This guide to Antarctica called “Antarctica 101” first appeared in a Dispatch, the updates sent to all Society members. You can join for free here.
“I’m off to Antarctica for a few weeks.”
Say these words to someone, and watch their face change: it’s different from other places. You’ll get a reaction telling someone you are off to Europe. You’ll get a bigger reaction telling someone you are heading to Egypt, or on safari in Botswana. Usually, the reaction is surprise, but an excited curiosity. But, telling someone you are off to Antarctica usually results in a moment of dumbstruck silence. There is usually a visible, tiny shake of the head. You can almost hear their brains whirring, attempting to reinstate their derailed train of thought.
And can you blame them? 50 years ago, it was unheard of. Even thirty years ago heading to Antarctica was near impossible. But nowadays, in a modern world of connectivity and technology, it is very possible. It’s also quite simple to do.
But how does the whole thing work? To explain, we decided to provide a quick breakdown. It’s perfect if you don’t know your South Georgias from your South Poles.
How do I get there?
Stating the obvious, Antarctica covers the southernmost portion of our planet. Getting there means you leave from one of the southernmost countries of our planet. Out of these, Chile and Argentina take the bulk of the modern travellers. Leaving here on a ship, you sail across the Southern Ocean to arrive at the continent.
There are also limited departures from New Zealand and an incredible luxury experience by air operating out of South Africa. But, these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Most modern travellers heading to Antarctica will head out of South America.
Heading to Antarctica is a pretty straightforward sea journey, but it is across the infamous Drake Passage. The currents in this area of open water meets no resistance from any landmass and so can be quite rocky. The story goes that you tend to encounter two different ‘Drakes’. You have the ‘Drake Lake’, where all is calm, and the ‘Drake Shake’, where large swells rock the ship. This area was historically treacherous but today, with modern boatbuilding technology, it’s a different journey. However, if you suffer from seasickness and don’t like the idea of medication, the fly/sail option can eliminate one of the crossings for you. This means flying one half of the journey to a nearby island and sailing the other leg.
Antarctica yeah, but where would I be going exactly?
Antarctica is a large land mass covered by ice sheets and glaciers. In one section the continent extends north in a large finger, an area known as the Antarctic peninsula. This section is stunningly beautiful (to be fair, as is most of Antarctica), filled with dramatic rock faces, protruding glaciers and snow-capped mountains. Reaching towards the tail of South America like Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, this part of Antarctica is the closest to anywhere else. It’s partly for this reason that most travellers take this route, as it is shorter than any other (and therefore cheaper).
Head further south and you cross the Antarctic Circle. The Antarctic Circle, to answer your question, is the most southerly of Earth’s rings of latitude. And to answer your questions: Yes, “Rings of Latitude” would have been a great rock band name in the ’80s. There are trips that head this far south and extend into the realm of the great early polar explorers. The Weddell Sea is another such extension, an area famed for its large tabular icebergs (huge icebergs with vertical sides and flat tops). It is also an area famed for crushing the dreams of those same explorers.
The South Pole is rarely visited, and only done by air on specific and unique journeys. We can organise it, but you won’t just stumble across it.
Oft ignored, but often a highlight, you also have the Sub-Antarctic islands. Sub-Antarctic islands are islands that are on another continental plate but linked to Antarctica by its connected biology. The most famous Sub-Antarctic island is South Georgia. Whilst and referenced in the same breath as Antarctica, South Georgia is actually over 2000km away. Referred to as “The Serengeti/the Galapagos of the South”, South Georgia is home to truly epic populations of king penguins, elephant seals and much more. It is also here that Sir Ernest Shackleton finally found safety during his ill-fated expedition on the Endurance, and where he was later laid to rest years later.
The South Sandwich Islands are also visited infrequently, and whilst not Sub-Antarctic, the infamous (but beautiful) Falklands Islands appear on itineraries as well, given their ideal location between South Georgia and Argentina.
What can I see there?
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: If you are looking for polar bears, you are looking at the wrong side of the planet. Polar bears live in the Arctic, not the Antarctic. In fact, the word ‘Arctic’ comes from the Greek word ‘Arktikos’, meaning ‘bear’. This is actually in relation to the constellation Ursa Minor (Little Bear) and Ursa Major (Great Bear), which are found in the northern skies, but the reference fits. The word ‘Antarctic’? It comes from ‘Antarktikos’, quite literally ‘opposite of the bear’.
So, no bears in the south. Apart from meaning you can wander around without an armed guard, it means that there are no major land predators at all. Because of this, the animals found in the Antarctic are very chilled (pun intended). There are the enormous range of penguins found across the area, from the giant emperor penguins to the tiny rockhopper penguins. For reference, Emperor penguins (the big ones) and Adelie penguins are only found in Antarctica itself. King (pretty big) and Magellanic penguins are only found in the Sub-Antarctic. The rest of the many more species scattered across many more locations. The same diversity goes for seals, ranging from the tiny fur seal up to the male elephant seals that weigh in at over 4000 kilograms. You also have the leopard seal, the crafty predator that lives up to its namesake.
We also can’t forget the giants of the ocean, the whales that frequent the area. You’ll find humpback and minke whales in Antarctic waters as well as pods of orca on the hunt. If you are lucky you might even spot the enormous blue whale passing through.
