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Antarctica Cruises

Planning a Cruise to Antarctica

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Hanseatic cruise ship and penguin

Passengers on the Hapag-Lloyd Hanseatic will see lots of penguins on an Antarctic cruise

Photo Courtesy of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, Used With Permission
Why would anyone want to visit Antarctica? Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and driest place on earth. The tourist season is a scant four months long. There are no shops, piers, idyllic beaches, or tourist venues at the Antarctic ports of call. The ocean crossing from South America, Africa, or Australia is almost always a rough one. Despite all of these perceived negatives, Antarctica has always been on my list of "must see" destinations. We cruised to Antarctica in January 2005 on the Hapag-Lloyd Hanseatic, and can now understand why so many others express an interest in visiting a continent with such a hostile environment.

Lucky for those of us who love to cruise, the best way to visit Antarctica is via cruise ship. Since most of the wildlife in Antarctica is found on the ice-free narrow ridges of coastline around the islands and mainland, cruise passengers don't have to miss out on any of the interesting sea, land or air creatures of this exciting continent. In addition, Antarctica has no tourism infrastructure such as hotels, restaurants, or tour guides, so a cruise ship is an ideal vehicle for visiting the sixth continent. One note-you won't get to the South Pole on a ship. Unlike the North Pole, which lies in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, the South Pole is hundreds of miles inland, situated on a high plateau. Some visitors to the South Pole have even experienced altitude sickness!

Background
Although 95 percent of Antarctica is covered with ice, there are rocks and soil under all that ice and the continent is twice the size of Australia. Antarctica is also our highest continent, with over half of the land over 6500 feet above sea level. The highest peak on Antarctica is over 11000 feet. Since Antarctica gets less than 4 inches of precipitation a year, all of it in the form of snow, it qualifies as a polar desert.

The ocean surrounding Antarctica is one of its most interesting features. The winds and sea currents interact ferociously, causing this area of the ocean to be very turbulent. The Antarctic Convergence is the region where the warm, saltier waters flowing south from South America meet the cold, dense and fresher waters moving north from Antarctica. These conflicting currents are constantly mixing and result in a very rich environment for an abundance of sea plankton. The plankton attracts large numbers of birds and sea mammals. The end result is the famous rough seas of the Drake Passage and Tierra del Fuego and the thousands of fascinating creatures that survive this inhospitable climate.

When to Go to Antarctica
The tourist season is only four months long in Antarctica-from November to February. The rest of the year is not only very cold-as low as 50 degrees below zero-but also dark or nearly dark most of the time. Even if you could stand the cold you couldn't see anything! Each month has its own attractions. November is early summer, and the birds are courting and mating. December and January feature hatching penguins and baby chicks, along with warmer temperatures and up to 20 hours of daylight each day. February is late summer, but the whale sightings are more frequent and the chicks are beginning to become fledglings. There is also less ice in the late summer, and the ships are not as booked up as earlier in the season.

Types of Cruise Ships Visiting Antarctica
Although explorers have sailed Antarctic waters since the 15th century, the first tourists didn't arrive until 1957 when a Pan American flight from Christchurch, New Zealand landed for a short time at McMurdo Sound. Tourism really picked up starting in the late 1960s when expedition tour operators began offering trips. The past few years, over 30 ships have carried tourists into Antarctic waters. Almost 30,000 of these tourists land ashore in Antarctica and another 13,000 either sail in Antarctic waters or fly over the continent. Ships vary in size from less than 50 to over 1000 passengers. The ships also vary in amenities, from basic supply vessels to small expedition ships to mainstream cruise ships to small luxury cruise ships such as the Hapag-Lloyd Hanseatic we sailed on.

One word of caution-some ships do not allow passengers to go ashore in Antarctica. They provide wonderful vistas of the spectacular Antarctic scenery, but only from the deck of the ship. This "sail-by" type of Antarctic cruise, often called an Antarctic "experience", helps keep the price down, but can be a disappointment if landing on Antarctic soil is important to you. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators requires its members to pledge to send no more than 100 persons ashore at any one time. Larger ships cannot logistically meet this pledge, and any cruise line disregarding it would probably not get a permit to sail to Antarctica again.

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