icy waters of Antarctica

What to Expect on a Cruise to Antarctica

For avid travellers or adventure chasers, the idea of reaching the southernmost continent is a dream that can feel far away. From observing emperor penguins to leaving fresh snow prints in uncharted territory, there are dozens of reasons why people put Antarctica at the top of their travel list. Thankfully, more and more tour operators have begun offering organised tours and cruises to this elusive, snow-covered desert.

But if you’re not a scientist, a polar explorer, or a penguin, what do you actually do in Antarctica? What’s the weather like? Will there be much wildlife? Are the ships comfortable? There are so many things to consider before planning an Antarctic expedition, it can be overwhelming knowing where to start.  

Whether you’ve already booked your cruise or you’re just entertaining the idea, here’s what you can expect during a cruise to beautiful Antarctica.

icy waters of Antarctica
Discover this unspoilt region of earth | © Bhart9070/Pixabay

When to visit

Unlike most of the world, Antarctica only has two seasons: summer and winter. And the difference between the two is night and day – literally. The best time to visit, of course, is in the “warmer” months.

  • Summer in Antarctica is between November and March, the time of year when the sun rises and doesn’t set until the winter (or Polar Day). These months are the only timeframe tour operators offer tours, just because it would be pitch black any other time of the year. The temperature fluctuates between -26 and -45 degrees Celsius, with December and January being the “warmest” months.  
  • Winter also known as Polar Night, begins around the end of March and persists until September. This is the time of year when the sun sets and does not rise again until summer. Temperatures drop well below -60 degrees Celsius, making it far too dark and cold for any tour operators to offer a comfortable or safe experience.

Getting to Antarctica

One of the only ways to get to Antarctica is by cruise ship. Some tour operators offer flights that let you bypass the difficult Drake Passage, but there is always an expensive fee associated with that luxury. That’s why cruises have become the most widley accepted travel option. However, it’s important to note that there is a big difference between a luxury cruise ship and an expedition cruise ship.

  • Luxury cruises to Antarctica are often on sleek ships that accommodate around 200 vacationers. A luxury cruise ship to Antarctica may not offer all the bells and whistles, but it would be a much higher-end experience than a non-luxury expedition liner. Beautiful dining rooms, massages, expensive linens, 5-star chefs, and so on. The cruise itself is as much of an aspect of the trip as the destination is.
  • An expedition cruise is entirely about the destination and less so about the cruising lifestyle. These ships are designed to get the travellers to and from places, while spending as much time off the ship as possible. Onboard staff will likely have expert knowledge of Antarctica, with some of them being professional wildlife photographers or marine biologists. There may not be an indoor pool or king size bed, but the comforts of home will still be there while you cross those icy-cold waters.

Enjoying the wildlife

One thing you’ll learn very quickly in Antarctica is how harsh the environment is. It’s freezing cold, very windy, and one of the driest places on earth. It’s hard to imagine some animals can survive here, let alone thrive. Despite the rough living conditions, there are animal species that have adapted to the Antarctic way of life.

two chinstrap penguins standing on ice near body of water
Get up-close to these cute little animals in the White Continent | © Torsten Dederichs/Unsplash
  • Penguins are some of the cutest animals you’ll encounter in Antarctica. Seven species of penguins can be encountered in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions, and understandably they are high on the list of animals travellers want to see in the region. Plus, the chances of seeing them are high, thanks to the number of known colonies around the coastlines of Antarctica.
  • Seals are also one of the most common wildlife species to spot in Antarctica. With six different types to look out for, including the amusing elephant Seal, you’ll enjoy watching them lounge around and play with ice in the sea.
  • Whales are another creature you should keep your eyes peeled for while you’re exploring Antarctica, and when you’re cruising along the ocean. Humpback, minke, fin, sperm whales, and orcas are all some species you may be able to spot.

Things to do

During an expedition trip to Antarctica, there’s a lot more to do than you may think. As travellers spend a fair amount of time sailing, expeditions often hold activities on board and plan lectures and presentations by experts. Of course, once you arrive on the White Continent, you can spend time exploring off the ship. Land activities are voluntary, and while they aren’t mandatory, it’s worth checking some of them out!

two persons standing on snow field
Nothing can prepare you for these incredible views | © Cassie Matias/Unsplash
  • Kayaking is a common activity for Antarctic cruises, as it allows travellers to get up close and personal with the stunning landscapes and wildlife. Quietly float past sunbathing leopard seals or circumnavigate icebergs; it’s entirely up to you.
  • Zodiac tours are another great way to get out on the water and explore the wildlife. These tours can be a bit more educational, as an expert guide will more than likely accompany you. They can explain exactly what you might be experiencing – for example, what species of whale you just saw, or why the penguins are dancing around the way they are.
  • Hiking in Antarctica is a chilly experience, but it’s one of the only ways you can really get close to the penguins. Kayaking and zodiac tours are equally as amazing, but setting foot on this land will be an experience you’ll never forget.
  • Photography is one of the main reasons why a lot of people want to travel to Antarctica so badly. The views are unlike anywhere else in the world, with the opportunity to see massive blue icebergs, snow-covered valleys, and whales up close.
  • Whale watching is another popular excursion that most Antarctic cruises offer. Whether from the liner or a smaller zodiac boat, these tours often leave you speechless as a humpback whale appears out of nowhere. Just be aware that the most popular time of year to see whales in Antarctica is during February and March.

Type of traveller best suited for this adventure

Planning and embarking on a trip to Antarctica is no easy feat. It requires lots of planning, an open mind, and a positive attitude. From the intense crossing of the Drake Passage to the far below freezing temperatures, there are lots of aspects of this trip that will introduce travellers to unique challenges. The type of person best suited for this trip is:

  • Extremely adventurous – they see even the smallest challenges as minor setbacks when it comes to seeing through their travel goals
  • Adaptable – they don’t mind making quick changes or going off the itinerary. It’s Antarctica, and things can change in a second.
    Has a positive attitude – maybe things didn’t go exactly as planned, but tomorrow is a new day and a new chance to try it again.
  • Appreciative of nature – they love nature and everything untouched wilderness has to offer. From playful penguins to the vastness of the ocean, the discovery element of this trip excites them more than anything else.
  • Excited to learn – not only do they love to travel, but they also enjoy learning about the destination they’re visiting. They don’t just want to see whales; they want to learn what species this species is about, where it feeds, and what it does in Antarctica.

If you’re ready to start planning your adventure to Antarctica, TourRadar is the best place to start. Easily compare different itineraries, prices, and tour operators all from one place. Plus if you need help, travel agents are standing by ready to answer any questions you have. To get started, check out the top Antarctica and South Pole cruises and tours and get yourself inspired! 

Jesse is a blogger and content creator who loves travel, the outdoors, and her dog, Molly. When she isn't planning her next trip, she can be found watching Netflix documentaries, enjoying time by the water, or eating soft-serve ice cream. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, or check out her blog.

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