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HomeAnt­ar­c­ti­ca infor­ma­ti­on → Ant­ar­c­ti­ca tra­vel infor­ma­ti­on

Antarctica travel information

Antarctica travel information: ships, itineraries, when to travel

Some thoughts about plan­ning a voya­ge.

Professor Multanovskiy, Grigoriy Mikheev, Fortuna Bay, South Georgia

Two veterans of ant­ar­c­tic expe­di­ti­on crui­sing, now reti­red:
MV Pro­fes­sor Mul­ta­novs­kiy (blue hull) and MV Gri­go­riy Mik­heev.

Ant­ar­c­ti­ca is the remo­test and most inac­ces­si­ble of all con­ti­nents. Get­ting the­re is pret­ty much impos­si­ble for the indi­vi­du­al tra­vel­ler, unless you call an oce­an-going yacht your own and time and money are not­hing you have to worry about. If time is an issue, but money isn’t, then your own pri­va­te air­plane might also be an opti­on.


Sailing yacht SY Pelagic, Port Lockroy

Sai­ling yacht (SY Pela­gic) at Port Lock­roy, Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la.

But as most of us don’t have eit­her of the abo­ve, let’s talk about ships. Once you start to inves­ti­ga­te about a trip to Ant­ar­c­ti­ca, the multi­tu­de of opti­ons soon seems con­fu­sing. For an over­view, it makes sen­se to sort ships and itin­er­ari­es into a few cate­go­ries. Once you have deci­ded which ones out of the­se suits you best, it is still ear­ly enough to worry about the details of the indi­vi­du­al ships, trips and offers.

The most important fac­tor for cate­go­ri­zing ships is the size in terms of pas­sen­ger capa­ci­ty. Sim­pli­fied, the­re are the fol­lo­wing opti­ons:

  • Sai­ling boats. The num­ber of yachts regu­lar­ly tra­vel­ling the Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la or South Geor­gia is by now lar­ger than most would belie­ve. But it is defi­ni­te­ly wise to have some sai­ling expe­ri­ence befo­re you ven­ture to Ant­ar­ti­ca with a yacht. The trips are much lon­ger with the­se smal­ler, slower boats, whe­re extra time to avo­id hea­vy storms at open sea should always be available. But if you deci­de this is the right thing for you, then you are on for a very inten­se expe­ri­ence of natu­re with a solid expe­di­ti­on cha­rac­ter and a good por­ti­on of adven­ture. The­re is also the bar­que Euro­pa, a lar­ger sai­ling ship often tra­vel­ling the­se waters.
Barque Europa, Beagle Channel

Bark Euro­pa in the Bea­gle Chan­nel, Tier­ra del Fue­go.

  • Expe­di­ti­on crui­se ships with a maxi­mum of 500 pas­sen­gers. The­se ships offer dai­ly landings for a first-hand natu­re expe­ri­ence. Up to 100 pas­sen­gers are allo­wed on shore at one site at any time, mea­ning that ships with more than 100 guests will ope­ra­te seve­ral groups who are taking shifts, redu­cing the shore time for the indi­vi­du­al. The atmo­sphe­re of smal­ler ships up to 100 pas­sen­gers is rather infor­mal, you don’t have to look like a pen­gu­in to be allo­wed into the board restau­rant for din­ner and the bridge is open for pas­sen­ger at almost any time on many of the­se expe­di­ti­on ships. Space and com­fort in cab­ins and other public places as well as qua­li­ty and choice of meals often increase tog­e­ther with the size of the ship, but at the cost of the time that you can spend on shore during landings. Some of the smal­ler ships offer addi­tio­nal acti­vi­ties such as kay­a­king, cam­ping on shore for a night, hiking, snow­s­ho­e­ing etc.
Expedition ship MV Ortelius, Gold Harbour, South Georgia

Expe­di­ti­on ship (MV Ort­eli­us), Gold Har­bour, South Geor­gia.

