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Monday, March 29, 2010

Antarctica "A land of extremes"

Antarctica is a land of extremes: it is the coldest and driest continent on Earth and has the highest average elevation. As the fifth largest continent in the world, Antartica is also the most Southern, overlying the "South Pole". Scarcely touched by humans, the frozen land boasts breathtaking scenery, broken by only 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 and unique wildlife.

Although several countries have laid claim to various portions of Antarctica, it is governed by the 1958 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.

Deception Island
Long ago, volcanic pressure on Deception Island resulted in a tremendous eruption that caused the island’s peak to explode. The resulting caldera flooded with seawater, creating the unique landmass that you may visit today. Thousands of Chinstrap Penguins inhabit the volcanic slopes of the island, along with nesting Pintado Petrels and Antarctic Terns.

Nestled among the South Shetland Islands, Deception Island is easily recognized on a map by its horseshoe shape. Its collapsed volcanic caldera is breached at Neptune's Bellows and makes for one of the world's safest natural harbors, despite the volcano's periodic eruptions. Ships enter the relatively calm waters of Port Forster (12km/7.5mi wide) through the caldera's breach that is surrounded by snow-covered hills that reach 580m (1900ft). The island has an interesting history - it was a base for several early exploratory missions - and is still a disputed territory between the Argentineans and the British, however nowadays they seem to get along.

The volcano is still very active and its eruptions have caused evacuations and considerable damage to the stations there (during the 1920-21 whaling season the harbor water boiled and stripped the paint off the ships' hulls). The most recent eruption was in 1991-92.

Part of what brings the tourist ships here is that the volcanic activity thermally heats the waters of Pendulum Cove (so-called because of the British pendulum and magnetism experiments held there last century) and you can take a dip. It's not deep enough for swimming and most tourists don the togs more for the photograph and the story afterwards than for breaststroking. You do have to be careful, however, because if you move even a meter from the warm water you might find your skin blistering from a near-boiling patch or goosebumping from an unheated patch. There are large colonies of chinstrap penguins on the exterior coast, but few marine animals enter the harbor because there are numerous volcanic vents that heat the water to several degrees above the sea surrounding the island.

Paradise Bay
Immense glaciers and a bay filled with icebergs can be expected at Paradise Bay. Often whales and seals can be seen in the water, and penguins on the shores. A picture perfect, and typical Antarctic landing location.

Neko Harbour
Not far from Paradise Bay, Neko Harbour is a popular landing spot for voyages to Antarctica. Gentoo penguins call this place home.

Watch a glacier breaking off into the ocean. To fully appreciate the harbor, you must view it from the top of the mountain. At the top, the sound of the glacier breaking off could be heard like thunder, just like at the beach, but on the mountain you did not have to worry about a large wave coming.

Half Moon Island
One of the most pleasant landings in Antarctica, Half Moon Island has a sizable rookery of chinstrap penguins as well as nesting Antarctic terns and kelp gulls. Whales are often seen patrolling the shores, and this small island offers stunning views of surrounding mountains.

Port Lockroy
Port Lockroy is a natural harbour on the Antarctic Peninsula of the British Antarctic Territory. After its discovery in 1903 by the French Antarctic Expedition it was used for whaling and British military operations during World War II and then continued to operate as a British research station until 1962. Goal was to protect interests in the Southern Ocean. In 1996 Port Lockroy was renovated and is now a museum and Post office operated by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust. It is designated as Historic Site no. 61 under the Antarctic Treaty and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Antarctica. Proceeds from the small souvenir shop fund the upkeep of the site and other historic sites and monuments in Antarctica.

A major experiment on the island is to test the effect of tourism on penguins. Half the island is open to tourists, while the other half is reserved for penguins. So far, interestingly, the results show that tourism has a slight positive effect on penguins, possibly due to the presence of people being a deterrent to skuas - Antarctic birds that prey on penguin chicks and eggs.
Nearby you can visit a gentoo rookery and also see blue-eyed shags (cormorants) and witness sad reminders of past whaling activities.

The most amazing place for wildlife like king penguins,elephant seals, fur seals, whales etc as well as the place where Shackleton was rescued after his arduous journey in James Caird.

Vinson Massif
Situated in Antarctica, the Vinson Massif is the highest peak of the continent, and one of the Seven Summits. Part of the Sentinel Range of Ellsworth Mountains, Vinson Massif is about 21km long and 13km wide. It is named after Carl G Vinson, a Georgia Congressman who was a major force behind the US Antarctic exploration in the 20th century. The mountain was first climbed in 1966 by the American Alpine Club and the National Science Foundation.

While the climb is not considered that difficult technical, it is considered challenging nonetheless because of the extreme environment, including strong winds and very cold temperatures. Temperatures of -20 to -30 degrees Fahrenheit are not uncommon.

Getting there:
Mount Vinson is usually accessed via chartered flight from Punta Arenas to Patriot Hills, and then another flight to Base Camp on the Branscomb Glacier. The trip from Patriot Hils to Base Camp is approximately 6 hours.

Vinson Massif is located about 1,200km away from the South Pole, near the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Dry Valleys
The Dry Valleys are from north to south Victoria, Wright and Taylor, and they are unusual in as much as no rain has fallen there for at least two million years. They have no ice or snow either because the air is too dry for any to exist (ice-free spaces in the Antarctic are called oases). They are enormous, desolate places covering around 3000 sq. km (1170 sq. mi.) and were first happened upon by Robert Scott in December 1903. He wrote '...we have seen no living thing, not even a moss or a certainly is the valley of the dead; even the great glacier that once pushed through it has withered away'.

Despite their appearance, however, the valleys support some of the most unusual life-forms on the planet. In 1978 American biologists discovered algae, fungi and bacteria growing inside the rocks of the Dry Valleys. These endolithic life-forms grow in air pockets within porous rocks and feed off light, carbon dioxide and moisture that penetrate the rock. The bizarre sculptured rock forms that abound accentuate the otherworldliness of the landscape, and these are called ventifacts, shaped by the ever-present wind that buffs the windward sides to a highly polished gleam. (Scientists believe that the Dry Valleys are the nearest earthly equivalent to the landscape of Mars, and NASA did much research there before launching the Viking mission to Mars.

Hannah Point (Livingston Island)
One of the best wildlife sites in the Antarctic, provides an opportunity to see chinstrap, gentoo, and macaroni penguins; giant petrels, blue-eyed shags, skuas, Wilson’s storm petrels: and possibly the southern elephant seal and Antarctic fur seal.

Hope Bay
Hope Bay lies in the Antarctic Sound often called “Iceberg Alley” providing excellent opportunities to see extraordinary icebergs. View the remains of an expedition hut from a Swedish expedition that wintered here in 1903. The Argentine Esperanza Research Station, Adelie penguins and snowy sheathbills are other highlights.

King George Island is the largest of the South Shetland Islands. Russia, China, Korea, Poland, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina have all built research stations here. You may have an opportunity to visit one of these stations, where researchers welcome you with descriptions of their projects and a firsthand look at life in the Antarctic.

King George Island
There are numerous international research stations on this island including the Polish Arctowski Station and the Brazilian Ferraz Station Admiralty Bay. On the western side there are Russian, Chilean, Chinese, Korean, and Uruguayan stations. A visit to one or more stations is often possible with an opportunity to meet the researchers.

Grab your cameras and make for the observation decks as our Captain deftly nudges aside ice floes with the bow of the ship as you transit Lemaire Channel,

The Lemaire Channel
The Lemaire Channel is a spectacular sight with enormous sheer cliffs falling straight into the sea. Affectionately known as "Kodak Gap," this narrow waterway flows between the 3,000-foot peaks of Booth Island and the peninsula. It's only once you're well within it that a way through is visible. Orcas and humpback whales often accompany ships as they make their way through some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth. Unfortunately, ice can sometimes obscure the path and ships need to retreat and sail around Booth Island. At the northern end of Lemaire Channel are a pair of tall, rounded and often snow-capped peaks known as Una's Tits that are also popular with holiday snappers. Belgian explorer De Gerlache during his 1898 expedition aboard Belgica first navigated the channel, and, curiously, named it after the Belgian explorer Charles Lemaire, who explored parts of the Congo.

Antarctica Sightseeing flights
A few times a year it is possible to do sightseeing flights over Antarctica. The charter flights depart from Australia, taking 12 hrs or so and spending 3-4 hrs flying low over the ice fields of Antarctica. The flight doesn't land but this is as close as you can get to Antarctica without taking an expensive cruise! There are different price levels of seating.

Getting In
By plane
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:

Williams Field - Serves McMurdo Station and Scott Base.
Pegasus Blue-Ice Runway - Serves McMurdo Station and Scott Base.
Annual Sea-Ice Runway - Serves McMurdo Station and Scott Base.
Commercial overflights to Antarctica are limited - a handful of operators offer flights from Sydney, Melbourne, and Punta Arenas. These flights typically visit Antarctica and spend several hours flying over the ice. 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.

