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Antarctica in 2011?

Yesterday morning, I was reading an article on the New York Time’s web site called “31 Places to Go in 2011.” I’m always a sucker for this sort of thing: magazine articles that list the “Top 50” destinations, books on the “150,000 places you must visit before you die,” television shows that countdown the “Top 10” locations for, say, the world’s best cheeseburgers.

Anyway, I was pleased to see Copenhagen (#5) and Norway (#28) on the list, which we almost opted to visit this year. And, I was especially happy to see Montenegro (#24), which we will be visiting this year.

There was also the usual suspects of places that we’d like to visit: from Colombia (#26) to Shanghai (#12), including a couple of slightly more “off the beaten path” locales such as Leipzig (#10) and Minorca (#14). Other ‘must visits’ included Istanbul (#19) and Antarctica (#9).

Ahhh, Antarctica.

I read travel articles on this continent of snow and ice with careful interest. Logistically and financially, I’ve always seen this as one of the most ‘expensive’ trips we’ll need to take in order to complete our travel goal of all 7 continents. Given Libby’s career, visits to Antarctica don’t work very well as you need to visit during summer, which is basically Nov-Feb there. They’re also time consuming – at least two weeks of travel to spend 3-5 days actually on, or sailing, around the continent. So, despite tourism picking up, I’ve sort of assumed we’d get there later.

It has also been a while since I read anything on Antarctica.

As such, I devoured the blurb. It didn’t start out well:

This may be the last year that Antarctica is open to mass tourism — not because the ice is melting too fast (though it is), but because of restrictions that would severely curtail travel around the fragile continent.

Say what? I read on…

Countries that manage Antarctica are calling for limits on the number of tourist ships, for fortified hulls that can withstand sea ice and for a ban on the use of so-called heavy oils. A ban on heavy oil, which is expected to be adopted by the International Maritime Organization later this year, would effectively block big cruise ships.


This is problematic (to me as a traveler) for a couple of reasons.

First, by ‘blocking’ big cruise ships, the option of a (relatively) low-cost and (probably) more comfortable ‘cruise-only’ exploration of Antarctica goes out the window after 2011. Since large ships don’t make landings (i.e., you never actually set foot on Antarctica), we’ve always debated whether or not these should count as a ‘visit’ to the continent. However, I always liked the idea of having this ‘low-cost’ (defined as easily less than $5k per person, including airfare) option available.

Second, by generally setting the bar higher, it seems that fewer operators will serve this market. If demand doesn’t abate correspondingly (doubtful), I have to assume this means that the cost of small-ship or land-air expeditions will increase (from ~$10k per passenger, plus airfare(s), to some higher price point). This means the cost of Libby and I going to Antarctica will likely be well in excess of $30k… and taking Emerson could make the all-in nearly $50k for the three of us. Ouch!

What does all of this mean to us?

Basically, we need to make a decision about going to Antarctica on a ‘big’ (read: ‘imperfect but cheap’) cruise ship in 2011 or expect to have fewer, more expensive options in the future. It’s a dilemma.

The timing is really bad: one-year old baby, career obligations (especially Libby at that time of year), and generally just not on the ‘roadmap’ for 2011.

The cost is really good: Libby and I can go for about $3500 (cheap cruise good rate and using miles for the flights).

The option of having Emerson go with us isn’t viable: she’d be too young to even be allowed on most of the sailing dates, and I just don’t think the environment is conducive to travel with an infant/toddler (access to medical care is very limited; the seas can be very rough; the handful of ports mostly requiring tendering; etc.).

Does a ‘sail-by’ even count as a ‘visit’?

I could argue this one either way.

In the end, I think it counts because 1) we’d spend a lot of time sailing around Antarctica (so the visit wouldn’t be brief), and 2) I learned from Alaska that some places are just better seen (or at least seen differently) from the sea.

I also base the argument on the following statement made on CoolAntarctica.com: “The true boundary of Antarctica is not the coastline of the continent itself or the outlying islands, but the Antarctic Convergence.” In fact, the solid mass of Antarctica doubles during the winter as sea-ice forms. Thus, much of the liquid area we’d be visiting in the Antarctic summer would be rock solid in winter.

Finally, I have a poor track record of walking on ice anyway (see results of prior attempt below).

Broken Leg (January 2009)

Time to make a decision…

I think I’m going to ‘punt’ and just book the cruise for next year.

We’ll make a ‘final decision’ at a later date. We can always cancel before final payment is due. And, that’s better than the alternative: regrets for missing out because we didn’t reserve our place.

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