Antarctica is the last great lawless frontier, a massive expanse of ice with temperatures that are the coldest and deadliest on the planet. Marie Javins finds that none of this keeps the icy continent from joining the mass tourism parade.
Black ocean waves crash onto rocky gray shores, or lap up against blindingly white icebergs, their shadowy pocket–caves reflecting blue light. Only a few hints of color interrupt the stark landscape of contrasting black and white. No human walks here, aside from at a few scientific outposts. Antarctica is a lonely place. Lonely, that is, unless you are a krill, a penguin, a whale, or a seal. Or one of 37,500 tourists who cruised the Antarctic Peninsula this past year.
Ten thousand fewer people went two years ago, during the season that I visited Antarctica on the first "budget" cruise. I stood on deck, near dozens of other passengers, on an ice–strengthened Russian–made expedition ship, gazing at sheer walls of ice from under my hat and parka. I daydreamed of Shackleton's Endurance expedition, anticipation sizzling in my gut.
I'd been giddy with excitement ever since I'd left home, bubbling over into the taxi from my home to the airport.
"Where are you going?" The driver was being polite.
"Antarctica," I'd blurted out.
"Oh." He looked puzzled at my excitement. "Are you from there?"
And here I was, lucky enough to be steaming past glaciers at the end of the world, in a wilderness too dangerous for mass tourism. An area so remote that my taxi driver had no idea what I was talking about.
I waited for awe to set in. Awe–on–demand. Pay one price, get all the awe you can handle.
Another tourist sidled up next to me on deck, interrupting my concentrated awe–expectation.
"How many countries have you been to?"
"What? I don't know. A lot."
"Whaddaya mean you don't know? C'mon. Everybody knows. Don't pretend you haven't counted."
I stared at him, aghast. Was that why he was here in Antarctica, to tick it off his list because he'd already been everywhere else? Was he no more than a country–counter?
And why exactly was I here? I shifted uncomfortably, as if I could physically subdue the dawning obvious. How many countries had I been to? Was contempt for the scorecard somehow as disdainful as actually keeping one?
"It's a once–in–a–lifetime view." He changed the subject. The Southern Ocean stretched out in front of us, ridges of ice rising out of the sea. Killer whales had hunted a mink alongside the ship just an hour ago.
Hesitantly, I agreed. I was looking at orcas on a ten–day cruise to Ant–f*ing–arctica! What could be cooler? But deep within me, disappointment stirred. Surely, I worried, only a small–minded jaded traveler would not appreciate… what? The view? The whales? Penguins and strong–smelling guano? The fog? The hour–long landings where we'd shuffled about, me and my hundred new best friends efficiently managed by seasoned staff on three official landing sites? Wasn't it my job, as a traveler privileged enough to go to Antarctica, to speak glowingly of it? So why was I steadily wondering if the three thousand dollars I'd spent might have been more useful had I applied it towards a new roof for my home?
Later, in my cabin, I mused quietly to the enduring murmur of the ship's engine. I was disappointed, but how could this be? I was somewhere special, in the world's last pristine frontier where the only law says that there are no laws save the continent being set aside for peaceful, scientific research. Traipsing across its glaciers in the footsteps of Scott, Mawson, Amundsen, and Shackleton had long been a dream of mine.
And it would remain that way.
The dirty little secret about mass tourism to Antarctica.
You know that dream of exploration, excitement, and a unique individualized adventure? The one where you are reverently stepping onto untouched ground in a part of the world where it's just you and the penguins?
That is just a dream.
Most cruise itineraries spend ten days cruising from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula. That's six days of travel, leaving four days for beautiful scenery, penguins, whales, and seals. Not a bad place to start––who doesn't like scenery and wildlife? Add to it a few hour–long landings and some exhilarating views up–close from inflatable motorized rafts called Zodiacs.
And that's it.
Off–the–rack, mass tourism dampens our individual experiences. In Antarctica, shiploads of passengers act as a single managed unit, thousands of travelers having identical cookie–cutter adventures, communing with the wild a hundred people at a time. Another traveler described it to me as looking at nature to the buzzing soundtrack of German. He'd been on a European cruise ship, as the world's most desolate destination packed 'em in.
When you pay thousands of dollars to be shuffled around to look at penguins and barren landscape from a ship, you get exactly that. When you're traveling in a docile pack along a more–or–less set route, steered and directed by an expert crew used to managing a chatty crowd, you end up with canned awe. And contrary to trips in the rest of the world, spending less money doesn't mean going local and having an authentic experience. You get what you pay for. The cheapest cruises are assembly–line trips, the passengers passive participants.
Worse, they could be deadly.
Into Thin Ice
The recent sinking of GAP Adventures M/S Explorer––a small expedition ship with a double hull hardened to resist ice––was a warning to cruise operators. Polar tourism has boomed too quickly and without standards. If a purpose–built ship like the M/S Explorer can sink, then what of the non–reinforced 2,600–passenger ships, one sent last year and another scheduled for at least two trips during the 2008 season? Are we due for an "Into Thin Air" style lesson in cruising Antarctica, where we learn that the ability to pay for a trip does not qualify passengers and crew for life–threatening conditions nor does it exempt one from disaster?
Perhaps the budget operator that I traveled with is culpable, guilty of opening the region up to the masses, democratizing the realm of the Great Explorers. I do take smug satisfaction in being an accessory to thunder–stealing from the financially elite. But do we really need to scour every inch of our planet in search of photos or thrills? Some regions are better left unknown. The human imagination requires untouched spaces, a few mysteries left to contemplate. But you cannot control access in a country with no citizens and no government. If a cruise operator flaunts the rules––set in place for good reasons––of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), no punishment exists.
So am I here to tell you not to boycott Antarctic tourism? Am I anti–f*ing–arctica?
That's not a realistic goal. All this would result in is some thoughtful people staying home, while the clueless happily snapped up good deals on ill–prepared luxury ships. And how can Antarctic tourism be limited when there is in fact no legal oversight of the region?
It can't. All we can do is acknowledge that the current uncontrolled tourism glut is dangerous and unsustainable––on thin ice––then try to steer people off of unsafe or generic cruises, and onto safer ships that offer rewarding, ecologically sound experiences.
Packs of Penguins or People
I don't mean to imply that the Antarctic Peninsula has already turned into an icy theme park, complete with baristas hawking Frappucinos at the South Pole. The Antarctic continent, with its plateaus and ice shelves, pack ice, wildlife, and legends IS as awesome as it is desolate. Some visitors become enthralled with its stark beauty, returning again and again. My crankiness was related to the Peninsulas–R–Us flavor of my own excursion, and my own inflated expectations. My awareness of the risks of unregulated tourism in an area far from civilization came much later.
What I'd expected was isolation. The appeal of Antarctica is in its inaccessibility, its edgy sense of slight, managed danger. My disappointment stemmed from the crowds. No matter how empty the continent, I was never more than a few feet from a hundred other people as we traveled in a pack. My unique experience was rendered generic by the illusion that dozens of other tourists were traipsing nearby, conveying a sense more of high–season Cancun than of the world's last great wilderness.
But why did I crave solitude and remoteness? I could be alone at home. Perhaps I'd wanted a grand adventure, another rollicking yarn to add to my portfolio of globetrotter tales. Maybe the actual experience was too disappointingly soft to bear re–telling. I wanted to do something worth recounting. Maybe I was after bragging rights.
Was I a country–counter too? A less crass country–counter than my ship mate, certainly, but a scorekeeper nonetheless?
So far, I realized in my cabin on the ship, the only story I had to tell had happened back in Ushuaia, when I'd rented the parka before boarding the ship. I'd tried on a half–dozen coats until the store attendant has brusquely asked if I expected to "meet that special penguin." Then when I asked if wool mittens would be warm enough, he disdainfully told me that I was "going to Antarctica, not the moon."
Had I done as much planning for my trip as I had for my parka, I would have discovered that for a few hundred more dollars, I could have toured the Antarctic Peninsula on an itinerary that included one night of camping and several smaller kayaking trips. I could have rowed alone, peacefully viewing the landscape without the roar of Zodiac engines or the distracting chatter of others. Even with no story to tell, I could have been amazed and content with my trip south to The Ice. Instead, I'd merely racked up another notch on my passport.
If you crave the true beauty of Antarctica—the stark panoramas of a unique, natural continent at peace––avoid luxury cruises, generic itineraries, and unsafe ships. Try small expeditions, unique approaches, or scientific research. Make your trip to Antarctica count, but don't be a country–counter.
NUTS AND BOLTS
So how does a would–be modern explorer get to Antarctica without loving the destination to death, doing more harm than good, or ending up on a disappointing itinerary?
Do your homework. Avoid ill–equipped ships. Confirm that an operator adheres to IAATO standards. Book a cruise that carries less than 100 passengers, includes unique activities, or don't go on a cruise at all.
The quick and easy way: A few times a year, Croydon Travel operates day flights out of Australia. Flights are expensive and limited, as they should be.
The cool way: Get a postgraduate certificate in Antarctic Studies in New Zealand. This selective study program lasts fourteen weeks and includes 10 days of camping on Antarctica. Applicants must demonstrate compelling interest and suitability for the program.
The scientific way: Not just anyone can pop down to their country's Antarctic research stations. You need to be officially involved in one of the research projects, sponsored opportunities, or you need to get a job with the station's support staff. For the USA stations, see scientific jobs, support jobs, and the artist/writer's program.
During high season, travel agents in Ushuaia offer discounted––sometimes as little as half–price––berths on ships due to leave port immediately. Ads can be found in most hostels. Unfortunately, this method may score you exactly the kind of trip you are trying to avoid, or no trip at all, and Ushuaia is a long way to go to return home empty–handed. Try e–mailing agents a few weeks ahead of time through the Ushuaia listings at Welcome Argentina.
Marie Javins, author of Stalking the Wild Dik–Dik: One Woman's Solo Misadventures Across Africa (Seal Press) , Best in Tent Camping: New Jersey (Menasha Ridge Press), and 3–D World Tour & Atlas (Chronicle Books, 2008), is a comic book creator, traveler, and blogger who alternates between roaming the planet by public bus, editing Kuwaiti comic books, and writing stories entirely unrelated to her day job. In 2001, she circumnavigated the world by public transport live on MariesWorldTour.com. She's been to more countries than Edward Readicker–Henderson, but fewer than Peter Moore.
Books from the Author: