Antarctica is fast becoming a bucket-list destination for many an intrepid adventurer. A source of inspiration to explorers for centuries, it is one of the world’s last true wildernesses, in the same state that it was first discovered hundreds of years ago. Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake (after whom the iconic Drake Passage has been named) made one of the very first voyages to this land, followed by many other explorers. Characterised by endless expanses of skies, icy seas, imposing icebergs, a profusion of polar wildlife, and hues of white as far as the eye can see, Antarctica can rightly be called the White Continent.
Tourism to Antarctica has its origins in the 1920s, when the French steamship S.S. Fleurus, originally used for ferrying mail between the Falkland Islands and South Shetland Islands, was converted into a vessel for plying tourists. After that, it wasn’t until the 1970s that we saw an influx of tourists to Antarctica due to cruise liners being launched.
So what exactly is the reason for the rise in popularity of this undiscovered land as a tourist destination? Is it the allure of exploring the unknown, or simply the desire of a new-age, well-read, discerning traveller to go beyond the conventional destination?
Antarctica gets about 35,000 to 38,000 tourists per year. That is quite a lot, considering that the season runs only from November and March, when the ice melts and sailing conditions are optimum. The land is home to many historical landing sites and research stations, even boasting a fully functional post office. Not all of these sites are open to tourists, though.
When we got the chance to be part of an Antarctic expedition, we didn’t think twice before signing up for this experience. We flew to Buenos Aires, and then to Ushuaia, the southernmost point on the mainland before embarking on the cruise.
Aboard our expedition cruise ship, sailing in the frigid waters, Antarctica was truly a sight to behold. Giant icebergs rising up out of the sea, flocks of penguins, seals, albatross and other marine wildlife, and tones of white and blue all around – simply magnificent. This was certainly one of the most memorable experiences of our life. Antarctica is such a place that just by being there, you are filled with a new-found sense of respect for environment.
Our cruise ship had the best of comforts onboard. Warm living quarters, delectable dining, ample facilities for entertainment, 24×7 medical help and the company of travellers from all over the world. However, the real thrill were the offshore excursions in the small boats called Zodiacs. Like small dinghies, these Zodiacs cruising through the frozen waters would take those interested to the mainland for a chance to walk on the ice and see wildlife up close and personal. The presence of whales and seals in the waters only added to the experience, and we were lucky to witness humpback whales. Penguins abounded in this land. Chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo penguins were some species that we saw. We could also experience a polar plunge – simply jumping from a lower deck of the ship into the frigid water for a quick thrilling experience.
Perhaps the most memorable part was camping on the ice in tents supplied by the crew. We had to put up a tent on the ice, and we spent a night inside it for the camping experience of a lifetime. As the light flitted over the ice, showing us a new landscape every minute, as dusk fell and a million stars shone in the skies before all of it went absolutely pitch black, and as the sun rose the next day, we knew this was an experience we would not forget.
The writer is founder of Countryside Adventure Holidays
Words: Milind Bhide