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Antarctica can lay claim to several prizes in the continent stakes: it is the coldest, windiest, and driest continent on earth, and with an average altitude of 7,382 feet (2,250m), it is also the highest. The extreme frigidity and ferocious winds, as well as its isolation at the bottom of the world, combine to make Antarctica one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, neither inhabited by a native population nor presided over by an indigenous government.
Yet growing numbers of people are compelled to travel to this vast continent, double the size of Australia; a land of pristine whiteness, where its creatures have figured out remarkable ways to survive a life in the freezer. The landscape is as harsh as it is magical. Icebergs of indescribable beauty are carved, etched, and polished into fantastic shapes and patterns by the elements, and the roar of calving glaciers echoes between sheer-sided channel walls.
Roughly scoured peaks of rock and ice are reflected in the serene waters of protected bays that are frequented by basking seals and inquisitive whales. The coastal shores and sub-Antarctic islands are home to hundreds of penguin rookeries, seal colonies, and nesting seabirds; the incessant commotion and comic antics of half a million tuxedoed forms is one of the most characteristic and endearing features of a trip to the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Peninsula is the northernmost finger that points to South America, and together with the islands of the Sub-Antarctic, is the most visited region and the best place to view wildlife in Antarctica. Most visits are on organised ship-based expeditions that aim to showcase the scenic highlights of the region as well as to educate visitors about the wildlife, historical sites, and active research bases.
Antarctica is not an easy place to get to, nor is it a cheap holiday destination; part and parcel of this quest for adventure will more than likely involve a rough sea crossing, as well as an itinerary at the mercy of changing weather and ice conditions. However, those that choose to journey to the 'end of the world' can be sure of experiencing a voyage incomparable to any other.
Summer (late November to March) is the only time when tourists can visit Antarctica and even then temperatures are close to freezing along the coastal regions. The interior plateau is much colder due to its higher elevation and distance from the sea.
The Antarctic Peninsula has the most moderate climate, with temperatures averaging from 5°F to 60°F (-15°C to 16°C). December and January are the warmest months and can have up to 20 hours of sunshine a day, while in winter it is dark almost 24 hours a day with temperatures falling well below -76°F (-60°C). At that time of year, the surrounding ice pack makes access by ship out of the question.
To view mating rituals among the seabirds and penguins November is the best month, while December and January are the height of the tourist season, when penguin colonies are feeding their new-born chicks. The best time to see whales is during February and March.
Most ships accept credit cards and US dollars and often there is a currency exchange facility on board where it is also possible to exchange travellers cheques. In Antarctica itself, each base generally uses the currency of their home country. Travellers should check which currency to bring with their tour/cruise operator.
There is no official language.
Each ship and base has its own electricity supply.
As no one owns the Antarctic continent, no visitors require a visa or passport; however, a valid passport will be required for any stops en route, and visas and passports may be needed for points of departure.
Extreme cold temperatures and wind chill in Antarctica can lead to hypothermia. Due to the thin ozone layer, it is essential that a high protection sunscreen be worn, and the glare from the ice and water necessitates the wearing of sunglasses. The crossing of rough seas will require most passengers to take some form of seasickness preventative medication. All passenger ships have an on-board doctor, but health insurance is imperative and must include emergency evacuation, which can be exorbitantly expensive.
Staff on passenger ships generally expect tips. The size of tip varies and depends on the currency in use and type of cruise - it is best to check with tour operators in advance.
The waters around Antarctica can be extremely rough, and in bad conditions loose equipment not tied down on board ship can cause injury; similarly, passengers can be caught off balance in high seas.
Sea ice is a polar hazard and icebergs are capable of sinking even a large ship. Several cruise ships have hit icebergs in recent years, leading industry experts to question the safety of Antarctic cruise ships and highlighting the dangers of mass evacuations in extreme climates.
The US and UK warned a conference of Antarctic treaty nations that the tourism situation in the Antarctic region was a disaster in the making with some cruise ships carrying in excess of 3,000 people, and more than 35,000 people visiting during the season. It's important to be aware of the potential dangers of travelling to such a hostile environment, but most cruises are trouble-free.
When visiting research bases or stations in Antarctica, tourists are asked to remove shoes, never to enter a building unless invited, not to interfere with scientific work, and to remember that researchers are using up precious work time to accommodate them.
Make sure that restroom facilities aboard ship are used before visiting a base, as it is very bad practice to ask to use one onshore as it adds to the amount of waste that has to be removed by the researchers at a later date.
The international dialling code for Antarctica is +672. Ship-based communication is by satellite phone.
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