Antarctica as a tourist destination is becoming increasingly popular. Last year alone, over 40,000 visitors made the trip to the frozen continent. Some say that global climate change makes people want to catch a last glimpse of this world of ice before it is all melted away. Even a new term has been coined for this fast growing travel category: "Doomsday tourism."
Truthfully, I myself am not entirely unaffected by such pessimism about the planets future. You don't have to go as far as Antarctica to find ample evidence of the damaging effects of global warming. But here, in this still pristine environment, even subtle changes are more pronounced and more visible.
For the longest time, I was hesitant to come to Antarctica. I'm not a great fan of travel by cruise ship but did not know of any other way to get here. Finally, I decided to give it a go when I saw an ad in a photography magazine that offered tours to the region especially designed for photo enthusiasts. The tour organizer, Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, who operates out of the Seattle area, specializes in photo travel around the world. I signed up fast and was lucky to get in at all, almost a year ahead of departure!
Last November, at the beginning of the Antarctic summer, our group of roughly 80 fellow-travelers from ten different countries embarked from the town of Ushuaia in Argentina on a month-long journey. It turned out to be a trip of a lifetime and everything I had hoped for and more.
The Falkland Islands were our first destination. Depending on the weather, getting there can be a challenge. Even in favorable conditions, this voyage is not for the faint of heart. I expected that crossing the notorious Drake Passage could be a rocky ride. No kidding! Although we sailed in no particularly rough waters, I remember distinctly a few days of serious sea sickness.
One of the highlights of the entire expedition came with our second landing, South Georgia, and especially St. Andrews Bay. I was told there was no place quite like it elsewhere on earth, and that is easy to believe. Well over a million King Penguins, almost a quarter of this species' entire world population, are gathered here along the beaches and nearby hills. This place overpowers the senses with sights, smells and sounds that will remain ingrained in my memory for a very long time.
Landing on the Antarctic Peninsula was also a completion of a personal quest -- that is to have visited every continent at least once. That dream has now been fulfilled, and what a dream it has been indeed!