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Travel Story by Ian Reynolds

  The logistics of getting to Antarctica
Antarctica
 


A penguin family

How to get there

Antarctica is a haven for adventurers, animal lovers, bird watchers and iceberg junkies with a penchant for exploring places few travellers have experienced.

Most Antarctic tour brochures carefully spell out what is not included in the price of the cruise. Typically, the additional costs of a cruise are for optional items including alcohol, laundry, faxes or phone calls, tips and souvenirs.

Watch out for operators who separate port taxes from their listed price as these are a hefty addition to the cost. This usually costs an extra $300 and has to be paid in cash. Travellers cheques may be acceptable but you need to check with your tour operator. The other alternative is to pay by credit card but this may result in an extra 3% commission.

Another additional cost not included in the original price for my trip was a fuel surcharge. Due to the increase in the price of oil the ship companies imposed this levy on everybody. This may no longer be applicable when you book your trip.

The cost of an Antarctic cruise will cost at least US$3000 for 10 days/9 nights. This includes all meals, activities, Zodiac boat rides, scientific lectures and entertainment.

The cheapest prices involve sharing a cabin and bathroom but when the natural environment is the main attraction this is not really an issue. These get booked up very quickly so it pays to do your planning in advance. My trip was booked 10 months prior to departure. It also helped that the US dollar was weak against the pound when I made my booking.

The tourist season in Antarctica runs during the austral summer from November to March. Berths on expedition ships often book quickly and reserving your space well in advance is recommended.

While Heritage Expeditions sorted out things for me, it was actually G.A.P. Adventures (www.gapadventures.com) who were running the show due to their contract with the MS Explorer. They are relatively new on the scene and offer some of the most competitive prices. With companies like G.A.P. entering the market and offering expedition prices at around $3000 with no single-supplement charge for individual travellers who want to be paired with a same-sex roommate, this trip of a lifetime doesn’t have to remain a dream.

Depending on the flexibility of your itinerary you can secure last minute berths at discount prices several days before the ship’s departure in Ushuaia. At my hostel, a fellow traveller was very tempted by a last minute offer for $2700 that included port taxes and alcohol as well as a complimentary expedition jacket (http://www.rumbosur.com.ar/ingles/indexeng.htm). This was an outstanding deal during the peak season but unfortunately his visa for Argentina was due to expire before the ship was due to return.

So if you are not pushed for time while travelling in Chile or Argentina and you fancy travelling further south it would be worth investigating this possibility because last minute bargains are available.

Also the cost of the cruise does not usually involve the cost of getting to and from the point of departure, in my case Ushuaia.

Travelling from Ushuaia in Argentina is probably the most convenient and cheapest option. Expeditions also go from New Zealand but these are usually more expensive and you spend more time at sea.

There are several cruises you can do to Antarctica.

1. The most popular one is the 10 days/9 nights cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula.

2. The other is a voyage to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula, which can take between 18-23 days.

Usually your expedition will be on a ship crewed by wildlife experts, scientists and old sea-salts. These tours carry anywhere between 35 and 350 passengers, though - obviously - the fewer people on the boat, the better the trip. There's nothing worse than spending a small fortune on a trip south only to discover you're on a glorified cruise ship. Check all the costs and itineraries carefully before booking, or you might find yourself spending half your trip off the coast of South America (not that there's anything wrong with that). No trips take place in the southern winter (mid year). December to March is the peak time to visit this icy wilderness.

Our group wasn’t packed with the crowd who would have been the mainstays of an Antarctica voyage ten years ago, when expedition prices were all but impossible for anyone except the wealthiest of travellers to afford.

The MS Explorer boasted a mix of travellers ranging from independent backpackers in their 20s to middle-aged and retired couples who had long dreamt of visiting Antarctica or were celebrating a birthday or anniversary. There was even a couple on their honeymoon!

When selecting your Antarctic journey, the most important factors to keep in mind are trip length, price, locations visited, and the number of people the ship holds.

A chit system is generally used aboard ship, whereby you sign for purchases and these are added up at the end of your journey. Most ships accept credit cards and US dollars. On the bases you can usually pay in the national currency, US dollars and credit cards. Tipping is not included in the cruise but is a bit more than an optional extra. Generally US$10 a day is considered appropriate from each passenger.

For the first time, scuba diving, including night diving, is being offered to tourists who have suitable qualifications. No decompression diving is undertaken - the dives are less than 39m (128ft). All divers must have at least 100 logged dives and be certified as a PADI Rescue Diver or higher (equivalent qualifications are accepted). Divers must bring all their own equipment.

The cost of sea cruises varies, but if you're getting much change from US$5000 for a 14-day circuit, it's not a bad deal; a few companies now offer cruises for under US$3000, but these are few and far between. Most ships have a range of accommodation options - if you don't mind bunking in with a few other penguin-spotters (and sharing the bathroom) you can reduce your bill significantly. At the other end of the scale, if you require a corner suite with a marble bathroom, private butler service and your own satellite telephone, you can start adding the zeroes!


