Ever since Lars-Eric Lindblad built the first expedition-style cruise ship to take passengers to visit Antarctica in 1969, adventurous travelers have aspired to follow in their wake. Today about 40 vessels – mostly expedition-style vessels but some yachts as well -- make the run to the White Continent, leaving primarily from Argentina or the Falkland Islands, carrying as few as six and as many as 500 passengers.
Most of the Antarctic-bound ships, though, carry fewer than 100 passengers. Visitors go in search of the last real wilderness on earth, whose sole permanent residents are penguins, whales, seals, albatrosses and other abundant marine and bird life.
Besides the stunning array of wildlife, you’ll see glaciers, snow-covered mountains, icebergs, and, on some tours, historic sites (such as early Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s huts) and perhaps one of the 20 scientific research stations that have welcomed visitors since 1969.
The most common destinations on sea tours leaving from South America are the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetland Islands, South Georgia Island, and the Falkland Islands -- all havens for wildlife. (The latter two are not part of Antarctica.) The primary destination in Antarctica itself is the Antarctic Peninsula, which juts up from the rest of the mainland and is closest to South America.
A few icebreakers challenge the often frozen Weddell Sea in search of emperor penguins to the peninsula’s east. And some ships make the journey from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to the Ross Sea on the other side of the continent; emperor penguin colonies are accessible from there by helicopter.
While some 100 tourist sites have seen landings in Antarctica over the years, fewer than 10 receive the bulk of the visitors. Port Lockroy, site of the British Antarctic Survey, is the most visited site, drawing more than 10,000 visitors per year. Passengers board Zodiacs (rubberized rafts) to go ashore, with most ships making one to three landings per day on the mainland.
Protecting the Ecosystem
Strict standards Antarctic tour operators must follow strict environmental protection guidelines mandated by the international Antarctic Treaty as well as the voluntary guidelines of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO); all itineraries must be approved in advance so they don’t harm the wildlife or the fragile ecosystem.
The Antarctic tourist season runs from late October or early November to March or early April, the summer months when the waters off Antarctica are comparatively ice free. The earlier months bring penguin and elephant seal courtship rituals, while the later months see the birth of penguin chicks and seal pups. By March the adult penguins are mostly headed out to sea, but whale and seal sightings increase. December and January bring the most daylight hours, prime time for photographers.
With so many variables in itineraries, vessels, levels of luxury, price, and trip lengths to wrestle with, it makes sense to let Stride help you sort through all the possibilities. And sooner than you may think, you can experience the same wonders that have captivated polar explorers for more than a century.
Travel to Antarctica: Before you go
Warning: obvious statement ahead. It gets cold! So pack very warmly. Consider thermal undergarments, and breathable layers. Some excursions will involve being out on the water among icebergs, so also consider waterproof outer-layers. Cold can be alarmingly disorienting, so if you get cold easily, talk to your doctor about any precautionary measures or tips they recommend.
You may also want to consider any anti seasickness measures. Waters can be unpredictable, and you’ll be spending a lot of time aboard ship. Some tips to keep in mind: eat lot’s of crystallized ginger! Dramamine is also extremely effective for some. Talk with a doctor to figure out what will work best for you.
Antarctica does not have a governing body, and no permanent residents. All visitors, whether business or pleasure, are temporary. For this reason, you only need to ensure that your passport is valid for at least 6 months prior to your trip. No visa is required if you plan to stay less than 90 days.
Safety Considerations When Traveling to Antarctica
Keep in mind is that there are no public hospitals, pharmacies, or doctors offices in Antarctica. If you get sick or hurt, you will be relying on your cruise’s available resources, which while sufficient for normal ailments, will be minimal for anything extreme.
As mentioned above, be prepared for the cold and bring any anti seasick measures.
As highlighted by the CDC, you will be traveling with people from all over the world, in close quarters, and for an extended period of time. The risk of influenza, measles, and mumps is increased because of this, so especially for older travelers and children it will be important to ensure you are up to date on all these vaccines.