Antarctica Travel Guide - Page 1 - Basics
Antarctica Cruise and Adventure Travel With Cool Antarctica and Expedition TripsAntarctica is not an easy place to get to, but increasing numbers of people visit Antarctica every year. Almost all go as a part of an organized expeditionary cruise, frequently guided by experts who are a mixture of seasoned seafarers, and ice or wildlife experts.
Lars-Eric Lindblad leader of the first commercial Antarctica cruise in 1966
"We should have the sense to leave just one place alone"
Sir Peter Scott Founder of the WWF and son of Robert Falcon Scott
Tourism in Antarctica - The Continent in BriefThere are no indigenous people on Antarctica. The population varies from fewer than 1,000 in winter to over 50,000 in summer: 5,000 scientists from 27 of the countries party to the Antarctic Treaty, plus tourists. In the 2013/2014 season there were 37,405 tourists, the peak was the 2007/2008 season with 46,069 visitors.
Antarctica surrounds the South Pole. The nearest landmass is South America, which is over 620 miles from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula
Surface area: 14 million square miles (36 million square kilometers).
There is no indigenous government, management of the Antarctic is organised through the legal framework of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. Forty-three nations are now party to this agreement, and seven of those - UK, Norway, Chile, France, Australia, Argentina and New Zealand - have historic claims on parts of the continent as national territory. The 1959 Antarctic Treaty preserves the status quo of the continent by neither recognizing nor rejecting the claims of these countries and by not allowing expansion in any way on the continent.
Antarctica currently has no economic activity apart from offshore fishing and tourism, and these are carried out by other nations (i.e. not the continent of Antarctica)
Tourism in the Antarctic is mainly by ship, around 20 vessels carrying 45 to 280 passengers each.
The ships are ice strengthened and sail primarily to the Antarctic Peninsula region sometimes also including South Georgia and the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas).
There have been occasional voyages to Antarctica by larger passenger vessels (up to 960 tourists), some of which conduct sightseeing cruises only without landings. These will no longer happen however since regulations came into force in 2009 preventing such large vessels operating in Antarctic waters.
Yacht travel is also popular, and gives a smaller scale more intimate contact, though often without the luxuries and facilities of the larger Antarctica cruise ship.
Several expeditions take place outside the Peninsula region each season. Voyages are made to the Weddell Sea, Ross Sea region and, on occasion, East Antarctica including islands of the Indian Ocean sector. These expeditions include visits to emperor penguin colonies, historical huts, the Dry Valleys and other remote areas.
Weather and ice, not clocks and calendars, set the schedule for a journey here. No matter what the reason for your visit, you'll be at the mercy of the continent's changing moods and weather patterns. You may be able to make a landing as expected at the appropriate time, but don't rely on it if the weather and sea state have other ideas.
How long are trips?Most trips take about 10 days to 3 weeks from port to port, though occasionally longer or shorter trips are possible.
Fly - Cruise trips are about 5-7 days flying both ways or another couple of days longer if one leg is by ship.
Can I fly to Antarctica?Yes - There are Fly-Cruise trips to Antarctica whereby you can fly to Frei Station (Chile) on King George Island in around two hours flying from Punta Arenas, Chile.
You then embark on your ship where you follow the Antarctic part of the cruise for around 6 days along the Antarctic Peninsula before returning to King George Island and flying back to Punta Arenas again.
AdvantagesAvoid crossing the Drakes Passage by ship - this can be a very rough crossing which for some people may prevent them going to Antarctica at all if they feel ill on ships.
Time saving - two sailings across the Drakes Passage saves about 4 days in all meaning that is possible to go to Antarctica without spending so much time getting there and back.
Disadvantages:You don't get to cross the Drakes Passage by ship - there is something magical about arriving in Antarctica by ship where the weather and ice change slowly over a longer period, spotting albatrosses following the ship, the first ice-bergs, first penguins and seals etc
Delays to your trip - While no Antarctica Fly and Cruise departure has been cancelled due to weather conditions (yet), some departures in the past have experienced delays of up to three days. The current estimate is that the chances of delay are in the range of 5-10%. Ships can operate in conditions in Antarctica that leave planes grounded. In particular you will need to have some flexibility in your return journey timings.
How much does it cost?From about USD $6,000 for a place in a twin cabin (triples may be available for 15-25% less) plus the cost of air fares and other sundry costs to and from your point of embarkation and then up to US$50 000 and even beyond. These are for regular scheduled trips. You can usually have a cabin to yourself on payment of a supplement, though if you are a solo traveller, you can be paired up with someone of the same sex in a shared cabin at the standard twin prices. Of course you pay more if you want the best cabins on the more luxurious vessels.
You could put together a trip of your own with other people with the help of a small vessel operator running your own itinerary, cost - negotiable, but not too different to the mid to high range scheduled trips.
