Step-by-step guide: 13 best highlights of an Antarctica expedition cruise
By Cruise International | 9 Mar 2022
The wreck of Endurance has been found in the Antarctic, 106 years after the historic ship was crushed in pack ice and sank during an expedition by the explorer Ernest Shackleton. Antarctica, the Seventh Continent, remains one of the world’s great wildernesses, and with no significant human habitation and strict rules around the conduct of both cruise ships and passengers, it’s set to remain a relatively pristine place for years to come. Jamie Lafferty gives a step-by-step guide to the highlights of an Antarctica cruise.
Flawlessness does not necessarily mean a warm welcome, though – conditions in the extreme south still dictate much of the planning for expedition leaders and ships’ captains.
Many Antarctic itineraries are deliberately kept vague in case weather or ice prevent landings or, in some cases, even stop the ship from entering certain seas.
Step-by-step guide to an Antarctica expedition cruise
With much of the fun in the anticipation, it’s good to have an idea of where you’ll go and what you might see on your sailing. Here is a selection of the most frequently visited and most memorable sites around Antarctica’s frozen world.
When people describe Antarctica as one of the planet’s best places for spotting wildlife, they typically mean for birds and, more specifically, penguins. Spend a calm morning in Wilhelmina Bay, however, and you can instead expect to be surrounded by whales.
It’s not uncommon to see dozens of humpback whales here in the middle of the Antarctic season, a job made a lot easier by the ordinarily calm water. Captains of smaller ships like the Magellan Explorer or G Adventures’ G Expedition tend to slow the vessel while passing through this classic Antarctic Peninsula destination, allowing passengers to take photographs or listen to the whales’ report as they come up for air.
Even by Antarctica’s remarkable standards, Deception Island is an unusual place. A still-active volcano, it provided shelter for whaling ships in the early part of last century but is now commonly visited by cruise ships as a final stop before heading back north across the Drake Passage.
While most passengers will spend their time on black-sand beaches photographing chinstrap penguins or the remnants of an old whaling station, there are other ways of experiencing its sights up close. Aurora Expeditions has kayaking trips on sailings aboard Greg Mortimer or new ship Sylvia Earle that will have you paddling through the island’s imposing natural gate, a spectacular set of cliffs known as Neptune’s Bellows.
Given its name, perhaps Paradise’s popularity isn’t a surprise. Almost every cruise operator visiting the Antarctic Peninsula – including Hurtigruten, Oceanwide Expeditions, Celebrity Cruises and many more – will come to this scenic natural harbour.
Often filled with just the right amount of ice, it’s ideal for Zodiac cruises, kayaking and even snorkelling. Photographers will be very busy here – the ice often looks like floating sculptures – while anyone looking to stretch their legs will get the chance to visit Argentina’s Brown Base.
Antarctica expedition ships travelling between the Peninsula and subantarctic South Georgia will always pass Elephant Island. A dramatic and foreboding place, it was one of the key locations of Ernest Shackleton’s astonishing survival tale during the calamitous 1914-17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
The majority of Shackleton’s men were left here on Point Wild to wait out nightmarish conditions while their leader sailed with a handful of others to find help on South Georgia. Landing on Point Wild is rare, but Zodiac cruises around the historic peninsula or even seeing it from the deck of a larger ship will give a good introduction to what Shackleton’s men endured.
In some seasons the whole of the Weddell Sea is shut off because of dangerous ice conditions, and a few of history’s great explorers – including Shackleton and Nordenskjöld – were undone here. Modern captains understandably proceed with great caution. The rewards include a chance to see mighty tabular icebergs, some the size of shopping malls, up close.
Landings to places like Vega Island offer an opportunity to go fossil hunting, too, but the real prize is Snow Hill Island. It’s there that ships with helicopters, including Quark Expeditions’ latest vessel Ultramarine and Scenic’s discovery yacht Scenic Eclipse, can visit the world’s northernmost emperor penguin colony. If your budget doesn’t quite stretch to the helicopter excursion add-on, other ships can still see some juveniles floating on bergs if they’re able to get close enough.
Critics may suggest that crossing the Antarctic Circle is nothing more than a box-ticking exercise, but if you’re interested in extreme latitudes, then joining a Ponant cruise dedicated to hitting this mark will be worthwhile. If visiting Antarctica is rare, reaching this invisible boundary is yet more uncommon – only a tiny sliver of humanity ever gets to this point on the Earth.
Racing down the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, you’ll still have the chance to visit more popular sites such as beautiful Neko Harbour, but if conditions are favourable – and especially if you’re travelling on or around December 21 – you may have the sun with you all night.
The vast majority of Antarctic tourism starts and ends in South America, but for anyone looking for something wilder, Heritage Expeditions’ Ross Sea itineraries offer a full month of unpredictable adventure. Ordinarily leaving from New Zealand, the route passes singular subantarctic islands such as Snares and Macquarie with endemic penguin species, before pushing far south into the untamed Southern Ocean.
