When I’m on vacation I like to travel to places I’ve never been. I love how discovering a destination feels like I’m on an adventure. My friend Dave (a technology and strategy consultant in downtown Toronto) thinks the same way, and his latest trip to the world’s coldest, driest, and windiest continent makes my vacations seem boring. Yes, Antarctica is open for tourists. And it does not disappoint.
Before adding Antarctica to my bucket list it is best to prepare, so I asked Dave some questions about his visit to the world’s least-visited continent.
Question #1 How did you decide to make the commitment to visit the world’s least populated, most remote, and coldest continent?
I’ve always been fascinated by “The White Continent.” I did geography projects on Antarctica as a kid, studied penguins, watched the IMAX movies, etc. It’s been a bit of an obsession, I guess! When I read a newspaper article describing how it was now possible to visit this fantasy site at the end of the world, I knew I had to go. I decided to make the commitment when I realized that if I didn’t go now, I probably wouldn’t be able to go until I was retired, given the cost and time commitment required.
Ah, the fascination with the unknown. To go where few people have gone before, see the end of the world with your own eyes. Realizing a dream takes guts, and Dave had enough to commit and accomplish his dream. Respect!
Question #2 What were your choices like when you were deciding on a tour operator?
There were a few tour operators, actually. Companies like G Adventures and Quark Expeditions were the prominent ones with decades of polar experience, while others like Mer et Voyages and Zegrahm Expeditions were discovered as part of web searches. Ultimately I made my decision based on a combination of experience, price point, departure times, and availability of my two “must-haves”: to cross the Antarctic Circle, and to go winter camping on Antarctica.
So, there’s more than one company crazy enough to run tours to a place with frigid temperatures and zero amenities. Also, I had no idea that tours have been running for decades. And you don’t have to be Indiana Jones to qualify to book one.
Question #3 Is there a ‘typical’ person who takes a tour of Antarctica?
Most of the people fell into two categories: single / just-married backpacker types who didn’t yet have kids, and retirees looking to see the world or visit their seventh continent. But all were driven by a sheer love of adventure and a desire to get off the beaten path and see something new. This was not your typical Caribbean cruise clientele!
Sounds like you’ve got two ends of a spectrum without much between: people who are starting to travel, and people who have travelled extensively. Chasing that seventh continent is on a lot of bucket lists…
Question #4 So, what is there to do in Antarctica? Isn’t just a bunch of ice and snow?
Well, yes, there’s a lot of snow and ice. But there’s also breathtaking vistas, icebergs of the deepest blue twisted into the most unbelievable of shapes, and some fascinating research stations to visit – stations that were instrumental in the early environmental research of the continent and of the world. We visited the still-active research station where the ozone hole was first discovered, and explored long-shuttered habitats since converted into museums that documented life at the end of the world in the early part of the 20th century.
And the wildlife! I’m the first to admit that I’m not usually a wildlife person, but we were surrounded by friendly wildlife that would get so close you could touch it. Whales blowing right next to our Zodiacs, penguins walking right up to us as they fetched pebbles (to build their nests) or fish (to feed their chicks), and seals lounging unassumingly on ice floes or beaches, casting curious looks as we went by.
And if that wasn’t enough, our tour also offered us the opportunity of camping, kayaking, swimming (polar dip, anyone?), and hiking in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands. We also enjoyed getting to know our expedition leaders, who regaled us with fascinating stories of their own time spent in Antarctica, from lonely research trips to military intrigue during the Falkland War. Their passion for the land, its creatures and its history was thoroughly contagious.
Ha! I knew there was more there than snow and ice. There are opportunities to see fearless wildlife in its own home and discover what it means to live in Antarctica. Wait… people live in Antarctica? Like, for real? I’ve got a lot to learn.
Dave’s photos really show the diversity of wildlife and scenery in Antarctica, check them out. Keep reading to find out more about what’s in store for travellers to the White Continent.
Question #5 What was your favourite part of the tour?
