Antarctica

Expeditions to the ultimate frontier

You don't take a holiday to Antarctica ‒ you make a trip of a lifetime. This colossal frozen netherworld is bigger than the USA. The sun doesn’t rise for six months of the year and it's constant daylight the rest. It's the most untouched, alien place on our planet ‒ but the rewards are exceptional. Antarctica’s landscapes are surreal: utterly immense rolling icefields, icebergs the size of stadiums, glassy seas deeper than a skyscraper.

Its wildlife is abundant and utterly unperturbed by people. Armies of penguins waddle across the ice, train-sized humpback whales and orcas breach from the inky depths, seals flounder on the snowfields. On a calm day, when the sunlight bounces off every surface, the silence is all-encompassing. It's like nowhere else on earth.

When to go to Antarctica

Seasons, conditions & wildlife

Seasons & climate

It will come as no surprise that Antarctica’s climate is the coldest on earth — however, it’s worth noting just how cold Antarctica is. The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth, a decidedly brisk -89°C, was recorded at Vostok Station in 1983. Winds of 199mph blew through Dumont d'Urville in 1972. It almost never rains in Antarctica, rendering much of the continent technically desert, with precipitation and humidity levels on a par with Death Valley in the USA. It is not somewhere that you want to be caught unaware.

This unforgiving environment means that there is only a short window in which to visit. Unsurprisingly, this is in Antarctica’s summer months between November and March. Summer in Antarctica is a relative term — temperatures rarely reach over 2°C, but the sea warms enough to melt the pack ice so that ships can reach land.

Best time to visit Antarctica

Choosing the best time to visit Antarctica depends on what you want to see and experience. The early part of the season in November offers the best chance of seeing penguins mating, building nests and laying eggs, as well as offering photographers beautiful sunsets and evening light before the 24-hour daylight kicks in.

Antarctica’s high season of December and January is the best time for those looking to follow in the footsteps of intrepid explorers like Shackleton and Scott. A small window opens up once the ice has melted allowing travellers onto Antarctica’s Ross Island, where they can visit the portable wooden huts that gave the legendary British adventurers shelter during their 20th-century expeditions.

If whale-watching is your main reason for visiting Antarctica, plan your trip for the end of the season in February. Fewer boats on the water mean a more peaceful journey, but the trade-off is less wildlife and muddy — rather snowy — landings.

Month-by-month

November is the time to head to Antarctica if the untouched wilderness is what you want to see. Its natural beauty is at its stunning best; the icebergs are enormous, the landing sites are pristine and the snow caps are crisp. There are wildflowers starting to bloom on some of the more northern islands. It is also technically shoulder season, so there are deals to be had. Of course, the weather is always a factor when visiting Antarctica and it is more unpredictable in the spring, so some sites may not be accessible, and November is usually a little too early to see much wildlife beyond penguins.

High season is between December and January. December brings nearly 24-hour sunshine, almost untouched wilderness scenery and the start of the birthing season for seals and penguins, which continues into January. These two months are the best time to visit Antarctica, but they are correspondingly busy and expensive. It’s a wise idea to book at least a year in advance.

February is still a viable time to visit and is the best time to cross the Antarctic Circle.

The chance to spot a whale increases in February, with humpbacks, orcas and minke whales all around until April, although much of the other wildlife will have gone out to sea by this point. March is the very end of the season; by the end of the month the temperatures have plummeted, the pack ice begins to form and the long nights draw in. Despite this, it is a great time to see whales as the water is clearer and the visibility at its best for diving.

How do I pick the right itinerary?
There is a wide range of customisable Antarctica tours that will allow you to create the perfect experience. You can take into account your budget, as well as the time that you have available for this adventure. To pick the right trip, first figure out what would be most important to you, then speak to a tour operator.

What is there to do while on the ship?
Some Antarctic cruise ships have such luxuries as gym, sauna and small pools, but they are rare. Most ships have a lecture theatre, library, bar and restaurant, and of course the main deck. All offer lectures focusing on the geology, history and wildlife of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean to help you prepare for what lies ahead. You can meet the crew and expedition team and your fellow passengers in the ship’s common areas. Be sure to bundle up and spend some time on deck, taking in the spectacular scenery and scanning the horizon for whales, seals and seabirds. You can also do this from the comfort of the lounges and observation decks.

Can we go on shore?
Shore landings are a feature of Antarctic cruises and one or two excursions are usually planned per day, weather permitting. You usually get to land in a Zodiac, a sturdy, inflatable, open-air boat that can travel quickly in shallow water.

What is there to do on shore?
Shore landings are mainly for watching penguins, seals and nesting birds, though itineraries often try to include a visit to a scientific base. Some cruises offer activities such as kayaking, snowshoeing, skiing, hiking, mountaineering and even overnight camping.

IAATO procedures require that tour operators coordinate their itineraries so that no more than one vessel visits a landing site at any one time. So your group will always be the only visitors on shore in that location at that time. Also, no more than 100 passengers are allowed ashore at one time, with a guide-to-passenger ratio of up to 1:20. Consequently, shore excursions might have to be conducted in shifts, with passengers going on shore at staggered times.

How many people will be on the ship?