  • Crui­se ships with more than 500 pas­sen­gers don’t offer landings in Ant­ar­c­ti­ca. This is a „crui­se only“ way of tra­vel­ling, whe­re Ant­ar­c­ti­ca pro­vi­des a scenic back­ground for the on-board pro­gram­me.

Rou­tes & Itin­er­ari­es

Many ant­ar­c­tic tou­rists want a direct natu­re expe­ri­ence, wild­life, ice, sce­n­ery, and smal­ler expe­di­ti­on ships are accor­din­gly a popu­lar choice for tra­vel­ling Ant­ar­c­ti­ca. Such voy­a­ges are the most important seg­ment of ant­ar­c­tic tou­rism. Expe­di­ti­on crui­se ships tra­vel most­ly one of the fol­lo­wing itin­er­ari­es, with varia­ti­ons:

  • A 10 or 11 day crui­se to the Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la is the clas­si­cal itin­era­ry that is the blue­print for most voy­a­ges to Ant­ar­c­ti­ca. Included are a day in port, usual­ly Ushua­ia in sou­thern Argen­ti­na, and two days crossing the Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge both in the begin­ning and at the end of the trip, resul­ting in 5-6 days effec­tively spent in Ant­ar­c­ti­ca. The­se days are usual­ly full with spec­ta­cu­lar impres­si­ons and acti­vi­ties, inclu­ding a num­ber of landings and encoun­ters of pen­gu­ins, seals and a good chan­ce for wha­le wat­ching. You are likely to see most lar­ge ant­ar­c­tic ani­mals, the most important expec­tion being the Emper­or pen­gu­in, which is only rare­ly seen on the­se trips. The focus is the west coast of the Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la.
Chinstrap penguins, Antarctic Peninsula

Chin­strap pen­gu­ins on Orne Island, Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la.

  • The­re are seve­ral varia­ti­ons of the clas­si­cal Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la itin­era­ry: some trips focus on the Wed­dell Sea, mea­ning the nor­t­hern east coast of the Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la inclu­ding off­ly­ing islands, a dash south to the Ant­ar­c­tic Cir­cle or spe­cial expe­di­ti­ons to see an Emper­or pen­gu­in colo­ny, usual­ly ear­ly in the sea­son and invol­ving heli­c­op­ters.
South polar circle

Crossing the Ant­ar­c­tic Cir­cle.

  • The long trip: 3 weeks to the Falk­land Islands, South Geor­gia and the Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la, thus focus­sing not exclu­si­ve­ly on Ant­ar­c­ti­ca, but inclu­ding some sub­ant­ar­c­tic wild­life jewels. But the­se come at a pri­ce, as they are very remo­te, and the who­le itin­era­ry includes some 3000 nau­ti­cal miles. Appro­xi­m­ate­ly half of the time is accor­din­gly spent at sea, and the who­le trip is accor­din­gly lon­ger and the ticket comes at a pri­ce that others pay for a new car. But I dare to say that the memo­ries from such a trip last lon­ger than most cars. On this trip, you will see the most com­ple­te cross sec­tion of sub­ant­ar­c­tic and ant­ar­c­tic wild­life pos­si­ble on any given trip. The most important spe­ci­es that you are unli­kely to see are Emper­or pen­gu­ins and Ross seals. Other­wi­se, you will see more or less all of them, of cour­se always depen­ding a bit on the good­will of mother natu­re.
South Georgia

South Geor­gia, a para­di­se of natu­re in the South Atlan­tic. Ele­phant seals, Gold Har­bour.

  • The Ross Sea: remo­te and far from the com­mon rou­tes in Ant­ar­c­ti­ca, the Ross Sea attracts a small num­ber of ant­ar­c­tic tra­vel­lers who have most­ly been to the Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la on pre­vious trips. Voy­a­ges to the Ross Sea start and finish usual­ly in New Zea­land, alter­na­tively Aus­tra­lia, or are ope­ra­ted as a semi-cir­cum­na­vi­ga­ti­on of Ant­ar­c­ti­ca from South Ame­ri­ca to New Zea­land or vice ver­sa. In the Ross Sea, it is defi­ni­te­ly an advan­ta­ge to have a ship equip­ped with heli­c­op­ters to make remo­te places such as Tay­lor Val­ley, one of the famous McMur­do Dry Val­leys, acces­si­ble. Becau­se of the lar­ge distances, long dura­ti­on and the sca­le of the who­le ope­ra­ti­on, voy­a­ges into the Ross Sea requi­re an amount of time and money that most nor­mal peo­p­le wouldn’t even con­sider to spend on any one jour­ney. But what does „nor­mal“ mean when we are tal­king about Ant­ar­c­ti­ca?
Taylor Valley, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Ross Sea

