At: November 11, 2000
The World’s Most
The frozen continent is expected to remain an expensive,
specialized niche destination offered by a limited number
of experienced operators.
By Zelfa Silva
For the Buenos Aires Herald
Antarctica, the world’s fifth largest continent, surrounded by the Southern Ocean, is the world’s most isolated place, where vast mountain ranges and the enormous emptiness of the polar ice cap leave you feeling very small in the immensity of creation. Some say its gigantic icebergs and its unique ice shelves, which double its 14.2 million square km area in the winter, make it the most beautiful spot on earth.
Apart from the scientific bases run by a handful of countries, the only other signs of human presence in Antarctica are the frozen huts of unknown whalers and famous explorers like Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott, Nordenskjöld and Larsen who answered the challenge of its emptiness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Antarctica is a continent of extremes. It is the coldest: a temperature of -89ºC was recorded in 1983 at Russia’s Vostock base. It is also the windiest, with winds of up to 320 km/h, the driest, with zero humidity, and the highest, with an average elevation of 2.2 km.
The thickness of its ice sheet is 2.7 km on average, and as much as 4 km in some places.
The international treaty that governs Antarctica states that it belongs to no person or country, and that its minerals, animals and plants must be left put. It is a free, demilitarized land of magnificent beauty that is dedicated to scientific research and international cooperation for peace.
The first tourists to set foot there flew in from Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1957 aboard a PanAm flight that landed briefly at McMurdo Sound.
But the real pioneer of Antarctic tourism was Lars-Eric Lindblad, who in 1966 began offering wealthy passengers unusual cruises to the frozen continent with professors on board lecturing on the continent’s history, geology, glaciers and wildlife.
By sea and land
The most common way of getting to Antaractica is by ship during the November-March southern hemisphere warm season. Most cruises leave from Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, and visit the Antarctic Peninsula only.
During the 1999/2000 season, 143 Antarctic cruises run by eight operators departed from the port of Ushuaia. IAATO put the number of tourists transported at 15,000 — a new record.
The steady increase in Antarctic tourism of the past years is expected to continue as the “baby boom” generation retires with plenty of money to enjoy special destinations that few people manage to experience.
North Americans, Canadians and Australians are the best candidates for an Antarctic adventure. Then come the Germans, the English, other Europeans, the Japanese and the rest of the world. South Americans still comprise only a tiny percentage of total visitors.
Adventure Network International (ANI) is the only company that takes adventurous, land-based expeditions to the interior of Antarctica. They fly a Lockheed L-382 G Hercules and two DHC-6 Twin Otters out of Punta Arenas, Chile to their Patriot Hills base camp in the Ellsworth Mountains.
Since 1985 they have taken over 350 mountaineers up the 4,897-metre-high Vinson Massif, Antarctica’s highest mountain, among other peaks.
ANI also offers particularly well-heeled clients flights aboard Twin Otters from the Patriot Hills base camp to the South Pole. The flights depend entirely on weather conditions, meaning that passengers often have to wait at the base camp for hours or days until the weather over the Pole clears and the pilot can fly safely.
On February 5, 2001, 140 long-distance runners will run on King George Island off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
This unusual event, organized by Marathon Tours & Travel and tour operator Marine Expeditions, will take the runners past the scientific research bases of Uruguay, Chile, China and Russia, whose members will provide water, medical assistance and supportive cheers.
Most Antarctic tourism is conducted by members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), founded in 1991. Dedicated to safe and environmentally responsible private sector travel, the Association was instrumental in developing Recommendation XVII-1 of the Antarctic Treaty system.
Thanks to this initiative, it is forbidden to touch, handle or disturb wildlife in Antarctica.
IAATO provides a forum in which Antarctic tour operators can get together to develop standards and practices that will better protect the Antarctic environment.
According to IAATO records of tour itineraries and site visits, 150 Antarctic sites including 20 research stations have been visited by tourists since 1989.
Most visits have centred on 50 sites that receive more than 100 visitors per season.
