A frozen, wild continent teeming with wildlife, Antarctica is one of the world’s most exciting destinations for travellers. But what is it actually like to go there - and how can you make it happen?
Most travellers bound for Antarctica begin their journey in Ushuaia – the world’s southernmost city, located in the Argentinian half of Tierra del Fuego. Antarctic cruises are restricted to the austral spring and summer (October to March), so you’ll arrive in Ushuaia when the days are long with 18-24 hours of daylight. After boarding your expedition ship, anticipation mounts as you sail along Beagle Channel before turning south. To reach Antarctica you must then traverse 1,000km of the Southern Ocean – the legendary two-day crossing of Drake Passage. Known as ‘Drake Lake’ or ‘Drake Shake’ depending on sea conditions, this wild and wonderful stretch of ocean often provides your first sightings of wandering albatross, wheeling over the whitecaps. Humpback whales and orca can also be seen and, of course, by day two you’ll be scanning the horizon for your first glimpse of the Great White Continent.
If you want to skip the days at sea crossing Drake Passage, or are short on vacation days, consider a fly-cruise expedition, taking a three-hour flight from Punta Arenas to King George Island – just 120km off the coast of Antarctica – where you’ll be transferred to your ship for the rest of your journey.
However you decide to reach Antarctica – by fly-cruise or sailing across Drake Passage – the thrill of sighting land always forms an indelible memory. As white flecks on the horizon transform into ice-fluted peaks, the pristine wilderness of the Antarctica Peninsula casts its spell as you sail nearer. What makes it all the more moving and rewarding is that your ship has fewer than 200 passengers – you are sharing the moment with a small group of fellow explorers. Your expedition team, meanwhile, ensures that your experience is not only safe, but also enriched with fascinating insights into the ecology, conservation and history of Antarctica.
For first-time visitors, a typical 11-day expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula is the perfect introduction. But if you have more time or want to voyage further afield, the Antarctic Peninsula can be combined with the sub-Antarctic islands of South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. – one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet –which has a fascinating history tied up with Shackleton’s adventures.
Once the grandeur of Antarctica has sunk in, you’ll begin to appreciate the details: cerulean icebergs chiselled by waves into intricate sculptures; glaciers glinting between peaks. But it’s the wildlife of this extraordinary place that will inevitably grab your attention. You won’t need to wait long before seeing penguins. Weaving through the South Shetland Islands, en route to the Antarctic Peninsula, you’ll encounter large colonies of chinstrap, gentoo and Adélie penguins. Using the ship’s inflatable Zodiacs, you’ll be able to go ashore and observe their antics – whether they’re busy courting, brooding eggs or feeding chicks. Sometimes you’ll become the subject of interest from curious penguins. Back in the Zodiac, you might witness them porpoising through the waves, perhaps evading a predatory leopard seal, or scrabbling onto an iceberg for a rest and a preen.
Any voyage in Antarctica promises a wildlife spectacle. But for the pick of the penguin colonies, consider South Georgia where several hundred thousand king penguins breed in bays along its north shore. Snow Hill Island on the Antarctic mainland has the northernmost emperor penguin colony (accessible by icebreaker ship), while the Falkland Islands are a birdwatcher’s paradise with everything from penguins to caracaras and king cormorants.
Although the scenery and wildlife will hold you rapt, there is one other feature of an Antarctic voyage that sets it apart from most other types of holiday – and that’s the tingle of excitement that comes from having an itinerary, but never quite knowing how it might be influenced by the weather or sea ice conditions. No two Antarctic voyages are the same. You really are embarking on a journey of discovery. Your expedition leader’s decision to change course, or adapt your itinerary to the weather and ice conditions or for wildlife spotting opportunities, not only serves to remind you of the remoteness and unpredictability of Antarctica, but also piques the sense of anticipation that pervades every trip.
Don’t worry – you’re not signing up for a gruelling test of endurance. Ice-strengthened Antarctic expedition ships, like Quark Expeditions’ brand new, purpose-built World Explorer and Ultramarine, are designed to carry travellers in safety and comfort. You can expect well-furnished en suite cabins, spacious lounges and ample deck space, as well as attentive crew, excellent food and a diverse programme of activities. But you can’t escape the vivid sense of history and exploration that accompanies every voyage in the Southern Ocean. You will, after all, be seeing Antarctica largely unchanged from the days of Shackleton or Scott.
Imagine riding in a Zodiac navigating your way around a giant glacier, or paddling a sea kayak in the company of minke or humpback whales, their explosive breaths hanging in the air like misty exclamation marks. Imagine punting a stand-up paddleboard through a flotilla of sparkling icebergs, or strapping on cross-country skis for a trek across an Antarctic snowfield. From spending an unforgettable night camping in Antarctica to trying your hand at mountaineering, there’s an amazing range of activities available on an expedition voyage. You can make your trip as active as you like.
One activity that’s always popular on an Antarctic voyage is photography. From panoramic landscapes of pristine reflections in Lemaire Channel to action shots of penguins surfing ashore in South Georgia, there’s always something worth pointing a camera at. Expedition guides can offer photographers invaluable advice on wildlife behaviour, while dedicated photography voyages appeal to enthusiasts.
Quark Expeditions are the leading polar adventure operator, offering small-ship expedition voyages to Antarctica for three decades, from their 8-day Antarctic Express — offering a snapshot of this white wonderland — to an epic 23-day exploration that takes in the very best of the continent.
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