is the Russian station)

If you’re planning on going to Antarctica there are a few ways to do it.

1) Cruise – There are a number of cruises that cruise around Antarctica.  The best way to reach Antarctica is by small-passenger cruise ship. Many tour companies run Antarctic cruises and expedition programs, providing a wide range of Antarctica travel options, ships, itineraries, dates and prices.  Pay particular attention to the excursion options.  Some, especially many of the large cruise companies do NOT include the ability to go to the mainland or even stop at the Antarctic islands, but just allow you to see it.  You want to look for Zodiacs that shuttle passengers from ship to shore and provide scenic tours or helicopter shuttles or flight-seeing… just depends on if you want boots on the ground. There are various options from Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and Australia.  Antarctic Peninsula trips usually start from Ushuaia, Argentina. That’s the worlds most southerly city, known as the end of the world and is a great destination in it’s own right.  There is a limited number of visitors to Antarctica to help preserve it.  Something to be aware of is the Drake Passage can be pretty choppy. Those that don’t need the excursions may like the bigger boat.  Just do your research, so you’re not disappointed.

STP Crew

STP Crew

Our STP Crew on the gravel runway in Antarctica (l-r): Mark Miller, Dan Holme, Paul Swider, Ricardo Munoz, and Michael Noel

For our research and speaking engagement we chartered a 6 person jet with the help of our sponsors: AvePoint & fpweb

2) Plane – There is a gravel landing strip on King George island at Frei Base, Teniente Rodolfo Marsh, which houses the Presidente Frei Meteorological Center, one of the main meteorological and navigational stations in the Antarctic. In our research we went with Victory Adventure Expeditions which offers both cruise and fly options.  We were doing a number of stops in South America and decided the overnight option would give us the most flexibility and keep our entire trip under 2 weeks.  You do really have to plan ahead.  The plane we went on had minimum and maximum 6 passengers. The step up from that was min 33 max 70.  As well, there is a narrow window of end of Nov to early March for trips and they fill up. There are day trips as well as overnight.  We did the overnight option.

Antarctic Ice Field

Antarctic Ice Field

The scenery, fauna and marine life are the main attractions for the tourist; this place is one of the few in the world that has remained untouched by men, this is why it constitutes one of mankind’s most important biosphere reserves.” I agree.  The animal life is wild.  Mind blowing in terms of the diversity and how protected it has been over the last 100 years.  I hope it does continue for many generations and forever.

Really, we just laid down and these imagebaby penguins came right up to us.  On day 2 we visited a penguin colony with 3 different types of penguins a very rare occurrence. (Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adele)

As well, we visited the other side of the island where we ran into a herem of elephant seals.  One male and 13 females.  Apparently that’s it goes.  We thought we’d join in the fun.  It was interesting to see that only the male had the major long elephant snout.

Curious little baby penguin

The penguins were amazing.  We went around in Zodiak’s and would see penguins swimming along with us and jumping out of the water like dolphins.

For me it was seeing the animals in their habitat and walking around on Antarctica which felt like being on Mars.  Not that I’ve been on mars, but definitely felt like another planet.  There aren’t any trees or bushes, just liken, moss, and strange grasses.  While some would describe it as a barren wasteland, the reality is it’s some of the richest fauna on the planet.  Tons of different kinds of whales, various seals and sea lions, elephant seals, various sea birds including various cormorants,  sea eagles, and we saw a huge albatross.

The conditions were great while we were there.  While we were glad we brought our snow clothes, the wind wasn’t too bad.  Our Chilean guide brought us to a couple of different glaciers.  For the zodiac rides we wore these orange Life suits that apparently can float.  They did give us the suits and we wore our normal clothes under them.

Zodiac Rides in Antarctica… Unreal

It was like a cartoon.  We rode past massive glaciers with penguins following us jumping out of the water at one point we had 40 of them jumping along.  As we approached one small glacier we saw two penguins perched on top.  We even witnessed one of the large glaciers calving.  The sound we first heard was this very deep moan and cracking sound.  It was a bit freaky.  Then we all started looking and finally large chunks busting up into the water which then created a pretty good swell which reached our boat.  Our guide knew how far to stay back.  He was smart.  I really wanted to get closer, but he knew the safe distance.

The biggest surprise to me was the flora.  I knew there were penguins and different types of whales and seals.  Tons more than I imagined, but what I didn’t know is that 2% of Antarctica is currently rock.  What is exposed during summer isn’t just barren.  There is green!  The plants are extremely hearty, these plants aren’t much of plants anyway.  They are liken, moss, and algae.  There is moss that even looks like grass!

This incredible penguin colony looks like they are hanging out in grass.  What I found fascinating was these baby penguins.  They haven’t learned to be afraid of humans.  There’s been so little interaction that it must feel like what Darwin experienced when he went to the Galapagos and studied birds of different islands coming up with “the origin of species.”

Baby Penguin sleeping on me

Baby Penguin sleeping on me

Interesting to be talking about Darwin as on this same trip I’d visit the Beagle Channel and see all sorts of birds and nests that have been in the same area for hundreds if not thousands of years.  This little guy and I would check each other out including having him jump on my chest.  In the course of the exchange I’d have his baby fur up against my face.

Life in Antarctica… can you imagine?  What would life really be like? A Bank, a post office, a cafeteria, a school.  Yes to all of these, the Chileans have really built a village that the other stations use. We saw a couple of Chinese Great Wall Station workers come and barter with the Chileans.  Apparently they don’t stay isolated.  Despite the fact that these are different countries, the lines are very blurry when it comes to Antarctica.  The Antarctic treaty keeps the peace, it doesn’t solve any of the disputes.  We visited the monument that marked the nations that signed the peace treaty including Russia, China, U.S., Britain, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and more.  Michael provides more detail on this.  A link to his blog is at the end of this post.

We all sent post cards from this post office. My kids got my cards in the mail… 3 months later.

I built a series of videos to answer some of these questions… What is life like in Antarctica. (Most of these are less than 1 minute.)

One night, the one we had, it didn’t get darkish until around midnight.  Michael and I both were thinking, come on this is the place to take the polar plunge.  With all the ice in the water, this has to be the ultimate travel challenge of either pole.  We did it.  We both encouraged each other and ran into the water and dunked and threw water all over ourselves and ran back into camp half dressed or less.  One tip for you if you visit the stations and bases.  Bring gifts.  Michael had all the Russians we met getting really friendly.  He brought vodka.  One of them had mentioned we could use their Banya.  This was the perfect moment to jump in the banya (spa) and warm up… Unfortunately our directions weren’t as clear as we thought they were and we were afraid to knock on too many doors to cause suspicion.  What an incredible moment it was though!  I feel more like a man.

As I wrap up this post I reflect on the Titanic and it’s media mentions and fanfare.  Have we advanced as a society in relation to water travel?  I have to think it’s very ironic we had a cruise ship go down this past year when our cruise ships are unsinkable.  I think it’s important to reflect on our infalibility.  We have weekness, we do stupid things.  The captain and his men failed to correct.  I don’t know the whole scenario of either incident, but I do know we must learn from our mistakes or will we repeat them.

Penguin Skull

Penguin Skull

In conclusion. Antarctica is truly a life changing experience.  You really do leave life as it is, and look back at it from another perspective.  Travel does that to people, and Antarctica, the final frontier does that to the extreme.  Many ask how to top a trip like this… space? the Moon? Mars?!!  I definitely felt like that after this trip.  All trips will be compared from a nature perspective for sure.  I went to extremes to the ends of the earth and I came back a changed man.  I think you will too.

Enjoyed my post?  I recommend reading these other posts on this fantastic trip.

19 thoughts on “Antarctica the Ultimate Final Frontier in Travel

  1. oh wow!!!! Please take me with you next time!! I can’t wait to visit that place! I can even be your free of charge Russian Translator ; )

    ps – I love that he got u by the nose : ))

  2. My husband and I also went on an icebreaker, the M.S. Fram, to Antartica back in 2010. It was amazing and as you said a life changing experience. My husband has a website where he has placed pictures. We have been to all 7 continents and our next trip in October is to Africa, (Kenya and Tanzania). His website address is www,barryrich.net. There is a portal to the Antartica trip.

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  5. There are like 40.000 tourists a year which they all individually affect Antartica immensevely. Ships /ankers scratching the buttoms, destroying all the very vulnerable species and this is not like other animals on earth these species are so vulnerable that the whole ecosystem gets crazy. The zodiacs who are going every day back and forth (up to 20 times per day even more i think) to drop the tourists .. they are loosing constantly gasoline. The tourists disturbing the penguins taking pictures way too close and touching them etc. All these animals need all their energy to hunt, breed just to survive (we don’t think about that because we are too busy with our own enjoyments). Encountering humans give them stress and that lifesaving energy away. Did you know because of tourists grass is growing there?
    My name is nathalie bougos and i love nature and travelling and even i if have to give up seeing antartic in order to keep it pure i really don’t have a problem not going there. We really need to think more about the surrounding than our own needs and desires sometimes. You are not going to die if you don’t see antartica hé. Do some research before you travel, look at your ecological footprint. Nature will appreciate that more than your friends listening to your story. Antartica is the last pure continent on earth so don’t destroy it by going please. If you really love nature you should not go to Antartica. If you love it leave it free.. without us.. humans.
    If you agree, make other people and the touristagencies aware of this problem (though the agencies they only think of money and they will try to convince you that some* of the money goes to A bird, or they say they are member of some kind of organisation… please don’t fool yourself They want to ease your mind on your ecological footprint). Which is crazy to mess up with people their minds,

