For the entire voyages, visitors remain on their cruise ships. But about once per day, there are landings or so zodiac cruises scheduled. Each ship has to book all their landing sites months in advance through the International Association of Antarctic Tourist Operators’ (IAATO) centralized booking system. This will then inform the ship’s itinerary for the voyage and which places can be visited and when.
Founded more than 30 years ago, IAATO is “a member organization to advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic.” Their system for site bookings for the many ships operated in the region ensures a fair distribution and, more importantly, guarantees that only one ship will be at a site at a given time. This enables visitors to fully experience the remote and peaceful beauty of Antarctica without any unsightly disturbances and other people around.
We saw another cruise ship on the far horizon only three times during our entire 20 day voyage. It was a tremendous privilege to be able to feel like we were the only ones visiting Antartica.
Restricting visitors at the sites is a critical aspect regarding the protection of the wild animals, such as penguins. The rules of engagement are to stay at least 5 meters away from any animal even when they are moving towards you. Not having more than about 100 people around at a time limits the overall exposure and allows animals to still go about their ways mostly undisturbed. This may seem overprotective at first but at a total of 20,000 visitors per four months season, it all adds up for the animals.
Regarding biosecurity and preventing the introduction of foreign species, we all carefully cleaned our jackets and gear and had everything inspected by the expedition team before our first landing. Of course no food or snacks, especially no fruit with seeds, are to be taken on land. Before every landing, our boots would get doused in Virkon, a highly potent disinfectant to help preserve all the wildlife that make Antarctica so special.
More recently, with the arrival of the Avian flu in Antarctica, proper disinfecting was an absolute “must do” that came along with additional measures. We were only allowed to put the soles of our cleaned boots on the ground. No sitting, no snow angles, no putting bags down, no nothing. That was surely disappointing as I had been looking forward to laying in the snow with my eyes closed and just listening to the sounds and feeling the air and environment. But even standing up, it all turned out to be just amazing.
A major reason for our voyage to be so successful with 13 most memorable landings and zodiac cruises was not because “we were lucky with the weather”. We were lucky to have a most experienced expedition team who worked extremely hard behind the scenes to chase the good weather and to watch out for sites opening up on short notice while releasing some of ours that we could not reach due poor weather and unfavorable ice conditions. Changing sites and itineraries is actually common practice with all Antarctic cruise because local conditions can never be predicted, especially in light of increasingly erratic weather and wind patterns.
What we experienced in the end hardly overlapped with the team’s original itinerary. But we also learned that when you are in Antarctica, there is only ever Plan A, and it will be amazing. An it truly was.