$10,000 -$12,000 per passenger for a 10-14 day cruise is a reasonable amount to expect to pay.
When and where do trips take place?Antarctic visits are mainly concentrated at ice-free coastal zones over the Antarctic summer, the five-month period from November to March, in high summer there will be 20+ hours of daylight.
The formation and movement of sea-ice outside of these times means that from March to November, Antarctica is left to the over-wintering scientific bases and their crews.
Tourist ships possibly could get in and out earlier or later in the season, but there is the all too real danger of not being able to get to the places on the itinerary, or more importantly of being stuck in the sea-ice and having an enforced winter (for an extra 8 months or more) as has happened on scientific bases occasionally. So apart from the odd ice-breaker trip that may leave in October, tourist ships just don't risk it outside of these months.
Winter pack ice extends over 620 miles around the continent, it is almost permanently dark and temperatures can drop to as low as -90°C (-130°F)
Temperature Range; December to February 20°F to 50°F / -6°C to +10°C
November & Early December (Late Spring / Early Summer)
- Courting season for penguins and seabirds - see spectacular courtship rituals.
- Seals visible on fast ice.
- Spring wildflowers in the Falklands and South Georgia.
- Elephant and fur seals establish their breeding territories.
- Winter pack ice is starting to melt and break up. The scenery is white, clean and pristine with pack ice and giant icebergs.
Mid-December and January (Mid Summer)
- Normally Antarctica's warmest months.
- Longer days create great light conditions and fabulous photo opportunities at midnight.
- Antarctic penguin chicks hatch.
- South Georgia and the Falklands - first penguin chicks emerge and fur seals are breeding.
- Seal Pups visible on South Georgia and the Falklands.
- Receding ice allows for more exploration.
February and March (Late Summer)
- Whale sightings are at their best on the Peninsula.
- Penguin chicks start to fledge, most Adelie and Gentoo penguin colonies are nearly vacated by late Feb to early March.
- Blooming snow algae prevalent.
- Receding pack ice allows ships to explore further south.
- More fur seals on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Where do trips leave from?Peninsula voyages generally depart from Ushuaia in Argentina, other South American ports are rarely used. The great majority of trips leave from South America, those that leave from elsewhere tend to be longer and more expensive - considerably so.
For trips to the Ross region and Eastern Antarctica, most often used ports are: Invercargill / Bluff (New Zealand) and less commonly Hobart (Australia), These trips may involve two different ports sometimes departing from one and returning to another.
Departures very rarely set out from from Cape Town and Port Elizabeth (South Africa) or Fremantle / Perth (Australia), i.e. they have done in the past, though do not do so every year.
No documentation or visas are required to visit Antarctica, but if your cruise stops off at other countries en route, visas and documentation may be required for them.
It is worth thinking about what you will do on your Antarctic trip beyond icebergs and glaciers. Trips that take in the Falkland Islands or South Georgia for instance can add significantly to the experience. Once you have decided to make the long journey (and for the vast majority of the planets inhabitants it is a long journey) to get there, you should aim to make the most of where you are. You could tie in other visits to South America for instance on the way there or back.
Ship size and the cruiseThere are passenger ships of a variety of sizes that sail to Antarctica and the choice of ship can make a big difference to your journey and experiences.
First of all Antarctic cruises aren't like other more well known cruises to warmer climates with professional entertainers, though the larger the ship, the more likely there is to be entertainment provided.
What you will find are a number of very well informed and experienced cruise guides working on the ship who will give lectures on a regular basis about various aspects of Antarctic history and natural history. These will also often be around to socialize in the evenings along with some of the ships crew and captain.
There are rules laid down by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) covering such things as the size of cruise ship allowed to enter Antarctic waters and covering conduct at landing sites in Antarctica. This is a voluntary organization and is well respected, you should always make sure that the ship / tour company you go to Antarctica with is a member of IAATO.
Small ship advantages
One of the main rules that will impact on your visit is that only 100 passengers at any one time may be landed in any one place in Antarctica. If you are on a small ship of up to 100 passengers, then you get a chance to go ashore every time. If the ship is larger, then there will be less opportunity for landings. Sometimes, trips ashore are time limited so that multiple groups can go, say for an hour or so before going back aboard the ship so the next group can go. Although, surprisingly, there are number of people who go to Antarctica and never leave the ship - the choice obviously is yours. Ship types
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Taken from the Cool Antarctica forum:
Q. I'm considering going on an Antarctic cruise, but I'm a bit wary that the reality won't be like it seems from pictures I've seen and hearing from people who spent years there. How realistic is two weeks for instance? I'd be interested in hearing form any one who has been on an Antarctic cruise whether it lived up to expectations or not.
