Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Southern Oceans Travel: Antarctica & the Falklands, 2010 and Beyond

According to Montevideo-based Mercopress Noticias, big cruise ships may not be long for the Antarctic. Many but not all of the mega-cruisers, which can carry thousands of passengers at a time on routes around Cape Horn from Brazil or Buenos Aires to Valparaíso, detour to Antarctica. But because of their size and limited vulnerability, they are unable to make any landings on the frozen continent, its islands, or the Antarctic Peninsula - in effect, they are nothing more than iceberg sight-seeing photo opportunities.

The problem with the cruisers, though, is neither their size nor their shortcomings in getting to learn something about Antarctica - at least not directly so. Rather, the problem is the heavy diesel fuel - banned by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) since Gap Adventures’ M/S Explorer sank in 2007 - that they require for powering their engines. Under new regulations due to take effect before the 2011-2012 season, vessels will not even be allowed to carry such fuel, let alone burn it, beyond 60° S latitude.

The lighter fuel, meanwhile, is more expensive than the heavy fuel. Some cruise lines have already announced their intention to leave the Antarctic market, and according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), the number of passengers aboard oversize vessels (of more than 500 passengers) will fall from more than 14,000 passengers in the upcoming season to fewer than 7,000 when the regulations take effect.

Fortunately, there are far better Antarctic opportunities on smaller vessels, such as the Grigoriiy Mikheev (pictured here), which use the lighter fuel, mostly sail from the Argentine port of Ushuaia, and rarely carry more than about 100 passengers. This permits them not only to approach the shoreline but also to disembark their passengers on board Zodiac rafts to view penguins, seals, and sea lions - as well as current Antarctic bases and the ruins of earlier bases - up close. At the same time, though, the new regulations mean the cost of Antarctic tourism is likely to rise. For those wishing to see Antarctica on a relative budget, the 2010-2011 season might be the time to go.

Meanwhile, to the east of the South American continent, the Falkland Islands are gearing up for the coming season with a new tourism director and a much improved Visitor Falklands website that’s much friendlier to land-based passengers than in the past. While most Falklands visitors still arrive by cruise ships and spend relatively little time on land, the best way to see the Islands and their cornucopia of sub-Antarctic wildlife is overland to locales such as Volunteer Point, or by small plane to offshore islands such as Pebble, Saunders, and Carcass. Reached by air from Punta Arenas (Chile) or from the United Kingdom via Ascension Island, the Falklands are the best place to see penguins, other seabirds (such as black-browed albatrosses, pictured here), and marine mammals without visiting Antarctica itself.

The upgraded website includes a thorough Falklands Accommodations Guide that will help land-based visitors have a better idea of what to expect here (where accommodations are mostly of a high standard, but can vary from self-catering shanties to converted ranch managers’ houses (such as Port Howard Lodge) to cozy B&Bs (such as Celia Stewart’s Bennett House, pictured above) to purpose-built hotels (Malvina House) and wildlife lodges (Sea Lion Lodge). The Islands get thorough coverage in Moon Patagonia, which I will be updating later this year.

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