The last frontier for a great luxury adventure

By Mark Johanson, CNN

(CNN) — Travelers to Antarctica always remember where they first set foot on the frozen continent. For me it was Portal Point, a narrow point of land jutting west from the peninsula just north of the Antarctic Circle.

Crackling sea ice had formed a thin layer of white on steel-colored water when a Zodiac boat brought me ashore. I then kicked off its bouncy ledge and took a few party steps through knee-deep slushy snow, doing a few more hundred en route to a hilltop vista.

All around me, mountains of blinding whiteness clad in blankets of ancient snow. Below, doe-eyed Weddell seals napped on the pack ice while penguins belly-surfed the southern seas.

It’s the kind of scene travelers dream of when embarking on the complex – and hugely expensive – mission of planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica.

There’s a lot to consider, and the odyssey begins long before you leave South America.

Factors that go into planning

The size of the vessel is the first thing to consider when planning a trip.

Smaller ships (with a higher guest-to-guide ratio) offer faster check-out departures at landing sites, more options for where the boat can go, and plenty of time to get answers to all your questions about Antarctica.

Cost, of course, is crucial. Traveling to Antarctica isn’t cheap, and most ships cost between $500 (low end) and $1,500 (high end) per person per day, including all meals, some drinks and most shore excursions. Sites such as Antarctica Cruise Guide and Cruise Critic can help you compare options.

Larger ships tend to offer a wider range of price alternatives. Yet cheaper tickets often omit key items such as required gear (including knee-length waterproof boots), pre- and post-trip accommodation, and flights to major departure points in Ushuaia, in Argentina, or Punta Arenas, Chile. So make sure these things are factored into price comparisons.

Durability is another key element. Reputable companies will belong to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, whose aim is to “advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally friendly private sector travel to Antarctica”.

Many companies are now also carbon neutral and will display the certification on their website.

Finally, you want to be sure to check out the type of programming offered. Most trips will include a strong educational component with daily lectures helping you contextualize the sights and sounds of the seventh continent.

A difficult start

All of these criteria ultimately led me to Antarctica21’s Magellan Explorer, which accommodates 73 guests and had an educational focus.

As a bonus, it operates on the Air Cruise model, where you fly over the notoriously choppy Drake Passage in a plane (instead of enduring two wild days at sea), starting and ending your trip near the airstrip. from the Chilean base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva on King George Island.

Even still, the trip was not 100% smooth. Those first moments at Portal Point last December were the culmination of a long-held dream. But in the moment, they felt like a hard-earned dream.

The previous night’s journey through the Bransfield Strait, which separates the peninsula from the South Shetland Islands, was filled with roaring winds, wild waves and a level of seasickness that no pill could extinguish.

It was a journey that was reminiscent of pirate ship rides at a carnival. Still, it turned out to be the only night like that on my seven-day trip to Antarctica, where the only thing you can predict about the weather is that it will be totally unpredictable.

Antarctica’s traditional tourist season runs from November to March, and as a rule, temperatures typically range from around 28 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (about -2 to 4 degrees Celsius), although high winds can cause it. make it much colder. You’ll want to get very specific information about the type of specialist clothing and gear provided, and pack with “the onion layering system” in mind, choosing items you can put on or take off as needed.

During my trip, the temperature hovered around zero, but it wasn’t as freezing as I had imagined. It was, after all, the start of the austral summer, when the sun can spend almost a whole day without dipping below the horizon.

Science up close

After cruising the Magellan Explorer for two action-packed days, enjoying onboard excursions and lectures on wildlife and geology, I signed up for a special outing with Seattle native Allison Cusick, who was in charge of citizen science.

We set out one frosty morning in a Zodiac for the port of Neko, an icy cove on the fjord of Andvord Bay.

It was here, in 2017, that Cusick founded FjordPhyto, a project that allows everyday tourists to collect concentrated samples of phytoplankton (the base of the aquatic food chain), which will inform his research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography of San Diego.

“Science was once behind closed doors,” said the PhD student as she navigated a maze of blue icebergs in search of an area of ​​clear sea where we could catch samples. “It’s a way to open that door, especially here in Antarctica where the Antarctic Treaty preserved it as a place of peace and science 62 years ago.”

We idled in the Zodiac near a colony of 250 breeding pairs of gentoo penguins, waddling through the snow in front of a calving glacier. Like so many others along the Antarctic Peninsula, Cusick said he was in a state of dramatic decline.

The polar scientist takes tourists to collect phytoplankton samples – and record seawater temperature and salinity – at sites like this on the Antarctic Peninsula. That’s because it’s not just one of the fastest warming places on Earth; it is also one of the most difficult for scientists to achieve.

By participating in her research – and helping scientists with limited budgets – she hoped that visitors like me would leave as Antarctic ambassadors.

“It’s when you come to a place and learn more about it, come home and tell its stories,” she said.

FjordPhyto now operates on half a dozen vessels from various operators, as hands-on experiences like these become a focal point of Antarctic tourism. Some companies involve visitors in seabird surveys, while others encourage guests to take part in internet-based projects like Happy Whale and Polar Tag, where you can upload photos of animals to help researchers follow migration patterns.

What to expect along the way

Most of the time, however, the days of an expedition cruise along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula (where the vast majority of ships sail) are filled with morning and afternoon shore excursions, which are scheduled the night before depending on weather conditions.

Some companies let you kayak in protected fjords, secluded bays for skiing, or even scuba dive in subzero waters, but I was content to spend my days hiking and photographing wildlife.

One of the best places for this was Palaver Point on Two Hummock Island, where I climbed two miles to the top of a pearly white hill following the red flags a leading team had arranged for me. The views were over a steep bay and a small colony of chinstrap penguins, which get their name from the tiny black bands under their fluffy white faces.

I also observed from a Zodiac humpback whales coming out of the waters of Fournier Bay, on the northeast side of Anvers Island, offering a spectacle of acrobatics so spectacular that they seemed to be choreographed.

Back on the ship, I could sightsee from the comfort of my balcony as there were no windowless interiors (all cabins faced the sea). I also took trips to the gym and the library before ending each night at the bar swapping stories with travelers from as far away as New York, London and Manila.

Towards the end of the trip, we were all dining together in the evening with three-course meals, dropping photos and exchanging email addresses for glasses of wine from Chile and Argentina. We had shared the kind of experience by which even seasoned travelers felt changed – and we had a special bond because of it.

“It’s quite powerful to be here,” said expedition leader Hadleigh Measham over a drink in the bar on my penultimate night. “A lot of people come just to tick a box, their seventh continent, but they leave caring more about the natural world and our place in it.”

Last stop

The final leg of our adventure was a classic that appears on nearly every Antarctic itinerary: Deception Island. One of two active volcanoes in Antarctica, it’s also one of the only places in the world where you can cruise right in the middle of a flooded caldera.

This caldera — Port Foster — doubles as a protected port. Its steaming black sand beach has witnessed 200 years of Antarctic history spanning explorers, sealers, whalers and scientists.

We stopped in the morning at Whalers Bay, home to the rusting remains of a Norwegian whaling station and the ruins of a British science base damaged by mudslides after an eruption in 1969.

In the afternoon, we circled Baily Head, a promontory outside the volcano, home to up to 100,000 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins (making it the largest penguin colony in the world). western side of the Antarctic Peninsula).

Hundreds of little birds with black-painted helmets raced along “penguin highways” from a gray-sand beach to cliffs painted green with seaweed. Deception Island was like a vision of Antarctica’s past and present – the storybook ending to my week-long journey exploring the history, science and nature of Earth’s last frontier. Earth.

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