A. Hello, I know you posted your question a long time ago, so you may well have visited the White Continent by now - if not, and you can afford it - go!
It is the experience of a lifetime.
2 weeks is never enough, but is a good introduction to the landscape, scenery and wildlife. I came back about 2 weeks ago and it surpassed all my hopes - none of the books you read, photos you see, prepare you for actually being there in the most spiritual, beautiful landscape in the world. You will no doubt go on a cruise ship - don't choose a big one, or you'll never get ashore - go with a small ship (less than 50 passengers) and make sure they are members of the IAATO (Antarctic tour operators association) as this will guarantee your trip does not adversely impact the environment there.
I've just returned from an expedition to the Ross Sea aboard the 'Kapitan Khlebnikov' with Quark Expeditions. Definitely the trip of a lifetime - the scenery, wildlife, historic huts etc are just awesome and we also visited several science stations. I can't recommend Quark too highly; their logistics are superb (ship, helicopters, zodiacs) and the expedition staff are fantastic!
If you can afford it (and it's not cheap), then a voyage on an icebreaker rather than just an ice-strengthened ship is the way to get to the places others can't, and the helicopters do add a whole extra dimension to the possible range of shore landings (plus sight-seeing flights as well).
The Lonely Planet 'Antarctica' guide has good info for trip planning, and a Google search on 'Antarctic tourism' will also point you to several useful sites. Finally, take far more film / video tape etc than you think you could possibly need...
Mike - Wales, UK
"Our weather was perfect. Cape Horn could have been rounded in a rowboat (which rather now spoils reading adventure stories). The Antarctic Circle and the Midnight Sun were more than exciting. A new appreciation of the continent and the need to protect it environmentally are now part of my being.
I know from reading your site that you are concerned about the tourist industry and Antarctica, and justly so. We were tourists on a ship (Holland American - Amsterdam - 1100 passengers) that simply came to look. Since there were so many people we could not set foot on the continent due to the logistics of getting 100 people at a time on land and off. I was very impressed by the quality of the scientists who lectured to us - an ice pilot, a biologist, a man who had led a polar expedition several years ago, a geologist with 40 years experience in the polar regions.
As soon as we entered the Antarctic waters the tone of the trip changed to one of an expedition - no fancy entertainment, no talk of fun and games but a delighted seriousness of being in a very special place. (the food and comfort however remained probably not one of a serious expedition).
I have printed your What's it like in Antarctica? pages 1 and 2 to put with my photo album. Thanks so much for getting that information into one place. I know it represents many hours of hard work. It is appreciated."
Phyl Weaver - USA
Cold mountain Thomas Keneally travels on the Kapitan Khlebnikov to return a biscuit. "I first went to Antarctica in 1968, for somewhat under a fortnight. In those days one could visit the continent only as a member of an official group, and the American ambassador in Canberra, Bill Crook, a noble soul who would later give his life to a ..."
Antarctic Peninsula - Sample Cruises - 2015 / 2016
|Antarctica Cruise - Discovering the 7th Continent||South Shetlands, Antarctic Peninsula, Penguin Rookeries, Lemaire Channel Optional kayaking, camping and snowshoeing||$6,995 -
|Antarctica Cruise - The Peninsula||Classic Antarctica, pristine scenery, classic sites of scientific and historic interest, experienced naturalist guides. Optional kayaking, camping, cross-country skiing and mountaineering||$6,795 -
|Classic Antarctica Air-Cruise||Fly over the Drake Passage, Antarctic Peninsula, South Shetland Islands, Wildlife, Scenery, Ice Optional kayaking and snowshoeing||$9,995 - $18,995||8|
Antarctica Ross Sea Region - Sample Cruises - 2015 / 2016
|The Ross Sea Region - In the Wake of Scott and Shackleton||Auckland Islands, Macquarie and Campbell Islands, Explore the Ross Sea, Historic Huts, Ross Ice Shelf, McMurdo base.||$20,000 -
|East Antarctica - In the Wake of Mawson||Antarctic Peninsula to Ross Sea, Historic Huts, remote East Antarctica, Emperor penguins, sub-Antarctic islands, helicopter excursions||$13,500 -
South Georgia / Falkland Islands / Antarctica - Sample Cruises - 2015 / 2016
|Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands||Vast Colonies of King Penguins, Breathtaking Scenery, Historic sites, optional kayaking||$17,995 -
|Shackleton Centenary Voyage||In conjunction with Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute Cambridge Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula||$13,195 - $21,095||20|
* Prices are based per person, the lowest price is usually for triple occupancy in a basic cabin, the highest for double occupancy in the best available suite.
Options may be at additional cost and are usually booked when the cruise is booked - it may be too late once the cruise has started.
Picture credits: Map of Antarctica - maps used courtesy of Uwe Dedering under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence