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]

Explore Antarctica with Neil Armstrong!

Yesterday marked the 40th Anniversary of Man first landed on the moon. It was one of the most iconic moments in human history when astronaut Neil Armstrong took that first “small step for man” and planted his foot onto the lunar surface. Now, four decades later, he’s still showing his adventurous spirit by joining National Geographic Expeditions and Lindblad Expeditions on a 25-day journey to Antarctica.

The adventure begins on November 15 of this year, when travelers depart for Chile, where they’ll board the National Geographic Explorer chartered out of Ushuaia. The ship will head south across the Drake Passage towards the Antarctic Peninsula, where travelers will have the opportunity to explore Deception Island, Paradise Bay, and Port Lockroy. From there, it’s on to Elephant Island, South Georgia, and the Falklands, before returning to Ushuaia and returning home.

Over the course of the three-and-a-half week voyage, passengers aboard the Explorer will have an opportunity to watch whales swimming in the Southern Ocean, walk amongst King Penguins, and kayak along the Antarctic Peninsula, exploring waters that few ever have the opportunity to visit. And joining them at every step of the journey will be Mr. Armstrong, making an already unique travel experience, even more amazing.

As if venturing to the Antarctic with one of the most well known explorers to ever live wasn’t enough, this year also marks the 50th Anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty, which established the continent as a scientific research location and banned all military actions there, while proclaiming that Antarctica belonged to no single country. That historic event will be commemorated while aboard the ship, and all passengers will receive a special duffel bag, courtesy of Patagonia, in celebration.
National Geographic Expeditions offer some of the best adventure travel opportunities in the business, and they always find a way to make their tours unique. Where else could you possibly find the opportunity to visit one of the most remote and pristine ecosystems on the planet with a legendary figure like Neil Armstrong along for the ride?

For an overview of the itinerary click here, and to find out more details click here.