How to get the most out of your Antarctica trip

A penguin rookery | Kieren Lawton
A penguin rookery | Kieren Lawton

Which Antarctica do you want to see? The one where you are surrounded by steep icebergs? The one with clumsy young penguins and playful seal pups? The one where the sun never sets? Or the one that the early polar pioneers set their foot on?

Antarctica is a bucket list destination of many, but to get the most out of your once-in-a-lifetime trip you have to answer one key question: which is the main reason you want to go to Antarctica?

“I want to see spectacular icebergs”

During the long winter months (April-October), the water around Antarctica freezes, expanding dramatically the size of the continent. Come spring and this ice starts to break up, creating the most spectacular ice sculptures and icebergs you can think of. November marks the beginning of the season promising you will get to experience Antarctica in its most pristine, ‘raw’ form. 

“I want to cross the Polar Circle”

Not all voyages to Antarctica cross the Antarctic Circle. At a latitude of 66°33’ degrees, this is the hemisphere’s northernmost limit where you can have 24 hours of continuous sunlight (21 December) or darkness (21 June). Given that the further south you go, the more sea ice you come across, try to travel later in the season for more favourable ice conditions.

“I want to see penguins in action”

With 17 different species of penguin found on the sub-Antarctic Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, sightings are guaranteed throughout the season. But if you want to see the animals in full swing visit in January and early February: most species lay their eggs in early spring, so as penguin chicks begin hatching and their parents head to the water in search of food for the young ones, you will see the colonies at their busiest.

“I want to make as many landings as possible”

All travellers to Antarctica want to spend as much time on shore as possible – but this is the world’s coldest and windiest continent, so all landings and excursions are subject to weather conditions. To maximise your chances, avoid going too early in the season: as summer progresses, bays will be free of snow, more landing sites will be accessible and the lack of ice will allow for easier exploration.

“I want to follow in the footsteps of the great polar explorers”

Antarctica has drawn explorers for centuries and many voyages give you the chance to ‘revisit’ the continent’s history. Depending on the itinerary, sites you may visit include: Elephant Island, home to 22 of Shackleton’s men for four months, and Grytviken, the explorer’s last resting place; the historic huts of Scott and Borchgrevink; and Dundee Island, where the first flight to Antarctica landed.

“I want to experience the midnight sun”

The midnight sun is a natural phenomenon observed south of the Antarctic Circle, as well as north of the Arctic Circle, when the sun doesn’t set, resulting in consecutive 24-hour periods of daylight. In Antarctica, it reaches its peak on the day of the summer solstice (21 December), when the pole has its closest angle to the sun, so if your trip is around this date it will be bathed in permanent sunlight.

“I want to avoid seeing too many other ships around”

Throughout the season, all ships work hard to avoid each other in order to offer the best possible experience. However, if you like the idea of having Antarctica (almost) all to yourself, plan your trip towards the end of the season. March is the last summer month, when days start getting shorter (though you can still expect up to 15 hours of daylight) and temperature gradually drops. However, you will notice fewer vessels around so, if you think Antarctica has become too popular, it is the quietest time of the year to visit.

“I am looking for extreme adventure”

Shore excursions are no longer the only way you get to experience Antarctica. If you want to give yourself a challenge, you can explore a pocket of the Antarctic Peninsula through hiking, snowshoeing or climbing. Alternatively, take to the water and go kayaking, snorkelling or even diving through the clear (but icy!) Antarctic waters. Some itineraries also include an option to camp on ice, while the truly adventurous can follow in Shackleton’s footsteps, crossing South Georgia from King Haakon to Stromness.

“I want to spot large groups of whales”

Antarctica is home to eight species of whale, which can be found throughout its waters during the summer months. Although seeing a whale breaching out of the sea never fails to amaze, February and early March are considered the peak time for ‘whale spotting’: in preparation for starting their migration north, the mammals travel in large pods, making the sightings all the more impressive.

“I want to go where very, very few go”

The remote Ross Sea, at the very heart of Antarctica, welcomes a limited number of visitors. Discovered by Sir James Clark Ross in 1842, it is the largest marine protected area on Earth but the window of opportunity to visit is very narrow and you must plan in advance: it is accessible only for two months every year, when the ice thaws, and most itineraries are about 30 days long. The voyage includes visits to the huts of Shackleton and Scott, as well as abundant wildlife encounters, such as Emperor penguin rookeries.

“I want to see the Aurora Australis in Antarctica”

Aurora Australis is the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of the Northern Lights but, because there is less land mass the further south you travel (and therefore fewer viewing spots) they are more elusive. They occur during the winter months (April-October), when Antarctica is off-limits, but if seeing them is high on your wish list, travel at the very end of the season and you may be lucky!

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