Arctic vs Antarctica: Which polar expedition cruise to choose?

Travel Advice

Most people have the polar regions on their bucket list, and if pushed, will admit Antarctica is at the top. But another bucket list aim might well be 'see a polar bear in the wild'. So how do you decide between the Arctic and Antarctica? Or are they sufficiently different that you need to see both?

Almost 12,500 miles apart, these icy regions around the North and South Poles offer a very different experience, so here are our six handy hints to help you decide...

Arctic vs Antarctica: Which polar expedition cruise to choose?

1. Geology

The Arctic is a sea of ice surrounded by land, located at the highest latitudes of the northern hemisphere. The eight countries that border the Arctic Ocean are Canada, the USA (Alaska), Greenland (owned by Denmark), Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. An icebreaker ship can even plough its way through the ice cap to reach the North Pole itself.

Arctic vs Antarctic

Antarctica is an entire continent located in the southern hemisphere, 98 percent covered by an ice cap, and though it is home to dozens of scientific bases, Antarctica does not belong to any one country. The geology is extraordinary, with mountains soaring up to 16,000 feet in height. Most expedition vessels visit the Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches up towards South America, and occasional voyages are made to the Ross Sea from New Zealand. Even more adventurous vessels might travel between the two.

Scenic Eclipse in Hidden Bay, Antarctica

2. People

For anthropologists, the Arctic is the place, with indigenous peoples including the Inuits of North America and Greenland, the Sami of Northern Europe and the Yakuts at the edge of Siberia all boasting long histories in these vast and inhospitable territories, and all carving out a brutal existence in such a harsh natural environment.

Local man in Qaanaq, Greenland

Get your free Arctic guide

Our expedition cruising guide to the Arctic will tell you everything you need to know, including when to visit, what to see and how to get there.

There are no permanent residents of Antarctica, although multinational scientists spend time in the various scientific bases. When early explorers rounded the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn in the 15th and 16th centuries they learnt that Terra Australis Incognita, if it existed, was a continent in its own right.

When James Cook and his crew crossed the Antarctic Circle in 1773, they did not catch sight of Antarctica itself, and it wasn't until 1820 that Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, leading a Russian expedition, became the first explorers to see and officially discover the continent of Antarctica. The first landing was probably in 1821. One of the great appeals of a visit to either the Arctic or Antarctica is the opportunity to learn more about the great heroes of polar explorations in the early 20th century.

British research station in Antarctica

3. Wildlife

The word 'Arctic' comes from the Greek word arktikos, meaning 'near the bear'. It could be a reference to the northern constellations of the Great Bear and Little Bear, which contains Polaris, the Pole Star or North Star. Or it could, of course, refer to the mighty polar bear which lives here, one of the largest land predators on the planet, which can be seen between May and September.

Other residents include Arctic foxes, caribou, reindeer, snowy owls and musk ox - all are rather shy and fearful in the presence of humans. There are also huge bird and marine populations including walrus, and, if you are lucky, narwhal.

Silver Explorer and polar bears in the Arctic

In Antarctica there are no land mammals, but the marine fauna includes sea lions, whales, seals and elephant seals, amongst other creatures. In addition, there are also around forty species of birds that inhabit the southern polar region. Most striking and memorable are the huge colonies of comical penguins. The animals of Antarctica are quite fearless, so close-up viewing is very memorable.


4. Weather and when to visit

When embarking on an Arctic cruise, you might start out in a relatively southerly location: Tromso in North Norway, for example, or maybe Reykjavik in Iceland. The weather can change from hour to hour, so layers are the order of the day. Almost all Arctic cruises depart between May and September - Northern Lights appear during the UK winter, but dark days mean far fewer opportunities for exploration - and a warm and sunny afternoon in the summer months is not unheard of. Though the weather can change rapidly, so you'll still need to wrap up!

Likewise in Antarctica, you might experience snow, heavy cloud or glorious sunshine. Antarctica cruises depart during the UK winter, with December-February the high season - though November and March are still fantastic times to travel. In sunny weather the sea temperature will still be low, as will the temperature of the glaciers of course, so for Zodiac trips warm thermal layers are essential. In both locations light nights and glorious semi-sunsets make for some spectacular photos.


5. Icebergs

In the Arctic, irregular jagged hunks of ice break off the ice sheet flowing to the sea. They are not huge, but can be very close together, so if you are cruising through the ice close to the ice cap your sea captain may sometimes find he has ended in a tight spot, and need to reverse out of the ice. Look out for seals and birds lazing on the ice - or even a polar bear jumping from one iceberg to another.

Seals in the Arctic

The largest icebergs in the world are found in the Antarctic. When you are cruising in this region, the colours and shapes of the huge bergs will take your breath away, and the stunning scenery is truly unforgettable.

Get your free Antarctica guide

Our expedition cruising guide to Antarctica will tell you everything you need to know, including when to visit, what to see and how to get there.

6. Getting there

Here the Arctic really has the edge, as you can easily get to your jumping off point (Spitsbergen, Reykjavik, Kangerlussuaq, Nome etc) within a day from the UK. Indeed some Arctic cruises will even leave from a UK port.

For the Antarctic Peninsula you would normally fly first into Buenos Aires, stay overnight, and then fly on to Ushuaia to join your cruise. You will need an overnight on the way back too, so 4 or 5 days could be taken up simply travelling there and back.

Ushuaia harbour, Argentina

In short, whichever pole you choose you are going to have an amazing experience. You will feel as if you have travelled to another world, with a proximity to nature and a stunning natural beauty which will stay with you forever. And the truth is, the experience in each is so different that you simply have to do both!

Meet the author

Edwina Lonsdale is Managing Director and together with husband Matthew, owner of Mundy Adventures. Her most recent adventure was a cruise on Silver Origin and she has also sailed with Seabourn, Ponant and Aqua Expeditions. Her favourite adventure destination is the Galapagos however she's also enjoyed cruises in the Middle East, East Africa & Indian Ocean, Brahmaputra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Mekong, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and the Arctic. When she’s not travelling she loves reading, food and wine.

More about Edwina

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