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Chill out in Antarctica for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Rawan Radwan

Imagine a place so secluded, so desolate, so intoxicatingly beautiful and free of people. It might be a bit difficult to imagine but there is such a place. It's a place not touched by urbanization, inhabitable, harsh and dangerous yet magnificent and magical. The only place in the world where you can find penguins! The place is called Antarctica. The southernmost continent has been isolated from humanity until the turn of the 19th century when it was first sighted by a Russian expedition yet stayed unexplored until the early 20th century and with time, more excursions visited the lonely continent and got to know it and understand it more. Antarctica is a desolate place, governed by no one and is considered a de facto condominium, governed by parties to the Antarctic Treaty System for the purpose of scientific research and nothing else. By the 1960's, planes and cruise ships started flocking to the icy continent and tourists were in awe of the beauty this barren land holds. By the turn of the 21st century, technology and knowledge of the area surrounding Antarctica helped increase the number of tourists and I mean come on, who doesn't want to watch penguins waddle, keeping a safe distance of course so as not to disturb their natural habitat. It's a once in a lifetime voyage. Almost all cruises to Antarctica start off from Chile or Argentina, heading to the north western most tip known as the Antarctic Peninsula. The only means of travel to the area is through an organized cruise ship, departing from either Punta Arenas in Chile or Ushuaia in Argentina. First off, cruises only head down in the summer time, between early November until late February. The weather is a bit unexpected but it's by far the warmest with temperatures around 0A; most of the time, winter temperatures of course go no higher than -40A;, so 0A; is pretty reasonable. The weather is unpredictable, it can be sunny and a bit warm then can turn chilly and snowy very quickly and winds are always a downside but that's just a price to pay for visiting the southernmost continent on Earth. Proper winter clothing is a must, a thick down jacket, long undergarments, outer pants layer and a waterproof pants layer helps in keeping warm and weathering the howling winds. Price range depends on the duration of the trip, trips can go from 10 days to 3 weeks and prices start at $5,000 up to $15,000, flights aren't included in the prices. The price range also depends on the type of vessel, larger cruise ships are more comfortable in high seas but one down side would be the restricted number of people who will be able to visit the shore. Smaller ships might have a more difficult time in high seas but allow more time on shore. For more information on reputable cruises, you can always visit the IAATO website (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators). First stop in your trip to Antarctica would be a transit stop in Buenos Aires, after which you will be heading south to Ushuaia. Tours usually offer 3 routes each with a different duration period but basically each trip starts off the same. To reach the Antarctic circle, you'd be passing the Drake Passage where you can witness the sharp profile of the South Shetland Archipelago and catch fur seals and papua penguins. Icebergs are a normal sight during the summer months as they start to break off and bob about in the warmer waters, keep your camera ready for whale sightings and albatross following your ship. Tours normally pass by Deception Island, a partially submerged caldera of an active volcano (don't worry, the last time it was active was in 1969). Wildlife is one of the main draws when traveling to Antarctica. You can see the natural habitats of oversized elephant seals, boisterous fur seals, leopard seals, primary predators of the southern seas with their impeccable dives toward the seas below as they lay across glaciers with an abundance of whales such as beautiful orcas with their significant white spots traveling in packs, great humpback whales which can be very vocal and can be heard clearly from a distance, and Southern Right or also known as baleen whales easily recognizable for their baleen plates instead of teeth. If you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the largest animal ever to live the Earth, the glorious Blue whale. Once you've passed the Drake Passage, massive penguin colonies can be seen dotting the shorelines all over the Antarctic Peninsula. Penguins are considered to be the continent's signature species. December/January are peak seasons for hatched grey fluff balls of penguin chicks. Penguin colonies are divided by species; there's the majestic Emperor penguins, King penguins with their large flippers sliding on their bellies across the ice and snow, Adelie with its tail giving it a tuxedo like appearance, the small Chinstrap penguins are easily recognizable for the thin black line lining their chin and the Macaroni penguins best known for their yellow double Mohawk like crest. It's a beautiful sight to see the dense colonies dotted with black for the adult penguins and tiny hints of grey of the chicks, parents nudge their babies to walk, fathers carry their young on their feet as the mothers go hunt for food - this is simply a stunning sight to behold. You will be passing through the Lemaire Channel with glacial walls towering high on both sides, leading to islands that are home to these magical creatures along with many different types of local seabirds. All Antarctic cruises offer an inspiring insight into the most pristine wilderness on Earth, towering icebergs, glaciers and huge fields of ice set the backdrop for a host of outstanding wildlife. Naturally, the landscape is covered with ice and snow, so there is no flora or fauna or any touch of green in sight. The only colors would be the crystalized white of glaciers with an ombre of blue at its base and deep dark blue waters. Cameras and waterproof gear are your best friends on this trip, tourists mostly spend most of their time awake outdoors trying to soak up some heat from the sun as sunlight can last as long as 20 hours a day. When the skies are clear and night time falls, a wonderful way to relax before heading in is to sit back and look up to the skies. You can catch Canis Major, the great dog, Orion the hunter easily identified by Orion's belt (three bright stars in a straight line), the twins of Gemini, Perseus the hero and many deep sky objects such as globular clusters, bright nebulae and galaxies. Be sure to stay for no less than 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust and binoculars are very handy for some stargazing. Many who have gone on large floating city types of cruise ships might find the smaller ships intimidating and boring, but by law, ships can't travel down with more than 500 passengers at a time. So there are no spas, no fine dining restaurants and no large pools with spiraling tube slides, instead, there are organized zodiac trips to islands, kayaking and camping trips unlike you have ever experienced before. Be sure to always book ahead of time though to reserve your place. Antarctica is a place like no other, cold, isolated, and harsh but there is immense beauty in its solitude. Cell phone coverage is weak and Internet is scarce thus forcing the traveler to relax, unwind and put up their legs for a wonderful trip of a lifetime. - Email: [email protected]

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Geographic Code:8ANTA
Date:Jan 27, 2016
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