A wilderness the size of a continent, frozen yet miraculously alive with seabirds, seals and whales, Antarctica tops the wishlist of many wildlife travellers.
There are few things more quietly exhilarating than crouching next to a colony of inquisitive, trusting penguins. It might be a few hundred gentoos on a sandy beach in the Falkland Islands, a couple of thousand chinstraps in an ice-wreathed bay on the Antarctic Peninsula or 250,000 king penguins on Salisbury Plain, South Georgia. The air surrounding you reverberates to the constant hubbub of penguin babble, but most human visitors respond with nothing but silent wonder.
It’s a natural reaction in a place where the sheer scale of the scenery and super-abundance of wildlife instils a sense of reverence to all who venture there. Embarking on an expedition voyage to Antarctica or sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia, you are not only following in the wake of famous polar explorers like Scott and Shackleton, but also bearing the responsibility of visiting one of the last remaining wildernesses on earth.
Responsible travellers choose Antarctic cruises that are small-scale and conducted by members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators which abide by a stringent code of conduct to minimise environmental impact. The same applies to the Arctic, where the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators ensures that its members are as gentle on the environment as possible.
Although the Arctic has a similar animal magnetism as Antarctica (who wouldn’t want to see a polar bear prowling the pack ice, a quivering mass of walrus or a pod of beluga coursing through frigid seas), it differs from the south in having a strong, deeply rooted human presence. Experiencing the Arctic in the company of an Inuit guide, for example, you will not only learn about indigenous culture, but develop a strong sense of respect for these hardy, versatile people and their traditional bonds to land, ice, sea and wildlife.
Read the latest posts on Polar wildlife travel
HOW TO BE A RESPONSIBLE WILDLIFE TRAVELLER
When it comes to wildlife holidays, responsible tourism is not just an option – it should be considered an intrinsic part of the whole process. When planning your polar wildlife holiday or expedition voyage, read these 10 steps to minimise your impact on the environment, reduce your carbon emissions and support wildlife conservation and the livelihoods of local communities.
Polar Regions: Natural Zones
Habitats of the Polar regions
On a continent covered in ice up to 4,200m in depth, it’s not surprising that most life clings to the edge of Antarctica. What is surprising, though, are the huge numbers of seabirds, seals and whales that crowd its shores. Unlike the Arctic (an ocean surrounded by continents), the Antarctic is encircled by sea (the Southern Ocean) where winds and currents create ideal conditions for the proliferation of plankton. It is this cornerstone of the Antarctic food web that sustains everything from krill-feeding humpback whales to penguin-hunting leopard seals.
Only in summer when Antarctica lifts her snowy skirts slightly to reveal a few rocky shores and headlands are the penguins, petrels and elephant seals able to claim their breeding grounds – with the notable exception of the emperor penguin which breeds on sea ice. Any islands within, or close to, the Antarctic Convergence (where warm surface currents mix with colder waters moving north from Antarctica) are also prime territory for seabird and seal colonies. Indeed, South Georgia and Macquarie Island are probably two of the most wildlife-rich locations anywhere on earth.
The Arctic food chain is also partly founded on plankton, but it is sustained not by the turbulent mixing of warm and cold waters, but by the spring melting of pack ice. This leaves behind a nutrient-rich layer of fresh water on the sea’s surface, which, with lengthening days of sunlight, triggers a bloom of phytoplankton. On land, partial thawing of the permafrost creates pools in which mosquitoes can breed, providing a valuable source of food for migratory birds like buntings, larks, pharalopes and plovers. The tundra also unleashes a flush of plant growth, grazed by millions of geese, while saxifrages and other alpine species seize the brief summer to flower and set seed. Arctic fox, wolf and polar bear roam tundra, shore and sea ice; cliffs host enormous colonies of auks, fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes and puffins, while beluga, narwhal and bowhead whales follow leads in the pack ice to reach seasonal feeding and breeding grounds.
Polar Regions: Wildlife Travel
HOW TO PLAN A WILDLIFE TRIP
Antarctica is only accessible during the austral summer months of November to March, when temperatures range from -5C to 5C. Ships depart from Ushuaia, Christchurch, Hobart and Cape Town. There are three main Antarctic voyage routes: crossing Drake Passage to the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula; looping east via the Falklands and South Georgia to the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula, or heading south to New Zealand’s sub- Antarctic Islands and the Ross Sea. You can also fly from Punta Arenas direct to the interior of Antarctica where a camp at Patriot Hills provides a staging post for a further flight to the South Pole.
Arctic regions are best visited between June and September when sea ice retreats sufficiently to allow access to ships exploring the coasts of Svalbard, Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. Icebreaker voyages also bring the North Pole within reach, while those with the time (and money) can embark on two-month circumnavigations of the Arctic Ocean. Expedition voyages, however, are not the only ways to explore the region. Land-based trips in Svalbard and Greenland can be equally rewarding. Sea kayaking trips along the coast of Baffin Island are also available, while Hudson Bay plays host to polar bears in October and November.