The frozen continent – nearly twice the size of Australia and with most of its land over 2 km high – is a polar desert. Plunged into darkness for six months of the year, yet with almost constant daylight throughout the austral summer, Antarctica is the most unexplored, hostile and out-of-this-world place on the planet. You don’t come on holiday to Antarctica – you come on an expedition; rolling across an endless ocean, braving chill winds and blinding ice to set foot where few dares.
But harsh and bitter as this landscape may be, it is fringed with softness and warmth. Baby seals flop across the ice, while comical penguins waddle and dive. Giant albatross launches themselves off cliffs, while the sight of the long-anticipated Antarctic sunrise, reflected in still waters – will melt your heart. The anticipated empty landscape reveals itself to be crammed with shifting sights – of penguins, seals, and the fluctuations of light and freshly carved ice.
Antarctica has no official currency. Fun fact: the Antarctica Overseas Exchange Office produced what they call the ‘Antarctician dollar’ - a collector’s item, it can be sold at certain face value but it’s not legal tender.
It’s a good idea to have a credit card on hand to use in the country you set sail for Antarctica from - just like you would with any other international trip. Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted cards; double check with your bank before you travel about accessing your various accounts while overseas. Most ships accept credit cards and US dollars and often there is a currency exchange facility on board where it is also possible to exchange travelers’ cheques. In Antarctica itself, each base generally uses the currency of their home country. Travelers should check which currency to bring with their tour/cruise operator.
Tourists won’t be able to access any ATMs or banks while in Antarctica, so have cash or credit cards ready for any purchases.
The 1959 Antarctic Treaty preserves the status quo of the continent by neither recognizing nor rejecting the claims of these countries and by not allowing expansion in any way on the continent. Antarctica currently has no economic activity apart from offshore fishing and tourism, and these are carried out by other nations (i.e. not the continent of Antarctica). Tourism in the Antarctic is mainly by ship, around 20 vessels carrying 45 to 280 passengers each. The ships are ice strengthened and sail primarily to the Antarctic Peninsula region sometimes also including South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. Antarctica map There have been occasional voyages to Antarctica by larger passenger vessels (up to 960 tourists), some of which conducted sightseeing cruises only without landings. These stopped when regulations came into force in 2009 preventing such large vessels operating in Antarctic waters.
Yacht travel is also popular, and gives a smaller scale more intimate contact, though without the luxuries and facilities of larger Antarctica cruise ships. Several expeditions take place outside the Peninsula region each season. Voyages are made to the Weddell Sea, Ross Sea region and, on occasion, East Antarctica including islands of the Indian Ocean sector. These expeditions may include visits to emperor penguin colonies, historical huts, the Dry Valleys and other remote areas. Weather and ice, not so much clocks and calendars, set the schedule for a journey here. No matter what the reason for your visit, you'll be reliant on the continent's changing moods and weather patterns. You may be able to make a landing as expected at the appropriate time, but don't depend on it if the weather and sea state have other ideas.
Nov-Mar is the short expedition season – this is not only the best time to visit Antarctica, it is the only time it’s possible – as the ice breaks up allowing ships to pass. Icebergs are hugest in November, sculptural and surreal. The continent is colder but at its most untouched, with pristine ice and snow, and wildflowers blooming on the islands. The 20-hour sunshine in Dec-Jan brings welcome warmth; temperatures hover above freezing, creating perfect conditions for seal pups and penguin chicks – as well as whales. Later in the season, the rookeries are a rabble of noise and activity, as chicks fledge and sea ice drifts away.
