Planning for Antarctica (Part 1): FAQs

With just over a month to go until my Antarctica adventure begins, I’ll be sharing the planning phase (and my excitement) with you in a weekly post.  Part 1 begins here with answers to the most common questions I’ve been asked (and I’ve asked myself):

I have just over a month to go until I head to Heathrow airport with enough camera equipment to incur excess carry-on luggage charges, more layers than I’ve ever worn before and a skip in my step that I haven’t had since my last travel adventure.

I have just over a month to go until I head to the bottom of the earth to explore what is my most exciting travel destination yet.

Antarctica.

Since making the decision to go during a long haul flight from London to LA in July, I have thought of nothing else.  Whilst I enjoy planning new travel adventures, I’ve always tried to find that balance between being ready and being over-prepared.  Researching too much about a destination often ruins the element of discovery I enjoy feeling when I arrive somewhere for the first time.

I don’t think that risk is high with Antarctica!

With less than 40,000 tourists making the long and expensive voyage to Antarctica each year, it is a destination that remains well and truly off the beaten track.  And many of these tourists find it difficult to put the experience into words.  Heck, I even find it difficult to put my excitement at the thought of going there into words.

As I inch closer to the dream becoming reality, I’ve been asked and have asked myself many questions.  Here are some of the most common:

1. Who am I going with?

Unless you are planning your own expedition or are wealthy enough to charter your own plane or yacht, the only way to travel to Antarctica is via a group tour.  Like all my favourite travel adventures, I will be going solo but I will be surrounded by like-minded travelers on a 21 day round-trip journey from Ushuaia with Quark Expeditions, who have specialised in polar expedition cruising since 1991.  In fact they were featured in the BBC’s Frozen Planet series and if they are good enough for the BBC, they are good enough for me!

2. Did Antarctica have a team in the 2012 Olympics?

No, Antarctica has never been represented at the Olympics and until penguins are permitted to compete alongside the likes of Ian Thorpe or Michael Phelps, it never will.

Antarctica has never had a native population and has no permanent residents.

In the harsh, cold winter months around 1,200 temporary visitors set up home at the research stations located around the continent and this increases to 3,000 during summer as more scientists and other staff members arrive.

If an Antarctica passport did exist only the seals, penguins and other wildlife would be eligible!

3. Who is the leader of Antarctica?

There is another reason a team from Antarctica will never compete in the Olympics – it is not a country.  There is only one place in the world that is both a country and a continent and it’s not Antarctica (it’s my own country of birth, Australia).

It is not a country and it has no permanent residents.  So who actually owns it?  Who it its leader? Who makes its decisions?

Antarctica is not controlled by one country.  Instead it is governed by the Antarctic Treaty, initially signed in 1959 by the 12 nations who were operating scientific stations at the time and now ratified by 46 signatory states.

The international community appreciates the uniqueness of Antarctica and the Treaty ensures it remains open to all for scientific research.  It aims to protect the area by dictating Antarctica should remain a peaceful, free and demilitarised place with minimal human development.

In a world plagued with a history of greed, war and power struggles, the Antarctic Treaty is a refreshing change.

4. Do polar bears eat penguins?

And how many penguins do they eat on an average day?  How do they hunt them?

What are the answers to these three questions?  No, none, they don’t.

Penguins have adopted an incredibly effective way of avoiding being a meal for a polar bear.  They live on the opposite end of the world!

The only time you will see a polar bear and penguin in the same place is at a Zoo and yet the polar bear remains synonymous with Antarctica for a surprising number of people who have asked me if I’ll see one.  The answer is ‘not on this trip’ but on my planned visit to the Arctic next July, I hope to have a different response…

5. What will my hotel be like?

My hotel will be shaped like a ship, move like a ship and in fact – will be a ship!  There are no hotels in Antarctica.

My home for the 21 day round trip from Ushuaia will be the Ocean Diamond, described by Quark as a ‘modern, stable super yacht’.  This newest ship in the Quark fleet is actually making its maiden voyage as I write this.  It is 124 metres long, 16 metres wide, has an Ice Class of 1D, cruising speed of 15.5 knots and has capacity for 144 staff and crew and 189 guests.

I actually have no idea what any of that means.

What I do know is that the Ocean Diamond will be my ‘mobile base camp’ for the duration of the journey.  There will be days at sea where I spend 24 hours on board but whenever there is the opportunity for a shore landing or ocean cruising, this will be done via an inflatable landing craft known as a zodiac.

Whilst long days at sea are not for everyone, I am incredibly excited at having the time away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.  Although I’ve heard internet is available on board, I plan to turn off my phone, ignore the internet and embrace the isolation and solitude Antarctica provides.

6. Will there be karaoke or a casino on board?

Whilst I am a loner at heart and look forward to being able to embrace the isolation and solitude a place like Antarctica provides, I am not quite a hermit (yet) so it is nice to know I will be with like-minded travelers who I can share the experience with when I need some social interaction.

