Choose a cruise
IT may be the last wilderness, but Antarctica is no longer difficult or even unreasonably expensive to reach. Your first decision is whether to tackle East Antarctica, the frozen continent’s wild side, or the more easily accessible and more frequently visited Antarctic Peninsula.
Cruises to East Antarctica leave from Dunedin or Bluff in southern New Zealand, and sometimes from Hobart. One advantage of a voyage to East Antarctica is that it will almost certainly take in one or more of the sub-Antarctic islands between Australia and Antarctica. These are among the most spectacularly remote corners of the planet, teeming with wildlife, including our own ‘‘Galapagos of the south’’, Macquarie Island, and Kiwi-owned wonders such as the Campbell and Auckland groups.
These islands break up what would otherwise be six to seven days of sailing to the Antarctic continent. However, the sheer distance to be sailed — at least 2600km each way — means these trips are typically two to four weeks, and therefore more expensive.
Visiting the Antarctic Peninsula, by comparison, involves a relatively short voyage of a few days. Cruises leave from Tierra del Fuego on the continent’s southernmost tip, Ushuaia in Argentina or Punta Arenas in Chile. Of course, this means you must add the cost of flights from Australia to South America. Ushuaia and Punta Arenas are connected by regular flights to larger cities in the region.
For those short on time, some cruise operators provide fly-sail options, using charter flights of about two hours from Punta Arenas to King George Island, in the South Shetland group near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, to avoid more than one crossing of Drake Passage by ship.
A further factor to consider is that in the past two summers, ice conditions have been unusually thick off the coast of East Antarctica. That has prevented many expeditions from reaching shore. The peninsula, by contrast, is worryingly free of ice compared with years past, a phenomenon linked by scientists to global warming.
Small ships are ideal for exploring Antarctica — low-impact, safe, comfortable and adaptable to itineraries that can change because of the vagaries of weather, sea and ice.
The biggest cruise ships are effectively banned from Antarctic waters on environmental grounds. This means you typically find yourself among 45 to 100 passengers. You will venture out from the mother ship in inflatable Zodiacs, in groups of about 10, while some expeditions offer guided kayaking.
If you prefer the flutter of canvas and are not afraid to help hoist a sail, there are trips to the peninsula on majestic sailing ships such as the Dutch-based Europa.
Now is a good time to plan for trips leaving in the 2013-14 southern summer; many of the Antarctic operators offer voyages to the Arctic in the northern summer. auroraexpeditions.com.au silversea.com seabourn.com abercrombiekent.com.au orionexpeditions.com worldexpeditions.com/au bentours.com.au ocean-expeditions.com barkeuropa.com