The fact that Antarctica is so difficult to reach just adds to
this exhilarating experience - this is a true expedition, to the
most remote location on earth. If Antarctica is on your bucket
list, here is everything you need to know…
Firstly, let's consider how you'll explore. The ship is your comfortable basecamp with days constructed around shore landings where you're taken by sturdy rubber boats, Zodiacs, on to a pebble or sandy beach. Varied landings include the chance to hike to a viewpoint or see penguins nest right on the beach. All the while you'll be accompanied by expert guides, who'll also hold lectures on board in their ever-present role. Newer expedition vessels increasingly feature a range of hi-spec adventure options, including helicopters and submarines and some operators have a choice of more intrepid activities, including kayaking, snowshoeing, camping, snorkelling and mountaineering.
The weather during the cruise season, which runs throughout the Antarctic summer between November and March, covers the narrow window when warmer temperatures make the area more accessible. In good weather temperatures can exceed 10°C, which feels even warmer in the sunshine, whilst in poorer conditions you'll be glad for the included high-quality parka that keeps you warm, as temperatures drop below freezing.
Early in the season you'll see the continent at its whitest, before the summer thaw begins, as well as elephant seals courting and the beginning of the mating season for penguins in South Georgia and the Falklands. December and January are peak season with migrating whales passing through, seal pups on the beaches of South Georgia, the courting season for seabirds and across the region you can expect to see adorably fluffy, grey penguin chicks. February is the best time for whale watching and you still have a chance of seeing penguin chicks, fur seals are abundant and seal pups are more inquisitive now that their parents are out hunting. March is the best time for itineraries that venture further south, to explore the even more remote areas of the continent, as the sea ice is at its maximum retreat.
There are a multitude of Antarctica itineraries to choose from. The classic cruise itinerary explores the Antarctic Peninsula, traversing the notoriously lumpy Drake Passage, considered a rite of passage by many, where you can expect to see dramatic scenery, icebergs, seals, whales (depending on the time of year) and plenty of penguins. Longer itineraries include South Georgia and sometimes the Falkland Islands. This may stretch your budget and will add several extra sea days to your itinerary, but you should absolutely consider it as during the summer breeding season as South Georgia is home to approximately 5 million breeding pairs of macaroni penguins, over 100,000 pairs of king penguins and millions of fur seals; along with elephant seals, whales and a plethora of sea birds. It also has a fascinating human history, inextricably linked with Sir Ernest Shackleton's doomed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
For time-poor travellers, there is the option to fly over the Drake, allowing you to embark your ship in Antarctica for a week cruising in the calmer waters around the Peninsula. There are also more unusual routes to explore The Ross Sea, reached from New Zealand, the Weddell Sea, for the rare opportunity to see emperor penguins and the chance join an elite club of those who have crossed the Antarctic Circle, all of which will require more time and budget.
No matter the itinerary you can expect to see amazing wildlife, as well as spectacular scenery. Penguins are a highlight for most and you'll have the chance to walk amongst these endearing creatures, that are totally unafraid of humans. The vast rookeries will make you feel like you're in your own Attenborough documentary. Throughout the region there's the chance to witness leopard seals hunting penguins in the shallows and an abundance of charming Weddell and crabeater seals, which sun themselves on the ice. There's a wonderful array of birdlife and whales are lured to the cold krill rich waters. The scenery is at an unimaginable scale, with mile upon mile of towering tabular ice sheet, enormous icebergs, huge hanging glaciers and tall mountain peaks, all of which will impress upon you a sense of otherworldliness that comes when exploring in such a remote destination.