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Sunken ships and the bones of countless sailors line the Drake Passage. Located at the confluence of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans between Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctic Peninsula, the Passage is something of a sloshing bathtub, with enormous swells in multiple directions, and winds that could blow a person off a ship’s deck or flay a sail from the mast. As long as humans have been exploring these infamous, famously virulent waters, “the Drake” has challenged all who dare attempt a crossing.
When I made my crossing of the Drake Passage on a recent trip to Antarctica, however, I enjoyed it in style. On board Hurtigruten’s MS Roald Amundsen, I had access to a gym, live television from back home, and even a gorgeous Norwegian-style sauna, whose floor-to-ceiling windows offer a fabulous view across the waves to the horizon. Dinner at the ship’s fine dining restaurant Lindström was interrupted a few times by sliding wine glasses, vibrating plates and the occasional crash from the kitchen, but service continued without skipping a beat. I dutifully took my dramamine pills, kept hydrated, and enjoyed my nightly turndown service in a comfortable bed. Chocolate penguins waited for me on my nightstand. We made quick work of the Drake in about a day and a half.
Less than a century ago, polar waters spelled almost certain doom. In 1915, Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Endurance was crushed by and sank underneath Antarctica’s sea ice, and the Northwest Passage had still not been conquered. Today, however, cruise ships and adventure tours traverse these regions regularly during Antarctic summer. It’s never been easier to reach parts of the planet that just a century ago seemed unreachable. Over 74,000 tourists traveled to Antarctica in the 2019-2020 season, up from about 27,000 just ten years ago. Demand is only increasing (Hurtigruten offers a 90-day pole-to-pole sailing that sells out every season), and technology is rising to meet it. Suffice it to say: we are entering a golden age of polar travel.
A lot of today’s polar travel functions thanks to technology that was not available a century, a half century, or even a decade ago. More and more vessels are equipped with the patented Ulstein X-Bow, a parrot’s beak-shaped bow that increases fuel efficiency and minimizes seasickness onboard, as well as polar class icebreaker hulls, allowing ships to go further into polar zones both earlier and later into their respective seasons. You can Amazon Prime an affordable Gore-Tex jacket to be shipped to your house overnight. An increase in satellite technology means you can connect to your ship’s wi-fi in the Northwest Passage just as easily as you can on a street corner in New York. Ships—like the Roald Amundsen, the first polar-class electric hybrid ship offer smoother, lower-impact journeys to the world’s roughest seas. Journeys once reserved for death-defying explorations are now increasingly available to everyday travelers. And now, two years into a global pandemic, people are more than ever willing to finally go on that bucket list trip. Add in a little bit of “see it while you can” climate change urgency, and the Arctic and Antarctic regions feel more enticing than ever.
Antarctica cruises have been a popular tourism offering for about twenty years, but many companies are starting to offer more and more sailings to the polar regions generally, including Svalbard, Greenland, Canada’s High Arctic and Northwest Passage, and Russia’s Franz Josef Land.
“We continue to see pent up demand for polar regions,” said a spokesperson for Lindblad Expeditions. Lars Eric Lindblad, father of the company’s founder Sven Lindblad, was the first to bring citizen travelers to Antarctica in 1966. Today, polar itineraries represent 26% of the company’s business, and there has been a distinct post-Covid increase in last-minute bookings. Demand for the 2023 and 2024 Antarctica seasons “remains strong,” and the company just announced two new Svalbard itineraries launching in April 2022. There’s even a buy-one, get-one 20 percent off offer for polar voyages—what do you think Sir Shackleton would have had to say about a BoGo?
It’s not just the high-adventure set that’s traveling to the poles, either—it’s families with children, multigenerational groups, retirees, luxury seekers and everyone in between. Last year, French cruise company Ponant launched Le Commandant Charcot, a vessel that’s been cruising Antarctica since November 2021, and this spring will be the first luxury cruise ship to reach the North Pole. It features menus crafted by Alain Ducasse, as well as a Biologique Recherche spa with amenities such as a snow room—chilled to 14 degrees Fahrenheit using fresh powder snow—so you can get that polar pore-refining effect without, you know, having to actually step outside. This year, Ponant will launch two targeted itineraries as well: family-oriented polar cruises with Adventures by Disney; and education-forward itineraries with Smithsonian Journeys, where the sailings feature notable experts that give lectures on local cultures, languages, and wildlife.
Even the 1 percent are turning their eyes towards polar travel. Tired? Showing off your yacht in Monaco. Wired? Taking it to Antarctica.
Superyacht operator EYOS Expeditions has seen an unprecedented rise in bespoke charters to polar regions this year. “Up until five years ago, we would have one Antarctica charter per year,” said Ben Lyons, the company’s CEO. This year, they had six yachts in Antarctica
“There is a new breed of yacht owners coming in—people who are motivated by experiences, by multigenerational legacies… and people who view their yachts as platforms to experience the wonders of the world, rather than just seeing yachts as just an end unto itself,” Lyons said. “The St. Barth’s crowd is still there, but there is definitely now a new generation.”
EYOS also just launched a partnership with the newly converted MV Nansen Explorer yacht, allowing up to 12 travelers to book individual rooms, making it possible to have a private polar expedition without having to charter an entire yacht. In April, EYOS will offer a heli-ski themed expedition to Manittsoq, Greenland aboard the Nansen Explorer, so guests can ski untouched mountain peaks that fall into the heart of pristine fjords.
Polar skiing trips like the one EYOS will offer this spring are increasingly prevalent. Weber Arctic Expeditions’ annual guided trip to Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada, sells out a year in advance. You can book a weeklong “Ski and Sail” journey to Svalbard for less than the average monthly cost of a one-bedroom in Manhattan. A handful of operators such as Ice Axe Expeditions even offer guided ski tours of the 8,000-foot peaks of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Heck, you don’t even need to be a skier. Flagship Luxury Expeditions offers an Antarctica trip that begins with a private jet charter departing from Cape Town, South Africa. Upon reaching the continent, guests stay in elegant “Sky Pods” with sweeping views over the landscape. An eight-night stay includes a plane excursion to the geographic South Pole, fat biking, exploring crystal caves, and—best of all—a 2.5-hour flight to the even more remote Atka Bay, a known penguin breeding ground previously visited only by researchers and documentarians.
At this point, there is little ambiguity that we’re living in a Golden Age of polar travel. But just because we can, does that mean we should?
Polar environments, while harsh, are also fragile. To the uninitiated, they may appear in some ways perhaps dead or devoid of life, but polar ecosystems are incredibly complex. The sea ice of the Hudson Bay, for instance, protects a rich variety of microscopic marine life just beneath the frozen surface. As climate warming shortens the length of time that sea ice covers the Bay each year, the biomass of microorganisms sustained by that sea ice decreases, thus decreasing the populations of the Bay’s fish populations which, in turn, makes it harder for polar bear populations to hunt as much fish as they need in order to sustain their own populations.
When considering a trip to polar regions, it is important to first consider the laws which protect them—and the important distinction to keep in mind is that while Antarctica is governed jointly by the multilateral Antarctic Treaty of 1959, the Arctic is ruled separately by sovereign nations. So while it’s clear which operators adhere to which environmental impact rules in Antarctica, things are less clear in the Arctic.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) propagates strict Environmental Protocols about minimizing environmental impact south of the 60-degree longitude: an operator can only allow a certain number of individuals to land on the continent at one time; before landing, all visitors must vacuum their belongings to remove any traces of seeds or bio-residues dragged from other continents; and absolutely no waste is allowed to be left behind on the continent, even human waste.
Yet, while IAATO has grown to over 100 members since its inception in 1991, being an IAATO member is not necessarily a get-out-jail-free card. While cruise companies may be IAATO members and often go to great lengths to emphasize their environmental efforts, many (even the so-called “hybrid” ones) still largely operate on diesel engines. When it comes to the Arctic, travel operators are subject not to any treaty or association regulations, but only to the laws of individual countries, which may vary country to country. On top of all of this, whether you’re traveling to the Arctic or Antarctic, there is the additional issue of emissions from air travel. Purchasing carbon offsets is the new en vogue way of managing one’s environmental impact—but wouldn’t the most efficient approach be to not create emissions in the first place?
Clearly, traveling to these regions therefore becomes a complex ethical calculus—one where travelers must assess if they are willing to impact the planet in order to witness its most vulnerable, unexploited regions.
Some experts feel strongly that polar regions should be an absolute no-go. A recent study from the Universidad de Santiago de Chile found that for every human tourist, 83 metric tons of Antarctic snow are melted, and that black carbon pollution in the region is at an all time high. For others, the environmental impact of polar travel is a manageable risk with manifold rewards. As Sir David Attenborough famously said, “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
I embarked on my cruise to Antarctica with mixed emotions–I knew the trip would change me, but I also knew it would leave a footprint. While boarding the ship, I voiced these concerns to Karin Strand, Hurtigruten’s Vice President of Expeditions, who has visited Antarctica over 140 times, and is an expert on navigating IAATO’s regulations. She and I met on the first day I boarded the Roald Amundsen, when she regaled me with stories about her years exploring the White Continent.
“When you’re on Antarctica, you are in an environment that is so harsh, so ready to swallow you whole. You are really right on the edge of what humans can survive in,” she told me as we readied to cross the Drake. Coming so close to that edge of human experience is therefore transformative and transcendental—an encounter with the sublime that makes the cost and the effort amply worth it. According to Strand’s experience, people walk away from polar travel with new takes on sustainability they wouldn’t have found elsewhere. Having now been myself, I have to concur. It’s difficult to articulate, but whether coming on a cruise ship or roughing it on a multi-day backcountry ski tour, there is something that polar travel teaches you about the planet which cannot be seen anywhere or any way else.
“See it, observe it, let it change you,” Strand told me. “And most of all, leave without trying to change it.”