Seeing other ships on these rare voyages is incredibly uncommon – this feels like Antarctic tourism from decades ago. If luck is on your side, you’ll also get a chance to visit Captain Scott’s hut and the sprawling McMurdo Station.
Located at the north of the Weddell Sea, Paulet Island in Antarctica is home to a huge colony of Adelie penguins. The southernmost and hardiest species of brushtail penguin, in most Antarctic destinations they’re seen less commonly than their cousins, the gentoo and chinstrap.
Not so here, where up to 100,000 breeding pairs of Adelies throng the rocky shore. Paulet is also remarkable thanks to it being one of the three bases established by men on Otto Nordenskjöld’s fraught 1901-04 expedition into the Weddell Sea. Following a hike across the island, don’t be surprised if you find Adelie penguins jumping around inside the ruins of the Swedish explorers’ hut.
Grytviken, South Georgia
In as much as there is still a community on this British Overseas Territory, Grytviken is it. Once a Norwegian whaling station, it now feels like a living museum, with many of the rusting buildings testament to the grim industry that once dominated the region.
Less macabre is the Norwegian Lutheran Church, occasionally used for weddings, while the South Georgia Heritage Trust maintains a shop, museum and post office. For many, however, it’s a chance to visit the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who is buried in a small cemetery on the edge of the settlement.
West Point Island, The Falklands
For some, this will be the final stop before heading back to South America. While that would make it unforgettable anyway, West Point is also home to one of the world’s largest colonies of black-browed albatross.
These gorgeous birds nest in great numbers and a protected path allows intimate access to watch them perform courtship dances – or squabble with nearby southern rockhopper penguins.
Stromness, South Georgia
If South Georgia’s notorious winds allow, expedition staff will lead passengers almost literally in the footsteps of Shackleton on a hike from Fortuna Bay to the former whaling station at Stromness. ‘The boss’ led just two other men across this scenic pass in 1916 on their final, desperate trek to survival.
Most visitors complete just the last four miles of the 36, passing through a colony of fur seals, before heading out across a bare pass, then down into a wide valley. Before descending, you’ll see what Shackleton saw: the old Norwegian base hugging the shore and offering respite.
Salisbury Plain, South Georgia
King penguins are found around the world at subantarctic latitudes, but the gatherings in South Georgia are surely the most spectacular anywhere. Incomprehensibly large colonies are found in St Andrews Bay and Gold Harbour, both of which are visited by Swan Hellenic on its Falklands & Antarctica Discovery sailings, but the most dazzling is at Salisbury Plain.
Often joined by bellicose elephant seals and cranky fur seals, the king penguin colony here is thought to be home to as many as 400,000 birds, which stand around a metre tall. It’s a lot to absorb with your eyes, but brace yourself as well for the smell and noise blasting over the plain.
Stanley, The Falklands
Stanley is a certain stop for any ships visiting the Falkland Islands, including everyone from NCL and Princess Cruises to Silversea, Seabourn and Holland America Line.
If you’ve just spent a fortnight cruising around the Antarctic wilderness, arriving in a town of 2,500 people may feel a little jarring, but the chance to smell flowers and hike around Stanley Harbour to beautiful Gypsy Cove offers excellent compensation. There’s a surprising number of pubs, and a museum dedicated to the history of the island.
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Top Antarctica FAQ’s
If you have as many Antarctica expedition cruising questions as there are penguins living on the South Shetland Islands, you’re not alone. When you’re contemplating Antarctica cruising, it’s normal to have a few questions about how to reach the end of the globe.
Q. Just how adventurous do I have to be to cruise to Antarctica?
You might think that hopping on board an Antarctica ship is only for the most daring of travellers. Well, daring comes in many sizes.
Antarctica attracts a wide range of travellers of experience and ages. If you love wildlife, incredible scenery, and can climb into a boat (called Zodiacs) with a helping hand, you are good to go.
Q. What kind of wildlife will I see?
Several species of seals and penguins call Antarctica home, as well as killer whales and albatross. On landing days, you’re likely to see plenty of penguins, seals and other birds.
If the captain spots whales at sea, there will likely be an announcement over the ship’s intercom so everyone can head to the observation deck.
Q. Tell it to me straight. Am I going to freeze?
Despite the fact this isn’t the Caribbean, you’ll be pretty toasty most of the time. Temperatures are kept at comfortable levels on board and more luxurious ships will offer spas to keep toasty. Wind and waterproof outer layers and pants in warm fabrics such as wool, fleece, or certain synthetic blends made for the cold are recommended.
You won’t need a tonne of gear, but layers will keep you comfortable and most cruise lines will also deck you out with an Expedition Parka.
Q. Is my camera good enough? Or do I need a new one especially for the expedition?
With scenery like this, it’s no wonder Antarctica calls to everyone’s inner photographer. Most ships have onboard photographers who lead lessons on how to best use the camera that you have. If you’re a novice, a point-and-shoot camera is fine, while a DSLR will give others a decent range. For a list of other gear to take with you, check out our top tips.