Call of the White Continent

For most travellers, over many years, Antarctica remained an abstraction — a stand-in for the concept of “faraway”, of inaccessible wilds, bitter cold, the unknowable. It stood for the idea of a last frontier populated by heroic explorers or as a reflection of more modern concerns, a barometer of climate change. It was the fabled seventh continent; the one that no one ever went to, unless your name was Amundsen, Shackleton or Scott (or you took samples of the ice core as you were interviewed on CNN). Despite all of the fancy ideas of what Antarctica was, it never occurred to many to think of Antarctica as a place that could be worth a visit.

But in the past few years the scenario has changed. Tourists are giving Antarctica top priority in their bucket-list of places to visit ‘at least once in a lifetime.’ Magnificent glaciers, staggeringly beautiful icebergs, epic mountains and an abundance of wildlife all contribute to the allure of the Antarctica – the 'Great White Continent' covering an area of around 14 million square kilometres that are virtually untouched by humankind.

While Antarctica remains the habitat of intrepid explorers and scientific expeditions, its extraordinary wildlife and jaw-dropping scenery is also accessible to discerning travellers wishing to discover one of the most pristine areas of the planet, under strict environmental guidelines.

Antarctica is the world's fifth largest continent and much of it is blanketed by a vast permanent ice sheet, averaging 2,000 metres in thickness. The wider region comprises a much larger area than the continent itself, including ice shelves, seas and islands off the coast of South America and Australasia.

The wildlife- rich Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands are the most accessible parts of the continent, and hence are the focus of many expedition voyages departing from South America. Longer voyages also take in South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, the former, with its links to Shackleton’s fabled trek across the glaciers, being a must for many intrepid travellers.

The lesser explored Weddell Sea region hugs the Peninsula and is home to emperor penguins nesting on the frozen oceans; little wonder that this area is known as 'iceberg alley'.

Dominated by an ice shelf the size of France, the Ross Sea region is inextricably linked to the golden age of exploration. The historic huts at Terra Nova Bay, Cape Evans and Cape Royds stand as monuments to Scott and Shackleton’s heroic expeditions. This area also boasts one of Antarctica’s most perplexing natural assets, the Dry Valleys, where no rain has fallen for at least 2 million years. Considerably more remote and inaccessible than the Peninsula, this is an area of dense pack ice most commonly reached from Australasia.

Some may argue that it's impossible to describe the scenery of Antarctica in a single word, but ‘breathtaking’ comes close! It really is the world's last true wilderness area and during its fleeting summer, this inhospitable land plays host to some of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth. Millions of pairs of penguins, albatrosses, petrels and other sea birds breed in the region; five species of seal are regularly observed hauled out on ice floes; orcas, humpback and minke whales are often encountered feeding on the ocean’s rich pickings, adding to the impressive list of marine mammals.

Antarctica is Earth’s southernmost continent, whereas we live in the northern hemisphere. Hence the climatic conditions and cycle of seasons are totally opposite from each other. Nov, Dec, Jan is the winter season where we live but the same time span is considered as summer in southern hemisphere, which makes it a best time to visit Antarctica. The continent has about 90% of the world’s ice and the remaining 10% of ice is scattered between Himalayas and Alps. It has 70% of the world’s freshwater in the form of ice and yet it is the driest continent. Antarctica is considered as the largest desert (cold) on Earth. It is at its coldest best in the month of June, when the darkness of the night lasts for 24 hours and in December when it is summertime, 24 hours of daylight can be observed. This is the only continent in the world which has no capital, no independent currency and no official language. Antarctica dispenses mind-boggling statistics at a rate as impressive as its vast expanses.

Antarctica expedition couldn’t be more different than a sightseeing tour of Europe or America. There are no manmade wonders like Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty but a vast expanse of natural treasure. But to fully appreciate this treasure you need to be well-versed with it. Tourism in Antarctica started in the 1960s. Amateur, adventurous tourists would be brought to this continent by sea cruises. Air overflights of Antarctica started in the 1970s with sightseeing flights by airliners from Australia and New Zealand. (Sir Edmond Hillary, the first person to climb Mt.Everest, participated in some of these voyages as an expert guide.) The weather in Antarctica being very unpredictable, cancellation of these flights was a common occurrence. There was even a plane crash during the initial flights. But now with the advent of flights directly landing on Antarctica, travelling the continent has become less venturous and previously inaccessible areas have become easier to reach. Some land visits include mountaineering, skiing or even a visit to the South Pole. These flights directly landing on Antarctica depart from Chile.

The number of tourists visiting Antarctica is increasing. To ensure that tourism activities do not have adverse impacts on the environment, Antarctica is being governed by a strict protocol. Therefore, a special session is organized to give thorough info regarding the protocol before each group alights from the boat. In that session you are given guidelines about the necessary precautions to be taken to protect the environment from contamination after landing on Antarctica. These ‘dos and don’ts of Antarctica’ are very important. Antarctica is a vital part of the Earth’s ecosystem. It is being the frozen continent natural decomposition of materials is next to impossible. Hence dropping even a piece of paper is strictly prohibited in this region. Likewise, touching or picking up an object is also forbidden, be it a penguin feather or even a pebble. It is really remarkable the precautions that are taken to protect the environment from tourism activities.

Cruises to Antarctica operate during the austral summer- early November to late February, so as to avoid the very cold climatic conditions and to enable the tourists to witness various aspects of Antarctica and the unique world of its organisms. But the reality is that conditions can change instantly in Antarctica. That’s why it isn’t simply a walk-up, an ordinary luxury cruise. You can’t really get weather reports down there; you get just some wind reports and low resolution ice reports. Despite all the commercialization and professionalism of Antarctic tours, this is still a serious venture prone to the unpredictable. In fact, this adds to the excitement. You can’t just purchase a trip to Antarctica- you must earn it. Other than weather, the most baffling question while on Antarctica was ‘what’s the time?’ Antarctica sits on every line of longitude due to the South Pole being situated near the middle of the continent. Which means Antarctica is located in all time zones, making it difficult to determine which time zone would be appropriate. As a practical measure it was finally decided that New Zealand time zone would be used in Antarctica for all the activities (i.e. six and half hours ahead of IST).

Antarctica is the epitome of nature’s beauty and human willpower that enables one to endure adversity with courage. It can be a worn-out travel cliché but there are a handful of destinations that still merit the ‘once in a lifetime’ tag and Antarctica is surely on top of that list. So are you all set for your adventurous expedition?

Team Veena world