What to wear

Zodiacs, the inflatable outboard-powered boats popularised by French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, have revolutionised Antarctic travel. They are safe, stable and ideal for cruising among icebergs and landing in otherwise inaccessible areas. Even if one or more of a zodiac's air-filled chambers is punctured it will stay afloat. Landings are either 'wet', meaning you'll have to step into the water before getting onto dry land, or 'dry', meaning you'll step straight onto dry land. In practice, however, all landings are 'wet'.

It is unnecessary to spend a fortune on the latest, high-priced polar gear. A warm, waterproof or water-resistant parka, waterproof pants or ski pants, plenty of layers of thermal underwear and high, waterproof boots, as well as the typical winter weather gear like gloves, scarves, and hats will be more than adequate.

It's far better to dress in a series of thinner layers than in a single very heavy coat, jumper or pair of pants - air is trapped and warmed between these layers. A simple windproof/waterproof jacket is much better than a bulky outer layer, and aboard ship you'll be most comfortable in regular jeans and the like. Also remember to take good-quality UV-filtering sunglasses.

High-tech synthetic fabrics are readily available and are often better than wool or cotton. Brightly coloured Polartec garments are the norm aboard ship and are favoured by expedition staff. Also good are fabrics like Capilene and polypropylene, especially for long underwear.

Much of your Antarctic gear can be rented cheaply in Ushuaia at places like Antarctic Equipment (http://www.tierradelfuego.org.ar/antarctic%5Fequipment/). This is where I hired my waterproof pants and knee high waterproof boots – these are important since you’ll often be stepping into calf-high water during landings.


The environment

Plant species in Antarctica are far more numerous than you might expect given the region's harsh climate and aridity, but they're all humble little life forms. There are hundreds of species of algae, around 350 species of lichen, 100 species of moss, two grass species and a pearlwort. There are even some lichens and algae that grow inside rocks - endolithic plants.

The largest of the land-based animal species is a wingless midge (Belgica antarctica) that grows to just over a centimetre. The rest, all invertebrates, are even smaller.

By contrast, the oceans around the huge landmass literally teem with life, while the skies above provide clean, crisp air for many species of bird. About 45 species of bird breed on and around the Antarctic landmass, among them the Emperor, Adélie and Gentoo penguins, the snow petrel and the South polar skua.

With the waters full of krill, the Southern Ocean is a haven for fish, seal, whale and seabird species. At least eight species of whale - including the sperm, southern right and killer - are regularly sighted in the waters, while at least eight varieties of albatross circle the skies.

It is important not to get too close to any Antarctic wildlife you might see. Unused to human interference, the stress can cause more damage than it would appear, and sudden movements by frightened seals have caused them to crush their young.


Cultural Antarctica

One of the highlights of any expedition to Antarctica is a visit to one of the Antarctic bases.

There are no indigenous peoples of Antarctica, but that doesn't mean that visitors shouldn't be respectful of fragile societies that do exist there. Antarctic bases are places of work and researchers need to take time out of their work to accommodate tourists. There's a desire amongst the Antarctic communities to be hospitable to visitors, but they are often pressed for time to complete their work before the season ends.

Never ask to use the toilet in a base: it's environmentally unsound to leave your waste on Antarctica when the facilities on your ship are available.

The isolation of permanent station staff is long and profound. According to recent studies, people who've spent a year or more on the continent display characteristics similar to returning prisoners of war, when they return home. As the last resupply vessel pulls away the wintering staff, faced with 8 or 9 months' isolation with their comrades, can feel a mixture of dread and elation, but being cut off from the rest of the world is part of what's attractive for these hardy types.

Typically, station staff will be made up of a team leader, a doctor, chef, a handful of meteorological observers, a seismologist, upper-atmosphere physicist, a few diesel mechanics, a carpenter, plumber and an electrician.

Over the years there have been a number of incidents that illustrate just how difficult it can be to be trapped on the ice with 15 or so imperfect human beings winter long: recently on Casey, the 'tradies' (tradespeople) mutinied, got wildly drunk on home-brew and terrorised the other station staff. The ringleaders were sent home prematurely. During Mawson's 1911-13 expedition, a radio operator had a breakdown and dispatched bogus wireless messages. On Wilkes, years later, a diesel mechanic suffered a breakdown and began wielding a knife - he was confined to a makeshift padded cell for 5 months until he could be taken away aboard spring's first ship. A doctor on an Argentine expedition burnt down the base to force his evacuation, a Soviet scientist once killed a colleague with an axe over a game of chess and FBI agents were sent to the US McMurdo station after two cooks were attacked with a hammer.

Bases often exhibit a distinct national character and typically have video rooms, billiard tables, libraries and bars. Concert evenings are common. Station staff have a penchant for clubs: the 300 Club, at the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole base, requires new starters to step naked into a sauna, heated to 200° Fahrenheit (93° Celsius), and then immediately step outside to run around the pole that marks the South Pole (there is one) at -100° Fahrenheit (-73° Celsius). The Vanda Swimming Club, at the New Zealand summer base, is made up of those who've broken through the ice of Lake Vanda, bared all and taken the plunge.


Click on photo to enlarge


MS Explorer  Leopard seal  Humpback whale


E-mail: ian@deaftravel.co.uk
Date Submitted:
30 Sep 2006


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