We are exhausted after sleeping in two- and three-hour spurts, due to mandatory watches. But now, leaving the Drake behind, that exhaustion is replaced by trepidation: For the past year I’d started each day punching polarview.aq into the nearest computer, trying to get a peek at just how the ice rimming Antarctica was growing or shrinking. Still, we have no idea exactly what conditions we’ll find until we drop our kayaks into the Southern Ocean. The only sure thing is that the water will be cold (30 degrees Fahrenheit, nearly the freezing point of salt water) and that the katabatic winds will be fierce, building as they race off the sloping plateau out to sea.
Our plan had been straightforward enough: get as far south as we could—by kayak, sailboat, and foot—before the ice stopped us. It would amount to one of the most ambitious Antarctic kayaking expeditions in history (New Zealander and tripmate Graham Charles paddled 528 miles down the coast in 2000). Along the way we’d meet a handful of scientists and soldiers to get a firsthand assessment of how the rapidly rising temperatures (it’s nearly four degrees warmer on the Antarctic Peninsula on average than it was 50 years ago—among the more dramatic changes on the planet) and a related tourism boom are affecting life at the end of the Earth.
But nothing in Antarctica is straightforward. Any private expedition must plan for any emergency. There is no 911 service. No navy. No coast guard. If someone on our team were to break a bone or rupture a spleen, we would have to provide our own ride back to the tip of South America, which explains the Pelagic Australis, a sailboat I chartered from American captain Skip Novak for $5,000 a day.
We also needed the permission of the U.S. State Department, the National Science Foundation, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The process took more than a year, dozens of lawyer hours, and permits as thick as telephone books—a painstaking pursuit but one that keeps out the daring and unprepared (those who want to bicycle to the South Pole, for example). Ironically, since we planned to camp, we had to fill out more paperwork than the Star Princess, which carries 3,200 passengers.
But while our approach is unique, it’s clearly not the only way to visit. For the past decade, each tourist season in Antarctica has set a record; in 2007-08 more than 40,000 visited by big vessel, compared to just a few thousand a decade ago. With prices down on the largest ships and demand up (see it before it’s gone!), it seems like every tour operator in the world is trying to come here. Permits are required by the International Association of Antarctic Tourist Operators, but its guidelines for tour operators, including designated landing sites and onshore rules, are unenforceable. Ice-ready boats are also not mandated. A few of the ships operating in Antarctica once worked as ferries in Denmark and Norway. Some predict that within two years the number of visitors will double.