Crossing the Antarctic Circle. It was 4:00 AM on our third night, and we had been warned that ice buildup might prevent us from achieving this critical tour objective. I was on the bridge on a brightly-lit polar summer night, nervously crossing my fingers and watching the crew navigate the last obstacles between us and the Circle. We had just encountered, and were trying to push through, the first Antarctic sea ice of our voyage. The ice had steadily gotten thicker over the last hour and a half, starting from scarce patches of distant flotsam and now appearing as dense aggregates that we could no longer avoid. The captain called out course changes faster than the ship could turn, and the hull rumbled with every impact of the ice flows below. I wondered if it would be too thick, and that the order to turn the ship about and abort would be given. But finally, with perseverance and a little bit of luck, we broke through into an ice-free bay, and the expedition leader announced over the intercom that we had reached our milestone and that the occasion was being celebrated on the observation deck with some hot chocolate and Baileys. A great memory!
Pitted against nature, there are no guarantees. There’s only one chance to see and do everything (unless you’re planning on visiting Antarctica more than once…). Nerve racking indeed, and extra triumphant when you achieve it.
Question #6 What was your least favourite part of the tour?
The expedition geologist and glaciologist was a bit of a bore, unfortunately. I’m a fan of geology and Earth sciences, but this guy even managed to put me to sleep. Thankfully it didn’t impact my overall appreciation of the beautiful ice and rock formations that we saw, and I did manage to extract enough from his talks to also appreciate what I saw from an educational perspective too.
I’m glad Dave didn’t mention “having to escape a sinking Zodiac” or “eating whale blubber for the entire trip”. Considering all the unique experiences, I think I could deal with the less-than-stimulating geology lecture.
Question #7 How cold was it really? Did your eyes freeze together?
Actually, it wasn’t very cold at all – it was the Antarctic summer when I was down there, and the temperature hovered around -5 C the whole time. My friends back home in Toronto were colder! But since we were on the coast it was a wet cold that went right to your bones, and the wind occasionally got blowing hard enough to give you a chill. A good jacket, toque and mitts are definitely required.
Summer even comes to the bottom of the world? It’s not the kind of summer where you wear shorts every day, but I don’t do that in Canada anyway. This is the first time I’ve heard of someone escaping the Canadian winter by going to Antarctica.
Question #8 Was there anything you didn’t bring that you wished you had brought with you?
Waterproof pants and gloves. Merely being warm is not enough when you’re getting in and out of Zodiacs twice a day. Occasionally you get splashed, and if you’re gear isn’t waterproof, you’re going to be cold for the next three hours regardless of what temperature your gear is rated to.
That’s why your Mom always told you to bring extra socks! Although in this case it’s not just your feet that can get cold. I can only imagine what it’s like to soak both your pants and your gloves. Double yuck.
Question #9 Do you have advice for people considering a trip to Antarctica?
To get to Antarctica requires a two-day crossing of the Drake Passage, some of the roughest waters of the world. To give you an idea of how rough it can get, on our return trip we went through a storm with Category 1 hurricane force winds, and I was told this was average. There are classic “Drake Passage” videos on YouTube that make it look like the ship is going through a washing machine.
If you don’t do well with seasickness, your first thought might be to reconsider. Don’t. This is such a pristine and unique environment that it is worth the temporary discomfort to get the opportunity to see and explore it. I met someone on the trip who suffers from terrible seasickness, to the point where she locks herself in her cabin during each Drake Passage crossing. This was her fourth time making the trip to Antarctica because she enjoyed it so much. I don’t do well with seasickness either, but I can also say that I would return in a heartbeat.
Someplace so awesome couldn’t be easy to get to, could it? Then again nothing worthwhile is ever easy. I’ll need to make sure I’m committed when I sign up for a tour of Antarctica. And prepared, like, with lots of Gravol.
Question #10 Where to next? (Can you top Antarctica?)
Well, most people visit Antarctica as their seventh continent, but for me it was only my sixth! So I suspect a trip to Australia or New Zealand is somewhere in my future to get that final checkmark.
It’s good to have goals in life, and Dave definitely has some adventurous ones. But hey, he’s already crossed one off that eludes many a bold traveler. For him, Antarctica is no longer a place in a geography book, it’s a place he’s seen with his own eyes.
It’s not easy to balance time, money, and responsibility with your travels and it’s not easy to decide where to go when the world is available. With limited vacation time, deciding on one thing means giving up something else. But it’s worth it when your next vacation accomplishes a dream. Going to Antarctica on vacation might seem as likely as going to Mars, but it’s ready for you if you’re ready for it.
Hoping you’ll win the lottery so you can visit Antarctica? Check Antarctica Without Breaking the Bank.