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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Explore Antarctica

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