KING GEORGE ISLAND, Antarctica (AP) — They trek snow-covered mountains, gasp at seals flopping along the coastline, ooh at penguins waddling along on the ice and marvel at humpback whales flapping their tails amid a sea of melting icebergs.
Antarctica is the last terrestrial tourism frontier that nature lovers, adventurers and explorers are rushing to visit. This tourist season, which runs November through March, more than 37,000 people are expected to visit the coldest continent on Earth, about 10 percent more than last season.
While some tourists climb Mount Vinson, Antarctica's highest point at 16,050 feet (4,892 meters), others take in the views of other-worldly terrain or snap pictures of huge groups of penguins as they bop in and out of the water. Still others do extreme sports, like scuba diving in icy waters, or imagine themselves as early 20th century explorers during reenactment expeditions.
High-profile visitors of recent years include Bill Gates and Prince Harry, while heavy-metal band Metallica rocked out for a small group of fans at the Carlini Argentine Base here in 2013.
No matter the draw, a strong dose of humor, patience and humility, not to mention tens of thousands of dollars, are an essential part of any Antarctica vacation. Without fail, every year some tourists are left waiting for the sun to come out, or for a patchy Internet connection to work, or even for help to get their stuck boots dislodged from the ice.
The harsh environment requires vacationers to come with many essentials: water-resistant hiking boots, several layers of winter clothes including long underwear and a parka, and powerful sun lotion and dark shades with extra ultraviolet protection.
"Was it worth it? Yes, of course it was," said Christine Brannan of England, who along with dozens of other tourists spent a few days stranded on a cruise ship waiting for thick fog to clear so they could go home. "But I would say to anybody who wants to do the flight and cruise to be aware of the unpredictability."
Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao