How to get to Antarctica, the Antarctic guide
Antarctica. Arguably the most famous continent for exploration in its raw and natural form, and rightly so. The breathtaking landscapes, seemingly impenetrable from afar, swooping along the horizon as far as you can see are truly a sight to behold. It’s almost unimaginable, the enormity and power of the impact it can have on a person, when they gaze upon the white masses for the first time as they edge into view. The Antarctic, truly, is the embodiment of exploration and adventure. Very few people ever get to experience it, and so those who do become part of an elite group by right of shared experience, and some stick around a long time to continue their exploration. This guide is designed for those few people with a fire in their belly and a glint in their eye, those who want to live fully and see wholly everything the world has to offer. If that’s you, read on. You can also find out the differences between The Arctic and the Antarctic here.
When is the best month to visit Antarctica?
November through March is the best time to visit Antarctica. You might have guessed already, but it’s cold there… All joking aside, the frozen continent benefits from an almost permanently extreme climate that breaks periodically at certain points in the year, allowing access for visits. It’s highly less predictable, and more dangerous to attempt to visit outside of this window.
Fresh snow and soft spring light make November the perfect month for wildlife photographers and snowshoeing. It’s the first month really that Antarctica welcomes visitors and a marvellous time to be there. Penguins will be courting, flirting and spreading love hither and thither, and you’d have great opportunities for skiing and snowshoeing across the vastness. Plus, early season means fewer ships around, potentially.
Summer is here! But not your conventional summer, -1 to 5C is about as warm as it gets, but the days are longer and brighter. The first penguin chicks will start hatching later in the month (very cute), and humpback whales revisit the waters in search of food. Due to increased popularity in this month, prices can be a little steeper, but you can also start flying in from Punta Arenas, Chile which would save some time (1-2 days at sea). What better than Christmas in Antarctica? Bring your Santa suit.
January means high summer in Antarctica, this is when the days are at their longest and the weather it’s warmest. It also means the wildlife is in full abundance, with whales, seals and penguin chicks out in full effect. As the ice breaks up enough, the first Polar Circle cruises become possible. Tourist numbers are at their peak during January, and for good reason. But, don’t imagine the packed beaches and bars of Cancun during Spring Break, busy times in Antarctica are still reasonably quiet and it won’t impact your trip.
If your plan is to visit the Polar Circle, then February is your month as ice and accessibility are prime at this time. You’ll also find whales are most active and those penguin chicks we’ve been talking about will be starting to fledge, learning to swim and become little penguin teenagers. Water activities like Kayaking are also excellent during February, and you might have the good fortune to experience a whale pod up close and personal.
Photographer behold, March is the month of shorter days. This means earlier, beautiful sunsets, quieter routes and waters filled with activity. Whales are almost guaranteed in great numbers in the early onset of Autumn, and fares are lower as popularity decreases.
Really, there is no perfect month from above to visit. Antarctica offers such a plethora of wonders to behold that it really makes little difference to you experience which month you travel, it just depends what you’re into, and what kind of experience you’d like to have.
What can you do in Antarctica?
It’s easy to imagine Antarctica as this giant, desolate frozen expanse. Anyone who has seen Planet Earth, has seen the vastness of the ice broken only by the occasional polar bear spotted just about through the blistering winds. Which is all true. But, this isn’t the only thing that Antarctica has to offer, its actually a very very eclectic and varied place. During some months, areas of the Antarctic have the highest density of animal life per square meter than anywhere on earth. Just let that sink in for a minute… Still picturing desolate frozen nothingness?
Often referred to as the ‘Serengeti of the southern Ocean’, South Georgia is home to thousands of King Penguins. During the breeding season, the beaches become packed with life bustling from sea to shore with estimates of between 100-250,000 animals crowded together. To top this off, the landscape is sobering to look at and a delight to photograph. The best times to visit is November to March, when an expedition usually takes up to 3 weeks approx.
The Polar Circle
More like what you’d imagine the Antarctic to be like, the Polar Circle contains…you guessed it, the South Pole. Expeditions into the Polar Circle happen between January and March when it becomes most accessible, and this is when treks to the South Pole and attempts at summiting Mount Vinson happen. As you venture deepers into the Polar Circle, the wildlife thins out, bringing about the huge expanses of flatter, whiter terrain that you’d expect to see. But until you’ve seen it, you cannot comprehend what it’s like to experience, plus it’s your chance to step foot on the 7th continent and become part of a small elite group who can say they’ve done so. The Polar Circle is definitely the most extreme environment in the Antarctic region, where you can experience proper ice trekking and overland expeditions, and most expedition cruises will have to navigate through more intense ice.
