Antarctica is one of the most remote places on earth, and adventurers and explorers have been fascinated with the 7th continent ever since it was discovered. Tourism here has grown exponentially in the past decades with more and more tour operators starting service to Antarctica; although there are several options now available, it comes with a heavy cost, but one that will be worth it once you spot your first iceberg on the horizon. Before you plan your adventure to the bottom of the world, here are a few things to know about what to expect and when to go. (Spoiler alert: there are no polar bears in Antarctica.)
Time of Year to Visit and Weather
All tourism to Antarctica takes place roughly between late October to late March, during their summer season, give or take a month on each end, as the continent is in the southern hemisphere. This is the only time of year that ships can sail safely to and from the continent as winter is Antarctica is devastatingly brutal. The weather in the Antarctic varies and is rather unpredictable. It’s possible that it could be bright and sunny one day and snowing the next day. Although temperatures rarely drop below freezing during the summer, be sure to pack appropriate cold weather gear — just in case.
Once you begin planning your trip to the continent, you will inevitably hear about the Drake Passage (if sailing from South America, which is the most common way). The passage is the body of water between South America’s Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. It connects the southwestern part of the Atlantic Ocean with the southeastern part of the Pacific Ocean and extends into the Southern Ocean. The 500-mile wide passage between Cape Horn and Livingston Island is the shortest crossing from Antarctica to any other landmass and has a reputation of being temperamental, and it’s highly recommended that you come prepared we love this foolproof seasickness band) for the two-day journey across the passage. For many, crossing the Drake is like a right of passage, an experience you will never forget, especially if happen to cross while at its roughest.
Expedition vs Cruise
When it comes to Antarctica sailings, there are two options to choose from. The first is a standard cruise, on a massive ship with lots of people. These larger passenger ships are billed as Antarctic experiences, since they get you as close to the peninsula as possible. However, they rarely go further south due to the size of the ship and its inability to maneuver through sheets of ice. Additionally, if the ship can dock, due to the capacity, not everyone is able to step foot on land as there are strict guidelines as to the number of people, per vessel that can tread on the continent per day.
If you're looking for an authentic Antarctic experience, your best option is to book an expedition sailing. National Geographic Expeditions offers four options, which range in length from 13 to 34 nights. All sailings have a maximum group size of 148 passengers to ensure that all cruisers have various opportunities to step foot on the continent. Additionally, National Geographic Expeditions has a team of biologists, geologists, and undersea specialists onboard. These individuals offer insights and engaging presentations throughout the trip. Each expedition also has an onboard photo instructor and National Geographic photographer.
Species of Penguins
There are 17 penguin species found around the globe, but the eight most recognizable can only be found in Antarctica, its nearby islands, and the sub-Antarctic archipelagos of South Georgia and the Falklands. Of all the penguins on the planet, emperor penguins are probably the most emblematic of the whole species. Emperor penguins (Antarctica only) are the largest. They can grow up to 48 inches and weigh anywhere between 49 and 99 pounds. Adélie penguins are the most widely distributed penguin species with an estimated 2.5 million pairs in the region; they also only live in Antarctica. Gentoo penguins (Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic) are second only to the emperor penguin in terms of smallest penguin population, with an estimated 300,000 breeding pairs.
With roughly seven million pairs of chinstrap penguins (Antarctica and sub-Antarctic), it’s not surprising when one is spotted from an expedition ship. Macaroni penguins (Antarctica and sub-Antarctic) have an estimated population of 12 million pairs. Rockhopper penguins (Antarctica and sub-Antarctic) come in three different types (northern, southern, and eastern). They are divided by reproductive behavior and location of breeding. Magellanic penguins (Antarctica and sub-Antarctic) are named after the famous explorer Ferdinand Magellan. These penguins tend to be shy around humans and often run for cover in their burrows if people are near. Lastly, the king penguin (sub-Antarctic only) are the second-largest penguin species. Once they reach full maturity, they weigh about 35 pounds and stand 37 inches tall. The estimated two million breeding pairs of penguins live along the coastline of the sub-Antarctic islands.
Get to Know the Seabirds
While 35 species of bird can be found living south of the Antarctic Convergence, only 19 of these species breed in Antarctica. Most notable are the wandering albatross, cormorants, skuas, sheathbills, and petrels — all viewable on most Antarctica cruises/expeditions. Because of the relative lack of snow-free nesting grounds, most of the seabirds here breed in very large concentrations. Probably one of the most beautiful is the snow petrel, which is pure white with black eyes, beak, and underdown. Make sure to bring your birding book to help spot the various seabirds you will encounter during your visit.
Learn to Love Seals
Six different species of seal live in Antarctic waters: Ross, Weddell, crabeater, leopard, fur, and elephant seals. Fur seals are the smallest, with adult females weighing only 330 pounds, while male elephant seals can weigh 8,800 pounds. Four of these species are ice-habitat specialists, breeding on the sea ice in spring. Leopard and Ross seals tend to be solitary, whereas Weddell and crabeater seals form breeding groups or colonies. The other two species — Antarctic and sub-Antarctic fir seals, and southern elephant seals — are both found north of the pack-ice zone and breed in dense colonies on beaches. Here, dominant males (bulls) maintain harems of females (cows). During the breeding period, competition for the harems is intense, so the bulls will not leave their territory to find food. Instead they rely on blubber reserves.
Environmentally Protected Land
The Antarctic Treaty and related agreements, collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System, regulates international relations with respect to Antarctica, Earth’s only continent without a native human population. The treaty entered into force in 1961 and currently has 54 parties. It sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, establishes freedom of scientific investigation, and bans military activity on the continent.
What does this all mean for tourism? As a visitor, you must go through a sterilization process so that nothing foreign is introduced to the land. This typically consists of scrubbing your boots in a water-based solution. It also means that you cannot take anything off the continent and bring it back with you.