There are no Antarcticans. Whalers, sealers, explorers, scientists and tourists have been exploring the unpeopled seventh continent at least since Russians in 1820, and possibly Polynesians 1100 years ago.
From the earliest sightings until the beginning of the tourist industry in the 1950s, the annual visitors could be measured in the dozens or low hundreds. That number rose to more than 38,000 in the 2015-16 season and 55,000 in the 2018-19 season.
Antarctica travel today still holds significant intrigue. My travels here and abroad have never generated as much interest as this expedition. Some of the curious are trying to convince a spouse to consider it; others are trying to get them to rule it out.
Intrepid tourists visiting Antarctica. (Karen Telleen-Lawton)
Some wonder about the cold or the Drake Passage; others fear they’re too old for water landings, extreme weather, or lack of access to medical care. One friend wanted to know how many penguins before you get bored?
We never got bored. We’re the kind of people who grab a bathrobe and race up to the bridge rather than miss sightings of a large iceberg, a pod of whales, or a bird that just might be an Arctic tern, with the longest migration in the world.
We run with the crowd who is willing to stand out on the deck on a cold, windy, foggy day to glimpse the tiny shelf of beach on Elephant Island where Shackleton’s men spent four months waiting for rescue.
We admire the patience of someone who will squat in a scratchy patch of 5-foot-tall tussock grass for hours to capture a brilliant photo of a black-browed albatross feeding regurgitated fish to her chick.
On our ship, if none of that was happening, there was always the exercise room, yoga, and lounges with 24-hour food and drink.
The ages of the 94 guests on our expedition ranged from the late 30s to perhaps 80. The small contingent of 30- and 40-somethings started calling themselves the Kool Kids. While the rest of us occasionally skipped activities, they leaped at each one.
They kayaked circles around us, but also helped us scale icy rocks and tussock grass stands. One couple brought their energetic 12-year-old daughter who never seemed bored.
The over-70s sometimes chose beach walks instead of longer hikes. A few watched from the ship as we zodiaced to yet another penguin-rich island. Several claimed this as their fourth or fifth Antarctic voyage.
I should mention that one of the eldest passengers had to be evacuated when his back went out. The process was complex, involving negotiations among international ships and insurance companies, discussing Covid protocol and upcoming weather reports. We spent a couple of hours bobbing beside the Norwegian vessel which eventually evacuated him.
Our February temperature stayed almost entirely in the 30s F, reaching a balmy 48 degrees on South Georgia Island. The weather was quite tolerable except when the wind blew. This travel temperature was blissful for us, but unfortunate for the Antarctic processes and wildlife evolved with the deep cold.
It is ironic, or some would say hypocritical, that virtually every passenger was environmentally conscientious. Our voyage was carbon intensive from start to finish. We could have reduced our carbon footprint substantially by staying home. Nevertheless, we all make our choices and our excuses, from daily transportation to hot water showers to travel.
Lindblad/National Geographic earns their business from such expeditions; they’re on the cutting edge of reducing their impact. We sailed under their new self-disinfecting fleet featuring a photo-catalytic cleaning process that activates when illuminated to break down microbes such as bacteria, viruses, mold, and airborne allergens.
The new process results in much lower use of plastics and water and is healthier for everyone on board.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) regulates tourism, but there’s no way around the impact tourist have on wildlife. Antarctica’s vastness and fragility made me ponder anew our lives on this precious Earth.
Our actions in the north are affecting this remote continent, and what happens in Antarctica affects the ocean currents and other processes around the world. In that sense, we are all Antarcticans.
— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.