Mount Vinson is the highest Mountain on the continent of Antarctica, making it one of the 7 summits. An elite group of people world wide attempt to climb all the highest summits on each of the 7 continents, known as the 7 summits challenge. So, if you’re challenge inclined this could be something that you train for and attempt over a few year period, the 7 summits does include Mount Everest, of course, so it’s by no means an easy feat!
Mount Vison sits on the East side of Antarctica, and reaches a height of 4892m- by no means the highest mountain but due to the altitude, remoteness and extreme climate it is a particularly impressive achievement. Climbers should complete several other technical climbs, and a week of formal training before attempting this challenge, and be prepared for very extreme conditions.
The South Pole
What an incredible life achievement to say you’ve accomplished, that you’ve ventured over land to the most Southerly point on Earth, through blistering winds, blizzards and total whiteness. For obvious reasons, the South Pole is on many people’s bucket list, but very few on Earth every make the journey. Those who do never forget it, and usually tie their efforts into environmental projects, or offer to conduct research for scientific studies, so it can also be a hugely beneficial journey that impacts causes much wider than yourself. Something that can’t be said of all expedition challenges that explorers attempt.
The Antarctic Peninsula
What the heck is the Antarctic Peninsula? Well, a peninsula is a piece of land protruding out into, or mostly surrounded by water, so in Antarctica this is the thin pointy piece right at the top. The Peninsula is the most popular region for visits, naturally, as it’s the most accessible. It’s also teeming with wildlife, and riddled with jaw dropping icebergs, intense colours and heart stopping landscapes. To give you an idea of accessibility, you can reach The Peninsula in just 2 days from Chile by ship, or a couple of hours by plane but full trips typically last 1-2 weeks. If you’re going to make the effort to visit, then you should embrace the experience by getting involved in some other activities. You can camp on the mainland, kayak, ski, snowshoe, paddle board and dive in the region, properly immersing yourself in the environment and exposing yourself to some life changing experiences.
The Ross Sea
Called the Ross Sea, this area also includes an area of ice on the continent known as the Ross Ice Shelf. Famous Explorers of old ventured here which you can follow in the footsteps of, and with only around 500 visitors per year ever coming this way, for many it’s really a once in a lifetime experience.
How to get to Antarctica
There’s a reason Antarctica is only visited by a small number of people every year, and that’s because it’s pretty extreme and pretty remote, as you’d imagine. There are essentially two ways to get there. Option one, the more traditional way, is the sail by ship. The second, is to fly.
Now in any case, all ships and planes will depart from the Southern tip of Chile/Argentina, planes usually from Punta Arenas, Chile and ships from Ushuaia, Argentina. So the first step is to plan how you’re going to get there. There are no direct flights to either place, so you’d normally fly into Buenos Aires, stay a couple days to take in the amazing city, then catch a 4 hour domestic flight to Ushuaia. Similarly to get to Punta Arenas you would typically fly into Santiego, Chile and then take a domestic flight again taking about 4 hours. Of course, people with more time or more ambition to take on challenges, there are plenty of other ways to get to either departure point, so let your imagination run wild! We can help you.
Getting there by ship
Travelling by ship, really, is more in the spirit of Antarctic Exploration. It’s more drawn out, and you’ll definitely build a stronger sense of community with your fellow explorers. Aboard the expedition ships, you’d also gain an education and spend a lot of time with Antarctic and Polar experts who have spent many years as a crew in the region. Plus, you’ll need to cross the Drake Passage, which is famous for rough seas and makes for an extremely immersive experience.
There are a few things to consider when opting for the ship route to the Antarctic. Firstly, the type of ship you want to travel on. Travelling by ship is often called an expedition cruise, but don’t worry, this is far different from your typical ‘cruise’. The ships are designed for ice and polar seas, and vary in size from 60 to 200 explorers on board. But, all are iconic and all have fantastic well seasoned Antarctic expedition leaders on board, so it really depends on your preference for crowds, your budget, and your desired level of comfort.
Secondly, you should consider the mechanics of the trip. Sailing gives you the widest variety of departure dates, activities, voyage types and prices, so make sure to carefully consider what you want. We’d advise starting with your intended activities, and budget and whittle options down from there.
