I never thought much about going to Antarctica. It wasn’t a to-do list until I watched a segment about photographing icebergs on a show called Tales by light. I mentioned the program to a photographer colleague at work the next day. Call it fate – her next Antarctic cruise had a spot left and it was for photographers. You just can’t ignore such signs from the universe, so I made a big deposit and got my seat for the trip.
Before we dive into the best things about visiting Antarctica, let me give you a range of options for your visit. Cruises run the gamut, from those that sail beyond Antarctica – sometimes called sightseeing cruises – to those called expeditions. With Expeditions, you disembark and set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula (weather permitting), and depending on the itinerary, you can explore the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and the South Shetland Islands in you. heading towards Antarctica.
If you are short on time or are incapacitated by seasickness, consider a combined flight / cruise expedition. You will fly to King George Island and navigate the much calmer waters of Antarctica before returning to South America.
Different price points, duration of trips, ports of call, activities (helicopter tours, kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, overnight camping in Antarctica, etc.) and onboard amenities mean that there are quite a few of cruises to choose from. Since I was jumping aboard an already planned trip, all of these big decisions had already been made. The 18 day cruise I took with Zegrahm Expeditions was a round trip from Ushuaia, Argentina. He stopped at the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. The icebreaker was carrying less than 100 guests.
Here are the seven best things I experienced while visiting Antarctica:
1. It’s an adventure
Unlike a cruise with fixed stopovers and a schedule, a cruise to Antarctica does not necessarily take place that way. That’s not to say that cruise lines don’t have a schedule. They do. It’s just that Mother Nature, high surf, an entertaining group of whales, or even the appearance of a double rainbow can change the plans.
A cruise of this nature is more of an adventure due to where you are heading and the relatively small number of people. You can really linger if a pod of humpback whales show their tail fins and get close enough that you can see their barnacles.
A cruise in Antarctica is all about experiential travel – soaking up every moment. You may never go back and tour operators know that. They want you to have the most complete experience possible while you are at it.
Wildlife is abundant. It’s hard to imagine life thriving in this inhospitable environment, but it does. Six types of seals and sea lions, seven species of penguins, eight species of whales (with several subtypes of killer whales) and about 40 species of birds other than penguins live on or around Antarctica for at least part of the year.
Many Antarctic animals are migratory, traveling thousands of kilometers to breed or follow a food source over the course of a year. Almost 100 million birds migrate to Antarctica to breed in the spring. Humpback whales and blue whales migrate to Antarctica for a summer full of krill, a shrimp-like animal less than three inches long.
Antarctic cruises run from late October to March. If you want to see a specific animal, you’ll want to plan your expedition around the animal’s stay in South Georgia or Antarctica.
Generally speaking, penguins begin to hatch and elephant seals court in South Georgia in November. Whales migrate in December, and baby seals bask on South Georgia beaches in December. In January, the penguin chicks sport very downy feathers and stay in their nurseries (called nurseries), and whales and seals return to the area for food. February is the best for whale and fur seal watching, and their young are plentiful. If you want to see the nesting Wandering Albatross in South Georgia, February is the month to do so. In March, penguin chicks grow larger and adult penguins molt – it’s not the most photogenic month to visit and the temperature drops.
If you are most interested in king penguins, you may see chicks all season long, especially in South Georgia. King penguins have a 14 month breeding cycle, so you’ll see chicks and teens with brown down rather than feathers throughout the season. King penguins live in massive colonies (100,000 birds or more).
Pro tip: Emperor penguins, about four feet tall, live further inland from Antarctica. If seeing these majestic birds is a must, you will have to navigate inland via the Weddell Sea or fly to see them. Very rarely, an emperor can be seen on the peninsula.
The photographer on the Tales by light program I watched was the most enthusiastic about the ice cream. Once I saw the colors, textures and different formations of the pack ice and saw the icebergs calve and roll, I understood why the ice would be a highlight.
There are over a dozen types of sea ice, from icebergs to flat pancake ice. As your cruise ship enters the icy water, it will slow down to snail speed with the crew on the lookout not only for icebergs whose major mass is below the surface of the sea. water, but also growlers almost covered with water, difficult to spot, very hard, and extremely dangerous.
Ice is a photographer’s friend in Antarctica due to the variety of colors, shapes, sizes and textures. Ice can range from turquoise blue to steel gray. Many icebergs have windows or keyholes that add interest. I took as many pictures of ice as of wild animals.
If your greatest interest is in ice and landscape photography, plan to travel in January or February as there will be soft light at dawn and dusk. At the summer solstice in December, the sun is visible for 24 hours.
Pro tip: With snow, ice, and uninterrupted sun, consider using a polarizing filter for your landscape photographs.
As I mentioned, this trip is an adventure without any guarantees. Expedition Leaders are working to get you to the 7th Continent, usually the Antarctic Peninsula.
Pro tip: According to regulations set by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, no more than 100 people can be ashore at a time. Keep this in mind when looking for cruise ships. If you are traveling with more than 100 passengers, your time ashore will be reduced.
5. You will be amazed by the tenacity of the polar explorers
You will likely have a historian on board to lecture you on the trials and triumphs of polar explorers. As you learn about their efforts to reach the South Pole without any of the advantages we have today, you will appreciate their accomplishments, whether they succeeded or failed in their attempts.
You will sail and possibly land on Elephant Island, a small, rocky and inhabitable island where Sir Ernest Shackleford’s men stayed for over four months awaiting rescue after their ship was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea.
If your cruise takes you to the former whaling station of Grytviken in South Georgia, you will see Shackleton’s grave.
6. You will learn a lot
When the ship is underway, whether for several hours or several days (between South America and Antarctica), expedition leaders will lecture on everything from photography to bird watching and from whales to geology. Expedition leaders have varied backgrounds and are often expert naturalists or wildlife biologists.
As a bonus, you’ll dine with the expedition leaders and guest speakers on board. This gives you the opportunity to learn even more about Antarctica or its fields of study.
7. You can take a polar dive
A few brave souls have been awarded certificates for jumping into the icy waters of Paradise Bay while polar diving. The crew attached safety straps to pull them out of the water if necessary and the ship’s medic intervened. If you’re brave enough to dive, you deserve the certificate and the bragging rights.
Pro tip: It truly is a trip of a lifetime. As a photographer, I tend to get caught up in photographing. Put away your camera every now and then and soak up the beauty, listen to the sizzle and crackle of the ice, watch the penguin antics, and feel the ripples under your zodiac boat after a whale breach. Savor the moments.
Trips to the Arctic and Antarctica are an amazing experience, but require careful planning: