Cruise Antarctica

The best time to visit a land of ice and snow is winter, right?  Normally, that’s right.  However, the best time to visit the ice and snow of Antarctica is during the southern hemisphere summer because a) the sea ice breaks up in summer, so you can actually get near the continent, and b) not only are Antarctic winters ferocious and atrocious, the sun stays below the horizon so there isn’t much to see even if you could comfortably get there.

Antarctica is not a friendly place for tourists.  There are no commercial flights to it; no hotels or resorts; no restaurants or nightclubs for entertainment; no grass on which to build a golf course.  Even if you could get yourself to the South Pole, the temporary residents who live at the Amunsden-Scott Base won’t put you up for the night, their buildings are for the staffers only, and intruders must look after themselves. In fact, compared to Antarctica, Iraq and Afghanistan are positively tourist-friendly.

People do visit Antarctica, and the most efficient way to do so is by ship.  Most of the ships that do take tourists to Antarctica are quite small, hence it is an expensive exercise, and also relatively rare for tourists to go there.    

There is a reason why small ships are the preferred option for taking tourists to Antarctica.  Sven Lindblad of Lindblad Expeditions is the tourist operator who first took tourists to Antarctica in 1966. In response to reports that some cruise companies were looking at taking large ships into Antarctic waters Sven is on record for telling Cruise Industry News: “It’s a very dangerous place and a lot of operators aren’t realizing that. The odds of an accident happening is only going up as more ships go down there. We’d prefer that the large cruise ships don’t go there at all; it would be a huge issue if a 2,500-passenger ship had a problem. There isn’t anything anywhere near there to rescue that number of people.”

Presently there are about 20 ships ferrying tourists to Antarctica, and these carry anywhere from 45 to 280 passengers on cruises that last between 10 days and three weeks. The most popular cruises leave from South America, either from the world’s most southerly town of Ushuaia in Argentina, or from Chile.  Ushuaia is the best departure point, because actually sailing time to Antarctica is shorter.

It is also possible to pick up cruises to the Ross Shelf region from Hobart, Tasmania and Christchurch, New Zealand and to Eastern Antarctica from Cape Town in South Africa.

Itineraries are typically quite flexible, mainly because the amount of ice in the Antarctic waters determines where and for how long a ship can sail.

Onboard entertainment, especially for the smaller ships, tends to be different from that plethora of opportunities available on more regular cruises.  The Antarctic cruise ships aren’t big on nightclubs, but they will always have a naturalist, ornithologist or explorer on board who will delight the audience nightly with their lectures on some aspect of the Antarctic experience.  Of course, one doesn’t need a nightclub on board because there is no night.  And that means that you can be in a zodiac exploring a small iceberg, or trying to dodge penguin poo as you slide along an icy rock at 2am in the morning, although you’d never know it. Come to think of it? Dodging penguin poo may be better than dodging some of the sleazebags you find in nightclubs these days.

You may be wondering about which ship to choose for your Antarctic Expedition.  Here’s a little tip – choose the smaller ships, those with around one hundred or less passengers.  The ride itself may be bumpier is those rough Antarctic seas, but you are ferried ashore in zodiacs.  The less people on board ship, the more passengers that make it to land, and for longer periods.

When travelling to Antarctica you may be concerned about what to wear.  Forget the formal frock and the tuxedo; you really do need layers of clothes that will keep you both warm and dry.  Even in summer, temperatures in Antarctica can get to -30 centigrade, and that’s colder than your freezer at home.  My advice – ask the cruise company, and do you shopping at a mountaineering or adventure store as they will stock clothes that are sturdy enough for your trip.

Antarctica is the only place on Earth for which no visitor requires a visa.  It has no government, or no one to check your passport and visa.  However, you will need to find out visa requirements to the country from which you will depart (and probably return to).

The best time to visit Antarctica is from mid-December through to March, and, generally speaking, the later you leave it the more you will see, simply because by March most of the ice has melted and there is more land to see.  Also, the whales and seals are more active in this period.

It’s probably best to plan your trip early, and several of the operators will offer discounts to those who book and pay early.  Antarctic cruises are generally more expensive than your conventional cruise.  This is partly because of the extra precautions that need to be taken when cruising in such isolated and unpredictable areas.  A lot of money is spent on safety equipment, so although this does affect the tariff, if something terrible should happen, and their wise precautions save you, you’ll probably be glad of the extra cost.

4 comments to Cruise Antarctica

  • Fascinating…certainly food for thought. I hope you do not mind if I send this over to a few other individuals I know.

  • Great text and nice site.

  • We just went to Antarctica with Gap Adventures on the M/S Expedition (126 passengers) in late February. It was amazing! 2 shore landings per day, zodiac cruises to see the wildlife in the water, and fabulous food and amenities on board. Plus a staff of experts who taught us all about Antarctica and the wildlife in it when we weren’t out seeing it. A few of us also got to camp overnight on the ice and others kayaked.

    Find a tour operator with a good recommendation from people you know and then sign up for their email alerts. That’s what we did and ended up booking at a great discount about 8 months before we left.

    The only downside to a trip to Antarctica is the Drake Passage, which can be a little rough. Be sure to take your seasickness patches/meds! 🙂

    (PS – You can get your passport stamped at Port Lockroy, a British post office on Antarctica. It isn’t a “real” stamp, but it is kinda fun to have it in your passport)

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