The number of people on board varies depending on the ship, but most ships carry between 50 and 150 passengers. A few of the mega-yachts and purpose-built cruise ships carry around 250 passengers. Ships carrying more than 500 passengers are prohibited from making landings in Antarctica.

How often are trips cancelled? What happens if my trip is cancelled?
Tour operators do their best to stay on schedule and conduct trips as planned. However, there are cases when unforeseen issues pop up and, to ensure the safety of their guests, operators may have to cancel a trip. If this happens, staff will be on hand to help you figure out next steps, whether that’s rescheduling a few days later or rebooking for a later date. It’s disappointing when a trip of a lifetime is cancelled, but the companies will do their best to make it right for you.

What is the food like on board?
Food on board the cruise ships is excellent. Breakfasts and lunches tend to be buffet style, with dinners generally served to your table and featuring three and sometimes four courses with variations for dietary restrictions. Because visitors come from around the world, the range of food is diverse with professional chefs preparing a wide selection of gourmet dishes.

Is it safe to go to Antarctica?
Yes. Tour operators consistently monitor weather conditions and will always provide you with the best possible adventure without risk of injury to you or damage to the vessel. While some activities may need to be rescheduled or cancelled due to the weather, every effort is made to have a contingency plan.

Will I get seasick?
It is true that at times the Drake Passage can be rough, but the cruise vessels are built for maximum stability and comfort to ensure that even in rough conditions, sea and motion sickness is kept to a minimum. Ships also have a host of services and facilities to help if you are affected. If you are particularly prone to seasickness, perhaps investigate the possibility of flying over the Drake Passage. Speak to your expedition company about this option.

Will I need travel insurance?
It’s highly recommended that you have travel insurance. There are a number of factors that can cause tour operators to cancel or delay trips, such as a problem with the ship or extreme weather conditions. Most operators will try to switch you to a later trip or give you a refund. But you may still have incurred costs for flights, hotels, etc. With the right travel insurance you may be able to recoup some of those costs.

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Out on the Antarctic ice you’ll want to be well wrapped up and warm, but remember that for much of the time you’ll be on a ship, with a ship-sized closet and storage space. Here are the essentials you’ll need for your trip to the White Continent.

Though it can be cold, most of the trips to Antarctica take place during the southern summer, and temperatures will vary. On a sunny day, it could get up to 2C (that’s 35F). If it’s overcast, you are almost assured of below-freezing temperatures. So packing layers is a smart choice.

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Excursion gear

Start with a good base layer that will be next to your skin and will keep you warm, but also wick away moisture. Merino wool is a good option because it keeps you warm and dry, and it’s naturally odour-resistant. One set could last for your entire trip.

Add a layer: Ski or snowboard trousers are great - after all, they are designed to keep you warm and dry in the snow. Waterproof pants are also a good choice, but make sure you are warm enough underneath. On your top, keep your core warm with a fleece or midweight base layer.

Add a layer: You’ll want a solid outer layer. Most tour companies provide their guests with parkas in bright colours that are easy to see on the ice and snow. If yours doesn’t, bring a warm, water-resistant coat; a hood is useful to block the wind.

On the feet: Knee-high, waterproof boots are the footwear of choice on Antarctica. Again, most tour companies will assign you a pair before the first land excursion and you’ll keep them for the whole journey. They are easy to wash before and after you go on shore to keep the continent pristine. Wear with a thick pair of wool socks (pack a few extra pairs) and you’ll be good to go.

On the head and hands: Waterproof gloves or mittens are a must, along with glove liners, if you have them. Take a spare pair of gloves. A scarf or neck gaiter helps when the wind starts to blow. Top off with a warm hat that covers your ears. A hat with flaps is not a bad idea. Don’t forget your eyewear. Bright sun creates an incredible glare on the snow. Glacier glasses are top-notch, but goggles or high-quality sunglasses will work, too. A polarised pair can help you spot whales or penguins popping out of the water.

Sunscreen: High SPF sunscreen is a must. Not only are you dealing with the aforementioned glare, but the ozone layer is also thinnest here. Apply before every excursion.

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Everyday gear for Antarctica

You’ll need everyday clothes to wear between excursions. For those days at sea when you move between the ship’s deck and the inside, layers are good for quickly warming up or stripping off. Shoes with good grip are a must as the decks can get slippery.

You may want a nice outfit as there is usually a captain’s dinner on the last evening, and anything that doesn’t look like what you’ve been wearing for the past week will be an improvement. However, if you have limited space, no-one is going to judge you.

Feeling brave? Pack a bathing suit. There may be an opportunity for a polar plunge, if you’re up for the challenge of jumping into the Antarctic water.

Other essentials

  • Don’t forget your camera. You’ll want something technical on which to capture your wonderful experiences
  • A good pair of binoculars
  • Waterproof bag to keep your small electronics dry
  • Chargers: there are outlets on the ship for charging your small electronics
  • Small backpack or daypack for your on-shore excursions
  • Personal entertainment. There will be downtime on the ship. Some ships have a library, but you might want to take your own reading matter. A deck of cards can be fun, and a journal or notebook to record your observations and thoughts is handy
  • Any medication you need including prescriptions and, if necessary, seasickness pills. There will be a medical professional on board, but you need to bring your own meds. Hand sanitiser is also useful to have: In a contained area like a ship, people can share more than just a dinner table.

