The enormous continent of Antarctica is an unknown land and the least frequented of all the cruise regions.

Cruise expeditions visit a tiny corner of the area, known as the Antarctic Peninsula, and the South Shetland Islands. All cruises require a crossing of the Drake Passage, to the south of Cape Horn, where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet.

Itineraries usually start and finish in South America, at Buenos Aires, Montevideo or Ushuaia which is the world’s southernmost city. Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands and Grytviken, in South Georgia are also featured on many expeditions.

The Antarctic season is very short and operates from mid November to early March. Temperatures vary between -5ºC and 18ºC during what is known as the warmer season.

Early in the season, especially in early December, cruise passengers will see the dramatic nest building and courtship displays of the penguins. Fur seals are claiming their breeding grounds at this time of the year too. During the two weeks either side of Christmas and New Year, the young penguins and seal pups appear and as more ice melts there are opportunities to see whales in the newly formed water channels.

Whales are sighted more frequently during the later season and at this time penguin chicks begin to leave their nests and the area’s fauna is at its most colourful.

As with Alaska, much of the Antarctic scenery is admired from the decks of the ship or its observation lounges and balconies. Most excursions though, are in especially designed Zodiacs (inflatable landing craft) for which the passengers are provided with weatherproof protective clothing and lifejackets.

To really appreciate the beauty of the scenery and wildlife, some excursions may be organised as early as 4 am. The sunrises are amongst the most dramatic on earth and the memory of seals, penguins and even albatrosses roaming against such a backdrop is everlasting.

Those wishing to explore the seas of the Antarctic Peninsula cannot expect a glamorous or glitzy lifestyle on board their ship. This is expedition cruising on smaller vessels for those who wish to be educated by leading lecturers and naturalists rather than entertained.

Safety is of course a priority and crossing the Drake’s Passage can be quite choppy to the point that the porthole covers of some lower deck cabins may be closed for a few days. The 540 km long chain of islands that forms the South Shetland Islands is navigated over four or five days and it is usually possible for passengers to leave their ship at Deception Island, Elephant Island, Prion Island and Snow Hill Island.

It is impossible to predict in advance which islands and ports may be visited as the ice packs and ice floes dictate the ship’s progress. For the majority, this is all part of the fun and excitement of expedition cruising.