    Anyway all the animals, fauna/flora will thank you.
    I’m on facebook so if somebody wants to talk about it all welcome to contact me. greetings

    • In the Antarctic treaty they limit the amount of tourism. In our case, we got special permission as researchers. This penguin rookery we visited had a very specific part of the beach where we could visit, and the rules were quite strict about how close we could go. In this case it was the penguins who were approaching us as we sprawled out.

      Not everyone who wants to go to Antarctica will be able to. It is a very very special place and is the final frontier on the earth. I feel very lucky. It’s extremely expensive to go, and most tours and cruises do not even stop on the land. We took a very special approved route which required permits and a very limited group of 6 and were escorted. Tour agencies are restricted for good reason.

      I think it’s very important we keep the balance for sure. Let’s keep Antarctica a special and natural place.

      Joel

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  7. Dear Joel, I am Pasotti Francesca an atarctic researcher who normally works in Jubany, now Carlini Base, also on King George Island, landing normally with the Hercules from Argentina to the Chilean Base where these tourists flights land daily to give to few people as little as 4 hours of quick “intense” travel on Antarctic land. I find it and I will always find it ridiculous and totally out of the scope. Such a travel, when only touristic oriented (sometimes they use these flights to provide material/scientific personal), is really contraddictory since it creates an enormous ecological footprint…why?first of all you fly there, which is already not very ecofriendly, second of all you step around with YOUR SHOES, and on your shoes there are tens of species that you picked up at home and that will be easily released on the Antarctic soil, which everyone knows is undergoing strong changes because of global warming, and this process is already establishing conditions that are favourable to these new INVASIVE SPECIES.
    Secondly you mention that “The Antarctic Treaty regulates the number of tourist that can go on land in Antarctica” well, this is a little imprecise. There are no regulations, but RECCOMENDATIONS, a bit like your mother telling you not to drink too much when you go out…then it’s up to you to chose…and once you are back home the government ask the tourist operators to write a report, a bit like your mom looking at you the day after and asking “How many glass did you drink???” and you replying “only one mom, for the rest orange juice”…Since 1966 tourism started and since then it has increased of 400% in only 50 years…every austral summer season there are 40000 torustists and only 6000 scientists in the Antarctic…if this sounds as regulation…I would really laugh. There is no such thing as a real regulation, there are indeed “rules” as you say but I can clearly see from your pictures that many of them have been broken. just to give you some examples of what you DID WRONG:
    XVIII-1: Tourism and non-Governmental Activities
    ATTACHMENT
    Guidance for Visitors to the Antarctic
    A) PROTECT ANTARCTIC WILDLIFE
    1) Taking or harmful interference with Antarctic wildlife is prohibited except in accordance with a permit issued by a national authority. –>> here you mention you had a scientific permit, but being no scientists, again I only see you guys PAID LOT OF MONEY to have the priviledge to go in a Protected Areas and take nice pictures…Very noble of you.
    2) Do not use aircraft, vessels, small boats, or other means of transport in ways that disturb wildlife, either at sea or on land. –> You say that the cubs were coming towards you..this is a very normal behaviour for juveniles and it is very well known, not only among penguins, that young animals have virtually no fear of humans since they have no experience to compare with. But this does not allow you to touch them.
    3) Do not feed, touch, or handle birds or seals, or approach or photograph them in ways that cause them to alter their behavior. Special care is needed when animals are breeding or moulting.–> SEE???? YOU CANNOT TOUCH THEM, and INDEED LET THEM SIT ON YOUR STOMACH. These penguins were moutling since you can see their fethers pattern…so, you really did a BINGO!

    4) Do not damage plants, for example by walking, driving, or landing on extensive moss beds or lichen-covered scree slopes.
    5) Do not use guns or explosives. Keep noise to the minimum to avoid frightening wildlife.
    6) Do not bring non-native plants or animals into the Antarctic (e.g. live poultry, pet dogs and cats, house plants). –> unfortunately this is very hard to control, because as I told you the shoes you wear at home even if they look clean are always carrying some propagule or spores of plants..

