It had been 36 grueling hours since we’d entered the storm, and the ship had begun to rock and creak and groan. We swung from starboard to port side, as I lay in my bed drifting between lulls of sleep and moments when I felt as though I was levitating above my mattress. By morning, my espresso machine had found its way to the floor and a heavy table had wedged itself against my bed.
Harrowing episodes like this one are common on the Drake Passage, a notoriously rough body of water between the tip of South America and Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands. Sometimes it’s known as the Drake Lake (when it’s calm) or, in an instance like this when the weather is rather less pleasant, the Drake Shake. For 48 hours straight, our ship, Swan Hellenic’s Minerva, lurched through giant swells and waves that rose 30 feet high. Passengers clung to their drinks and gripped handrails as they staggered down hallways. Some were so seasick they didn’t leave their staterooms. I found refuge in the ship’s sea-facing sauna, where I watched the horizon dip and rise, nauseated at times.
Navigating through the Drake, as explorers have done on ancient vessels for centuries (sans creature comforts and modern technology such as stabilizers, which ships, including Minerva, have today), feels like a rite of passage to Antarctica. Not only does it make the arrival on the white continent so much sweeter—like you’ve actually earned it—but it also prepares you for an environment that can be as hostile and unforgiving as the voyage that gets you there.
Antarctica is so remote and inhospitable that travelers can visit only a few months of the year—in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, before everything freezes over. Yet interest in this far-flung destination is growing. Reaching it has become much easier, with aviation operations and fly cruises (a plane takes you to the continent, where you board a vessel), though the inability to land in bad weather presents a challenge. There’s also a wave of snazzy, more ecological expedition ships.
“There’s a trend toward new-builds with state-of-the-art propulsion and hybrid systems and fuel efficiency built just for traveling there,” says Jonathan Brunger, South America consultant for Scott Dunn, the travel specialist that helped weave together my journey to the Antarctic.
Swan Hellenic’s Minerva, a luxury 152-passenger boutique ship that launched late last year, belongs to this new generation. It has a 5-megawatt diesel-electric hybrid propulsion system that removes nitrous oxide and burns low-sulfur diesel, which has a lower carbon-dioxide content. The hull is PC5 ice-strengthened, and onboard there’s a sophisticated waste-management system and a laboratory for future scientific research. But perhaps most striking is its holistic approach to traveling to Antarctica in a more responsible way. Because burning less fuel or using less plastic is only one part of the solution.
For some passengers onboard these ships, sailing to Antarctica is an opportunity to see rare birds and wildlife endemic to the region; for others, it’s just another cruise or place to tick off their bucket list. More bleakly, there’s a growing number of cynics who hope to see it before it melts away or is destroyed by over-tourism. Which isn’t inconceivable. With no restriction on the number of people who can travel to Antarctica (though there are restrictions on where ships can dock and the number of visitors allowed on designated shore areas at one time), it begs the question whether this remote continent is at risk of becoming the next Venice. For a place with such a pristine, fragile environment and ecosystem, where human encounters can have a profound effect, one has to wonder: Is traveling there even a good idea?
It’s a loaded subject and one at the heart of an ongoing debate. Many posit that those who visit Antarctica become ambassadors for a place that has no indigenous population to speak on its behalf. “Antarctica doesn’t have a native voice like other places in the world,” says Brunger. “By going there, you’re building good stewards who have a voice. [It also] makes the region economically viable and creates interest so it’s not just scientific research and fisheries.” Patrick Woodhead, founder of White Desert—an expedition company that shuttles guests from Cape Town to Antarctica by private plane, where they then stay in luxury eco-camps—offers a similar line of reasoning. “If you can bring people in a responsible way, you really open their eyes to it. That means they’re going to forever be impassioned about the preservation of it,” he says, adding that his guests are often people with the means—financial, political, intellectual—to have a huge impact on the future of Antarctica. (Full disclosure: White Desert led a group of Robb Report’s RR1 members on an eight-day trip in January.)
And what happens to its future matters. “So much of our lives in the north depends upon what happens here,” says Seb Coulthard, a historian, engineer and assistant Antarctic-expedition leader with Swan Hellenic, who describes Antarctica as the “world’s largest weather factory.” From the salt that’s released by the melting ice and then drives currents to the sections of ice that contain millennia-old chemical reactions, the entire ecosystem has a global impact. Unlike the Arctic, which is deteriorating more rapidly, Antarctica and the surrounding water are protected under the Antarctic Treaty, a set of agreements signed in 1959 by 12 countries that had scientists active on the landmass. But proof of climate change is growing nevertheless: Sea ice is melting, glaciers are calving, and certain animal species, such as the Adélie penguin, are declining because of habitat change. By 2048, when parts of the treaty are up for review, who knows what natural resources the world will be vying for here? Less than 100 years ago the whaling business was thriving, the continent’s bay swirled with red water, and whales were almost hunted to extinction. Today we can still see the evidence—giant bones litter the shores, and old whaling-station buildings remain.
“People don’t care about things they don’t know; they care about things they love,” says Coulthard, who believes travelers who visit will feel motivated to lobby for the continent’s preservation. “The folks who travel here are often captains of industry, engineers, people who have influence.” But no matter who you are or how you travel to the white continent, you still leave a trace, and some experts are skeptical about our growing impact and whether tourism is regulated enough. Ricardo Roura, PhD, a polar-regions specialist and senior adviser for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC, a nonprofit that monitors issues affecting the region, including tourism) who has spent time working as a researcher and lecturer on ships in Antarctica, isn’t entirely convinced that visitors feel motivated upon return home. “I never got the sense that people [who go] become what the industry calls ‘ambassadors,’ ” says Roura. “People go to some place, become interested, then finish and move on to the next.”
To better understand these points of view, I had to visit, which is precisely how I found myself on a two-week journey aboard the SH Minerva alongside passengers from around the globe—some who had snapped up a last-minute trip and others who were fulfilling a lifelong dream. A mix of hardcore adventurers and high-end travelers, it was certainly not your average cruise crowd. After two days of storms and no sign of land, we finally spotted the first icebergs, then calm ocean and a white domed swath from which tall mountains rose. The clouds parted and sunlight glinted off the peaks, penguins darted through the water, and in the distance, whales spouted; it was as though I’d tumbled down a hole and dropped into a fairy tale. I don’t know if the Drake Passage had left me disoriented, and, frankly, I was just grateful to be gliding through tranquil water, but I could not wipe the grin from my face. It was love at first sight.
We cruised to designated landing areas and islands, southward to the Antarctic Circle and back again, adjusting our route as the weather changed overnight. We sailed through the magnificent Lemaire Channel, flanked by mountains as sheer as the Andes (technically they belong to the same range), observed gentoo-penguin colonies and hiked up a mountain to gaze out at miles upon miles of snow, sea and ice. Aboard a Zodiac boat, I drank a glass of (very cold) Champagne brought to us by the Minerva team while I admired a towering iceberg and watched as a leopard seal snatched a penguin and swiftly gobbled it down. I even took a polar plunge in the 30-degree water. Never had I been anywhere so wild, so raw.
I quickly learned that in Antarctica we are all merely observers. Penguins go about their days, oblivious to our presence, the weather turns on a dime, forcing us to change our itinerary, and chunks of ice unsympathetically block channels that boats need to cross. Nothing about Antarctica is convenient or easy, but that’s part of its beauty. Until my journey on the Minerva, I had never considered visiting this remote place. I couldn’t see the value in tourism because the transaction isn’t obviously tangible, compared to other fragile environments such as the Galápagos, central Asia or parts of Africa, where travelers’ dollars often fund wildlife preserves, national parks, conservation efforts and local communities.
I’ve journeyed to all of these places and seen firsthand the positive impact travelers can have. In the Galápagos, I saw how tourism plays a fundamental, though not trouble-free, role in protecting the land and water and fending off poaching by creating an economy that’s linked to preserving wildlife. In southern Africa, I’ve observed how people from rural communities have been hired, schools have been built and anti-poaching units have been funded. In central Asia, I’ve witnessed tourism help fuel conservation of endangered snow leopards while also providing local employment.
Many operators who work in these delicate places are now reevaluating the ways we travel to them. Behzad Larry, founder and CEO of Voygr, a company that leads high-end snow-leopard expeditions in the Himalayas and elsewhere in Asia, has calculated his organization’s footprint and set boundaries so as not to cause harm, even if it means scaling back. At snow-leopard camp in northern India, where water is scarce, Larry has added flush toilets and showers to only three of the nine suites (which are otherwise kitted out with luxury linens and excellent service). Not because Voygr couldn’t afford it financially, but because the environmental cost is massive. “Could we add infinity hot-tub pools? We could,” says Larry. “But imagine doing that in our landscape with the amount of power we’d consume, the amount of diesel we’d have to burn for backup generators and the space we’d have to take up for solar panels. Could we charge more for it? Sure. But is it the right thing to do? No.” White Desert is also mindful of the repercussions of over-tourism and flies only around 250 people to Antarctica per year. And in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Singita has gone solar, cutting its reliance on diesel generators by more than half.
Generally, travelers who trek to a remote location go specifically for that adventure, not for the plunge pool or thread count.
“You are not going just for a boat—you are going for these kinds of experiences,” says Dolores Gangotena de Diez, founder of Quasar Expeditions, which operates in the Galápagos.
