Antarctica is a dream destination that tops the bucket list of nearly every nature-loving traveler. A truly off-the-beaten-path adventure, an Antarctic cruise offers an extraordinary chance to explore one of the world’s last truly pristine ecosystems.
This opportunity has become even more precious in recent years, as the southernmost continent has become increasingly vulnerable to the catastrophic effects of climate change. There was a time when people who dreamed of cruising to Antarctica could put it on their wish list, secure in the knowledge that the world’s largest cold desert would remain relatively unchanged. But science now suggests that many of the continent’s most distinctive features may be a distant memory within our lifetimes.
The good news is that Antarctica’s signature icebergs, ice shelves, and glaciers largely remain intact… but for how much longer? Committing to the protection of Antarctica is one of the very rare things that most of the world’s developed nations agree on. Nations around the world banded together to create the Antarctic Treaty and other related agreements in an attempt to conserve the continent. Only time will tell if treaties and an ever-increasing awareness of climate change will be enough.
For now, the only way to secure your chance to see this remarkable destination is to visit it. Until recently, expeditions to this remote part of the world were extremely difficult. But nowadays there are small ship cruises to Antarctica that afford travelers the luxury of taking it all in from the comfort of a luxury vessel, with itineraries created by knowledgeable naturalist guides.
Here’s a look at how climate change may transform Antarctica in the future, and the highlights of taking an Antarctic cruise today.
How Climate Change Is Altering Antarctica
The Antarctic Peninsula is currently one of the most rapidly warming regions in the world, with average temperatures rising over 5 °F since 1950. The Antarctica that greeted the continent’s first great explorers (such as Shackleton, Amundson, and Mawson) was not the same as the one we’re graced with today.
Due to warming ocean waters, eight of Antarctica's largest glaciers are currently seeing their submerged ice recede at a rate roughly five times faster than what is considered normal. If just the West Antarctic ice sheet collapses, it could result in a catastrophic 10-foot rise in sea levels. This would not only cause devastation to Antarctica and its wildlife but also cause a flow-on effect which would impact the rest of the world.
Climate change skeptics are quick to point out that the Antarctic Peninsula has seen a cooling trend in recent years. But this may be due in part to a recovering Antarctic ozone hole and a resulting shift in winds, which have now become easterly and therefore carry cold air across the Weddell Sea. Scientists believe this slight cooling trend is only temporary, and predict that temperatures will soon be on the rise again as the continent loses out to greenhouse gases.
In the past decade alone, warmer ocean temperatures have melted away close to 600 square miles of underwater Antarctic ice. This equates to a greater size than U.S. cities like Houston, Los Angeles, and Phoenix.
You may recall that one of the biggest icebergs on record (the Larsen-C) recently broke away from the continent. This created a major hazard for cruise ships visiting Antarctica from South America. As more icebergs break off the continent in the future, it could create more problems. A minefield of icebergs might make it impossible for ships to visit certain popular Antarctic destinations.
Iceberg B-15 – the largest one to break off from Antarctica’s famed Ross Ice Shelf – has now almost completely melted away since it detached itself back in 2000. On the whole, Antarctica is melting faster and faster as each year passes. The continent has lost nearly 3 trillion metric tons of ice since 1992, and flowing water can now be found in several locations around the mainland. Antarctica’s ice is vital for the wildlife that call it home. And if all the ice that is locked up in Antarctica melted, the sea levels around the world could rise nearly 200 feet, which would cause devastation to coastal communities unlike any they have experienced before.
The Paris Agreement was signed by 195 countries in order to reduce greenhouse gases and limit the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. Although there is hope that this may help with climate change, some countries (including the U.S.) may soon pull out of the agreement, as recently announced by President Donald Trump.
What climate change means for Antarctic cruises is that future expedition may not offer the same sort of magic. Pollution and overfishing could also lead to a dramatic drop in wildlife populations. Much of Antarctica’s appeal is the chance to see its numerous species of penguins, seals, and whales.
So there is no guarantee that the incredible itineraries and unique experiences that are offered by Antarctica today will be available a decade from now. Threats of mass tourism, exploitation of natural resources, and even the turbulent nature of modern politics could also dramatically alter the chance to visit this once-in-a-lifetime travel destination.
More Reasons Why You Should Travel to Antarctica Now
In addition to the effects of climate change, there are other reasons why visiting Antarctica now rather than later is a wise decision. For starters, prices for reaching the continent and its offshore islands only seem to be going up. As the worldwide economy continues to recover and fuel costs rise, you can bet that Antarctic expeditions will become even more expensive in the future.
Also contributing to the rising costs is the ever-increasing demand from tourists around the world. Ships are booking Antarctic cruises further and further in advance, with nearly all ships sailing at full capacity. There will always be limited availability when it comes to yearly departures, due to Antarctica’s tourism regulations and the short season in which the weather makes it possible to reach the continent.
In order to fully appreciate the true essence of Antarctica, you really have to experience it via a small ship cruise like you’ll find with Zegrahm. This allows you a much more personalized and emotional experience, which massive ships carrying great numbers of tourists cannot provide. Don’t forget…a larger ship means fewer excursions, and may not provide actual continental landings on Antarctica’s mainland.