Visiting Antarctica in January is a pretty good idea especially if you’re intending to see penguin chicks and seal pups in relatively warm temperatures. We’re talking just above freezing here. February is also one of the warmest months in Antarctica with every chance of spotting whales and also offering a small window of opportunity to cross the Antarctic Circle. Whales are still plentiful in March; however, temperatures will be returning to their normal below freezing levels, with treacherous winds and endless nights culminating in the ‘no go’ months of April, May, June, July, August and September. Late October and November are still exceedingly cold although they do present the best chance of getting up close to some of Antarctica’s largest icebergs as well as breeding elephant seals. As December dawns, Antarctica starts to see an upturn in temperatures, with an untouched quality promising some stunning scenes bathed in permanent sunlight. December is considered the best time of year to visit Antarctica and is therefore the most popular - so book early to plant your pick in the ice.
The original language of Antarctica, bus (rhymes with "goose"), is still spoken by most of the populace, but generally only used when the speaker wishes to drop down to an intimate level of conversation, "intimate" here in the sense of a feeling of closeness or camaraderie with another, without necessarily having a sexual association. For this reason, when bus is spoken, it is usually between two people only, or at most three. Because of the difficulty of transcribing bus, the language one most often encounters in the cities, jungles and snowy mountain villages of Antarctica is English. Although no official language of Antarctica exists (there is virtually nothing about Antarctica that is official), nearly everyone speaks English, and it is the dominant written language. Other than English, the language a visitor is most likely to hear or read in Antarctica is German, which is used primarily for philosophical discussions (but with a much greater compounding of words, to where a German may have difficulty following the sense of a word through its ocean liner length of syllables). Other languages occasionally heard in Antarctica are French, Yiddish, Spanish and Russian.
There are no churches, synagogues, temples, or other "houses of worship" in Antarctica. Such buildings are not forbidden- there is nothing in Antarctica that is forbidden- however, the people themselves have no interest in what is generally referred to as "organized religion". Although Antarcticans are not religious, they are a spiritual people. Not surprisingly, Antarcticans, because of their long, uninterupted history, have created a vast store of folklore. Unlike most races, however, Antarcticans appear to place some credence in these stories, as if they were historical events, rather than imaginative fairy tales. Presumably, this suspension of disbelief is meant as a gesture of good will or respect towards the creators of the tales. The most prominent figures in Antarctican folklore are the notisas, a race who supposedly inhabit the "Great Hollow" region of the continent, and who are portrayed as the still-extant ancestor race of the wohui (the bus word for "Antarctican". The bus word for "Antarctica" is wohum).
Antarctica doesn't have a cuisine as such, it isn't populated except by visitors who stay for a few months or not usually more than a year, there are no farms, nothing vegetable that you can eat grows there and the wildlife is protected so you can't eat that. Unlike anywhere else in the rest of the world, there aren't any recipes that are passed down from one generation to the next, there are no celebrity chefs, no restaurants you can turn up to eat at and no sources of foodstuff to buy. Based on its arctic location, Antarctica is a destination without much native food. Tour operators in this part of the world import much of their provisions. The best Antarctica food options will keep you warm while providing energy.
The concept of cities in Antarctica is different than the concept elsewhere in the world. For one thing, each Antarctician city has its own unique design. It is hard to imagine someone strolling through a city in Antarctica and not immediately knowing which of the cities they are in, based solely on the architecture. Antarctician cities also contain an unusually large amount of space set aside for parks and natural habitats. No matter where you are in an Antarctician city, you are never more than a five-minute walk from a small forest, or a ten-minute walk from a waterfall.
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The white wilderness of Antarctica stretches out in infinity with no sign of roads and railways anywhere. Yet, there are manifold ways to transfer from one place to another.
The Antarctic Peninsula is the most frequently visited part of the continent with boats departing from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego in Argentina to here. From Ushuaia, it takes roughly 2 days to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. Voyages do leave from Hobart in Australia and from New Zealand, however there are a lot less trips departing from this region than from South America meaning it costs more and there is less choice of dates. Most boats set sail to Antarctica from November to March during the Antarctic summer.
When deciding where to go in Antarctica, the biggest issue is accessibility. The Antarctic Peninsula – an extension of the Andes – is the most popular landing spot as it is closest point to South America, but still separated by the notoriously rough, 1,000km-wide.
