Antarctica is a dream destination for many travelers. It's unique and spectacularly beautiful, with amazing wildlife, towering mountains, and icebergs larger than many cruise ships. About 20,000 people visit the White Continent each year, with most arriving at the Antarctica Peninsula via cruise ship from South America. Despite its attraction, most people either have misconceptions or things they didn't know about Antarctica. If you are planning a cruise to Antarctica, it's good to start with some basic knowledge of Antarctic cruises.
Size Matters on an Antarctica Cruise
About 50 ships of all sizes visit Antarctic waters each year. These ships range in size from tiny expedition ships with less than 25 guests to traditional cruise ships with over 1000 guests. It's important to know that if a ship has more than 500 guests onboard, the signers of the Antarctic Treaty and members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators do not let those guests go ashore. Instead, they have an "Antarctic experience", which means they sail around the islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, allowing guests to see the continent and wildlife from the decks. One of these cruises can provide an excellent overview, but many who visit Antarctica want to step on the continent.
Although a tiny ship can provide an amazing experience, many expedition ships are very pricey but offer a once-in-a-lifetime voyage for those who can afford the best. The less expensive small ships might not be a good choice for those who are seasick-prone or who want to have more onboard amenities, better expedition leaders, and more variety in food. Ships with 300-450 guests are often less expensive but still offer excellent food and comfortable cabins and common areas.
For example, ships like the MS Misnatsol of Hurtigruten are an excellent Antarctica cruise alternative--not too big, not too small, and not as pricey as the smaller expedition ships. Although the Midnatsol carries less than 500 guests on its Antarctic cruises, it carries more than 500 cruise guests and many ferry passengers on its summer cruises of Norway's coast, so its space per guest is exceptional on Antarctic cruises. Since the Hurtigruten ship also carries ferry passengers and vehicles in the summer, it has large public areas and plenty of space to store kayaks and Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs) for its winter expeditions. Its size makes the ship more stable than some of the other ships carrying less than 500 passengers. Since it's an ice class 1X ship, the Midnatsol is well-prepared to sail in Antarctic waters.
Yes, You Can Go Swimming in Antarctica
Be sure to take along a swimsuit to Antarctica. Hardcore, thick-blooded northerners might not consider it "swimming", but Antarctic cruise travelers often have the opportunity to take a short dip in the icy (usually right at freezing temperatures) waters of Antarctica.
Hurtigruten and some other cruise lines offer "swimming" at almost every stop. Ships who allow guests to swim at only one port offer it at Deception Island since the water is warmer due to volcanic activity.
On Hurtigruten cruises, all guests who go swimming get a certificate and their photo taken. Due to peer pressure, sometimes more than 50 guests will take the plunge.
If you think swimming in icy waters is crazy, then you can wear that swimsuit into the hot tub, sauna, or spa.
You Can Exercise on Some Ships
Many cruise travelers worry about not being able to get enough exercise on an Antarctic cruise. Since IAATO and the Antarctic Treaty limit the time and number of visitors ashore, you will have more ship time than on many other destination-immersive cruises.
Smaller ships often either have no fitness center or have a very tiny one. However, you might have more time ashore, but not enough for true exercise fanatics. Larger ships like the Hurtigruten Midnatsol often have saunas, exercise equipment, and views you won't get anywhere else in the world. Larger ships also often have promenade decks or an outdoor walking track for guests to exercise outdoors.
Yes, You Can Go Kayaking in the Calm Waters of Antarctica
Swimming in Antarctica might not be for everyone, but kayaking is another fun activity. The coastal waters are often calm, and kayakers can see icebergs and wildlife such as penguins, seals, and whales.
Ships like the Hurtigruten Midnatsol provide appropriate outerwear for its kayakers to borrow.