Share the experience with those you love most or travel solo and meet other fascinating like-minded people, whom you will most likely create a lasting bond of memories with.
Destinations You Can Visit on an Antarctic Expedition
One of the best aspects of an Antarctic cruise is the opportunity to experience fascinating islands along the way, many of which are just as remarkable as seeing the continent’s mainland.
Islands such as the Falklands and South Georgia are teeming with wildlife. You can relive the history of the legendary Antarctic explorers as you set foot on several South Shetland Islands, such as the famous Elephant Island. You can relish the setting of the midnight sun over scenic spots such as the Lemaire Channel.
You will no doubt be left with unforgettable memories long before you reach Antarctica. And once you step foot on the continent, you will find yourself inexorably transformed by the experience. Let’s explore just a few of the locations you can expect to visit on your unforgettable Antarctic adventure.
Nicknamed “The End of the World” and often referred to as the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia is the gateway to Antarctica. It’s situated on Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego archipelago, where you begin to feel the excitement that awaits you on your upcoming expedition.
Here you can explore Tierra del Fuego National Park, where you’ll encounter glaciers and forests filled with wildlife, including guanacos, Andean foxes, and Andean condors.
You can take a ride on the End of the World Train, which is the southernmost railway in the world. Or cruise the Beagle Channel in search or orcas and seals. The town will also provide an opportunity for you to pick up any last minute gear or supplies you may require for your Antarctic cruise.
The Falkland Islands is a British Overseas Territory made up of two main islands and hundreds of smaller ones. On East Falkland Island you’ll find the capital, which is steeped in British heritage. Explore the town’s intriguing maritime and war history as well as its beautiful architecture, such as the Christ Church Cathedral, which sits alongside an impressive whalebone arch.
But the true highlight of these islands is the abundance of wildlife you’ll find there. Numerous species of Antarctic penguins (including the rockhopper, macaroni, and Magellanic penguin) call these islands home. Alongside the penguins, you’ll find breeding black-browed albatross, southern giant petrels, and rock cormorants.
The Falkland Islands wolf was sadly hunted to extinction in the late 19th century, but the islands are still visited by marine mammal species such as orcas, southern elephant seals, and South American fur seals. Even the great Charles Darwin found the Falkland Islands so remarkable, he spent more time here than he did in the Galapagos Islands.
A trip to South Georgia Island is equally as rewarding as Antarctica itself.
It is here that the great Ernest Shackleton was laid to rest in Grytviken Cemetery. He now rests in peace, that is if you call peace being located on an island that is home to over 200,000 lovable king penguins, which breed on the Salisbury Plain.
You can also discover historic whaling stations, witness massive elephant seals lounging about, search for fur seals and macaroni penguins in Elsehul Bay, and view the glaciers and dramatic cliffs that Shackleton and his men crossed to get to Stromness Bay.
Elephant Island is where Ernest Shackleton and his crew sought refuge after their ship, the Endurance, was lost in the Weddell Sea ice. It is from here that Shackleton and five of his men took off for South Georgia in hopes of rescuing the entire crew.
The island features the Endurance Memorial Site, which recognizes the successful rescue of Shackleton’s men by the Chilean ship Yelcho. The 22 men managed to survive for over four months on the island.
The island is covered in chinstrap penguins and gentoo penguins and is frequently visited by the elephant seals for which the island was named.
Deception Island offers one of Antarctica’s safest harbors, as it makes up the caldera of an active volcano.
Visitors to the island can enjoy a “refreshing” plunge in the frigid waters, and then warm up by burying themselves under the geothermally heated dark beach sand.
Although the island may seem void of life when compared to the Falkland Islands or South Georgia, it is actually home to one of the world’s largest colonies of chinstrap penguins as well as rare moss and lichens found nowhere else in Antarctica. Researchers have also discovered fossilized plant material on the island.
An absolute highlight of any Antarctic cruise is the chance to actually set foot on the continent. Here, you will literally be following in the footsteps of some of the world’s most remarkable explorers.
Landing on the continent also allows the opportunity to visit a working scientific research station, where you can experience what living on the continent is like as well as speak with some of the scientists that dedicate their time to collecting important research data.
Landing points such as Brown Bluff provide sightings of Adélie and gentoo penguins as well as seabirds such as skuas and petrels. There are, of course, the notoriously dramatic Antarctic landscapes to photograph as well.
Part of the excitement that comes with visiting Antarctica is the opportunity to cross the Drake Passage. The watery link between South America's Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, this is here where ships regularly encounter some of the roughest seas in the world.
Although you should be prepared for choppy conditions if you’re prone to seasickness, some travelers are lucky enough to experience “the Drake Lake,” where waters are calm and the sailing is easy. Keep an eye out for all kinds of seabirds (including the massive wandering albatross) as well as several species of whales (include humpbacks heading to their northern breeding grounds).
Crossing the Drake Passage is an accomplishment in and of itself, and makes you truly appreciate the unforgettable Antarctic journey on which you have embarked.
Megan Jerrard is an Australian Journalist and the founder and Senior Editor of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe.