In Antarctica, global warming is raising sea temperatures, melting sea ice, and threatening marine life and four penguin species by destroying habitat and disrupting the food chain. Antarctica has also become an increasingly popular destination for cruise ships, and the resulting pollution is adding to the continent’s woes.
Here at the literal bottom of the earth, be prepared for ice like you’ve never seen it. Monumental peacock-blue icebergs tower in surreal formations; craggy glaciers drop crashing chunks into the sea. Narrow canals knife between sheer ice-encrusted walls, and jagged peaks jut out of icy fields.
Antarctica has long exerted a magnetic pull on those who crave adventure. Map-makers didn’t even know it was a continuous continent until the 19th century. The first explorers only reached the South Pole in 1911, when Norwegian Roald Admunsen reached the pole a scant 33 days ahead of rival British captain Robert Scott, whose party tragically died returning to their ship. Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton tried (and failed) to cross the continent 4 years later.
Unless you’re a scientist posted to a research station, you’ll most likely come to Antarctica these days on an expedition cruise (though a few travelers do book expensive air treks from Punta Arenas, Chile). Starting in the 1990s, when Russian research ships were retrofitted to bring the first leisure travelers here, Antarctica travel has grown exponentially, turning what used to be a rugged adventure trip into a luxury cruise. Nearly 40,000 travelers visited the region in the 2006-2007 season—and matters may have reached a tipping point. While the first tour ships were svelte icebreakers, ever larger cruise ships now shoulder through the region’s unpredictable ice floes. The sinking of the Canadian vessel M/S Explorer in November 2007 underscored the importance of limiting Antarctic travel before too many ships jostle around Antarctica’s seas, releasing fuel and waste into the water and negatively impacting the very wildlife that the passengers have paid so much to observe.
Ice covers more than 98% of the continent year-round, but it can only be visited in summer (Nov-Mar) when the surrounding sea ice melts enough to let ships reach the landmass. Itineraries vary in length, depending on which subantarctic islands are included en route to the Antarctic Peninsula (all tours include the wildlife-rich South Shetland Islands). Longer tours may venture inside the polar circle or circle around to the iceberg alleys of the continent’s west side.
On those long polar days, passengers are diverted with natural-history lectures and shore excursions. One day you may scuba dive, scale a frozen peak, or kayak through calving ice; the next you may observe penguins, seals, or whales, or soak in thermal springs. Bird-watchers spend hours training their binoculars on a variety of unique seabirds, including petrels and albatrosses.
It’s an ethical dilemma: Join the swelling ranks of cruisers, or pass up the chance to experience this icebound Eden. By choosing a responsible tour operator, and then supporting measures to regulate Antarctic routes more tightly, you just may be able to have your ice cream and eat it too.