Why waterproof?

Why waterproof or water-resistant? The Zodiac inflatable boats used for shore excursions are open-air crafts. Though the drivers are pros, you can get splashed and it can be snowing or drizzling when you disembark. Having a waterproof or water-resistant outer layer will keep you drier, warmer and happier.

How to get to Antarctica

Choosing the right tour to the White Continent

Visited by just a handful of people each year, Antarctica is truly the last great frontier on earth. Travelling to the White Continent is a big decision to make: you must consider the not-so-insignificant cost, the vast distances, and the possible environmental impact of your visit. And once you've made up your mind, with so many options to choose between figuring out exactly how to visit Antarctica can be something of a minefield. To make things easier here is our breakdown of the most important options you're likely to face while planning your trip to the Antarctic.

Antarctica trip types

There are many ways to visit Antarctica — it’s all about finding the trip or tour that suits your needs. Make a list of what’s important to you on this adventure: how much luxury do you want/need; how much time do you have; what your budget is.

Nearly all visitors travelling to Antarctica arrive by sea from Chile or Argentina. A limited number depart from New Zealand or Australia. Some fly from South America to the northern Antarctic Peninsula where they meet a vessel for onward cruising. Only 1% of visitors each year fly to the interior of Antarctica from South America or South Africa.

There are four categories of trip:

  • Travel on a cruise ship and make multiple landings for guided excursions. This is the most popular option, with more than 80% of visitors choosing to travel this way
  • Seaborne cruising without landings, in which you do all your sightseeing from the ship (boats carrying more than 500 passengers are not allowed to make landings).
  • An air and cruise combination: You can fly to Antarctica or the South Shetland Islands and meet up with a ship to join a cruise.
  • An air and land tour, which allows you to fly to the interior of the White Continent and explore on land. This does not include any shipboard cruising.

Each Antarctica trip type offers positives and negatives. For example, travelling by air means you will have more time to spend on the Antarctic Peninsula. However, air travel is much more expensive and landings can be cancelled if there is bad weather.

Travelling by ship, making landings at various points on islands and on the continent, is popular because the journey becomes part of the adventure. There aren’t many downsides of travelling this way, unless you run into rough seas or are prone to seasickness.

How do you get to Antarctica from South America?

Travelling to Antarctica from South America allows you easy access to the Antarctic Peninsula, which offers excellent wildlife watching, plus dramatic mountains and rich history. Depending on the trip you choose, it’s also possible to visit the British overseas territories of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, and possibly a research station or two.

Antarctica cruises starting from South America will need to cross the 497mile (800km) Drake Passage, an open stretch of sea where the Southern Ocean surges through a narrow gap between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. This can cause rough seas for travellers, so the 2-3 day crossing — although the quickest route — can cause some travellers to worry. Stock up on seasickness tablets and take advice from your onboard doctor if you’re worried.

The most popular departure points for trips to the Antarctic from South America are from Ushuaia, Argentina, and Punta Arenas, Chile. If you depart from Ushuaia, you can visit the Antarctic Peninsula as well as sub-Antarctic islands such as South Georgia and the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) on your cruise.

From Punta Arenas in Chile, you can avoid crossing the Drake Passage by flying to the South Shetland Islands and sailing to Antarctica from there.

Almost 90% of tours for Antarctica that depart from South America leave from Ushuaia. Alongside Punta Arenas, other jumping-off points from South America include Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Departing for Antarctica from South America is the best option for visitors from Europe, America and Africa.

How do you get to Antarctica from New Zealand or Australia?

Travellers can reach a different part of Antarctica by departing from New Zealand (Invercargill or Bluff) or Australia (Hobart). From these departure points, it takes a week to sail to Antarctica. Trips are broken up by visiting Macquarie, Snares, Auckland and the Campbell Islands, which are all rich in wildlife and nature — and very infrequently visited.

Because of the distances involved, Antarctica tours that depart from New Zealand or Australia last much longer (in the region of four weeks) and are generally more expensive. It’s also important to note that the eastern side of Antarctica offers a very different travel experience. Here, the icebergs are enormous (even by Antarctic standards), but there is much less wildlife than on the Antarctic Peninsula.

As there are fewer crossings to Antarctica from New Zealand and Australia, you’ll need to book your tour well in advance — most operators advise booking up to a year in advance. It’s also quite likely that you’ll return to a different port from the one you departed.

Once you reach Antarctica, you’ll spend your time around Commonwealth Bay or the Ross Sea region, with humpback whale-watching a particular highlight.

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How to choose an Antarctic cruise

The types of Antarctica cruise ship varies enormously — in size, speed and in the type of accommodation on offer. It’s therefore important to take the time to explore the different options available and choose the right Antarctica cruise for you.

Vessels need to be functional and safe, but it’s reasonable to expect a certain level of comfort. Some ships are custom-made expedition vessels with all the modern conveniences, while others can be ex-Russian research vessels with more limited facilities — remember that most of your entertainment is going to come off the boat, unlike more traditional cruises.

The accommodation on board Antarctic cruises ranges from the very basic to the luxurious. Some ships have cabins which are more like dormitory rooms with shared facilities. At the other end of the spectrum are those offering fully-serviced suites, gyms and spas.

The ships vary in size too — you could opt to travel on a six-passenger yacht or a vessel carrying upwards of 500 intrepid travellers. It’s all about the Antarctica experience you want.

Types of Antarctica cruise boat

Boats visiting the Antarctic are grouped into four categories:

C1 — Traditional expedition ships that carry 13-200 passengers and can make landings.

C2 — Mid-size vessels that carry 201-500 passengers and can make landings.

CR — Vessels that carry more than 500 passengers and do not make landings (cruise only).

YA — Sailing or motor yachts that carry 12 or fewer passengers.

Speed is another factor to consider, and not simply because it helps you get to your destination more quickly. The faster the ship, the less time you’ll spend in the swell of the Drake Passage or Southern Ocean. If the ship can outrun the weather, not only will you spend more time onshore, you might well arrive there feeling less queasy.

Which style of Antarctica boat to choose

The biggest consideration when choosing an Antarctica cruise ship is how often you want to dock on land. Current Antarctica boat regulations from the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) state that only 100 passengers are permitted to disembark at any one time. With most vessels having two disembarkations per day, this means that if you’re on a boat carrying more than 200 people, there will be some days when you don’t leave the boat.

If you’re on a boat carrying more than 500 people, regulations mean that you won’t be allowed to dock at all — your entire trip will be from the confines of the boat.

For these — and environmental — reasons, it's often better to travel on smaller vessels of up to 100 people. These smaller Antarctic cruises will allow you to dock often and in smaller harbours. They also offer a more intimate experience, allowing you to get to know the boat crew and your fellow passengers. By contrast, larger ships may have better facilities and comfort.

Different boats will offer different onboard facilities. If your Antarctic boat is a former research vessel, you may have a large viewing deck where you can watch the icebergs and amazing scenery float by. Some will have well-stocked libraries on Antarctic expeditions, wildlife and history, while others might have saunas, gyms and steam rooms.

One important decision to make is the type of cabin you want. Smaller vessels are more likely to offer portholes or windows in all cabins, whereas larger cruises might have cheaper cabins that don’t offer views. You can save money by sharing a cabin or forgoing an ensuite bathroom. It all depends on the type of trip you want.

Finally, consider the season and route you want to travel. If you want to travel earlier in the season or cross the Antarctic Circle, you may need to choose an ice-breaking or ice-strengthened boat. If you don’t, you may find your trip delayed or re-routed depending on weather conditions. Be sure to talk through the pros and cons with your travel company before you book.

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Life onboard an Antarctica cruise

Your home away from home should have all the amenities that you’ll want and need for smooth sailing. Here’s what you can expect from life onboard a cruise to Antarctica.

Feeling at home

Cabins vary in size, amenities and comfort. Some come equipped with ensuite bathrooms and TVs, while others will be more like dorm rooms. The level of comfort you choose depends on your budget and your requirements. On boarding, your expedition leaders will give you a tour of the ship. Expect to spend plenty of time in the dining room (where you’ll eat your meals) and the lecture room (where you’ll prepare for your excursions and learn more about Antarctica).

The biggest concern many people travelling to Antarctica have is seasickness and how it will impact your trip. The truth is that it is quite common, especially when crossing some of the world’s roughest seas, where you can encounter swells of 12m and more. Every ship will have a doctor on board, who can administer seasickness medicine, but it makes sense to bring your own. If you know you’re prone to seasickness, try to get a cabin lower down in the ship — the higher your room, the more you’ll feel the rocking motion. Keep your cabin well-ventilated and make sure to get some fresh air. When on deck, focus on the horizon which can reduce dizziness and help you to get your sea legs.

Excursions and landings

Most Antarctic cruises will have two landings a day — one in the morning and one in the afternoon. After breakfast, you’ll be called to board a Zodiac boat to start your adventure. It’s important to layer clothing appropriately — the winds whipped up by your boat coupled with sleet and freezing temperatures can be intense. After your excursion, you’ll normally return to the ship for lunch, sail on to a new landing point, and then head out again in the afternoon.

Zodiacs are used for two purposes — to ferry you to Antarctic soil for landings and for cruise adventures that let you get closer to icebergs and wildlife like whales, seals and penguins. On bigger tours, you may find your group split into two, with one group landing and another cruising, before swapping over after a couple of hours.

There are many rules you’ll need to follow for Antarctic landings. Expect to have a compulsory talk onboard your ship before your first landing, in which your expedition leader will outline what you can and cannot do, safety information and environmental issues. For example, visitors to Antarctica must stay within marked paths and be at least 5m from any wildlife. Visitors must not leave any trace of their visit on land nor take anything with them.

It’s important to remember that all trips to Antarctica are subject to the weather. Your expedition leaders will do everything they can to make sure you experience as much as possible, but the ultimate priority is everyone’s safety. If a landing/cruise is not possible due to ice, bad weather or rough seas, they’ll try to add in another excursion elsewhere. Be prepared for itineraries to change.

It’s also worth remembering that landings aren’t the only way to experience Antarctica. Yes, landings give you the chance to say you set foot on Antarctica as well as getting you close to penguins and the ice, but Zodiac cruises can offer something different. On the water, you can crunch your way through icy bays, watch seals swimming and see harder to reach parts of the Peninsula.

