Antarctica

BE PREPARED FOR ANTARCTICA!

BE PREPARED FOR ANTARCTICA!

BE PREPARED FOR ANTARCTICA!

BE PREPARED FOR ANTARCTICA!

Be informed

99% of travelers to the antarctic visit the coastline of the white continent by ship, only 1% visit the interior of the continent (which requires traveling by plane only to Antarctica). In the practice the size of the traveler’s wallet is in that case is the limiting factor, as taking the plane to travel inland increases tremendously the ticket’s price.

However, the real limiting factor in reality is Antarctica itself!

The simple word “Antarctica” is synonym of adventure, end of the world, remoteness and pristine place. There is a simple reason for this: its environment is so harsh that even today, the nature there still dictates the rules. Men has not managed to be stronger than the environment in the antarctic. Ice and weather tell us what to do, where and when. This is valid for scientists and technicians working there, for politicians visiting these places and…. for travelers! You would be surprise to learn that people wintering in the heart of Antarctica are as isolated as the astronauts in the International Space Station...

As a matter of fact you need to accept that the simple idea that to think about going to Antarctica exposes you to several risks:

  • first, you may never reach Antarctica. Indeed, if your plane to reach the departing point for the great south is delayed or cancelled, the ship or the plane departing for Antarctica is not going to wait one day for you. If you miss this departure, there is no second chance for you...
  • the Southern Ocean is the roughest ocean on Earth. This is a fact. Its roughest waters are actually south of Australia, between Tasmania and the Ross iceshelf / Commonwealth bay. Storms are frequent and this has an impact on your voyage. You might depart by ship or plane half a day / one day later or even more, waiting for a storm to die before setting sail or taking off. You will spend therefore less days in the antarctic. That’s why the number of days you spend in the antarctic can not be given or guaranteed. The strategy is the same on the way back, from Antarctica to your end point, the time when you leave the antarctic to avoid a storm must be adjusted.
  • no one on the planet can guarantee the mechanical parts of a ship or an airplane. In some cases (very rare, but it does happen) when a mechanical problem happens, it has a huge impact on your trip: you might not reach your destination or if you are already in Antarctica half of the trip might be cancelled.
  • each trip is different. If you make hundred trips to Antarctica, even with the same company and the same team, you will get hundred different experiences and itineraries...
  • each trips is really ice, weather and wildlife dependent
average wind spind World average wind speed - Mark Z. Jacobson (researchgate.net).
Winds are actually reponsible of the formation of waves.






Be mentally prepared

The right mentality to adopt for a voyage to Antarctica is:

  • never take as granted what is written on the catalog of your tour operator (your trip might be extremely different! But very good however!)
  • do not compare what’s written in the program that your travel agent gave you and the experience you have on the field: no one can tell in advance where to find whales, where the sea ice is, when storms are coming, when the swell prevents you from going out from a ship, where crevasses prevent you from reaching a summit, or when the winds are not appropriate for landing.
  • leave your bad habits behind: remove your watch, be ready anytime to experience any kind of things, no mattering early or late it can be.
  • cancel from your mind the place names you read in the Internet, get rid of your expectations, Antarctica is different than what you imagine, just run with the flow.
  • trust the team who is going to take care of you, they know these places much better than you do, although you read tens of books about it. For example, I know today the coastline of the antarctic peninsula much better than the place where I come from or where I live today!

So I’m going here to describe mostly the voyages by “ship-cruising” (there is even an option called “air-cruise”), only at the end I will shortly describe the land-based trips.

Landing by Zodiac ashore Landing with an inflatable boat can be challenging. In that case you need a trained and skilled team to do so. Sometimes it is so challenging that the operation is cancelled. Therefore it is very important to be with a very good team who can offer you the most of it.

Antarctica by ship

Since Antarctica is surrounded by waters, the most common way for anyone to reach this place is by ship. Three departure are possible: from South America it takes only 1,5 or 2 sea days (1000km or 600miles to cross the Drake passage) ; from Australia it requires roughly five or six days (2500km or 1600 miles) ; from South Africa this requires roughly eight days or more (3000km) but this option does not apply to travelers (only for scientist and technical staff).

For obvious practical reason, comfort and cost, the most popular voyage consists in departing from south America, crossing the Drake passage and visit the antarctic peninsula. This represents 98% of the voyages. Some rare companies offer the option to fly over the Drake, embark on the ship once you are in Antarctica and fly out the same way. I describe it after this section.

Most cruises depart from one of the gateway ports in southern South America, such as Ushuaia (Argentina), Punta Arenas (Chile) or Montevideo (Uruguay), to the scenic and wildlife rich northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. These cruises often include visits to the nearby Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) and South Georgia. A limited number of cruises are operated to the Ross Sea side of the continent departing from Hobart, Australia or Lyttelton or Bluff, New Zealand. Occasionally a trip to the Peninsula will be offered that begins or ends in Cape Town or Port Elizabeth (South Africa), either at the start or end of the season as the ships are being repositioned for the Antarctic season.

Very few voyages start from Australia or New Zealand in the direction of the Ross Ice shelf. This one is of course much longer and costly. Some very rare voyages start from South America, for visiting the antarctic peninsula, then travel eastwards trying to reach some extremely remote islands and end in South Africa or, sometimes, travel as far as the Ross iceshelf before ending up in Australia! These trips are of course the most adventurous one, the most expensive too, and the longest ones, with a lot of sea days and they are very risky (a lot of cancellation of landings due to bad weather or ice).

Of course, the size of your wallet will determine what you can afford or not. Once you have fixed a budget and timeframe for your trip, it’s time to choose the kind of ship you want. The size of the ship is the biggest factor to be taken into consideration. This will dictate your whole experience on the field.

Antarctica is the most remote continent, isolated by the Southern Ocean. The shortest distance from other landmasses is the band of water between South America and the Antarctic peninsula called: the Drake passage. For that reason most of the traffic to reach Antarctica happens just there.




Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world: the gateway to antarctic trips. This is the most common place to depart towards the white continent.

Ship cruise VS Expedition cruise

Ship cruise

These ships carry more than 500 passengers and propose to discover the antarctic by “cruising only”: this means you stay aboard and enjoy the landscapes and scenery from the outer deck. No excursion in Antarctica are possible. This kind of trip is usually combined with some days to spend around Patagonia.

    The pro:
  • the price of the ticket (per day) is much lower
  • the comfort aboard is really high
    The con:
  • you will “cruise only” since these ships are not allowed to bring their passengers ashore (for environmental protection purpose and safety)
  • the ratio guides / passengers is lower, so you will not be very close to your guides

"Ship cruise" means that you stay aboard and enjoy the scenery from the ship. Obviously I prefer from far away the expedition cruise!

Expedition cruise

That’s a trip on a ship carrying less than 500 passengers. In that case passengers are allowed to land. We call these ships “expedition vessels” because they use small open boats to bring you ashore where there are no facilities to berth (no jetty, no wharf). Please note it is not allowed in the antarctic to land more than 100 persons at a time at the same spot. In some cases, options are offered, like kayaking, diving, camping, moutaineering, heliflights, etc... "Expedition cruise" means also that the itenerary os flexible and weather dependent. Well, to be honnest, depending on the companies the itenerary is more or less flexible. Some try to do everything to stick to the original plan, for some others, there is no plan at all! This is of cours ethe best options, this is what offers you the best experience. However this requires a lot of flexibility for the passengers...

"Expedition cruise" means that you make excursions out of the ship. You are closer from the elements: the wildlife, the ice, etc... It means also that you are more flexible. Of course the smaller, the more flexible you are, the more time you spend outside, the better!

201 to 500 passengers

Many options are proposed on these vessels. Some ships just “cruise” and landing is a paying option. Some other ships stay at the same place the whole day and organize several rotation of 100 people ashore like: group A from 08:00 to 10:00, group B from 10:00 to 12:00, etc...

    The pro:
  • the price is lower than smaller ship of course
  • the comfort is high
    The con:
  • you do not spend a lot of time ashore
  • in the case several rotations of groups are organized to go ashore, the ship need to stay at the same place the whole day waiting for each group to go ashore, while the group waiting aboard for his turn is entertained
  • you will visit less places
  • not all the visitor sites in the antarctic are open for this size of ship

101 to 200 passengers

Starting with that size, we start feeling more the “expedition style” of small size ships. Of course, no more than 100 passengers can be ashore at a time at the same place, but the dynamic is already there: you are closer to your guide, you will visit more places, and you will spend more time outside. Usually two groups of 100 people are made. While one is ashore, the other one can wait for is turn on the ship or make a small boat cruise in the mean time, we call this a “split landing”.

