Saturday, 11 February 2012

Antarctica: Do's and Don'ts!

Antarctica was an incredible adventure that still hasn't completely sunk in. A true wilderness, its raw beauty and stunning wildlife was captivating and full of surprises. Here's some tips I picked up along the way...

- Research really carefully when choosing a boat and cruise operator. The laws governing the human presence on Antarctica dictate that no more than 100 people can be on shore per landing (including crew), so our 84 passengers, plus expedition leaders meant that the whole ship could land at the same time, without having to take turns. Everyone had the opportunity to land or zodiac cruise twice a day, and could spend the full amount of time (over three hours at times) exploring the environment and spotting wildlife. Our ship never felt crowded, and with so few people, there was ample time to talk to everyone and create a great, friendly atmosphere.

- Bring the right clothing for the environment. My packing and preparing for the Antarctic post offers advice based on what we found most useful, and cruise operators also send out guides. Remember to bring a good pair of sunglasses - the sun is strong and intense!

- Grab every opportunity offered with both hands. Every landing is unique, each zodiac cruise offering the possibility of new spottings, and every moment on deck different in this continuously changing, diverse environment. Don't worry about missing things though - announcements are made over the tanoy system, and word spreads fast if there's something interesting to see. Take plenty of camera memory, but also allow time to just 'be' there, watching and marvelling at the sheer beauty of the place.

- Read up a little on the wildlife either before leaving, or on the Drake Passage outward journey. Although the Antarctic has it's fair share of life, there's a limited number of common encounters, and being able to identify animals and birds really made the sightings more enjoyable and helped understand their behaviour and personalities.

- Have a list of 'must sees'. Although penguins are pretty much guaranteed (there's so many of them they are difficult to miss!), other wildlife come and go as they please and comparing your experience to that of other people's is a waste of time. Go with an open mind, and see what happens! Setting expectations a little lower means that everything will be a wonderful bonus.

- Expect the trip to be cheap! Cruises are upwards of $5000 (for 11 days - the 'classic' option), and although you can pick up something a bit cheaper in Ushuaia, you need to be flexible and won't be able to pick your ship. Ushuaia isn't exactly a bargain either, and flights from Buenos Aires are infrequent and pricey as a result. Although on-board expenses are generally covered (excluding drinks on many cruises) and there are very few souvenirs to buy, it still all adds up and is a considerable expense. However, there are ways to spread out the cost. We booked almost a year in advance, paying a deposit upfront. The following month, after monitoring flights, we booked those. The next few months, we paid off the cruise bit by bit, and set money aside for accommodation, which helped us keep on top of things.

- Turn down the opportunity to take a dip in the water. Yes, it's freezing, and yes, the thought of removing all those layers will make you wonder if it's worth it. But I know I would have regretted it had I not taken the plunge (quite literally...!).

- Expect landings to be a walk in the park. There is always the option of staying down on the beach, going for a stroll and saying hi to the penguins. But to really appreciate the magnitude and beauty of Antarctica, you need to go up, up, up. The hikes themselves aren't hugely physically demanding, but with clunky boots and thick snow to contend with, it feels worse than it is. A reasonably good level of fitness helps, but it's perfectly possible for anyone taking it at their own pace and for as far as they want to go. And it's all worth it when you get to slide back down, whizzing past the penguins before landing in an jumbled lump at the bottom.

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