You Can Mail a Postcard Home and Get Your Passport Stamped
Some cruise travelers love to shop for souvenirs, and they love to send postcards back home. Shopping is limited to onboard the ship and at a few research stations like Port Lockroy, which is a UK historical site. (Note: Adventurous souls can also spend the summer working at Port Lockroy if they can qualify and pass the interview.)
The staff at Port Lockroy comes onboard cruise ships and talk about their experiences working at the research station. They also stamp passports and sell souvenirs and postcards and/or stamps.
Be sure to date any postcard you mail back home. A supply ship picks up the postcards at Port Lockroy and takes them to the Falkland Islands. From there, they go to the UK before coming back across the Atlantic to the USA. It takes about 6-7 weeks to reach the UK and another week to reach the USA. Your friends and family will love getting a postcard with an Antarctic stamp (almost as much as you'll love having an Antarctic stamp in your passport!)
Antarctica Is Warmer Than You Think
Having heard the horror stories of Antarctic winters, many travelers think the temperatures are way below what they are willing to tolerate. Cruise ships only visit Antarctica between November and March, which is the Austral summer.
Since cruise ships primarily visit the Antarctica Peninsula, which is the northernmost section of the continent, temperatures are even warmer than further south. The Austral summer temperatures on the Peninsula range from the high 20's to mid-30's (Fahrenheit) or -2 to 2 degrees Centigrade. Those arriving from northern North America know that it's much colder there in January.
Winds can make it feel colder, but when you are ashore and moving about, sometimes you even get too warm! Cruise ships usually provide warm boots and some type of waterproof jacket, but be sure to check your cruise documents carefully. Long underwear, hat, and gloves are needed when riding in the RIBs ashore. For example, Hurtigruten provides the warmest boots you'll ever find, so you don't need to pack any. However, it's branded jacket is wind and waterproof, but you'll need something warmer (like a puffy jacket) underneath.
Cruise Timing Makes a Difference
Travelers can always have a memorable experience on an Antarctic cruise. However, like many parts of the world, the dates you select for Antarctic cruise provide different experiences. You'll see more snow in November and December (although you'll see plenty on all Antarctic cruises). Penguins will be on their nests in December, but you'll see baby chicks in January and February. Early and late shoulder seasons (November/December/March) cruises might be less expensive than in the high season of late January and February when the weather is warmer.
Cruise Ships Don't Sail as Far South as the Antarctic Circle
Those who have traveled to the Arctic know that many cruise ships sail further north than the Arctic Circle (66 degrees 33 minutes 39 seconds north latitude) in the summer, with some ships even crossing the famous Northwest Passage linking the northern Atlantic and Alaska or the Northeast Passage linking Norway with the Pacific Ocean. Hurtigruten even sails its Norwegian coastal voyages year-round all the way north from Bergen to Kirkenes, which is over 69 degrees north latitude.
Many think ships sailing south to Antarctic in the Austral summer can also reach the Antarctic Circle, which is 66 degrees 33 minutes 39 seconds south latitude. However, the Antarctic does not feature the warming waters of the Gulf Stream, the land mass of the continent keeps it generally colder than the Arctic, and huge icebergs often clog up passages between the islands and/or continent. Cruise ships can usually get to 65+ degrees latitude, but going further is difficult.
If crossing the Antarctic Circle is on your wish list, book a small expedition ship later in the season (February or March) that includes this crossing on its planned itinerary. Smaller ships can navigate through the narrow Lemaire Channel when the smaller icebergs have melted.
Penguins Are Even Cuter Than Expected
Everyone loves penguins, and Antarctica is the only place you can see them in the snow. Six of the seventeen species of penguins are found in Antarctic waters, and most cruise travelers see at least three of those species. Watching the penguins (who could care less about you) waddling, swimming, nesting, interacting with their peers or mates, or just doing their everyday activities can keep most cruise travelers mesmerized for as long as time allows. It may be difficult to believe that they are cuter in their natural habitat than expected, but it's true.
