Icy Antarctica: a hot spot for student travel

Watching whales leap out of the water is one of many opportunities travelers have when visiting Antarctica, as an increasing number of people worldwide are looking to explore the bottom of the earth. Student groups, individuals and families are frequently heading south on an Antarctica adventure that many only dreamed of just a few years ago.

Recently, a group of Michigan State University study abroad students on an expedition in Antarctica found their boat stuck on ice and stranded, but not for too long.

“We just enjoyed the scenery for a while,” sophomore Jennifer Campbell said. “About a half-hour later, I had taken probably 100 videos because about 100 whales were around our ship, teaching their young to hunt.”

The frozen tundra of Antarctica has become a hot spot for ecotourism, too. Thirteen MSU students participated in the expedition in Antarctica program a few months ago.

“Not any two people have the same short list of reasons for going – the love of adventure and (being) off the routine path of MSU are some reasons why,” said Michael Gottfried, an associate professor of geological sciences in a State News article.

But the increasing amount of travelers visiting the continent could have consequences. Students are told to wash their boots and not to take anything because it changes the environment.

“It is untouched; you can tell how things have changed after centuries of human progress,” sophomore Jennifer Campbell said. “If everyone wants a piece of it, it’ll be all gone.”

Although many nations conduct climate and other scientific research in Antarctica, the MSU trip isn’t based solely on science, Gottfried said. Students in dance, journalism, engineering and other majors have taken the trip not just to explore wildlife, but also to learn about the physical and biological aspects of the area.

“People underestimate the pristine quality of this beautiful place,” Campbell said.

Looking to travel to Antarctica? A number of travel companies are offering unique adventures:

  • National Geographic Expeditions does a 14- or 24-day Journey to Antarctica aboard the National Geographic Explorer that hits the Antarctic Peninsula and the surrounding islands and waterways.
  • Journeys International has a 12-day Active Antarctica Adventure that allows those along for the ride to test their endurance with an average of two, off-ship activities each day, including camping, kayaking, mountaineering and cross-country skiing while appreciating the penguins, whales and icy landscapes.
  • Abercrombie and Kent sails the whale-rich waters of the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula’s bleach-white, remote coastlines on a comprehensive expedition cruise that reveals the many faces of the world’s last frontier. This one lets us go behind the scenes of an environmental research station and chat with on-board experts nightly about the day’s discoveries.
  • Students On Ice is an award-winning organization offering expeditions to the Antarctic to provide students, educators and scientists from around the world with inspiring educational opportunities at the ends of the Earth.

This video gives us an idea of what Students On Ice is all about.

Flickr photo by Antarctica Bound

Adventure Vacation Guide 2012: Ushuaia, Argentina

Just a few miles out of Ushuaia you can stand at the end of the Panamerican Highway and imagine the long line that connects you to Alaska. Wild nature surrounds you, face one direction and you’ll see sharp granite peaks. Turn the other direction and you’ll see the Beagle Channel, that relatively placid waterway that leads to the Drake Passage, and then, Antarctica.

Antarctica exploration hit a milestone last year, Roald Amundsen was the first man to reach the South Pole in December 1911. With 100 years of exploration behind us, it’s now surprisingly easy to board a ship from Ushuaia and head out to that last place.

You can book an Antarctic trip from the comfort of home, but if you’ve got time to spare, head to Ushuaia during cruise season (typically January to March) and visit the travel agents that line San Martin. A last minute bookings can save you up to fifty percent.

Ushuaia vibrates with anticipation and exhilaration. The combination of Antarctica travelers both outbound and returning, cyclists (motor and pedal) who have completed the Panamerican Highway, and back country adventurers surfacing from the wilds of Patagonia make for a city where nearly everyone you meet is on an epic, once in a life time adventure.

[flickr image via 23am.com]

Partial solar eclipse highlights the 2011 Antarctic travel season

A visit to Antarctica is high on the list of “must see” places for travelers looking to get off the beaten path. It is the highest, coldest, driest continent on the planet, and yet it still holds an undeniable allure for many adventure seekers. They come to kayak amongst the massive ice flows, visit penguin colonies, and to step foot in a place that few people ever get to see. This year, a few lucky visitors will also get the opportunity to witness a solar eclipse.

