Inhospitable, Antarctic has fewer than a thousand people who stay the winter, but maybe more than 50,000 people come in the summer, mainly scientists and up to 50,000 tourists. Surrounding the South Pole the nearest landmass is South America nearly 1,000 kilometres away. Other than tourism and fishing, Antarctica has no industry. Tourists visit mostly by ship, with about twenty vessels bringing up to 280 passengers in each.
The weather and ice dictate what you can see and do here. Sometimes you may be in luck and make your landing on schedule, but you can never depend on it.
Penguin colonies, cruise ship and tourists on Petermann Island, with the Kiev Peninsula of Antarctic Peninsula in the background (Photo: Cascoly)
When to go
The Antarctic summer lasts between November to March and in high summer there are over 20 hours of daylight. This is the best time to visit ice-free coastal zones as outside this time is when the formation and movement of sea-ice means Antarctica is left to the scientists staying for the winter.
During the summer (December to February), temperatures range between -6°C and +10°C.
What to see
During the late spring and early summer (November and early December), this is the courting season for penguins and seabirds. Seals will be visible on the ice and wildflowers bloom in the Falklands and South Georgia. This is when the elephant and fur seals establish their breeding territories as the winter pack ice starts melting and breaking up. The white scenery is pristine with pack ice and giant icebergs.
The midsummer (mid-December and January) is normally Antarctica’s warmest time and the longer days provide great light for fabulous photo opportunities even at midnight. This is when the Antarctic chicks hatch with the first penguin chicks emerging in South Georgia and the Falklands, and fur seals are breeding. Seal pups can be seen on South Georgia and the Falklands. As the ice recedes, it is possible to explore further.
During the late summer whale sightings are at their best on the Peninsula and penguin chicks start to fledge, with most colonies almost vacated by the end of February. This is when you can see the most fur seals on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Meeting the locals: Juvenile Emperor Penguin meeting people on Snow Hill Island, Antartica (Photo:
As well as seeing penguins and ice floes on a trip to the Antarctic, it might be worth considering a look at the Falkland Islands or South Georgia.
Ship size and the cruise
Passenger ships going to Antarctica come in all shapes and sizes. More of a ‘specialist interest’, you will usually find well informed and experienced guides working on the ships, giving lectures on various aspects of Antarctica.
Rules restrict the size of ships allowed to enter Antarctic waters and only a hundred passengers at any one time can land in any one place in Antarctica. This means that if you are on a larger ship, there will be less opportunity to land and trips ashore might be time limited so several groups can go.
Voyages typically depart from Chile, or from Ushuaia in Argentina. For trips going to the Ross area and Eastern Antarctica, voyages tend to leave from Hobart (Australia) and Invercargill or Bluff in New Zealand. Trips rarely leave from South Africa or other ports in Australia.
Trips usually take a minimum of 10 days and last up to three weeks, port to port or if you have less time, you can take a cruise lasting about a week if you fly-cruise from Frei Station (Chile) on King George Island) which is about two hours flying from Punta Arenas, Chile. This saves you a couple of days by flying over the notoriously rough Drakes Passage and you cruise about 6 days along the Antarctic Peninsula before returning to King George Island to fly back to Punta Arenas.
A once in a lifetime trip, cruising to the Antarctic is one of those unforgettable voyages. Make sure you take your warmest clothes, as even summer time here will be as cold as most winters anywhere else.