There is no vegetation to soften the landscape across most of Antarctica. Vegetation builds up soils over time and this smooths rocks and boulders which become buried, this doesn't happen in Antarctica, rocks are bare and more often than not (over 98% of the land area) the ground surface is snow and ice which can sometimes make travel easier or sometimes make it more difficult. Helicopters are great (but expensive) for short journeys in calm weather, they are very useful for relatively short trips near to scientific stations across difficult terrain, but the weather can turn dangerous for flying very quickly.
In most of the world, we travel at pretty much the same speed at all times of the year at all times of day and in all kinds of weather. This is not the case in Antarctica. There are two main factors that affect how easily and quickly you can travel, if you can travel at all:
One of the biggest and commonest hazards when travelling overland in Antarctica. These are cracks in the ice up to hundreds of feet deep that can be covered at the top by snow that blows over to form a weak bridge. Anyone passing through such terrain has to be vigilant, trained to spot and avoid crevasses and should know how to perform a crevasse rescue should someone fall in one. Many lives have been lost by people and vehicles falling into crevasses. They can often be large enough to easliy swallow the largest vehicles with lots of room left over.
Walking on sea-ice, this is pack ice, very rough and uneven, a slow and difficult surface. The dark area in front of the figures is a pool of sea water a frequent hazard. The long pole the man on the left (my mate Paul) is carrying is used to probe suspect ice to see if it is safe to walk on.
Antarctica has a very fragile environment. Penguins live at the very limit of what is survivable and are especially vulnerable in the brooding / hatching season. Some habitats have extra protection and you may not enter these. Leave no trash. Waste disposal and sewage facilities ashore are severely limited and restricted to permanent bases. Practice good hygiene and follow any bio-security advice given, eg on boot washing. There's scant risk of introducing a blight upon the Antarctic apple harvest, but you don't want to be trailing penguin poop back to the ship's buffet, or catching norovirus in the washrooms.
How much spending money do I need? Currency aboard the Ushuaia ship, and many other expedition boats, is US Dollar, and Euro is also accepted. It is also possible to pay using MasterCard and American Express, however, a minimum charge of US$100 applies. We suggest that you bring at least US$300 to US$400 per person to cover all possible spending money while on voyage around Antarctica. This sum will be more than sufficient as the isolated areas mean spending opportunities are rare. For services rendered aboard the ship, guests are provided with a personal account using a “chit” system. Your purchases will be kept on record and totaled at the end of your voyage. Your account must be settled prior to disembarkation in cash (U.S. Dollar or Euro). If you prefer to pay using credit card then you need to advise the ship manager when you first embark.
Is it standard to tip on an Antarctica voyage? The customary gratuity to the ship’s service personnel is made as a blanket contribution at the end of the voyage and is divided among the crew. Tipping is a personal matter and the amount you wish to give is at your discretion. As a generally accepted guideline, we suggest US$15 per person per day paid in cash as credit cards are not accepted for gratuities.
Is Wi-Fi available on board? Wi-Fi is generally not available on expedition cruise ships though passengers may use dedicated computers to access the internet and to check their personal emails. You can purchase an internet code at the rate of $10 for 30 minutes internet access (rates applicable for the Ushuaia boat used on our voyages).
Are there any local customs I need to be aware of in Antarctica? Many voyages to Antarctica include a visit to a research base where travellers may be invited in so it's important to be thoughtful about your visit. Only ever enter a room or building when invited to do so and do not disturb any scientific work taking place. Also, ensure you use the toilet on board your boat before arriving at the research base as adding to the amount of waste that researchers have to dispose of at a later date is considered very bad form. Antarctica's environment is very fragile and so it's very important that no rubbish is left behind when visiting islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. Before landing travellers will be asked to wash their boots to minimise the chance of cross-contamination of seeds and organisms from places previously visited.