    So my dear Joel, I think the only thing on which I can “hardly” agree with you is that indeed STILL not as many people as potentially could be are able to travel in Antarctica because still economically not so accessible, but this is already changing fast, and also because of these “cool blogs” and adventurous videos published on youtube but these amazingly brave and lucky extreme tourists……pfff….

    Me personally would ban also science on Antarctica…Antarctic ecosystems are so fragile and delicate that any human activity can only lead to irreversible (negative) changes…but at least, science is trying to understand and learn from Nature to protect it…not only to fullfill the “dream” to go in “the last frontier” of the Earth so feeding our Egos or taking amazing pictures of beautiful animals even knowing that we are polluting the world and invading (we are the first ever invasive species in Antarctica) this new continent and already affecting it’s balances… Love is freedom…Let Antarctic be free to be…Let it be, without the need to own it or enjoy it…this is what would make the love for nature real and what would really make us understand how to behave if we are to save our slowly collapsing planet…

    Sorry, but I really love Antarctica and you cannot imagine what I have seen working there…I am totally against tourism…100%

    Cheers Francesca

    • Hi Francesca,

      As a member of the Sharing the Point team with Joel, I feel I need to respond to some of your concerns here. Our trip, and indeed the company that we contracted with to explore Antarctica, was fanatical about following the Antarctic convention, and in no way did we violate any of the rules listed there. Granted, your comment about closing Antarctica to tourism is a valid opinion, I won’t argue that…although I would argue that it brings awareness to the area, just as backpacking in Wilderness areas prompts people to take better care of them and to be aware that they even exist and that what we do anywhere in the world has an affect on them. In any case, we can agree to disagree on that point, but where I take objection to is your assumptions about the way that this particular tour was handled. I can tell you several things:

      1. All members of the team signed sworn statements that we would uphold the Antarctic treaty obligations, and we were required to read them fully before signing.

      2. Clothing and sanitized boots were provided to us, so we were not tracking any bacteria/organisms from home onto the environment.

      3. The plane we took down was also bringing supplies to researchers on the Chilean base, and we personally were limited to only a very small amount of personal possessions (which most of us just brought some gifts for the researchers there.)

      4. The number of flights the company took down there each season was highly controlled, and there was a firm cap on the number of people that could go. I know this personally as I had to deal with the logistics of organizing and making sure we could make it down there, and there were very few slots available.

      5. Our guide went out of his way to avoid contact with any of the animals, and made sure we understood not to interrupt their habits, etc. If penguins came porpoising up to our zodiak, for example, he stopped the boat to let them swim away.

      6. At the penguin rookery, we were instructed to not approach the penguins and to simply observe, which is exactly what we did. We did not touch, provoke, or interrupt their patterns. The baby penguins in the video approached us out of curiosity, and there was very little we could do to stop them. We could not simply shoo them away or touch them…by the terms of the treaty. I encourage you to read that article again that states “Do not feed, touch, or handle birds or seals, or approach or photograph them in ways that cause them to alter their behavior.” We did not feed, touch, or handle the birds, or even approach them. We sat down on the beach and observed. They approached us. This is a critical piece of information that you are missing when you accuse us of violating the article.

      I mean no disrespect here, but I felt like I needed to chime in out of respect for the company that organized this, and as I believe your comment mischaracterizes and demonizes us unnecessarily. I have great respect for you and the other researchers down there, and indeed we spent a great deal of time talking with the Chilean, Russian, and Chinese researchers there about their experiences, their impressions, and other information, much of which I included in my own personal blog post on the expedition (http://sharingtheglobe.com/2012/02/04/antarctica-fantastical-world-without-borders/). Regardless of whether or not you believe that tourism to Antarctica should be cut back, I want to make sure you understand that we took our obligations in this sensitive environment very seriously.

      Best Regards,
      Michael Noel
      (sharingtheglobe.com)

  8. Thank you for sharing this incredible adventure. I’m breathless about it, really! On the one hand, I would LOVE to go there, but on the other, I understand some of the concerns about too many tourists that have come up in other comments. So, whether I ever make it there or not, at least I had the delight of seeing your great photos, reading about your trip through vivid descriptions, and, best of all, watching a baby penguin try to conquer the mountain of your shoulder before proceeding to nip at your face and cap. :) Happy Trails!

  9. Please let me know if you’re looking for a author for your weblog. You have some really good articles and I think I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d love to write some articles for
    your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please blast me
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