Itineraries and learning

If you’re the type who needs a set-in-stone itinerary for each day, be prepared to become more adaptable. Your tour operator will often book landing sites ahead of time, but in Antarctica, the weather will have the final say on just about everything. Changes in the weather may limit where you can land, as well as dictate how much time you can spend onshore. As a result, most itineraries are not published. Instead, you’ll have a general idea of where you’re headed, with the caveat that everything is subject to change.

All cruise ships should have a lecture programme in which experts will give you the background knowledge you need to prepare you for what you will see when you go onshore. Normally held on sea days, evenings and after landings, the talks cover anything from birdlife and geology to climate change and Antarctic history. Although not compulsory, these talks will give you a better understanding of the Antarctic environment.

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Katie Coakley shares her experience of life onboard an Antarctic cruise

A typical day will begin with an announcement from the trip leader or the captain, welcoming you to the morning’s anchoring, sharing the weather forecast, and perhaps reminding you of the day’s excursion. You’ll eat breakfast — usually a buffet — at around 7am to get onshore by about 8:30am. After a few hours’ activities on land, you’ll re-board the ship. It will probably sail on during lunch, which again tends to be a buffet. You’ll explore the new location in the afternoon and, if weather and conditions permit, you may enjoy another landing before or after dinner — which is usually a sit-down affair, with three or four courses.

In addition to the shore excursions, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about Antarctic life, the history of the continent, facts and interesting information about animals and ecology, and perhaps even the geology of the area with onboard experts. Their lectures are optional of course, but they’re filled with information and are a great way to learn more about the fascinating land you’re visiting.

Antarctica ships tend to carry fewer passengers than the massive cruise liners that visit warmer climates, so the atmosphere onboard tends to be very communal. You’ll meet new people on your shore excursions and will most likely share a table with other guests at meals. Evening activities like theme nights, auctions, musical performances and more, are often offered, which means even more opportunities to make new friends.

What you'll do on your Antarctic cruise

Most people visit Antarctica for the wildlife, and with good reason. From skuas spiralling through the air and seals basking on black sand beaches, to watching penguins waddle and whales breaching the waves, the wildlife is plentiful and there are many opportunities of seeing it.

There is also a surprising number of historical sites to see, mostly relics from a more swashbuckling era of exploration and whaling.

But trying to work out an itinerary ahead of time can be difficult. Under the Antarctic Treaty System, the main visitor sites on the continent are allowed a maximum number of ship visits per day, usually between one and three, depending on the site. And only one vessel is allowed at a landing site at any one time. Operators coordinate their programmes to make sure that these requirements are not exceeded and they will not market or promote particular locations because plans can change rapidly for weather and logistical reasons. However, most trips will include some, or all, of the following types of experiences.

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Penguin colonies

Speaking of penguins: there are about 20 million breeding pairs in the Antarctic region. Your chances of seeing penguins on your trip are very, very good. Visitors to the Antarctic Peninsula will probably be able to see gentoo penguins, and there’s also a good chance of sighting Adélie and chinstrap penguins. If you land at Neko Harbour, you’ll get to spend some time among the gentoo penguin colony there; at Orne Harbour, you can hike up to see the chinstrap penguins and get an expansive vista to boot. Though macaroni penguins are less common on the peninsula, there’s a good chance to see them, and king penguins, on a trip to the sub-Antarctic islands, such as South Georgia.

Whales, seals and seabirds

Although whaling decimated large numbers of whales, the population is slowly making a comeback. Various species can be seen from December to April, but February and March tend to be the peak times for whale watching. Minke and humpback whales are frequently sighted, as are large pods of orcas. These mammals, also known as killer whales, are actually dolphins - identify them by the shape of their white eyepatches and dorsal patches. Though less common, sperm whales have also been spotted in Antarctica.

Seals are often spotted too. True seals are different to fur seals in several ways. The most obvious is the fact that fur seals have ears on the outside of their heads. You might see fur seals on the sub-Antarctic islands, but you’ll see true seals in Antarctica. Weddell seals, which are possibly the cutest things on land, are fairly common; you might also see crabeater and leopard seals on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Then there are the seabirds. From the time that your ship leaves Ushuaia until you reach the Antarctic Peninsula, you’ll see many different types of birds wheeling, calling in the air and over the land. It’s a bird-watcher’s paradise. Wandering albatross, cormorants, skuas, blue-eyed and imperial shags, sheathbills and several types of petrels are frequently sighted.

Historic sites

Antarctica has a rich history that includes stories of explorers and risk-takers, businessmen and fortune seekers. As a result, there’s a chance that you could end up somewhere like Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island, where you can see the remains of the Norwegian Hektor Whaling Station, or hike up to Neptune’s Window. Or perhaps you’ll land at Danoy Point, where gentoo penguins make their home near historic British and Argentine field huts. A popular destination when it’s possible to get there, is Goudier Island, where Historic British Base A, better known as Port Lockroy, is operated by the United Kingdom and managed by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust as a living museum.

