More adventures with Ammon and Sasha:
I think everyone, even non-travelers have some preconceived notion of Antarctica. Few places can inspire the same degree of awe and dread or have so many stories of tragedy and heroism during its early exploration. It is the coldest, driest, windiest and on average, highest of all the continents. 98% is permanently covered in ice averaging 2 km thick. Few species are capable of making a life on the continent and higher lifeforms are all invariably linked to the coastal regions and the sea. But that sea is rich in resources and for the seals, whales, birds and penguins that have adapted, there is plenty for everyone.
Since 1959, with the signing of the Antarctic Treaty and through multiple subsequent refinements and additions, the continent has existed in a special state. Military and mining activities are forbidden, all territorial claims have been suspended and the focus now is on peaceful scientific research. Dozens of countries maintain research stations (of which there are approximately 70) though most are summer only facilities. In total roughly 5000 people live on Antarctica in the summer and 1000 in winter.
With all this harshness you would think it would be hard to go, but the draw for many is strong and Antarctica is, perhaps surprisingly, not the most difficult or remote place I’ve been. Tourism is a growing but tightly regulated industry with around 40,000 annual visitors currently.
For many it’s the draw of knocking off the last continent on the list. For others it is the penguins, and really, who doesn’t love penguins? Imagine thousands of penguins all day long. Whatever the reason though, it is impossible to come back without a deeper respect and understanding for the power and beauty of a nature so completely unimpressed by humanity.
There are a few options, but the reality is that 90% of tourists visit by ship from Ushuaia. There are also ships from Punta Arenas in Chile, or even from Australia and New Zealand but the frequency and expense scare most people away. There are also a few fly-in tours which get you to islands just off the coast and then continue by ship. The tourist season is from November to March with January being considered the best and most popular month. Ships depart almost daily from Ushuaia and the standard classic tour is 10-11 days roundtrip taking in sites along the Antarctic peninsula and South Shetland Islands. There are variations on the theme but the reality is all the tours will be visiting roughly the same area.
Antarctica is amazing. No question. We had an unbelievable experience there. But there is a danger in simply recommending anyone to throw down thousands of dollars on a once-in-a-lifetime trip and expect it to be perfect. Perhaps more so than any other tour and location in the world, weather is everything. We had good weather. There is no guarantee of such things. From rough crossings to aborted landings and cancelled sailings, anything is possible. There have been tours that have gone and not set foot off the ship, despite multiple days planned to do so. It is unfortunately the biggest risk and one nobody has control over.
Although tours are 10-11 days long, the first and last days don’t count because you leave in the evening and arrive in the morning. Crossing the Drake Passage (notorious for rough seas) takes 2 days each way so really you only get 4 or 5 days in Antarctica in the end. But those days have the potential to be mind-blowing and you’ll lose all track of time.
How To Go?
Unless you are booking way in advance because you know what you want, the other common option is to wait and gamble on a discounted last-minute berth. These often pop up a couple weeks to a month before sailing, but demand for them is high so you have to be ready to commit very quickly. We used FreestyleAdventureTravel.com to book our last minute trip. They came highly recommended and were very good to us. They have loads of info on their site, great communication and while every last-minute company pretty much ends up with the same deals and prices, they threw in free rental gear which we definitely needed. Last minute deals definitely result in some savings but it is very time and ship dependent. We were looking more for a “best value” situation rather than cheapest overall. The last few years has seen increased demand drive up prices even on last minute deals though and the cheapest berths we saw this season were in the $5000-6000 US range.
What To Look For
Antarctic regulations only allow 100 tourists on land at a time, therefore the smaller the ship the better so you can maximize your landing time and not spend time waiting for your turn. Most ships hold up to 200 passengers but a big factor in our choice was that our ship, the Ushuaia, only had 88. There are occasionally really cheap “Antarctica” cruises on large cruise ships that detour over to see the continent but they don’t do any landings. That would just suck. Ships also vary by nationality of crew or onboard expeditionary staff and their level of expertise. Our ship was predominantly Argentine which suited us just fine. Different ships also offer a limited number of extra activities like kayaking, snowshoeing, camping, etc that cost more and usually aren’t available when booking last minute. Our ship didn’t have those options anyway and we weren’t looking for them.
So there we were, walking down the pier in Ushuaia, preparing to load onto the Ushuaia, our ship and home for the next 11 days. We were bursting with emotions. Disbelief, excitement, apprehension. Praying for good weather, good sightings, good health. Sasha had never been on a ship for more than a few hours before and wasn’t sure what to expect or how she’d react. I knew I was prone to seasickness and following the recommendations of everyone, had a bag full of meds to try to help.
We were taken aboard, handed over our passports and were shown our room. Bunkbeds with a bathroom shared between us and the Bolivian couple in the room next door. Back upstairs in the lounge, we were introduced to the staff, rules, were issued additional gear and had our safety briefings. We furtively scanned the room looking for potential friends. I’d told Sasha that it would probably be us and a bunch of snobby old rich people but the reality turned out to be much more pleasant. We later learned that there were 16 nationalities aboard (the largest group being a big Japanese one) and although the average demographic is generally very geriatric, we had a surprisingly high number of “young” people on this sailing. Almost immediately we found each other, with the friendships and group dynamics refining themselves over the next few days and we made great friends with a few. There were 2 other couples in their 30’s also midway through year-long trips like us that booked last minute. A few other solo females and a pair of tough firefighters from the US rounded us out.
|Ready for an adventure|
|Cozy quarters. The bed railings are absolutely essential.|
|The lounge where we spent most of our time.|
|Meals are always social events.|
Things were looking good. And then the captain came in. “Hi folks, I’d like to welcome you aboard and also to let you know that our sailing is going to be a bit delayed. We are going to overnight in the Beagle Channel and start crossing the Drake Passage tomorrow. See this weather forecast? Green is good. Violet and blue is hell.” &^$#%! At dinner that night the doctor on board came around with a bag of anti-nausea meds and literally handed them out like candy….
|This is what a hellish Drake Passage looks like|
|Handing out the meds.|
The next morning I made it to breakfast for about 5 minutes before retreating back to bed feeling ill. I wasn’t seen again until the next day… I found that I was non-functionally okay, meaning if I did nothing but lay in bed I was fine but as soon as I tried to get up things went quickly downhill. I eventually switched to different anti-nausea meds (Dramamine) and got a little better. Sasha on the other hand was a superstar and was never seasick but actually ended up enjoying the rough journey as part of the adventure. She “fondly” recalls going to lunch without me that first Drake day and watching people throw up while food and utensils flew all over. We were to later learn that at its worst the wind had been 35 knots with waves of 8 meters.
Things finally calmed down on the 2nd day of the crossing and on the morning of our 4th day of the trip we woke to a whole new world of beauty and magic.