Last, but not least, the bird life is stunning. From the skua to the tern to the petrel to the albatross, there is a truly epic amount of bird life to view, both on land and from your comfy (and warm) ship.
What can I do in Antarctica?
Apart from the obvious, which is “sit and take it all in”, there is a huge range of activities on offer. The most common are shore landings and scenic cruising. Both of these utilise small zodiac boats which ferry you to shore or cruise around the coastline, dodging icebergs and ice floes. Not to be outdone, there is also a range of other activities on offer depending on the location and operator. Stand-up paddle boarding, scuba diving, snorkelling and kayaking are offered on various journeys (as is the dry suit needed to do them!). Mountain climbing, ski and snowboard touring and hiking are offered on various journeys, and you can even sleep overnight on the continent itself in a special sleep-out experience.
Then, of course, there is the polar plunge. A rite of passage, it involves a (tethered) leap into near-freezing Antarctic water, clad only in swimmers, to awaken the senses. As a side bonus, it often elicits a primal noise so loud that it might start a conversation with any passing whales.
An oft-overlooked attraction of Antarctica is the time spent in the company of experts. This may be in the lecture theatres listening to presentations about wildlife, ecology, geography and early exploration or onboard the excursions with scientists and guides. There are even Science Centres where you can join in real Citizen Science projects to help us all learn more about this remarkable place.
So, is it a cruise or not?
Yes and no. Long story short, depends on what you do, and who you go with.
To answer this you need to know about some bureaucratic guidelines. Antarctica doesn’t belong to any one country and as such, is governed by an international treaty. Most operators in Antarctic waters (or ones worth their salt) belong to the IAATO, or the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. This governing body sets guidelines that control many elements of a ships activity in Antarctica.
There is a range of ships that visit Antarctica, from ships with around 500 guests to those with less than a hundred. Guests on each ship will have a vastly different experience, and again, the reason comes down to IAATO. However, the most common reason is the guideline stating that no more than 100 passengers can land at one site at any one time.
So, let’s break down the maths.
Lets assume that all voyages are full and that all passengers want to be onshore at the same time (rather than going for a scenic zodiac cruise or activities like kayaking). A small ship (let’s say around 120 passengers) can land almost all of its passengers at the same time in the same area. A 200-passenger ship can only land half its passengers. A 400-passenger ship has half that again.
There are some variables. It does depend on how many guests are doing other activities (like the kayaking) and how many boats the ship has that can be used for scenic cruising at the same time. But, in short, a guest on a 400 person ship is going to get only a quarter of the “land time” of the 120 person ship. And above 500 people, the ship won’t be able to do any landings at all.
So, the larger the ship, the more like a traditional cruise it is. This means the ship is the core experience and there’s some landings or scenic cruising thrown in. The smaller the ship, in some ways the less important the ship is to the overall experience. After all, you are spending less time on it. Think of it as a floating safari lodge. They are lovely, but the focus is on the destination and not the cruise itself. For this reason, small ships are often labelled as “expedition cruising”, rather than just “cruising”. There is a distinct category of cruising that sails through Antarctic waters. It is important to note the difference between that and expedition cruising.
When to go to Antarctica
The Antarctic season is short, from October to March. We should start by saying that, like in Africa, anytime is the right time to go and you should go whenever you can. That being said, there is some slight variance in the experience depending on the season. In the early season, from October to December, Antarctica is emerging from winter and you’ll find more pristine ice conditions. Animals will also be using this new warmth to court, breed and give birth, resulting in unique behaviours.
December to late January will find lots of penguin chicks dotting the shores. You’ll also see leopard seals taking advantage of their naivety for a quick snack. Young seals (also known as ‘weaners’) will be annoying their mothers and more whales will arrive to take advantage of the good feeding.
Late season is a good time to explore deeper into the Antarctic Circle and the Weddell Sea. This is when the ice has melted somewhat but making it there is still not a given. However, this time gives the best chance of getting through before the sea refreezes. This time also sees chicks take flight and young animals learn the skills needed to survive the coming winter.
What does a day in Antarctica look like?
For anyone who has been on a safari in Africa, the day-to-day looks familiar. You wake up early to take in the scenery before heading down to grab some coffee and food. After a quick briefing, you head off on your first activity before coming back to relax and eat again. In the afternoon you head out again before you spend the evening swapping stories with fellow guests. It’s a frozen safari, a ‘safrozi’ if you will.
The elephant (seal) in the room
We are aware that the cost is a big question for most people. Like the shock we see when we tell people we are heading to Antarctica, people are also shocked when we tell them that prices start from around $10,000 per person. In other words, you can be floating around the Antarctic and coming eye with an orca or penguin for the same price as Europe. Europe is wonderful, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the splendour at the end of the world. There isn’t a Monet landscape in the Louvre as stunning as the landscapes seen down south.
Long story short, if it is a dream of yours to see Antarctica and you can spare $10,000, you should go. Simple as that. Whilst the destination is still mysterious, epic and complex, heading there isn’t. Like any trip, all it takes is some conversation to find clarity about what you want to do and then we make it happen. And before you know it, you will add your name to the list of Antarctic explorers.