Why should we go to Antarctica?

Open a travel forum, and they shall tell you ‘for the ice capped glaciers, for the Emperor Penguins, for the unusual and pristine landscape and for its virgin nature.’  But is that only why we want to visit a land, where the weather can change in a matter of seconds, where visibility can reduce to not an inch beyond one’s hands, where the snow can bite through every molecule of skin and hurt it as would a knife.

In 1773, Captain James Cook and his crew became the first men to cross the Antarctic Circle. Forty seven years later, a sailor claimed to have “seen Antarctica” from his ship afar, and in 1840, Frenchman Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville became the first person to set foot on Antarctica.

So read a newspaper ad by Shackleton Nimrod, as he set out for Antarctica in 1909, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

One of the greatest of human expeditions then happened in 1911 when Robert Scott and Amundsen set out on a race to see who would reach the South Pole first. In this case, the word ‘race’ must be looked at quite differently though.

They moved and they trudged, through blizzards, through deteriorating health, through frostbites, and through hell. As they moved and as they trudged, some gave up and returned, some died. When Scott finally reached the pole, Amundsen’s Norwegian flag had already been there for five weeks. While returning, Scott and all four of his men died of bitter cold, frostbites, snow blindness and an unimaginable physically painful exhaustion.

And so read Scott’s last diary entry – “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”

Exactly, hundred years later, in 2011, there were 26,509 visitors to Antarctica.

No longer did the world have to set sail from England or Norway, as did those brave men called Scott and Amundsen. Today, it is not rocket science to figure out what is the best way to go to Antarctica. Open a world map, and the countries that lie closest to it are Argentina and Chile (South America), South Africa, and the Oceanic nations of Australia and New Zealand.

The most popular and cheapest way to reach Antarctica is to take a cruise from Ushuaia, a small city on the southern tip of Argentina. Travelling from New Zealand is more expensive, whereas there are negligible number of cruises now from Cape Town, South Africa.

While the regular price for a 11 day cruise ship tour of Antarctica varies from 3000 to 4000 USD (INR 1.7 – 2.2 Lakhs) during the off season to 5000 USD during peak season, there are longer 3 week trips too.

But do note that itineraries can and will change according to the weather. In Antarctica, it takes moments for a calm breeze to change into a blizzard. If one is terribly unlucky, one will not be able to make a landing even once during the trip (There is no good season to travel to Antarctica but February – March and November – December are the favoured ones).

In Antarctica what happens to be heaven one day is liable to be hell the next. The landscape is overwhelmingly beautiful, but it is chillingly terrifying too.

For you shall be covered in layers and layers , but you shall still never be warm . For it might be the best place in the world to take photographs, but so cold will you be that you refuse to touch that camera. For every bit of wind that hits your cheeks when you are ashore might feel like a hundred needles. For every step you take on land, you are aware of the breath you take and the foot you lift.

Which brings me back to my question. Why would we visit Antarctica? The answer lies in our souls. For the human race shall always pursue, and bless it for that, the unknown, the unfamiliar, the unexplored, the inaccessible. When Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen, Hillary, Cook, Colombus went into the unknown, they knew they were going to a dangerous place, that they might not return, yet the thirst for knowledge, a  spirit to reveal the unknown, be the pioneers in discovery drove them.  And it is because of these burning, unshakable elements in the human spirit that they created history, and made it easier for others who followed, eventually opening the gates of tourism to all that had once seemed insurmountable. Today, we, the tourists, the travellers might not be able to match Scott and his likes in their bravery, and it might be much easier for us to walk on the trails that they so wearily trudged on, but some of those elements still stay – we are as fascinated by what is foreboding just as Scott was, we want to see a penguin in the wild, we want to be the first among all our friends to see the southernmost country in the world. We are no different from Eve – we want to eat the apple too.

From 1953 to 2000, in forty seven years, less than 700 people had climbed Everest, and in the ten years after that, over 2500 people (most of them part of a guided tour operator group) reached the top. Seems like a horde, doesn’t it? Are we sullying, defiling lands that were meant to stay in a particular manner? Today Ladakh, Greenland, Antarctica all seem to be pristine, pure. They might not be so in twenty years from now. So, do we go there?

In the words of Jean-Baptiste Charcot,

Why then do we feel this strange attraction for these polar regions, a feeling so powerful and lasting, that when we return home we forget the mental and physical hardships, and want nothing more than to return to them ? Why are we so susceptible to the charm of these landscapes when they are so empty and terrifying?”
————-   The End ——-

Information for people who want to travel to Antarctica

The advantages of booking online

One is assured of a place in the ship.  Some people prefer reaching Ushuaia and then approaching a tourorganizer in the city for bookings, because this is sometimes cheaper. However, in the latter case, one cannot be sure of seat reservation as the cruises are often booked out.

What Cruise to Choose:

According to rule, no more than 100 people can land at one time in Antarctica. Hence if you are particular about moving ashore, it would be best if you try for a ship that carries less than 100 passengers. If  you want to travel in luxury and don’t mind watching the beautiful islands from the ship go for the larger vessels.

Itinerary: (11 Days, Ushuaia - Shetland Islands - Antarctica - Ushuaia)

Day 1 - Set sail from Ushuaia. Day 2,3 - Pass through Drake Passage (huge variety of sea birds, albatrosses, whales on view) Day 3,4 - South Shetland Islands (Deception Island, King George Island. Bathe in hot springs of pendulum cove, walk into colonies of Chinstrap and Macaroni Penguins, Blue Eyed Cormorants, Elephant Seals) Day 5,6,7,8 - Antarctica (Paradise Island, Melchior Island, Cuverville Island. Spectacular glaciers, rock formations, humpback whales, leopard seals etc, stone hut build in 1903) Day 8,9,10,11 - Trace back same route to Ushuaia


Neeraj Narayanan

At WeAreHolidays, Neeraj Narayanan is Head of the Content and Digital Media Team. He has a Masters in Advertising & Media Communication, has had experience as a Communication Consultant to the Government of Gujarat, and as a Brand man in the IT giant firm - Cognizant.

On weekends, he conducts Heritage Walks in Delhi.

Neeraj Narayanan – who has written posts on WAH Blog.