You'll See More Than Penguins in Antarctica: Seals
Although penguins are usually seen as the 5-star wildlife of Antarctica, most travelers also see several varieties of seals. These lovely creatures are often stretched out on icebergs or lying in the sun. Don't get too close to them, but it's fun to watch them stretch and roll as they nap. Like the penguins, seals are much more agile in the water than on the land.
One animal you won't see in Antarctica is a polar bear. These magnificent hunters are only found in the Arctic polar regions. The largest land-only animal in Antarctica is a tiny insect called the Antarctic midge. If you are lucky on your voyage to Antarctica, you might see one of these, but only if one of the naturalists points it out.
You'll See More than Penguins in Antarctica: Whales
It's difficult to beat the number of whales seen on many Alaska cruises, but some humpbacks and other whales migrate to Antarctica for the Austral summer. Travelers from around the world never get tired of watching these giants feed or just cruise around a bay.
Cruise Ship Food Can Be Good, Even After Two Weeks Without Replenishment
Cruise ships cannot take on food or other supplies in Antarctica. They must carry enough food for the guests and the crew to last for two or more weeks. However, cruise ships know that guests have high expectations for the food and all seem to deliver the same quality found on cruise ships elsewhere in the world. For example, Hurtigruten serves amazing fish dishes in its dining venues but also features delightful delicacies like this reindeer carpaccio appetizer.
Icebergs Are Bigger and More Plentiful Than Imagined
Travelers who have seen the icebergs in Antarctica agree they are massive and magnificent. Those who go to Antarctica in the early season might see larger ones than those who go later in the Austral summer. The behemoth seen in the photo at the left was several stories high.
One Island Features Warm Soil, Volcanic Activity, and Whale Bones
Many travelers going to Antarctica are surprised to learn that Deception Island is an active volcano. As seen in this photo, it is not snow covered in many places since the surface is warm from the underground volcanic activity. The island is shaped like a crescent (much like Santorini in Greece), so the large natural caldera was perfect for whaling ships to seek shelter and process the whales. Visitors can still see the remains of the ancient whaling station.
You Can Never Photograph Too Many Penguins, But They Do Stink!
Many who travel to Antarctica for the first time often think that after they've seen a few penguins, it will be enough. However, they seem to get cuter and cuter as the days go by.
One surprising factor is how awful a penguin colony can smell. If you've ever been in a chicken house, it's a similar odor. After a while, you'll be overwhelmed by their appearance and antics and forget how bad they smell. One good thing--the odor will prevent you from trying to smuggle one back home as a pet.
You Might Not Get Seasick
Seasickness is the elephant in the room that's always a worry for those planning a cruise to Antarctica. Ships take at least 36-48 hours to sail across the Drake Passage that separates South America from the Shetland Islands off the coast of Antarctica. And, they have to return back to South America, which takes another couple of days. This Passage is well-known for its rough seas, and it can be awful. However, sometimes it can be the "Drake Lake"--very calm and peaceful.
Everyone who travels to Antarctica should pack some type of seasickness medicine in their suitcase. Once your ship gets near Antarctica, the sea usually becomes calmer, but even 48 hours of misery is too long. On the plus side, even those who've been seasick remember the wildlife and majestic scenery of Antarctica when they get home, not their mal de mer.
Antarctica Is More Spectacular Than You Ever Imagined
Those who love wildlife, photography, and unique, magnificent scenery will definitely appreciate all Antarctica has to offer. However, travelers who love history and stories of great explorers will also have a better understanding of how this continent has attracted adventurous men (and women).
You'll Come Away From Antarctica With Lifelong Memories
If you plan a cruise to Antarctica, you'll find it is much like other exotic places in the world--it gives you lifelong memories. The difference between Antarctica and other memorable places is that there's no local culture or people--all those memories are the result of the majesty and wildness of the White Continent.
As you sail away from Antarctica, think about how many times the penguin in this photo must go up and down this hill to feed its young in the nest. Daily challenges like these make our problems back home seem not quite as difficult.