In the past, Antarctica has seemed like an expanse of untouchable wilderness. A place where penguins survive, but humans can’t. A destination for scientists and explorers, but not for tourists. Over the last decade, however, that has changed. Antarctica has opened itself up to travelers, including those who may never have imagined visiting the seventh continent. The best and most accessible way to visit is via cruise ship, even if you aren’t typically a cruiser.
Although expedition cruises to Antarctica are relatively expensive, they are blossoming in popularity. Many cruise lines have expanded their itineraries to include the Antarctic peninsula, usually sailing from Ushuaia, Argentina, and the options are numerous. There are ships with helicopters, submarines, onboard research labs and even luxury spas. You can trek through the snow to glimpse the penguin colonies and then dine on rib-eye in the evening. These days, travelers young and old, mobile and less mobile, can become Antarctic explorers without sacrificing creature comforts.
If the great frozen south is on your bucket list, there are a few things to consider when booking and planning your trip.
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Booking the Expedition
Numerous cruise and travel companies offer expedition cruises to Antarctica, but selecting the right one will ensure that your eventual experience matches your expectations. I sailed with Viking, which owns two of the newest expedition ships in Antarctica: the Viking Polaris and the Viking Octantis. Their 13-day Antarctic Explorer itinerary represents a typical expedition for visitors who want to explore the continent while also enjoying a stylish, comfortable ship with high-end dining options and a Nordic spa.
Although that may sound as luxurious as it gets, Ponant’s ships, which offer the Emblematic Antarctica itinerary, are even more over-the-top in their amenities. Others are more rustic—and therefore more budget-friendly. The truth is, though, you get what you pay for: Viking’s expedition team and onboard science program give them an edge the other ships just don’t have.
Consider the time of year for your voyage, as well. The Antarctic tourism season typically runs from October through March, and the weather and wildlife vary based on when you go. During my trip in January, we spotted lots of whales and even a few penguin chicks. The weather hovered around 30 degrees, but there were also a few intense blizzards.
When booking, ensure your chosen travel company is a member of IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators), which sets out rules for visitors to Antarctic. Being a responsible tourist when traveling to one of the planet’s last pristine spaces should be paramount, particularly considering the environmental impact of cruising. Because IAATO regulates the number of passengers who can set foot on the continent at a particular landing, it’s important to go with a smaller ship. Skip the bigger cruise lines that offer “drive-by” Antarctic expeditions in favor of those that will get you up close to the penguins.
Packing and Preparing
I spent weeks researching how to pack for Antarctica, with some help from Viking’s handy packing list. I scoured forums, spoke with an expedition leader and messaged people on Instagram. Many of the cruise lines provide waterproof winter jackets for their guests (which you get to keep!), as well as waterproof outer pants and waterproof boots. The rest is up to you, which can be daunting.
What you pack depends on the type of cruise—luxury vs. more rugged—and the time of year. Base layers, two pairs of genuinely waterproof gloves and a neck gaiter are essential, as are goggles, which not everyone on my cruise had. My best purchase: a pair of Uggs to wear around the ship, both inside and on the decks.
Because you journey from ship to shore on a zodiac raft, there is a real possibility of getting wet. The snow, which can turn into sleet, can be heavy and damp. Everyone on board carried their cell phone in a waterproof plastic case on the zodiacs, as well as while kayaking, and a waterproof camera cover is a bonus (some guests used Ziploc bags). Although travel forums insist you will need massive camera lens to capture the wildlife, I took the much more compact Canon PowerShot G7X Mark III and it did the trick.
For the infamous Drake Passage, which takes between 36 and 48 hours to cross, bring an arsenal of seasickness remedies. Even a less rocky Drake is still rocky and no amount of tepid ginger ale is going to help if the nausea hits.
Onboard, the first thing our expedition leader, Berna Urtubey, said was, “Don’t worry about the schedule.” That’s easier said than done, but traveling to Antarctica requires genuine flexibility. The weather and wind can change quickly, which means the intended landing site might have to change or you might not get to land at all. The swells might be too big for the kayaks or submarines to go out. Your landing time might switch from 2 p.m. to 7 a.m. overnight. The best thing to do? Take each day as it comes with an open mind.
“I always say that it’s better if you have real expectations,” Urtubey explained. “And then, most likely, the different companies, including Viking, will deliver more than that. But if your expectations are as high as the sky, it doesn’t matter which company you come with to Antarctica, we will never be able to meet those expectations.”
Making friends with the expedition team helps, as they are the ones who book the excursions and make the landing schedule. But the best strategy is to take full advantage of everything that’s offered. Get up early. Go to all the lectures and wildlife watch sessions. Ask questions. Attend the daily briefings, which explain what will happen the following day. Spend as much time as possible on shore. IAATO rules state that passengers can only stay on land for one hour, but you can return to the ship and go back out as many times as you want. I spent nearly three hours at Damoy Point over the course of the day and will never forget it.
Being flexible can be challenging for those who like to plan, but staying open genuinely makes for a better experience in Antarctica. And no matter how it plays out, you’ll come face to face with a penguin and all that planning and traveling will be completely worth it.