Impos­si­ble to reach wit­hout heli­c­op­ters: Cana­da Gla­cier in Tay­lor Val­ley, one of the famous McMur­do Dry Val­leys in the Ross Sea.

  • The­re are some trips that part­ly or com­ple­te­ly rely on the use of air­craft, for exam­p­le when crossing the Dra­ke on a flight from Pun­ta Are­nas (Chi­le) to King Geor­ge Island (South Shet­land Islands) rather than on a ship. This of cour­se saves twice 2 days during a trip, which are other­wi­se spent at sea in an often rather uncom­for­ta­ble way, but it takes an expe­ri­ence from the jour­ney which many would descri­be as a vital part of any trip to Ant­ar­c­ti­ca. And if the wea­ther in the South Shet­lands is bad, then you may spend signi­fi­cant time wai­ting for depar­tu­re in Pun­ta Are­nas, as landing on the airst­rip on King Geor­ge Island requi­res reason­ab­ly good con­di­ti­ons. The­re are also short trips to King Geor­ge Island, pos­si­bly inclu­ding an over­night the­re, but then all you will see of Ant­ar­c­ti­ca is one of very few are­as that most who have been down south and seen some more won’t descri­be as par­ti­cu­lar­ly attrac­ti­ve. The­re are also expen­si­ve expe­di­ti­ons for moun­tai­neers who want to climb Mount Vin­son, Antarctica’s hig­hest moun­tain, which requi­res lar­ge-sca­le flight logi­stics via a base camp at Patri­ot Hills in the Wed­dell Sea, and if you want to, you can take the oppor­tu­ni­ty for a dash to the South Pole while you are the­re. All this will requi­re amounts of money that might also be used for a who­le cou­ple of trips to the Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la.
Drake Passage

The Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge is an inte­gral part of Ant­ar­c­ti­ca and should not be missed, alt­hough the crossing can cer­tain­ly be uncom­for­ta­ble.

When to tra­vel: the sea­son

Snow, Antarctic Peninsula

Lots of snow and ice in the ear­ly sea­son. Port Lock­roy, Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la.

Ant­ar­c­tic tou­rism is natu­ral­ly high­ly sea­so­nal and limi­t­ed to the aus­tral sum­mer. Peak sea­son is from late Novem­ber and into Febru­ary, but the first ships are sai­ling south alre­a­dy in Octo­ber and the last ones may endu­re incre­asing­ly toug­her con­di­ti­ons in March or even into the first days of April.

 Snow algae and penguins, late March, on Petermann Island, Antarctic Peninsula

Snow algae and some rather lonely pen­gu­ins in late March on Peter­mann Island, Ant­ar­c­tic Pen­in­su­la.

