Difference between revisions of "Antarctica"
Revision as of 16:21, 13 October 2007
Antarctica is a land of extremes: it is the coldest and driest continent on Earth and has the highest average elevation of any continent. The landscape remains mostly untouched by humans, with only a handful of scientific bases and a "permanent" population of scientists numbering only a few thousand. Visitors to Antarctica generally must brave rough sea crossings aboard ice-strengthened vessels, but those who do are rewarded with amazing scenery and tremendous wildlife. Visitors to Antarctica often speak of its pristine beauty and serenity. Animal lovers, birdwatchers and photographers are also in for a treat in Antarctica with its various species of penguins, seals and birds that are native to the frozen continent.
Although several countries have laid claim to various portions of Antarctica, it is governed by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty ,which establishes the continent as a peaceful and cooperative international research zone. There are no cities per se, just some two dozen research stations with a total population ranging from 1000-4000 depending on the time of year. These are maintained for scientific purposes only, and do not provide any official support for tourism. The laws of the nation operating each research station apply there.
Private travel to Antarctica generally takes one of three forms: 1) commercial sea voyages with shore visits (by far the most popular), 2) specially mounted land expeditions, or 3) sightseeing by air. Approximately 80 companies belong to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators , a membership organization which regulates non-research travel to the region. In the 2005-2006 summer season, an estimated 26,250 people visited Antarctica or the surrounding waters.
Flora and fauna
Antarctica is notable for being the only continent with no native land mammals, reptiles, or amphibians. There are no polar bears: wrong pole. However its shoreline serves as nesting ground for many species of migratory birds and penguins, and the Southern Ocean surrounding it is home to many fish and marine mammals, including whales.
Don't be fooled by all the ice: Antarctica is a desert. The region's moisture is all tied up in frigid seawater and the huge sheets, shelves, and packs of ice which cover nearly all of the continent plus surrounding waters. There is little snowfall here, and even less rain.
The native languages of the nations operating bases are used. English is commonly used for communicating between bases where different languages are spoken.
Aircraft and pilots need to be capable of landing on ice, snow, or gravel runways, as there are no paved runways. Landings are generally restricted to the daylight season (Summer months from October to March). Winter landings have been performed at Williams Field but low temperatures mean that aircraft cannot stay on the ice longer than an hour or so as their skis may freeze to the ice runway. Travel is normally by military aircraft, as part of the cargo. Passengers should anticipate carrying all their own luggage and may need to assist with freight as well.
Major landing fields include:
Commercial overflights to Antarctica are limited. Croydon Travel  offers a few flights each year out of Sydney and Melbourne, Australia on a Qantas Airline 747. They take about 4 hours to reach East Antarctica, spend 4 hours flying as close as 2000 feet over the ice, then take 4 hours to return. Passengers in most seating classes rotate their position in the row halfway into the flight, to give everyone a window or one-over-from-window seat for half of the time. Rates range from $5199 for first class, to $1399 for partially-obstructed-view economy class, or $899 for non-rotating center-section seats with window access depending on the courtesy of better-seated travelers. Keep in mind that these flights involve substantial risk: a successful search-and-rescue mission would be all but impossible in the event of a crash, which is what happened to one Air New Zealand flight in 1979. Due to a combination of low flying altitude and a navigational error, they hit Mount Erebus on Ross Island and all 257 people aboard were killed.
In the Antarctic summer, several companies offer excursions on ice strengthened vessels to Antarctica. Ice strengthened (not quite as tough as icebreakers) boats are preferred since icebreakers are round on the bottom -- a configuration that amplifies the already massive wave action in the Drake passage. The ships typically offer a couple of excursions to the continent (usually the Antarctic peninsula) or Antarctic islands (e.g., Deception Island, Aitcho Island) each day over the course of a week. The views are phenomenal, the penguins are friendly (well, some of them are), and the experience is one that is unparalleled!
When traveling by boat, be aware that smaller ships (typically carrying 50-100 passengers) can go where the big ships can't, getting you up closer to Antarctica's nature and wildlife. Larger vessels (carrying as many as 1200 people) are less prone to rough seas but have more limited landing options. Many vessels include naturalist guided hikes, zodiac excursions and sea kayaking right from the ship, perfect for active, casual travelers.
You'll need worm clothing: boots, hoods, glove, water repellent pants, parka and warm underwear. Most of these items can be bought or hired in Ushaia, but sometimes - in the high season - it is not always easy to get the right sizes. So bring whatever you can from your own stock.
It must also be remembered that cruise operators typically only allow 100 people on land at any one time. Consequently if you are in a boat with more than 200 people the chances are you will only spend a couple of hours at most per day off ship. Generally the smaller ships will try to ensure 2 different locations per day around Antarctica, although this is of course dependent on the weather and you may expect a 60% success rate on landing people for any given visit.
Companies offering cruises to Antarctica include:
Most cruise ships depart from the following ports:
Coastal stations include
Ponies, sledges and dogs, skis, tractors, snow cats (and similar tracked vehicles) and aircraft including helicopters and ski planes have all been used to get around Antarctica. Cruise ships use zodiac boats to ferry tourists from ship to shore in small groups. Bring your own fuel and food, or arrange supplies in advance. You cannot purchase fuel or food on the continent. Cruise ships come fully prepared with landing transport, food, etc. Some (but not all) even provide cold-weather clothing.
Antarctica has 24-hour sunshine during the southern hemisphere summer. Visitors should ensure that they take steps to keep regular sleeping hours as continuous daylight disturbs the body clock.
It is possible to obtain employment with scientific expeditions in Antarctica. Induction and training need to be undertaken prior to departure for Antarctica.
As most visitors to Antarctica will arrive by boat, the greatest dangers occur due to storms at sea. The weather in the Southern Ocean is nature at its most extreme, with the potential for hurricane force winds and waves as high as 60-70 feet (18-23 meters). With modern safety and ship design the odds of sinking are low, but the odds of being thrown about by a wave are high. Every year numerous people die or are seriously injured during the crossing to and from the continent. When on a boat in rough weather always make sure that you have at least one secure handhold, and avoid opening doors during storms as a sudden shift in the waves can easily bring a heavy door crashing back onto a body part. In severe weather stay in your cabin and wait for the storm to subside.
Weather on the continent is equally extreme, although most visitors pack appropriate gear. For expeditions there are limited search-and-rescue options, so expeditions must plan for all contingencies. There is no formal government or legal system in Antarctica, but the laws of the country of origin or departure as well as those of a claimant government may apply. Rules regarding protection of the environment and of historical sites will be strictly enforced, and fines can be extreme.
Antarctica has an extreme environment. The cold is a major health hazard. Visitors should be properly prepared and equipped for any visit.
Antarctica has a very fragile environment. Pollution should be avoided if at all possible. Expeditions should anticipate needing to remove all waste from the continent when they leave. Waste disposal and sewage facilities on the continent are severely limited and restricted to permanent installations.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is a voluntary organization of tour operators which promotes safe and environmentally responsible tourism in Antarctica. It publishes standards for member tour operators on responsible practices for private visitors to Antarctica.