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Journey to Antarctica

A student journeys to the far end of the earth over Winter Break

After a decade of traveling and a passport nearly full of stamps, one place had still eluded me – Antarctica. Upon a little research, a lot of saving and a bit of persistence, my wife and I made the trip down to the far end of the earth over Winter Break.

Only about 30K or so people actually make the trek down to Antarctica each year, a number that represents about 0.0005% of planet Earth’s humanity. So, as you can imagine, there are many misconceptions about the continent and what one can do there. In an effort to spread knowledge and prevent future embarrassment, I would like to impart the top 10 misconceptions we heard when we told our friends and family that we would be going to Antarctica.

You can see polar bears.
Sadly, you cannot see any polar bears in Antarctica. Polar bears actually only live in the North Pole while penguins only live in the South Pole. Who knew?

Santa lives in Antarctica.
Actually, Santa (for those true believers out there) is a resident of the North Pole. His address reads: P.O. Box 56099; North Pole, Alaska, 99705.

You can fly to Antarctica.
Well, not really. Although there are charter flights that land on the continent, they will run you $25K or more. The vast majority of people heading to Antarctica do so via cruise boat.

All penguins look the same.
There are many different types, such as Adeli, Gentu and Chinstrap. The type made famous by March of the Penguins are the Emperor penguins which stand at over four feet tall! They should make a sequel thriller and call it Attack of the Penguins.

Antarctica has a government with three branches.
Actually, Antarctica does not have its own government. Instead, it is governed by the Antarctica treaty which 12 countries ratified on June 23, 1961. These countries (including the United States, Chile and Argentina) are permitted to conduct non-military, scientific research on the continent.

Young people go to Antarctica.
Anyone sub-30 years old is the exception rather than the rule. On our cruise ship, we were told that the typical average age was 75 (since we had a small group of twenty-somethings, we literally brought down the average age of the ship)! We met many people who were going on the trip as a sort of last effort to reach seven continents.

The trip will be smooth and luxurious.
Perhaps, if not for this phenomenon called the Drake Passage, which creates swells of 8 meters (or approximately 24 feet). Imagine sleeping on a roller coaster you can’t get off and you’ll get the idea.

You can find last-minute travel deals.
Since the Antarctica touring season lasts only a mere 2.5 months from December-February (during the peak of their summer), most people book their trips nearly a year in advance to ensure a spot. And even with four people sharing a cabin, the trip was expensive!

The weather is frigid and gloomy.
Actually, it was quite clear with sunny and long days (the sun often did not set until nearly midnight or so). The snow and glaciers reflected the sun, thus enhancing the brightness. So sunglasses are a must!

Antarctica is cold and will not be effected by global warming.
According to many of the biologists that accompanied our cruise, global warming has produced dramatic effects on the continent in just the past few years. Krill, a shrimp-like sea animal forming the base of the Arctic Ocean’s food pyramid, for instance, have been depleting in large numbers in the last decade. This has a huge effect on sea life in and around Antarctica as all sea life ultimately relies on krill.

Despite the cost, advance planning and occasional bouts of sea-legs, I would highly recommend a trip to Antarctica. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking with glimpses of whales, leopard seals and thousands of penguins. But timing is important, as the continent may dramatically change even within our lifetime.

January 20, 2009
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