A trip to the most remote place in the world sounds romantic and adventurous. This frozen continent at the end of the Earth has never been permanently occupied by man. It has no towns or villages, just grand, icy, unpredictable wilderness. You may ask yourself, “Is Antarctica my kind of travel destination? ” Definitely. You only need to connect with your adventurous spirit and then allow yourself to enjoy the surreal experience of this once-in-a-lifetime trip. Antarctica is a place in the world that very few have explored, but those that visit this remote destination will be rewarded with unique experiences that will stay with them forever.
But, like many of life’s most rewarding experiences, an Antarctic expedition requires preparation and knowledge. You’ll be sailing into one of the most hostile environments on the planet, and it’s not an undertaking that should be lightly taken.
Most people visit Antarctica on a cruise ship. The IAATO lists all the operators cruising in the area, including some large, mainstream cruise lines. I recommend opting for one of the smaller expedition ships carrying between 50 and 200 passengers. Larger ships with more than 500 passengers are not allowed to disembark passengers near Antarctic waters, which means you would miss the essence of this great ice wilderness.
Expedition cruises to Patagonia and Antarctica include traveling by Zodiac to shore for a hike to wildlife sanctuaries and icebergs, viewing bucket-list animals, learning about the local cultures, and attending lectures from naturalists and scientists. Also, toasting with a glacier in the background, with a sense of peace and calm surrounding you, and feeling a taste of exploration and adventure as you’ve never known before.
Most cruises leave from Ushuaia in Argentina, or Punta Arenas and Puerto Williams in Chile and take about two days to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. This is the first and most common way to get there. If you’re pushed for time or don’t want to court seasickness on the Drake Passage, you can fly to the South Shetland Islands and join a cruise there. The third and the most spectacular Antarctic journey ever would be to embark in Ushuaia, voyage to Antarctica, and then continue your trip to New Zealand (Bluff). These cruises will generally last 33 days and allow you to explore the eastern side of Antarctica, which the other cruises usually cannot offer.
The Antarctic season is relatively short, from November to March, and what you can expect to find in Antarctica depends on when you travel. December, January, and February are the best months to go in terms of weather. They are the months with high demand to visit Antarctica, and cruises are the most expensive during those times. Prices are cheaper at the beginning and end of the season, but because of the colder weather conditions, there is less to see in the way of wildlife.
November in Antarctica
For photographers, November is the best time. Penguins are mating and nesting and generally at their most active, offering excellent opportunities to snap them on the ice or with snow falling in the background. The weather is colder, so you also will be able to capture images showing incredible ice formations.
March in Antarctica
Look at November and March as the shoulder season for Antarctica. Even though wildlife spotting might be a little more complicated (although still possible) and the temperatures will be a bit colder. You’ll be treated to a few things other visitors won’t see, including stunning ice formations and even sunrises and sunsets (which are nonexistent close to December’s solstice!)
Most expedition cruises depart from Ushuaia, Argentina, or Punta Arenas and Puerto Williams in Chile. The first two days of your navigation will be crossing the famous Drake Passage, where you can experience rough seas due to Antarctica’s natural boundary, formed when north-flowing cold waters collide with warmer sub-Antarctic seas. The shorter trip to the frozen continent lasts 9 to 12 days, taking you to the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands. In addition to the Antarctic Peninsula, a more extended trip ensures a visit to the Falkland Islands, crossing the Antarctic Circle, also referred to as a polar circle, and reaching the remote destinations of South Georgia.
You can also visit King George Island, Ernest Shackleton’s legendary Elephant Island, and the Weddell Sea – in search of the Emperor Penguin. Cruises to these destinations are longer trips that last from 12 to 23 days. Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea is the destination most commonly associated with Emperor penguins.
The main activities while you are in Antarctica are the daily shore excursions in small groups in Zodiacs. In these discovery excursions, you will search for wildlife and land on remote beaches. You will visit a penguin colony, walk up a ridge for panoramic views or hike to see remnants of bygone eras. Depending on when you travel, expect to get up close to the dazzling beauty of grounded icebergs as well as leopard seals lazing on ice floes or even whale sightings.
On many expedition cruises, you can choose from various adventure activities to make the most of your time in Antarctica, like polar diving cruises. As if visiting Antarctica is not otherworldly enough, there is a whole other world to explore under the surface of the seas. Antarctic diving reveals a world of ice, where glaciers, gigantic icebergs, and a unique marine life blend will greet you!
Diving under polar waters is like no other dive – the combination of water, sunlight, and ice formations creates an ever-shifting spectacle of colors. Divers are often surprised by the diversity of wildlife they encounter underwater: a variety of starfish species, sea squirts, squat lobsters, different species of soft crab corals, anemones, peacock worms, dogfish, kelp walls, sea-snails, sea butterflies, multiple species of fish, shrubby horse-tails, jellyfish, and sea-hedgehogs (urchins). You might even have the opportunity to dive with fur seals, leopard seals, or penguins.
Another adventure offered is camping on the ice. One of the most popular activities, camping offers you the unique opportunity to roll out your sleeping mat and wriggle into your thermal sleeping bag for a night on the ice – no camping experience necessary. Once you’ve settled in, prepare to witness the stunning beauty of the Antarctica night sky, the sounds of ice cracking in the distance, and wildlife carrying their busy schedule around you.
Some expeditions offer helicopter tours above the ice of the Weddell Sea or the Ross Sea to enjoy the magnificent scenery of the Antarctic wilderness. They allow close encounters with marine life, including the Emperor penguin.
Polar cruise kayaking is a fantastic way to slip into the white and blue beauty of the quiet oceans around you. The amount of experience you will need depends on the cruise you choose. Some require no experience, and others expect you to have slightly more.
Ski tours offer keen adventurers a chance to take on some of the world’s most incredible slopes. Experienced skiers can enjoy day trips traversing remote, snow-capped peaks and then descend into pristine bays filled with floating bergs, penguin rookeries, or even breaching whales!
Another great way to explore Antarctica is to take your way inland from the polar shorelines with various treks and hiking expeditions. For whichever adventure you choose, you would need to be in reasonably good shape and healthy. Hikes usually last between 2 and 6 hours walking where there are no paths, so you will travel over fairly rugged terrain and take on some hills. Usually with cruises, 1 to 3 types of walks are offered per landing ranging from a casual stroll to a challenging hike.
Not all cruises offer these activities, so be careful to choose the correct cruise/dates departures and book in advance because the availability is very limited. Some cruises include these activities in the price, and you can add them at an extra cost for others.
Traveling to Antarctica is difficult to reach and requires an adventurous spirit, but the effort is always well worth the reward! It is an extraordinary trip that will change how you view the world.