Yet for a few months each year, during the southern hemisphere's summer months, this fascinating wilderness becomes accessible to polar expedition ships. The days grow lighter and longer, the temperature rises, the sea ice retreats and Antarctica comes alive with an astonishing abundance of wildlife.
The short Antarctic cruise season runs from late October to March, and even within this narrow window there are considerable variations in what you'll see. The early season means colder temperatures and pristine snowy landscapes, while December and January are the most popular months to visit Antarctica, when the weather is warmer and the days are longer. Towards the end of the season you'll have more chance of seeing whales, and the shrinking sea ice means you'll be able to travel deeper into the Antarctic.
We're often asked about the best time to cross the Drake Passage, the notoriously bumpy stretch of water that lies between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, but in truth you can experience bad weather and rough seas at any time of year. You're better off basing your decision on the wildlife you want to see, the area of Antarctica you want to visit and how much money you want to spend. To help you in this task, here is our month-by-month guide to visiting Antarctica by expedition cruise:
It's rare for cruises to visit Antarctica as early as October, and those that do will usually only arrive here at the end of the month. It will still be very cold, with sea ice lingering around the Antarctic Peninsula, and the days are short, though this does mean that you should enjoy some lovely sunsets. Other advantages to visiting at the beginning of the season include lower fares, pristine snowy landscapes and bigger icebergs, and there will be very few other ships, so it can be a great time for photography. Look out for penguins and seals perched on smaller icebergs!
November is when most cruise lines kick off their Antarctica season, and as with October, you can expect landing sites that are yet to be sullied by penguin excrement and other tourists trampling on the snow. The days start to lengthen and penguin chicks start to hatch, while fares begin to rise the further into November you get. If you opt for a cruise combining Antarctica with South Georgia then this is the best time to see elephant seals courting, and it's the beginning of the mating season for penguins in South Georgia and Falklands. Beautiful spring wildflowers are in bloom on the subantarctic islands, and albatrosses, petrels and other seabirds can be spotted over the Drake Passage. November also offers the opportunity to travel into the Weddell Sea on an icebreaker and visit remote emperor penguin colonies.
December is arguably the best month to visit Antarctica, with temperatures approaching their warmest (by Antarctic standards), long hours of daylight and wildlife active everywhere. It's also the most expensive time to visit, particularly over Christmas and New Year, when flights between the UK and Argentina are at their dearest. Make sure you book well in advance! Wildlife highlights include migrating whales passing through, seal pups on the beaches of South Georgia, and the courting season for seabirds, making this a good time for birding enthusiasts. If you want to know more about what to expect on a December cruise to Antarctica, make sure you read Alex's review of his Christmas cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula with Silversea.
Peak season for Antarctica continues into January, with near 24-hour daylight giving you ample opportunity to snap away with your camera. In early January you can expect to see adorably fluffy grey penguin chicks, and it's also a good month for spotting seals and whales. As the sea ice breaks up in eastern Antarctica you have the chance to join one of the rare voyages into the Ross Sea, where you can visit the remote huts used by Scott and Shackleton on their famous expeditions. These sailings are typically amongst the most expensive Antarctica cruises on offer, but they offer you the chance to go ashore in places where few other people have ever set foot.
February is the best time for whale watching in Antarctica, with species including humpback, sperm, minke, southern right and orca, and you still have a chance of seeing penguin chicks. Fur seals are also abundant at this time of year, and you'll find that seal pups are more inquisitive now that their parents are out hunting in the surrounding seas. By this point in the season you're unlikely to encounter any issues with sea ice, and this is the best month for cruises that venture beyond the Polar Circle. In South Georgia you may also find that the wandering albatross nesting sites, which are closed during the mid-season to protect hatching chicks, are now open to visit.
In March the season begins to wind down, and you'll see fewer and fewer ships in Antarctica as the month progresses. By this point it's too late to see penguin chicks and temperatures are getting colder, though it's a still great time to spot whales, and fur seals are abundant on the Antarctic Peninsula. With snow cover at its lowest and the penguins moulting, this is perhaps not the month to see Antarctica at its most photogenic, but you will likely experience some spectacular sunsets, and there are often some great value fares on offer.
April to September
By April the cruise ships have left Antarctica, almost without exception; on very rare occasions you may still find icebreakers venturing this far south. During the Antarctic winter the temperature drops precipitously, darkness descends and stormy seas rage, keeping out all but the hardiest scientists and film crews.