By cruise ship

Boat is the most common method of visiting the Antarctic. 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 warm clothing: boots, hoods, glove, water repellent pants, parka and warm underwear. Most of these items can be bought or hired in Ushuaia, 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 in order to comply with IAATO agreements. 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:

Abercrombie & Kent, USA. Full member of International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) with 20 years of Antarctica operating experience, providing enrichment and educational programs.

Adventure Life. Members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), their small-ship Antarctica expeditions have been featured in ForbesLife and the New York Times.

AdventureSmith Antarctica Cruises. Award winning small ship cruise specialists, they work only with ships carrying 100 passengers or less.
Bark Europa. A square rigged sailing ship offering 22 day trips to Antarctica and other Sub

Antarctic destinations like South Georgia and Tristan da Cunha.

Cheesemans Ecology Safaris. Offers a trip nearly every year that includes three days in the Falklands, a week on South Georgia, and eight days on the Antarctic Peninsula. Their trips are expensive but are some of the best for maximizing onshore time. They have also done Ross Sea trips in past years.

Gap Adventures. Operates trips on their ship: the 'M/S Expedition' The maximum number of passengers is 120 and the there are by lectures by staff and naturalists on board.

Haka Expeditions.Cruises and Air Cruises to Antarctica and South Georgia.

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises.Members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), their small expedition ships have the highest ice class ranking for cruise ships, and each vessel offers 4-5 cruises to Antarctica between December and March every year, including

Antarctic peninsula, South Shetland Islands, Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and the Weddell Sea.

Journeys International. Provides small ship exploration cruises to the Falkland Islands, South
Georgia, South Shetlands, the Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctic Circle and the Weddell and Ross Seas.

Lindblad Expeditions. Lindblad pioneered travel to Antarctica in 1966 and offers multiple trips to the Antarctic Peninsula, and longer trips which also include the Falklands and South Georgia aboard the new 148-guest National Geographic Explorer.

Quark Expeditions. Offers everything from month-long semi-circumnavigation trips to week-long explorations of the Antarctic peninsula, on former Russian ice-breakers and expedition ships.

Rockjumper Birding tours, operates out of South Africa and is aimed at those interested in birding.

Geographic Expeditions. GeoEx specializes in small group adventure travel. Tours offer a variety of destinations such as Ross Sea, South Georgia Islands an penguin rookeries.

Most cruise ships depart from the following ports:

Ushuaia in Argentina.
Punta Arenas in Chile.
Bluff in New Zealand.
Hobart in Australia.

By sailboat
About a dozen charter sailboats, many of them members of IAATO, offer three to six week voyages to the Antarctic Peninsula from South America. Most offer "expedition style" trips where guests are invited to help out, although usually no prior sailing experience is required. Yachts take individuals on a "by the bunk" basis and also support private expeditions such as scientific research, mountaineering, kayaking, and film-making. Compared to the more popular cruise ships, a small yacht can be more work and significantly less comfortable, but typically allows more freedom and flexibility. For the right people this can be a far more rewarding experience.

Ocean Expeditions , Sailing yacht ‘Australis’ offers an intimate experience of Antarctica.
Expedition Sail , Sailing yacht ‘SEAL’ is a purpose-built expedition sailboat offering private expeditions, support for research, filming, or climbing projects, and also offers "by the bunk" trips for individuals.

Spirit of Sydney, Australians, Darrel and Cath, own and operate Spirit of Sydney, an expedition support yacht perfectly suited to meet and exceed the requirements of Film Crews, Mountaineers, Skiers and Snowboarders, Sea Kayakers, Dry suit Divers, Scientists, Sailors of all experience levels, Whale Watchers and Adventurers of all kinds. They typically carry kayaks on board, and offer both private charters and group trips for individuals.

Antarctic Stations

Coastal stations include
McMurdo (77 51 S, 166 40 E) (USA)
Palmer (64 42 S, 64 00 W) (USA)
Arctowski (Poland)
St. Kliment Ohridski, (Livingston Island) (62 38 29 S, 60 21 53 W) (Bulgaria)
Port Lockroy (UK)
Baia Terranova (I)
Mawson (67 36 S, 62 52 E) (Australia)
Davis (68 35 S, 77 58 E) (Australia)
Casey (66 17 S, 110 32 E) (Australia)
Aboa (73°03'S, 13°25'W) (Finland)

Get around
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.

By Tour
Big Five Tours - Offers customized tours to Antarctica.
Quark Expeditions - Antarctica expeditions
Fs Expeditions - Grand Antarctica Expeditions

1 comment:

  1. Antarctica is outstanding place for visit. The Hannah Point, Hope Bay, King George Island and The Lemaire Channel are the beautiful place in Antarctica for travel.
    Cruise Ships Antarctica