On November 25th, a partial solar eclipse will take place in the southernmost regions of the planet, making it only visible in New Zealand and the Antarctic. While the kiwis will have just 20% of the sun obscured from view, the Antarctic Peninsula will see nearly 90% of our star blocked from sight as the moon passes in front of it. Anyone traveling through the region on that day is sure to have a once in a lifetime experience.

Adventure travel specialists Quark Expeditions is not only preparing for the impending Antarctic cruise season, which begins in November, they’re currently offering a 15% discounts on all of their cruises scheduled to take place during the eclipse. The company has two different itineraries available and four separate cruises that will be in the Antarctic when the celestial event takes place.

It isn’t often that you know that a travel experience is going to be truly unique and special before you even go. But I’d say witnessing a solar eclipse over the Antarctic Peninsula ranks as an unforgettable sight.

[Photo credit: sancho_panza via WikiMedia]

Record numbers of humpback whales spotted near Antarctica

For many travelers, whale-spotting is a moving, and sometimes life altering, experience. Those massive, yet graceful, creatures are unlike anything else on Earth, and getting the opportunity to see one up close is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. One of the more common species, the humpback whale, have recently been spotted in record numbers off the coast of Antarctica, in a display that has even left scientists speechless.

Humpbacks, like most whales, are migratory in nature, traveling as much as 16,000 miles each year. During the summer months, they’ll typically move into the colder polar regions in search of krill, tiny shrimp like creatures that are their favorite meals. Researchers often travel to those regions as well in hopes of getting the opportunity to study the creatures in their natural habitat.

Over the course of the past two years, scientists have been visiting the Southern Ocean with the hope of spotting humpbacks and observing their behavior. In both May of 2009 and 2010, they recorded record numbers of whales there, at a time when the giant mammals should have been heading for warmer waters. In fact, in one instance, they counted, 306 humpback whales in the Wilhelmina Bay, a small body of water that falls on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

While seeing that many whales in one place is indeed a stunning sight, and a fantastic research opportunity, researchers warn that it could mean dire consequences for the ecosystem around Antarctica, which is one of the bellweather locations for climate change. As the region around the Antarctic continent warms up, the sea ice is retreating very quickly. The krill use that sea ice as a nursery for their young, and without it they aren’t shielded from the massive predators that eat them by the ton. That could mean that the whales could potentially decimate the krill population, leaving themselves little to eat in the future.

But for now, it seems that the humpback population is not only healthy, but thriving, and travelers to Antarctica may have unprecedented opportunities to see them up close.

[Photo courtesy Whit Welles via WikiMedia]

IAATO explains climate change for Antarctic travelers

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) continues to be a great source of information and education for travelers heading south to the frozen continent. Last week we told you about their efforts to keep the sailors aboard private yachts, well informed of the issues involved with navigating the Antarctic waters, helping to make the region even safer for travel. But beyond promoting safe travel in the Southern Ocean, the IAATO’s other chief concern is protecting the environment. To that end they have released a document entitled “Climate Change in Antarctica – Understanding the Facts” which is designed to educate Antarctic travelers about the threats to the environments which they’ll be traveling through.

The document, which was created in collaboration with the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), is a fair and unbiased look at the impact of climate change on Antarctica, which plays a vital role in the circulation of both the atmospheric and ocean currents. Additionally, Antarctica contains 90% of the world’s ice and 70% of its fresh water, which makes it all the more valuable for the long term health of life on Earth.

Antarctica has long served as a barometer for the health of the planet, and as climate change continues to spread, its impact on the continent is undeniable. For instance, temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have increased by more 3ºC over the past 50 years, which is nearly ten times the average rate for the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the large ozone hole that made news years ago, has led to a 15% increase in westerly winds, which have helped to insulate the continent, keeping Antarctica’s interior largely unchanged in terms of temperature and snow fall.

What does all of this have to do with travel to Antarctica? Clearly the report demonstrates how fragile the environment is there, and how important it is to protect it – something the IAATO has a vested interest in. The organization works with its members to help limit the impact of travel to the region, and in the process reduce their carbon footprint. The idea is for travelers to visit but have zero impact on the place, ensuring that it remains a healthy and vital destination for future adventure travelers to enjoy as well.

The Antarctic travel season is just now getting underway, and with the global economy remaining sluggish, a number of travel companies are once again offering excellent deals for tours to the region. If you’ve ever had a desire to visit the the place, this may be the best time to go.

[Photo credit: IAATO]