Updated: May 12, 2020
Antarctica is the land at the bottom of the world, the seventh continent, earth’s final frontier. Antarctica is the most exotic, most unusual travel destination on earth. It is the closest thing to interplanetary travel that is now possible. The continent, as large as the U.S. and Mexico combined, is covered with two miles of ice on most of its surface. But the Antarctic Peninsula is a finger of land that stretches out to within 625 miles of the southern tip of South America. Almost all tourist trips to Antarctica visit the Antarctic Peninsula. As you explore the Antarctic Peninsula, you are still about 3,000 miles from the South Pole.
When you are in Antarctica, everything is different from what you are accustomed to in the rest of the world. It is like being on another planet. The cycles of day and night in the rest of the world do not hold in Antarctica. In June, when it is at the peak of summer in the northern hemisphere, it is winter and constant night in Antarctica. In December through February, it is summer. At the peak of the austral summer, it is daytime all the time. That is the time when tourist voyages go to Antarctica.
Practically none of the considerations that normally apply to tourism apply to Antarctica. There are no hotels or restaurants. There is no nightlife. In fact, during the tourist season, there is no night at all. There are no cities. There isn’t even soil. It’s just rock, gravel, snow and ice, giant glaciers and crystalline blue icebergs sculpted by wind and water into exotic shapes. And yet, as inhospitable as it seems to human activity, it is a vibrant ecosystem teeming with life.
As desolate as the black snow-covered peaks appear above the sea, under the surface of the ocean there is an abundance of life. Penguins and seals, which lumber about awkwardly on land, turn into beautifully streamlined swimmers underwater and travel with great grace and speed. Many species of whales also thrive there, finding a rich food supply in the plankton and krill that fill the waters there.
Tourism began in 1966, when Lars Eric Lindblad took the first group there using a chartered Argentine navy vessel. Before Lindblad, the only people who had ever been to Antarctica were explorers and scientists. Lindblad created the model that most operators still use today, taking relatively small groups on ships with ice-strengthened hulls, using Zodiac landing vessels for shore excursions, and incorporating educational programs with specialist guides. As he refined the model he chartered a Chilean ship, and in the 1970s he built the Lindblad Explorer especially for Antarctica. In the late 1970s, a second operator, Society Expeditions, started operating the World Discoverer in Antarctica, and in the 1980s, several other operators joined in.
In recent years, larger cruise lines like Holland America, Crystal and Princess, started bringing ships carrying more than 500 passengers. Ships of that size are forbidden to land passengers on shore by the guidelines of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), so they just cruise by. In March, the International Maritime Organization banned the use of heavy fuel oil by ships sailing in Antarctic waters. It will reduce cruise capacity in Antarctica by 50 percent, but small ships will not be affected by the ban and will continue to make voyages.