Eco-Destination: Antarctica

Well, I don’t think you’re going to find any hostels in Antarctica. Just getting there is going to require burning a lot of fossil fuels. So you’ll have to save up some money, and work hard to minimize the eco-impact of your trip. But if it’s your dream to see the world, you’re likely to have Antarctica on your list, or else you’d be totally missing one of the seven continents.

As winter arrives here in the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes, summer is arriving in the south polar regions. On December 21, the Winter Solstice, when day is short and the sun is low on the horizon here in New England, the sun will shine for 24 hours straight at the Antarctic Circle. So if you’re planning to go, now’s the time to start packing.

antarctic.jpgMost tours don’t take you all the way to the Antarctic Circle, but just to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, a curving finger of land that reaches northward toward the pointy end of South America. The shores here are ice-free for part of the summer, and you can explore the bays and islands, hike and kayak, amid glaciers, mountains, and abundant wildlife. Naturalists accompany most groups.

A few examples: Journeys Intl. has a range of tours, including one that will take you cruising to the far side of the continent and onward to Australia…. 38 days, for about $40,000. Quark Expeditions uses ice-breaking ships to take you where other tour operators can’t. Aurora Expeditions, based in Australia, helps support scientific research in the region. Most tours are around $5000 and up. GAP Adventures, based in Canada, has trips starting at about $3500.

antarctic-5.jpgPricey as it is, about 30,000 tourists a year visit the continent, about three times as many as just 10 years ago. That’s raised concerns about impact on the fragile, pristine environment. Dr. John Shears, an environmental expert at the British Antarctic Survey, told The Guardian that travelers should avoid the big cruise ships (with up to 2,800 passengers!). “On the smaller boats, where there are lectures on geology and science, passengers feel a sense of ownership of what is going on in Antarctica,” says Dr. Shears. “That is less likely to happen when you’re on board a huge cruise ship.”

He recommends travellers book with a member of the International Association for Antarctic Operators, which sets guidelines that ensure environmentally sound travel. Most tours leave by boat from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, and you’ll note those already-high prices don’t include your airfare there.

If your budget for this year doesn’t include Antarctica, you can always spend $10 and go to the movies. “Happy Feet,” the new animated film about penguins, will give you at least an imaginary glimpse of the place. If you missed last year’s documentary film, “March of the Penguins,” it’s out on DVD. Or check out some real live penguins, via the Maryland Zoo webcam.

happyfeet.jpgMore info:
IAATO photo gallery
CIA World Factbook
The legendary Shackleton expedition…
A virtual tour to the South Pole…
The British Antarctic Survey.