That’s where the luxury lies—in the rare access. Roughly 50,000 people have the privilege of going to Antarctica every year, whether by ship or plane or fly cruise. And if they’re doing it on the Minerva, they enjoy not only exclusivity but also spacious suites with balconies, fine wines and five-star service. The limited 152-guest capacity (some ships take up to 500 people) ultimately allows passengers more access to shore-landing opportunities as well as extra time with guides and naturalists.
While operators are adopting more responsible tactics, it’s a common belief that guests should similarly shift their modes of traveling when entering at-risk environments around the world. Dave Wilson, head of commercial development at African Parks, an NGO that operates national parks and reserves across the continent, advocates charging visitors more to enter these spaces. “For too long, park and concession fees have been cheap, and as a result they’re often not enough to run a park,” he says. He also suggests travelers spend more time in one spot, as opposed to hopping around from one country or park to the next, as slowing down allows a deeper understanding of the place and ultimately makes a greater impact on the visitor. “It’s about fewer people staying longer,” Wilson says. “You can still achieve the same revenue; it’s just how you sell it.” Naturally, in Antarctica, where cruises can last up to a month, travelers aren’t dipping in and out. But ASOC’s Roura hopes that visitors will also adopt more reasonable expectations. “Passengers want to see in 10 days what professional Antarctic scientists will never see in 10 or 20 expeditions,” he says. “Some tourists want to tick things off this list. I think if we change this mentality, then that might cool down the [travel] frenzy.”
Prior to the pandemic, tourism in Antarctica was booming. Next season is anticipated to revive that trend, especially as new ships roll out, replacing outdated ones that belonged to companies that have gone out of business during the past two years. Already, Swan Hellenic has two more in the pipeline, which will bring its fleet up to three. White Desert unveiled a third camp in Antarctica this season.
“You have to shop for your holiday carefully,” says Coulthard. It’s not just about green credentials but whether those ships are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), which ensures that tourism partners comply with the Antarctic Treaty. Also important, according to Coulthard, is which country issues the ship’s operating permit (the UK and the US are known to scrutinize, a good thing) and whether the guides are certified seafarers and members of the Polar Tourism Guides Association, meaning they’re trained to work in that environment. Some ships even have citizen science programs, allowing passengers to assist in collecting valuable data. Arming guests with knowledge about the landscape and wildlife is also critical. During our two-day crossing, we sat through various lectures held by expedition leaders, historians, ornithologists and marine biologists. They were not all compulsory but were conducted inside a glass-fronted observation lounge strewn with Scandinavian-style couches, where cocktails were shaken and Champagne poured, so it hardly felt like a laborious task. When people weren’t holed up in their rooms with seasickness (where they could also watch on their TVs), the lounge buzzed.
On our last day, we visited Hannah Point on the volcanic Livingston Island, which has a long black beach flanked by tall mountains, reminiscent of something you might find in Hawaii. The sand is so acidic here, the snow doesn’t always stick. I wondered how much of Antarctica would resemble this stretch if not compacted with ice. The gloomy reality, of course, is that as the planet warms, we may soon know. Only that morning I’d received a grim notification: The UN had concluded that climate change is harming the planet faster than humans can adapt. The sky was gray and the wind was whipping across the bay. Against the base of the mountains stood an uneven line of gentoo penguins, hunched over, their backs to the sea. “They’re grumpy,” pointed out Sarah Scriver, our expedition leader. They remained in the wind at the edge of the sea because, despite being cold and hungry, they couldn’t enter the water to feed until they’d finished growing new feathers. It was a sure sign that winter was coming. It was time for us to go.
We were one of the last cruises of the season, before the temperature typically plummets from 30 degrees to well below zero and the sea around the continent freezes, almost doubling its size—though a heat wave would soon blow in, unsettlingly spiking thermometers as high as 85 degrees. Already we’d hit a few storms and the weather was turning—Antarctica didn’t want us there anymore. But when we left its shores on a sunny day, a few hours early to avoid a storm approaching the Drake Passage, I was astounded by how somewhere so inhospitable and bone-chillingly cold can melt your heart.
While we can’t be certain what will happen here, I am sure of one thing: The behavior of people on my ship had changed. I saw eager, pushy tourists who got too close to wildlife on the first day, sitting peacefully on a rock watching from a distance on the last. They were almost in a state of meditation—which this humbling landscape truly begs you to do.
“It’s one of the places that make you ponder,” remarks Coulthard.
“It serves as a reminder of how fragile our lives are.” Maybe all these visitors won’t become voices for Antarctica or lobby for its preservation. But something inside of them had been stirred. And now that they’ve experienced the continent’s fragility and learned about its perils, I am optimistic that more will care.