Getting there by plane
Air travel to the Antarctic is the quickest, most convenient way to get there. It’s definitely not the purists choice of exploration, but it does open up the region to more time-strapped individuals. It’s also a little more expensive, more restrictive in terms of months you can fly, and more prone to weather delays. But, on the plus side, it does entirely avoid the Drake Passage, if you’re prone to seasickness or have a strong fear of rough seas. Once you’re there, you have the same access to activities as travelling by ship.
What should I pack for an Antarctic expedition?
Packing for Antarctica, naturally, requires some planning and organisation, and varies by the type of trip you’ll be taking. Exploration into the Polar Circle, attempts at Vinson or the South Pole vary dramatically to more scenic expedition cruises, and will typically include far more kit. For example, you might expect to be dragging sleds with all your food and equipment, using different modes of transport, from kites to skis, and additional equipment for climbing, camping and so on.
You should always consider your kit thoroughly, practice using it both in real scenarios and in simulations, know where it’s stored and have a system in place to keep it organised and itemised. Here is the kit you should consider for an expedition cruise to Antarctica.
You’ll need a good Parka, but typically you’ll be provided one onboard the ship- they tend to be bright colours so that you can be seen against the all white backdrop. Parkas can be very expensive, so if you can avoid buying one, then do.
Waterproof boots (mid calf/knee high minimum)
You need good boots, mid calf or knee height is a must because you’ll be disembarking from a Zodiac boat directly onto the shore of the mainland, and there aint no jetties or docks in Antarctica. Ideally get some insulated ones if you can, but it you can’t then you can get away with highend pair of wellies, bogs or muck boots are great too, and a couple pairs of warm socks. The key is to stay dry.
Another item that you cannot overlook, you’re going to want to sit in the snow to rest, snow that at times can be covered in penguin muck, and you’ll be showered with ocean spray while travelling in the Zodiac. Ideally, get some high quality thin waterproofs that you can put over a warm base layer- avoid the cheap plastic ones, as they will cause condensation inside and make your base layer soaking wet! Also, don’t opt for snow trousers, as you might want to decrease your layers at some points and you can’t wear much underneath snow trousers.
Wool is best, Merino wool is better, chose base layers that don’t itch, but get whatever material you can find. You’ll need a few base layers to wear under your other layers (hence the name…)
Long or short sleeved tops are fine, and the same goes for bottoms.
Take many pairs of good quality smart wool socks. If your feet get wet it can genuinely be dangerous, not just uncomfortable, and no one needs that spoiling their fun.
Hat, Gloves, Scarf
For a Scarf, I’d recommend a neck gaiter or ski scarf, rather than a long traditional one. These are easier (when it’s windy), warmer and generally more convenient. Take a decent windproof hat and a couple of pairs of warm waterproof gloves- you can take glove liners too if you like.
Despite it being cold, the sun can be incredibly powerful. Much like when skiing you should always wear a high factor sunblock at the poles at all times. This is a serious and non-negotiable item!
Normal Clothes for onboard the ship
Onboard the ship you’re going to want to relax, so bring a couple of sets of everyday clothes. Crucially you should think about convenience- pull over jumpers, t-shirts, jeans/trousers, that kind of thing. But avoid any shoes with laces- some slip-ons, sandals/crocs could do the job. You might come across something on deck at short notice and you will want to be able to get ready and up there to see it asap.
“Tidy Wear”- something nice for the captains welcome dinner
This is pretty traditional, but you should bring one outfit that is slightly more dressy for the captains welcome dinner
Goes without saying, your camera is a must. We usually harp on about avoiding being camera burden, and to try and be present, but as Antarctica is a place that your friends and family are very unlikely to ever visit, you might want to take a decent photo or two!
I still think you should spend your time living in the moment, seeing things with your eyes and not through a lens, but I can’t blame you for a few pics!
In my opinion, these are obligatory and will enable your to absorb the surroundings much clearer (and earlier than those without binoculars). Plus, they make you look very professional ;).
A decent, waterproof daypack to store your gloves and camera etc.
Waterproof Camera Bag
Optional but recommended.
Sunglasses (with anti glare)
Crucial, Antarctic snow and ice is as bright as anything and the polar sun even more so.
Medications (inc seasickness)
Worth taking some general supplies, paracetamol, seasickness pills, etc.
Entertainment (kindle, ipad, book)
It’s 2 days onboard the ship just before you arrive, a good book is always a good shout- preferable something on theme!