But this is not a typical cruise holiday.

Of course, having never subjected myself to a typical cruise holiday I have nothing to compare it to, but the very helpful team at Quark tell me there is a well-stocked polar library, a massage and wellness program and the ship is staffed with captains, officers, expedition leaders and guides.  There is a clinic with a licensed doctor, a photography program (which I am of course very excited about) and a theatre-style auditorium for on-board lectures and educational presentations from polar specialists.

And there is an open bar staffed by a professional bartender which of course is very important on any cruise ship, especially one you will be on to see in the new year!

7. Just how cold will it be?

Antarctica holds the unenviable record of the lowest recorded temperature with a chilly -89.6C (-128.6F) at the Russian research station, Vostok on 21 July, 1983.

The highest temperature on the continent was recorded a decade earlier in Hope Bay and Vanda Station with 14.6C (58.3F) on 1 January, 1974.

This is just one of the reasons why the tourist season in Antarctica is limited to the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months.

So what will the weather be like when I am there?  Without a crystal ball, I will look at the next best thing – the advice given by Quark:

Weather conditions are variable, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark.  The continuous daylight warms sheltered areas so that you may find temperatures warm enough for t-shirts.  However you may encounter snow squalls, fog and white-outs, during an expedition.

In other words, I am not expecting it to be -89.6C, I’m not expecting it to reach 14.6C and I’ll be packing lots of layers!

8. Can you go swimming?

Swimming?!  Are you mad?  Did you not read the paragraph above about how cold it will be?  If I wanted a beach holiday, I’d head to Australia.  Wait, what was that?  I can go swimming? Huh?

If the experience of heading south to the great white continent is not exciting enough, Quark offers the option of getting our hearts racing and blood pumping with the Polar Plunge.  If you’ve always wondered what it feels like to jump into the sub-zero, icy cold Antarctic water, I will be able to tell you in January.

It’s easy to say “I’ll do it” with a shout of bravado when I am sitting in my London flat with the heating on, but how do I make sure I don’t chicken out at the last minute?  Simple – I announce to the world that I am taking on the challenge of the Polar Plunge to raise money for the charity Heart Kids and ask my family and friends to sponsor my moment of madness.

Whilst there is no turning back now, I certainly won’t be dipping my toe in to check the water first!

9. Will I get seasick?

The only time I have been sick on a boat was on the ferry from Zanzibar to Dar Es Salaam in Africa, although I think that was mainly due to a hangover that probably would have seen me throwing up on dry land as well.  I don’t think I am prone to seasickness but I’ve never spent more than a few hours on a ship.  I’ve also never crossed the notorious Drake Passage.

The Drake Passage is infamous for being one of the roughest stretches of water in the world but unless you can afford to fly over it (which you can do with Quark) you won’t reach Antarctica without experiencing it.

I’m quite excited about the Drake Passage.

Maybe it’s my adventurous spirit and maybe I’ll retract my statement after two days of throwing up, but a journey to such a unique destination should feel earned.  The Drake Passage is the rite of passage to Antarctica.

10. Will you send me a postcard?

Why of course!  There may be no hotels, shops or towns in Antarctica, but there is a post office!

The world’s most southerly post office is run at Port Lockerby by the UK Antarctica Heritage Trust and posts around 70,000 postcards a year from tourists such as myself.  You’ll just need to wait 2-6 weeks for it to arrive.

11. Is it dangerous?

Any region with possible extreme conditions such as weather, ice and natural disruptions hold an element of risk.  Whilst modern polar equipment and an experienced and skilled crew help mitigate that risk, it does not eliminate it completely.  But let’s be honest – that’s what makes polar travel so exciting.

But words like ‘risk, danger and adventure’ are relative terms.  I was feeling rather adventurous until I started reading Call of the White, a book by Felicity Aston, the first woman to ski solo to the South Pole.  ‘Call of The White’ tells the incredibly inspiring story of an expedition of ‘ordinary’ women who Felicity led to the South Pole.  I suddenly felt a little less adventurous.

Then I came across the Scott 2012 site for an expedition being planned by a British Team next year, who are setting out to complete the 1,800 mile return journey to the South Pole on foot, the dream Captain Scott died trying to achieve.

Then there are the tales of Scott himself and the other polar heroes of his time, Shackleton and Amundsen.

Suddenly describing myself as adventurous felt embarrassing!

But ‘adventure’ means something different to each of us and we all need adventure in our lives to remind us that living life is more important than simply existing.

I feel adventurous, I’m ready for adventure and I’m ready for Antarctica!  In the voice of Chandler from the TV show Friends “could I be more excited”?

 

 

 

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

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Planning for Antarctica (Part 2): Where Am I Going?