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Exploring the Last Frontiers

Walk on glaciers, see the penguins--and don't forget a heavy sweater.

The earth's polar caps are seemingly forbidding expanses of uncharted, pristine land. But there is a way to drink in their icy beauty without suffering the indignities of dog-sledding or snowshoeing: Take a cruise.

Operators now run tours to both poles, usually hiring a naturalist to come along to help tourists identify the myriad wildlife the poles have to offer. Days are spent zooming between glaciers on motorized rubber "Zodiac" rafts observing hundreds of species of birds, penguins (south), polar bears (north), whales, dolphins, and seals. Evenings tend to be devoted to lectures.

The weather isn't as bad as you might think, especially at the South Pole. Ron Naveen, editor of a newsletter about Antarctica and a frequent visitor, says he wears just a heavy sweater most of the summer. Some adventurous travelers have even taken an invigorating, if brief, plunge into the icy waters. But Naveen notes, "The weather is extremely unpredictable and tends to be stormy."

Only specially designed ships make the journey. "Antarctic travel requires extremely heavy boats with ice-breaking capacities," explains Naveen. "These boats require many tons of motor fuel. This is both expensive and, unfortunately, bad for the environment."

The emphasis in polar cruises is more on ruggedness than luxury. The cost, nonetheless, remains high--$5,000 and up for a one-week journey. Naveen says that the growing number of visitors to Antarctica is both a good and a bad thing. "Antarctica is an extremely fragile ecosystem. It is very difficult to visit the area with little or no impact," says Naveen. On the other hand, he adds, "The more people that see the place, the more people that will want to help protect it."

Outfitters to the Poles
Mountain Travel/Sobek 800-227-2384
Clipper Adventure Cruises 800-325-0010
Special Expeditions 800-762-0003
Overseas Adventure Travel 800-221-0814

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Updated on October 8, 1995