To keep it short: all parts of the sea­sons have their own beau­ty, cha­rac­ter and high­lights. The­re is no time that is a prio­ri the best or abso­lut­e­ly to be avo­ided. If you want to see a bit of ever­y­thing, then peak sea­son should be the best time to come. In the ear­ly sea­son, you will have a lot of ice and snow, giving the sce­n­ery a beau­tiful, vir­gin appearance, but the ice can also be an obs­ta­cle in terms of get­ting to cer­tain are­as and the snow can make moving around on shore quite cum­ber­so­me. From late Decem­ber, pen­gu­in chicks are more easi­ly seen, get­ting big­ger and beco­ming the stars of any voya­ge to Ant­ar­c­ti­ca in the second half of the sea­son. In South Geor­gia, the­re are lar­ge num­bers of impres­si­ve Ele­phant seals on the bree­ding bea­ches in the ear­ly sea­son, las­ting into Novem­ber. A bit later, Fur seals come on shore to start their mating sea­son in num­bers lar­ge enough to make some bea­ches inac­ces­si­ble at peak brea­ding sea­son. This includes Pri­on Island, the one and only site in South Geor­gia whe­re mere mor­tals have a chan­ce (and no more than that) to see the Wan­de­ring Alba­tross and their bree­ding sites. Pri­on Island is regu­lar­ly clo­sed in mid sea­son and open again near mid Janu­ary. You have to take this into con­side­ra­ti­on when plan­ning your trip if you want your chan­ce to see a Wan­de­ring Alba­tross at his home.

Wandering albatross, Prion Island, South Georgia

Wan­de­ring alba­tross on his nest on Pri­on Island, South Geor­gia. Pri­on Island is clo­sed during the peak brea­ding sea­son of Fur seals and may not be visi­ted befo­re almost mid Janu­ary.

Many pen­gu­ins are lea­ving the colo­nies when the sea­son is slow­ly approa­ching its end in March. You can see some late ones and moul­ting pen­gu­ins into April, but the impres­si­on of team­ing life is gone when the ani­mals still the­re are limi­t­ed to smal­ler num­bers scat­te­red bet­ween car­cas­ses of tho­se who didn’t make it. Dark­ness at night is quick­ly get­ting lon­ger now, for­cing ships to maneou­vre more careful­ly in ice-infes­ted waters, and the incre­asing fre­quen­cy of strong low pres­su­res is ano­ther reason why March is not peak sea­son any­mo­re. But of cour­se a trip to Ant­ar­c­ti­ca can be a stun­nin­gly beau­tiful at any time inclu­ding March. In the end, it is the wea­ther that deci­des, and it can be gre­at or bad at any time.

Get­ting the­re and away

Most trips to Ant­ar­c­ti­ca start with an inter­na­tio­nal flight to Bue­nos Aires and a dome­stic flight to Ushua­ia. That doesn’t just sound easy, it is actual­ly easy. Nevert­hel­ess, some hints won’t do any harm.

  • You will usual­ly have to chan­ge bet­ween air­ports in Bue­nos Aires. It is a taxi ride of about 50 minu­tes in good con­di­ti­ons, but it can take con­sider­a­b­ly lon­ger if the­re is a lot of traf­fic. If you spend a night in Bue­nos Aires, it is much safer in terms of get­ting your con­nec­ting flight, and of cour­se more rela­xed and enjoya­ble.
airport, Buenos Aires

Takes time and some­ti­mes a bit of ner­ves: air­ports in Bue­nos Aires and the trans­fer bet­ween them.

  • You should defi­ni­te­ly have an over­night in Ushua­ia bet­ween your flight and boar­ding the ship, in case of any delay. Ships do usual­ly not wait for indi­vi­du­al pas­sen­gers and cer­tain­ly not for a suit­ca­se that is coming with the next flight.
  • The same goes for the return jour­ney. Dis­em­bar­ka­ti­on is usual­ly at 9 a.m. (local time), but the­re may be delays, be it becau­se of an unex­pec­ted storm in the Dra­ke Pas­sa­ge, a shorta­ge of pilots (pilo­ta­ge is com­pul­sa­ry in the Bea­gle Chan­nel) of slow har­bour pro­ce­du­res. It doesn’t hap­pen too often, but never say never. And if you have boo­ked your flight for the after­noon or the next day, then you can enjoy the extra time on board in a much more rela­xed way than the guys who is alre­a­dy wat­ching his pla­ne on the run­way with bino­cu­lars, while the har­bour aut­ho­ri­ties are still sort­ing paper­work with the Cap­tain.
  • See also sec­tion about Ushua­ia and the Bea­gle Chan­nel.
Harbour, Ushuaia

Har­bour in Ushua­ia.


last modification: 2014-05-15 · copyright: Rolf Stange