    The pro:
  • not as expensive as smaller ship under 100 passenger capacity
  • you can visit more than one place in one day
  • you spend more time outside per day
  • you are closer to your guides
  • all visitor sites in the antarctic are open to this ship’s capacity
    The con:
  • still less time ashore than smaller ships

13 to 100 passengers

In the “expedition ship” business, we call them “small ships”, because their capacity is under 100 passengers, all passengers can go out of the ship for boat cruising or landing at a time, it is easier to provide the same experience to everyone and it provides the highest level of flexibility

    The pro:
  • all visitor sites in the antarctic are open to this ship’s capacity
  • easier to provide the same experience for everyone as everyone can go out at a time
  • twice more time outside in comparison with a 200 passenger vessel
  • very close to your guides, you will be sharing meals with them several times a day
  • very flexible to be capable to change itinerary depending on weather, wildlife or ice conditions
  • the highest possibility of improvisation when something great is happening outside: a small boat cruise or a landing can be decided right on the spot
  • options are possible (kayaking, camping, skiing, diving, etc...)
    The con:
  • more expensive than bigger ships
  • no entertainment aboard the vessel in comparison with the one you can have on big cruise line
  • nless luxury and less public areas

Less than 13 passengers

Well call them “yacht”. Finally the real adventure! On such a journey you have two kind of vessels: motorboats, usually taking up to 12 passengers, or sailing boats, taking between three to a dozen of guests. You need to know that even sailing boat are traveling most of the time with their engine and not with sails (with fairs winds that I hope you’ll have you can’t use sail, and with too much wind, you need to make tacks, which slows down your way a lot).

These tiny ships are the most flexible of all. As they do not travel as fast a bigger ship, they stay usually more days around the antarctic than bigger one. Such trips are offered only around the antarctic peninsula for obvious reasons.

    The pro:
  • you feel closer to the nature and environment
  • you are for sure really close to your guide usually only one, sometimes two
  • you go really anywhere, where bigger ships will never go
  • a lot of options are proposed: trips for divers, for skiing, for mountaineering, for photographers
  • you stay stay a long time outside
    The con:
  • less comfort aboard sailing boatsw
  • slower speed
  • more difficult to cope with bad weather
  • less personnel to pamper you
  • less personnel to assist you ashore and create group for different levels of activities.

Antarctica by plane: fly and cruise option VS land based trip only

Air-cruise

This is a unique option for those who do not have a lot of time for their holidays, or if you feel sea sick! In fact, you will fly over the antarctic ocean and embark your ship in antarctic waters. After a few days traveling in Antarctica, you will fly out the same way. For practical reasons, this option does exist only to visit the Antarctic peninsula aboard small expedition vessels, and is operated by very few companies. The home airport is Punta Arenas (Chile) and the duration of the flight is two hours. You will land on a runway operated by the Chilean Air Force in the South shetland islands. From there some companies offer also half a day on the South shetlands before heading back without cruising,... I find it such a pity! To make all possible efforts to be there, without proceeding further South... Otherwise after 15 min walking down the runway, you'll embark your ship for 3, 5 or 7 days depending on the voyage.

    The pro:
  • extremely comfortable and efficient way to reach Antarctica
  • fast: 2h flights instead of 1,5 or 2 days at sea
  • no bad motion sickness
    The con:
  • the departure flight can not be guaranteed, as it is very weather dependent. You are in stand by mode until it takes off. This may take several hours, in some cases more than one day. (Companies are really clear about it and some have a refund policy)
  • in rare occasions (it is rare but it does happen), the flight is canceled in a last minute: you won’t visit Antarctica
  • the price is more expensive due to the charter flight to the antarctic!

"Air-cruise" is when you fly over the Drake passage and you embark the ship which is waiting for you in the Antarctic peninsula. This aircraft is landing passengers on the Chilean runway at Frei station on King George island in the South Shetland islands.

Land based trip

At last but not least, land based trips are the most expensive way to go to Antarctica, but this will provide you a totally different perspective and experience. You will not see icebergs, whales, ice cliffs, glaciers,... you will be walking on it! Instead you will live the silence and vastness of its interior by skiing, kiting, camping,... to reach several destination: a summit, the south geographic pole or why not an emperor colony.

Several options are possible. You can fly out from Cape-town in South Africa with an Ilyushin 76 TD-90 and land on the Novo Runway close to the russian Novolazarevskaya Station. From there, very engaged hiking/moutnaineering options are feasable. You must be a well trained mountaineer. You can take off from Punta Arenas (Chile) with an Ilyushin, and land quite South in the antarctic peninsula at Union Glacier. From there, you can camp an reahc other destinations with smaller aircraft like DC3, Casa or twin otter. You can fly to the South Geographic Pole, home to the american Amundsen-Scott Station. Or you can fly to 89°C South and ski the last dregree (it takes one week). You can fly to the Ronne iceshelf and visit an emperor penguin colony. Otherwise you cna stay there and prepare yourself to climb the seventh submit (4892m or 16049ft)!

Fly only

Some airlines in Australia offer to take off from Hobart to fly over Antarctica: they "visit" the coastline by air... The plane flies low (as possibly allowed by the regulations) making some loops over area of interests. You will receive comments from the speakers in the aircraft... This kind of trip last 7 or 8 hours as you need to reahc the continent before flying back... Since the price is also quite expensive, I do recommend you to choose another option!