As untouched as the surface of Earth gets, Antarctica is truly the greatest terrestrial wilderness left on our planet. That alone is enticement enough to visit for many people, but the White Continent’s charms go beyond its sheer remoteness: This is also a stunningly gorgeous place.
Given Antarctica hosts no permanent human population and its only developed facilities are farflung research stations, it’s not the easiest place to visit. Since the mid-20th century however, expedition Antarctica cruises have offered perhaps the preeminent means of seeing this deliciously remote place firsthand.
The Pleasures of Expedition Cruises in Antarctica
Expedition-style cruising is made for Antarctica. The smaller vessels are able to intricately navigate iceberg-choked bays and bring you up-close to penguin- and seal-littered seashores and the sheer escarpments of ice shelves.
These cruises typically designate plenty of time for Zodiac or kayaking onshore excursions and coastal tours, giving you the opportunity to get even more intimately acquainted with the austere landscape and its wildlife. And the expedition team comes packed with experts who can interpret the biological and geological marvels you’re bound to encounter, whether it’s the life cycle of a Gentoo penguin or the nature of the “katabatic winds” that peal off the White Continent’s polar plateau.
You can also fly into Antarctica from a variety of locations, which certainly can be a convenient option if you’re strapped for time. That said, an expedition cruise gives you the special thrill of seeing the icy edge of Antarctica materializing on the ocean horizon: a one-of-a-kind spectacle!
Antarctica’s a massive continent, encompassing some 5.4 million square miles. Most expedition cruises concentrate on its northernmost prong: the relatively accessible Antarctic Peninsula, actually a belt of islands welded together by an ice sheet. The Drake Passage separates the peninsula from the southern extremity of South America: Cape Horn in Tierra del Fuego. Patagonia therefore provides the nearest and most convenient jumping-off point for ships to reach Antarctica, as it’s often only a two-day affair to cross the Drake Passage.Popular destinations on the Antarctic Peninsula include Whalers Bay, Half Moon Island, and Arctowski Station in the South Shetland Islands as well as mainland sites such as Cape Renard, Neko Harbor, Paradise Bay, and the Lemaire Channel.
Because many expedition cruises to Antarctica depart from Argentinian ports—Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, is the major one—they often incorporate Patagonian destinations into the itinerary.
For example, you might get to see the Falkland Islands or South Georgia as part of your journey to or from the White Continent. These isolated archipelagos have their own attractions, including significant seabird and marine-mammal colonies, South Georgia’s icy peaks, and the Victorian architecture of the Falkland capital of Stanley.
Though the Antarctic Peninsula sees the most traffic, some expedition cruises do venture farther afield. And those cruises that depart from non-South American ports (and therefore take substantially longer to reach Antarctica itself) necessarily explore other areas: For example, embarking from Australia or New Zealand means you might be headed for McMurdo Station, the Ross Ice Shelf, and/or Commonwealth Bay.
Sights on the White Continent
Given the versatility of the ships and the knowledgeable crew, expedition cruises are ideal for seeking out some of Antarctica’s spectacular wildlife. The White Continent may lack the Arctic’s charismatic land mammals (no polar bears or muskoxen down here), but it more than makes up for it with its plethora of birdlife and marine mammals.Besides multiple varieties of the ever-popular penguins, you can see a rich diversity of coastal and pelagic seabirds—petrels, skuas, shearwaters, albatrosses, Antarctic terns, and the like. Pinnipeds include crabeater, Weddell, elephant, and leopard seals as well as Antarctic fur seals. In terms of cetaceans, you may see orcas—along with the leopard seal, the top predator in Antarctica—as well as baleen giants such as humpback, blue, minke, and fin whales.
Then there are the landforms: huge icebergs, the mouths of glaciers forming the seaward tongues of the ice sheets, soaring mountains such as the twin ramparts of Una Peaks and the volcanic wall of Brown Bluff on the Antarctic Peninsula, and other breathtaking sculptures of ice and rock.
Given you’re cruising during the austral summer, you’re soaking all this up in plenty of sunshine (nearly 24 hours of it around the December solstice).
Whichever expedition cruise you sign up for, you’ll be instructed by the company as to what clothes and other gear you should bring along. Even though you’ll be sightseeing during Antarctica’s summertime, you’ll want plenty of insulating, wind-resistant, and waterproof layers to contend with the climatic realities of the Southern Ocean and Earth’s coldest continent. Summer temperatures may climb into the upper 30s Fahrenheit, but wind or overcast can significantly dampen daytime highs.The Drake Passage is infamously rough much of the time—it’s a fairly narrow funnel for the relentless westerly winds that circle over the Southern Ocean—but your captain will try to seek a clement window for crossing. Keep in mind that you’ll likely be regularly getting into a smaller watercraft to go ashore, so definitely be prepared for choppy waters.
If you’ve always dreamed of seeing the final frontier of Antarctica with your very own eyes, an expedition cruise may be just the ticket. Its combination of comfortable luxury and a sense of real adventure certainly can’t be beat in this magical and primal landscape at the very bottom of the world.
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