Sub-Antarctic islands

Most visitors will be looking firmly towards the Antarctic continent. They might not realise that there are also many small, sub-Antarctic islands which are destinations in themselves, with historic sites, large amounts of plant life (much of which may only be found on these islands) and concentrated numbers of wildlife. Adding a visit to South Georgia, King George Island or the Falkland Islands as part of your Antarctica adventure will give you an even wider perspective on this amazing part of the world.

When you land, you’ll most likely notice that there are few if any other cruise ships lingering in the area. IAATO has a guideline known as “Wilderness Etiquette” which states that only one ship can visit a landing site at a time, with further regulations on the number of visits each site can have per day. This not only helps protect the continent and the islands, but also ensures that the passengers on each ship can enjoy a site without overcrowding.

Activities

Most operators also offer a variety of active excursions, such as sea kayaking, hiking, camping, snowshoeing, skiing, scuba diving and, for the brave, taking a polar plunge.

All such activities have IAATO guidelines to promote safety and environmental responsibility and are intended to have no more than a minor or temporary impact on the environment.

Antarctica passenger regulations

For nearly 60 years, official guidelines have controlled exactly what individuals and countries can do in Antarctica, in order to protect and conserve that remarkable place.

The guidelines, part of the Antarctic Treaty, provide general advice for travelling to any part of the continent. The aim obviously, is to ensure that visitors do not harm the environment. There are also guidelines specifically for some parts of the continent that you might visit, but your guide will explain those to you before you get on shore. Minimize your impact on Antarctica by familiarizing yourself with, and abiding by, all the guidelines. And pay close attention to your guides and follow their instructions.

Protect wildlife

It should go without saying, but the old mantra of “take only pictures and leave only footprints” is doubly important in Antarctica. The vegetation that you’ll encounter, including mosses and lichens, is fragile and very slow growing. Do not damage vegetation by walking on moss beds or lichen-covered rocks. You’ll be doing most of your travel on foot, so be sure to stay on established tracks whenever possible. If there isn’t a track, take the most direct route and avoid vegetation, fragile terrain, scree slopes and wildlife.

Treat all wildlife with respect. Move slowly and quietly so as not to disturb them and always give them the right of way. Be sure not to block their access to the sea. Think about it this way: You’re visiting their home and just as you would do in any new situation, follow their lead. Don’t get too close - keep at least five meters away - and watch out for their reaction to your presence.

Perhaps one of the most harmful things to the Antarctic environment is the introduction of non-native species. To make sure you don’t bring in any plant or animal life or even potentially a disease, carefully clean your boots and all your equipment, including clothes, bags, tripods, tents and walking sticks, before bringing them to Antarctica. Pay particular attention to boot treads, velcro fastenings and pockets which could contain soil or seeds. Your guides may vacuum out pockets or cuffs in your pants before you disembark.

The transfer of species and disease between locations in Antarctica is also a concern, so be sure that all clothing and equipment is cleaned before moving between sites. Your ship will have cleaning stations for your boots before you leave, and for your return.

Respect protected areas

There are many historic sites on Antarctica and they should be respected. Do not interfere with, deface or vandalize any historic site, monument, artifact, or other building or emergency refuge. You might spot something of historic value that the authorities are not even aware of. Do not disturb it. Instead, tell your expedition leader or the national authorities.

Before entering any historic structure, clean your boots of snow and grit and remove snow and water from clothes as these can cause damage, and watch your step. There may be artifacts that are obscured by snow when you’re exploring historic sites.

Keep Antarctica pristine

Most of these regulations and guidelines should be fairly obvious. Your expedition leaders will ensure that you are familiar with them and that you how to behave before you disembark. However, it can all be boiled down to this: Antarctica is relatively pristine. It is the largest wilderness area on earth and we’d all like to keep it as nice as we found it. Remember the golden rule: Leave no trace of your visit.

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History and climate change

Dealing with the impact of global warming on the White Continent

A brief history of Antarctica

The first explorers who came into contact with what would become known as Antarctica are thought to have been Polynesian. According to oral histories from Pacific Islanders, around 650AD they first encountered Antarctic sea ice. Europeans wouldn’t make the discovery until almost 1,000 years later. In 1559 Dutchman Dirck Gerritsz became the first to see land in the vicinity of the South Shetland Islands when his vessel was blown off course.

For the next two centuries, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English and French navigators venturing south of Cape Horn described the “ice islands” of South America. But it was that intrepid explorer James Cook, who circumnavigated Antarctica from 1772 to 1775 and declared land over the South Pole, whose discoveries effectively established Antarctica as a continent.

Russian Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen is believed to have been the first explorer to actually spot an ice shelf on land. That was in January 1820, and a year later, a party from a US sealing vessel is thought to have made the first landing on the Antarctic continent, at Hughes Bay on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Their reports encouraged more and more explorers and commercial vessels to try their luck on the White Continent, but none was able to penetrate the interior.

The descriptions of large numbers of whales and seals in the Southern Ocean from Cook and others who followed in his wake spurred a wave of voyagers to Antarctica in the 19th century. Driven by the high demand for oil from marine animals like whales, and the demand for pelts from fur seals, large numbers of European and North American sealer gangs pursued their bloody trade in Antarctica from the 1820s.

Over the next 75 years, tens of thousands — perhaps even millions — of Antarctic seals were slaughtered, mainly for their fur.

