100 Years after Shackleton – What It’s Like To Be A Tourist in Antarctica, Subject to the Antarctic Treaty

“A continent dedicated to peace and science.”

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Cuverville Island, Antarctica

Sounds like something out of Science Fiction, doesn’t it? Amazingly, such a place exists. The entire continent of Antarctica is protected by a treaty signed by 53 countries. But Antarctica was not always this way. (Hint: If all you really want is cool photos, scroll past the history, onto the slideshow)

A Byte of History

For most folks, tales of Antarctica and tales of Shackleton go hand-in-hand. What you might not realize is that while Antarctica was an unexplored region in the early 1900’s, by the 1950’s, a handful of countries had laid claim to various sections of the Antarctic continent (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom). The U.S. and Russia had an admittedly “Bully on the Playground” sort of take – they “did not recognize the claims of other governments” and “reserved the right to assert claims.” That’s legalize for “if I want your lunch, I’ll take it, thank you very much.” I know – so diplomatic of us.
Fortunately, scientists managed to prevail over politicians. By December of 1959, the twelve countries who had managed to have scientists in and around Antarctica during the “International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-1958” met in Washington, D.C., to sign the
Antarctic Treaty.

The treaty is a rather involved document, but realistically, this is how it affects an Antarctic tourist:

At Capacity

Only a certain number of people can be on land at each site at a given time. In our case, this meant that our ship had to split the entire guest list in half, and basically set it so that Group A would go out for a 2 hour period of time, with about 10 people in each zodiac, with each actual group getting 1 hour on land per visit. Once all of Group A was back, it was Group B’s turn to go out (each day the ship switched up which group got to go first). Our ship was about 190 people, so that means there were 85-ish people per group (plus guides). We did two excursion sites each day. Ultimately, the hour time limit worked out great, because most lithium-ion camera batteries die after that long in the Antarctic climate anyway.

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One group disembarks from a Zodiak while the other embarks.

Wipe Your Feet Before Entering

You know how when you visit an open house you sometimes put those booties on to keep your feet from tracking in mud or whatever? In Antarctica, your expedition guides will have you step into these buckets of liquid which clean off anything that might be on your boots or the ends of your poles – the goal being to not introduce any foreign matter/seeds/creatures into the Antarctic environment. Unfortunately, this didn’t strike me as something worth photographing until after my final expedition.

Stay Behind the Ropes (Flags)

Much like visiting a historical home or monument, you must stay on the marketed path. For us, this meant staying behind orange flags. In my Penguin Post, I make jokes about the flags being part of a game of Capture the Flag. Really, the flags were put out to prevent us from stepping into nesting areas and other protected spaces, as well as to keep us safe. We had professionals that went out and scouted each site before we went to visit it to determine which areas were safe to stand on and which areas were not.

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Don’t be distracted by the Penguin close up: the point of this photo is to illustrate the orange flags which marked the areas which were off-limits.

Don’t Take Souvenirs

After what happened to Plymouth Pebble (in Massachusetts), personally, I’m glad that this rule is in place. Under the Treaty, you cannot remove anything from Antarctica – not even a feather that’s just lying around. I think photos are a perfectly fine souvenir – no one needs to be mining Antarctica. If you think “this is ridiculous – taking a feather/pebble/vial of sand wouldn’t hurt anyone!” then I implore you to read up on Plymouth Pebble in Massachusetts (yes, I know that it’s officially “Plymouth Rock”, but as one who has seen the Rock in person, I can tell you first hand that tourists chipped away at that poor Rock and left it in its sad current state).

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Poor Plymouth Pebble! (Massachusetts, NOT Antarctica)
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A penguin egg that gets to stay in Antarctica, per the Treaty!

See Into Another World

The Treaty has been successful at protecting the areas, at least from what I could tell. At some of the sights, we got to see buildings that were left behind from before the treaty, and it was sort of like visiting ruins (except the “ruins” were from the 1950’s).

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Ship remains on Halfmoon Island

This quote resonated with me quite strongly:

“If Antarctica were music, it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it!” Andrew Denton.

Examples of this Untamed Land:

The slideshow, at last!!!

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Enforcement Mechanism

However, it did seem to regularly come up in conversation that if you were a particularly seasoned explorer and decided to privately visit Antarctica, the treaty apparently doesn’t have much power to police individuals. But don’t go running off on your private yacht to ski virgin snow just yet. I definitely got the impression that, while I was safe at all times, as were my fellow passengers, the continent is by no means tamed/domesticated, and it was only due to the experience of our crew that we were able to travel with the faҫade of complete safety. Not that it was in any way life-threatening, but at one point I stepped and proceeded to fall into snow up to my thigh. You can thank my family for prioritizing rescuing me over creating photographic evidence. Check out the slideshow above for evidence of just how untamed the area is.

Cruise v. Expedition

On board, there were multiple talks and film viewings related to Shackleton’s expeditions. It is truly amazing to me that you can travel to a place as a tourist a mere 100 years after the first humans explored the area. At the same time, Le Lyrial is no Caribbean cruise ship. Everything about the ship, the crew, and the “itinerary” was intended for travel to Antarctica and similar tough-to-travel-to places.

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Port Lockroy/the Antarctic Post Office/a museum showing what it was like to be a scientist in Antarctica in the 1950’s.

Final Verdict

Throughout our cruise, our expedition guides kept telling us that our “weather karma” must be amazing, given the fantastic weather we were experiencing. They also told us that the next cruise was facing truly terrible weather. So I did some exploring while writing this blog post and discovered this entry in Abercrombie & Kent’s blog:

“Modern technology allows accurate weather forecasts for the Antarctic Peninsula. When Suzana checked the weather map before our departure, she saw that a storm was forecast for the north-east of the Peninsula, which was planned as our first destination. Shore landings (the most important part of our expedition) and a day would have been impossible. So, forewarned, Suzana reworked the itinerary to the west coast and chose two new landing places which would be just as interesting as her original choices. And it all worked out!” January 11, 2017: Hannah Point

However, I dug a little deeper to find this from the trip immediately before mine:

“Cloud cover: 100%; Occasional snow flurries”
December 30, 2016: Halfmoon Island and Deception Island

Compare to my trip:

“That famous poem, “Shall I compare thee to a Summer Day” springs to mind.”
January 2, 2017: Half Moon Island and Deception Island

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A clear day on Halfmoon Bay

So, okay, the cruise after us didn’t get to go to the same places. And the cruise before us appears to have had some trouble on the weather front. But it sounds to me like, so long as you’re okay visiting Antarctica generally, rather than being concerned with visiting specific sites as advertised on your itinerary, you, too, may get lucky on the weather front! *knocks on wood* I wish you the best of luck!

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Seven Sisters, view from Port Lockroy – clear day!
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