The most popular sites
A handful of sites on or just off the Antarctic Peninsula — Cuverville Island, Neko Harbour, Paulet Island, Petermann Island — received over 4,000 visitors during 1999/2000 season.
Argentina’s Almirante Brown and Chile’s González Vildea summer stations in Paradise Bay received 3,369 and 2,871 tourists, respectively — improvements of 12 percent and 32 percent on the previous season.
The most popular destination of all is Port Lockroy.
This northwestern Antarctica base, where the British Antarctic Survey is conducting a Gentoo penguin monitoring programme, received 6,429 visitors in 1997-98 and over 7,800 in 1999-2000.
Tourists go ashore on an island near the port to see the immense Gentoo colony and a smaller cormorant rookery. Recent research indicates that the tourists do not disturb the gentoos in that area.
Port Lockroy’s popularity is also due to the fact that it has a small museum and is the only place where you can send post cards from Antarctica with a proper Antarctic stamp.
Immediately behind Port Lockroy in tour organizers’ preferences is Deception Island just off the Antarctic Peninsula which shot to fame in 1970 when a volcano erupted and formed a caldera (hot water sink).
The horseshoe-shaped island is a paradise for geologists because its lava is different from the rest on the continent. It is also has two places — Whaler’s Bay and Pendulum Cove — where tourists can take a dip in frigid Antarctica, where air temperatures that never exceed 2ºC. Last season, over 7,300 called at the former and 5,300 at the latter.
Experienced Antarctic tour operators believe that operational realities and economic considerations will discourage traditional cruise companies from including Antarctica among their itineraries; the continent is too remote, is separated from civilization by potentially stormy seas, and is of limited interest to the mass market.
That is, they predict that it will remain an expensive, specialized niche destination offered by a limited number of experienced operators who focus on educational voyages to select areas of exceptional wilderness and natural history value.
Several expeditions visit points outside the Antarctic Peninsula every year — a tendency that Quark Expeditions has spearheaded since 1991.
Quark is the only cruise operator that uses powerful polar class icebreakers as well as research ships for expedition cruises.
The company chartered its first Soviet icebreakers in the 1991/92 season, and when the Soviet Union broke up they began leasing them for operations in the Arctic and Antarctica.
Since 1992 the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov has been taking well-heeled adventurers to the Weddell Sea and the Ross Sea region and, on one occasion, as far afield as East Antarctica and the islands of the Indian Ocean. These expeditions have frequently included visits to Emperor penguin rookeries on the continent’s bleak coasts.
Quark Expeditions was also the first operator to successfully complete a circumnavigation of the Antarctic continent for adventure travellers.
The icebreaker set out with 66 passengers from the Malvinas Islands on November 24, 1996 and returned on January 24, 1997 after having crossed the Antarctic Circle eight times while visiting 16 research stations, 19 penguin rookeries, 29 historical sites and monuments, and the magnetic South Pole.
Until then, only the early explorers and government-sponsored expeditions had had the opportunity to meet the challenge of reaching the Pole.
The icrebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn, the Kapitan Klebnikov’s sister ship, completed a full circumnavigation of the Arctic during the last season.
Both vessels were built by a Finnish shipyard for the Russian government to navigate ice-clogged high-latitude waterways that are closed to conventional shipping.
They have been refurbished to comfortably accomodate passengers in 50 outside cabins and suites and are staffed by Russian officers and crew highly experienced in polar navigation. European chefs prepare exquisite cusine from around the world, an experienced team of naturalists gives lectures, and passengers board rubber zodiac boats to see wildlife and historic and natural sites first-hand, weather permitting.
The icebreakers routinely carry helicopters in which tourists take turns seeing the landscape from the air.
The Kapitan Dranitsyn will be operating the Antarctic this season from Ushuaia, setting out on its first cruise on November 22 and returning from the last on March 12.
Quark’s short cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula last 11 to 12 days.
The longer voyages that include the Malvinas and the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia in addition to the peninsula take 20 days.
A few special departures in 2002 will include the Weddell Sea and Marguerite Bay.
For further information on these voyages, call 4806-6326, fax 4804-9474, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.quarkexpeditions.com.