Exploring the interior had to wait — and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that the most famous explorations of the continent took place. The dramatic and ultimately tragic race to the South Pole between British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in late 1911 captured the public’s imagination. Amundsen got there first, on December 19, after a two-month journey with four companions and a team of 52 sled dogs.

Scott and his team arrived 33 days later, on January 17, 1912. But on the return trip, bitterly disappointed, exhausted, out of supplies, and caught in dreadful weather, he and his team all died in their tents. The Amundsen—Scott South Pole Station was later named in honour of the two explorers.

Other famous explorations followed, including the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917 by Ernest Shackleton, an attempt to cross the continent via the South Pole. His ship, the Endurance, became trapped by sea ice and the dreadful hardships and inspiring adventures of the crew as they tried to escape is possibly one of the most thrilling stories in Antarctic history.

Teams from countries around the world continued exploring Antarctica in the first half of the 20th century, some looking for fame, others to carry out research. Women were not allowed to explore Antarctica until the 1950s, but Norwegian Ingrid Christensen made four trips to the continent with her husband on the ship Thorshavn in the 1930s, becoming the first woman to see Antarctica, the first to fly over it, and — arguably — the first woman to land on it. After the Second World War, a number of nations established bases on the continent which allowed for continuing national expeditions. Though several countries had overlapping territorial claims, the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 created a way for them to work together.

Exploration continues in Antarctica, though now it’s predominantly research into the flora and fauna of the continent — scientific discoveries rather than territorial ones. However, there are still “firsts” being achieved, like Norwegian Børge Ousland’s first unassisted Antarctic solo crossing in January 1997. This vast and fragile area is slowly giving up its secrets, but there are still plenty of questions to be answered and breakthroughs to be made.

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The Antarctic Treaty

It’s unusually brief, but the Antarctic Treaty has been hailed as one of the most successful international agreements ever signed.

The Treaty, with just 14 articles, was signed in 1959 by 12 countries, including the US, the UK and the then USSR. The 12 had been active in and around Antarctica in 1957-58. Since then, many more countries have signed up to the Treaty. There are now 52 signatories including China, most of Europe, Canada and North Korea.

Under the terms of this unique agreement, the signatories agree to consult each other on the uses of the continent and are committed to not allowing it to become part of any international discord. The Treaty parties refer to Antarctica as “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”. The Treaty cements international cooperation which it says, “accords with the interests of science and the progress of all mankind”.

Among the most important provisions of the groundbreaking Treaty are:

  • Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only (Article 1).

  • Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end … shall continue (Article 2).

  • Scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available (Article 3).

The Treaty not only ensures international scientific cooperation, but it also addresses countries’ territorial claims. No activities can be taken as a claim to territorial sovereignty, and while the Treaty is in force, no new claim for territory can be asserted.

The Treaty also protects Antarctica as a nuclear-free zone. There can be no nuclear explosions there, and no disposing of radioactive waste.

A system of inspections is built into the Treaty to make sure that all the signatories comply.

Since the original signing other measures and protocols have been added. The Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora in 1964, for example, recognises the scientific importance of studying the continent’s plants and animals, but because of their uniqueness, lays down measures to protect them and ensure their “rational” use.

In 1991, the adoption of the Protocol on Environmental Protection designated Antarctica as a natural reserve, “devoted to peace and science” and it prohibits all activities relating to Antarctic mineral resources, except for scientific research.

And when Antarctica began to be seen as a tourist destination, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) established guidelines governing tourism. They include limiting the areas open to tourists, and regulating how they should act once they get there, to ensure they cause no damage to the environment or to any scientific work being done. And tour operators must submit reports of their visits.

The Antarctic Treaty is still in effect, and the signatories meet annually. It will, undoubtedly, continue to be adapted as new concerns are raised over how best to protect this unique and incredibly valuable part of the world.

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Maintaining Antarctica’s eco-system

For nearly 60 years, official guidelines have controlled exactly what individuals and countries can do in Antarctica, in order to protect and conserve this remarkable place.

The guidelines, part of the Antarctic Treaty, provide general advice for travelling to any part of the continent. The aim is to ensure that visitors do not harm the environment. There are also guidelines specifically for some parts of the continent that you might visit, but your guide will explain those to you before you get onshore.

You can minimise your environmental impact on visiting Antarctica by familiarising yourself with and abiding by the guidelines below. If in doubt, check with your tour guide.

Protect wildlife

It should go without saying, but the old mantra of “take only pictures and leave only footprints” is doubly important in Antarctica. The vegetation that you’ll encounter, including mosses and lichens, is fragile. Do not damage vegetation by walking on moss beds or lichen-covered rocks. You’ll be doing most of your travel on foot, so be sure to stay on established tracks whenever possible. If there isn’t a track, take the most direct route and avoid vegetation, fragile terrain, scree slopes and wildlife.

Treat all wildlife with respect. Move slowly and quietly so as not to disturb them and always give them the right of way. Be sure not to block their access to the sea. Think about it this way: You’re visiting their home and just as you would do in any new situation, follow their lead. Don’t get too close — keep at least five metres away — and watch out for their reaction to your presence.

Perhaps one of the most harmful things to the Antarctic environment is the introduction of non-native species. To make sure you don’t bring in any plant or animal life — or even disease — carefully clean your boots and all your equipment, including clothes, bags, tripods, tents and walking sticks, before bringing them to Antarctica. Pay particular attention to boot treads, velcro fastenings and pockets which could contain soil or seeds. Your guides may vacuum out pockets or cuffs in your pants before you disembark.

The transfer of species and disease between locations in Antarctica is also a concern, so be sure that all clothing and equipment is cleaned before moving between sites. Your ship will have cleaning stations for your boots before you leave and for your return.

Respect protected areas

There are many historic sites on Antarctica and they should be respected. Do not interfere with, deface or vandalise any historic site, monument, artefact, or other building or emergency refuge. You might spot something of historic value that the authorities are not even aware of. Do not disturb it. Instead, tell your expedition leader or the national authorities.

Before entering any historic structure, clean your boots of snow and grit and remove snow and water from clothes as these can cause damage, and watch your step. There may be artefacts that are obscured by snow when you’re exploring historic sites.

Keep Antarctica pristine

Most of these regulations and guidelines should be fairly obvious. Your expedition leaders will ensure that you are familiar with them and that you how to behave before you disembark. However, it can all be boiled down to this: Antarctica is relatively pristine. It is the largest wilderness area on earth and we’d all like to keep it as nice as we found it. Remember the golden rule: Leave no trace of your visit.

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Threats and conservation

Professor Peter Convey

Antarctica, the icy, white giant at the southern end of the world, seems as if it will slumber unchanged forever. But that’s far from the truth. Antarctica, like so many parts of the world, faces constant change as outside forces exert their will, consciously and unconsciously.

I have been studying the polar regions for nearly three decades and am particularly interested in an important but often overlooked element of the Antarctic ecosystem — the small plants and tiny invertebrates that live in the water and on the ground.

Things like mosses, lichens, mites and tardigrades may not be as photogenic as the mammals and birds that we see in photos. But they are in fact critically important to the Antarctic ecosystem, and offer important signals for conservation in the continent.

Although climate change gets a lot of press (and it certainly affects Antarctica), it actually isn’t the major threat to land-based ecosystems.

There are two limits on terrestrial (land-based) biology — low temperatures, which limit energy, and the lack of liquid water. Climate change, in the areas where it is occurring, is lowering these limits, causing warmer temperatures in the summer and longer thawing seasons with more liquid water.

This means that native terrestrial plants and animals will generally face less restrictive constraints, and will benefit from these changes. You see larger populations, more growth within a given summer, and increased areas of habitat occupied. And ice retreat makes yet more habitat available.

At the micro scale at which these organisms live, they already experience wide variation on a daily basis — the scale of that variation is much greater than the overall climate warming trend.

The picture is quite different in the marine ecosystem. In contrast with that on land, life in the Southern Ocean is abundant and diverse.

Perhaps the largest physical difference is the thermal stability of the marine environment, often varying a couple of degrees or less over the annual cycle. This means some native organisms are unable to cope with even small changes in temperature. Such organisms, which often do not have the option of ‘moving somewhere else’ to avoid warming, appear to be very vulnerable to the expected temperature changes.

Furthermore, this ocean is the most immediately vulnerable of the world’s oceans to the effects of acidification — while the implications of this for shell-building organisms remains under intense debate, short-term experiments show evidence that acidification does lead to damage to these organisms, especially to early juvenile stages.

Although the picture is complicated, one thing is for sure: Humans are the greatest threat to conservation in Antarctica.

As more and more people visit the continent, there is more opportunity for new species to travel there too, riding along on the soles of boots or falling from backpacks and pockets. Though new species can arrive naturally, current data suggests that it is 100 times more likely for new species to travel to Antarctica with human help. The risk of invasions is also clear for the Antarctic marine environment, although with far fewer documented occurrences.

And this is where a changing climate can have an impact. As the climate gets less extreme, an ever greater proportion of invasive species will be able to survive in Antarctica.

These new species can outcompete and replace native Antarctic ones, which have not evolved to deal with such competition.

Along with bringing non-native species, humans are also responsible for damaging the continent, both deliberately and inadvertently — from trampling a patch of moss, which can take decades to recover, to something more complex such as building a new research station, which can destroy habitats.

But this does not mean that the continent’s future is entirely bleak. There is a great deal of momentum and interest in the Antarctic science community, and in the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research and the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), in developing robust and effective approaches that deliver conservation.

On an individual level, visitors to the White Continent can help ensure the health of Antarctica by following the guidelines laid out by the ATS. These include staying on established tracks to help minimize the impact to the soil and vegetation, respecting wildlife, and taking measures to avoid the introduction of non-native species.

Antarctica-Whale

Antarctica

Responsible travel to the White Continent

In this ever-shrinking world, where almost anywhere is just a plane ride from everywhere else, contemporary culture puts a special premium on the earth’s last true frontiers. Those few places where mother nature still reigns supreme and the “wilderness” takes its original, true meaning.

And among those few final frontiers, where else is as remote and untouched as Antarctica? While the rest of the planet teems with humanity, this vast, silent continent at the absolute end of the earth has been virtually untouched by mankind. A frozen wilderness, but one that is home to a surprising amount of terrestrial and marine life.

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Things to do in Antarctica

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