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A cruise ship sits in Antarctica, pointed toward a glacier. (Photo: John Roberts)

Everything You Need to Know About Antarctica Cruises

A cruise ship sits in Antarctica, pointed toward a glacier. (Photo: John Roberts)
Contributor
Ben Lyons
Editor-In-Chief
Colleen McDaniel

Last updated
Mar 18, 2024

Read time
11 min read

Antarctica is the last untouched continent, making it a desirable destination for the intrepid traveler. It has no indigenous people (though plenty of native wildlife) and no economy, yet it covers almost 10% of the earth's surface -- making it 1.5 times the size of the United States. Overwhelming and awe-inspiring, it has a raw, emotional effect on visitors that few destinations match and is often described as "visiting another planet." Still, only about 100,000 tourists visit each year -- a small number compared with Alaska's 1.6 million cruise visitors.

Still, Antarctica is seeing an explosion of interest from travelers who more and more are investing in experiences rather than things, and each season, more cruise ships are visiting this vast and incredible destination. Here’s everything you need to know about Antarctica cruises.

Antarctica Has a Wild History and Century-Old Allure

Cruisers from Le Lyrial visit Ernest Shackelton's grave on South Georgia Island. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

The history of Antarctica's exploration includes Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen's famous race for the South Pole, as well as one of the greatest survival stories of all time just a few years later.

In 1914, Ernest Shackleton and his crew set sail aboard Endurance on a quest to be the first to cross the southernmost continent over land. They abandoned their attempt the next year when the ship was trapped in sea ice, but thanks to Shackleton's courage and determination, all crewmembers survived.

The wreck of Endurance was discovered in 2022, and, incredibly, was mostly intact. The wreck will remain where it was found, in the icy waters of Antarctica.

Antarctic leisure travel began in the late 1960s when Lars-Eric Lindblad pioneered commercial expedition travel. For a few decades, only a handful of specially built ships ventured south. In the 1990s, expedition cruising began to boom, and today, you'll find a variety of ships, sizes and prices.

Modern cruise ships visit just the tip of the iceberg compared with the voyages of the great explorers. Most ships travel just to the South Shetland Islands and the 1,000-mile-long Antarctic Peninsula.

Fewer passengers reach South Georgia, located 800 miles to the northeast of the peninsula, and only a handful venture deep into the Ross Sea on the other side of the continent. Find out what it’s like to visit South Georgia.

You’ll Discover Wildlife in Antarctica – in Abundance

Gentoo penguins are found throughout Antarctica. (Photo: John Roberts)

For wildlife lovers, few destinations can match The White Continent. Of course, everyone comes to see the penguins, which thrive in raucous colonies that can consist of tens of thousands of birds.

Three types of penguins -- chinstrap, gentoo and Adelie -- are common along the peninsula. Larger, and arguably more beautiful, king penguins are rarely seen on the peninsula but are found in vast colonies in South Georgia.

Sightings of emperor penguins, which can reach 3 feet tall and weigh more than 80 pounds, are unlikely, although occasionally they can be found near the Weddell Sea or on ice in the far south of the peninsula.

Whether you actually step foot on the Antarctic continent or not, you’ll likely see penguins, in abundance.

Many other creatures thrive there, too. Antarctica has a large concentration of marine wildlife, with six species of seals and at least nine types of whales. Seals are commonly found on the beaches and lazing on ice floes, and you'll often spy humpback whales and killer whales in the height of the summer, from October through March.

Check out the other animals you might find in Antarctica as well as when you have the best chance of spotting them.

An ice sculpture floats in the waters of Antarctica. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

Cute penguins aside, many visitors say their most-vivid memories involve the abundant ice and remarkable scenery. Icebergs come in a variety of shapes and textures -- some stark white, others a deep, mournful blue. Huge, sometimes calving, glaciers line the horizon.

Most impressive are the immense tabular icebergs that break off from frozen ice shelves in huge chunks. Sometimes stretching for miles, they are imposing and powerful reminders of the vastness of the continent itself and the unmatched power of nature.

Best Time for Antarctica Cruises

A kayaker takes in the scenery on a gorgeous day in Antarctica. (Photo: John Roberts)

The Antarctic summer begins in October and ends in March. (Antarctica only has two seasons: summer and winter.) No cruise ships visit in the austral winter, when pack ice extends more than 620 miles around the continent and it is dark almost all day, with temperatures rarely exceeding freezing.

December and January are traditionally the most-popular time to visit the Antarctic Peninsula, when daylight lasts the longest and temperatures reach their most comfortable. By mid-December, the first penguin chicks emerge and whales start to arrive.

In January, whales are in abundance (and remain so throughout the season), and the ice slowly begins to recede, which allows more exploration farther south.

By February, nights are noticeably longer, and by the end of the season, winter's imminent arrival is felt. You'll experience a wide variety of weather conditions -- rain, snow, sleet and sunny skies -- no matter when you go. Temperatures can change by the hour, ranging from relatively mild in the high 30s to freezing and below, with a significant wind-chill factor.

No matter the season, packing right is essential. Read our ultimate Antarctica packing list.

South Georgia's climate is milder, and the season stretches from mid-October until March. Many visitors prefer to come in mid-October or November, before aggressive fur seals take over the beaches and while the massive bull elephant seals can be seen in large numbers.

Antarctica Cruise Lines Offer Choice

A crabeater seal relaxes on the ice while cruisers in a Zodiac boat snap photos. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

Size is the most important factor in choosing your type of experience. International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators guidelines dictate that ships carrying more than 500 passengers can’t land passengers ashore. Instead, big ships will spend several days scenic cruising with no landings.

Most expedition ships, however, are much smaller, carrying fewer than 200 passengers. They use Zodiacs so passengers can venture off the ship to set foot on land.

Learn more about the differences between the large- and small-ship experience in Antarctica.

Modern ships can offer the height of luxury and comfort, and what you choose will depend greatly on your tastes and budget. On a large cruise ship – where you sail by vs. land in Antarctica – you could pay less than $100 per person per day. On an expedition or luxury ship, can quickly jump to north of $1,000 per person per day.

Check out the Best Antarctica Cruise Lines.

Antarctica Cruise Itineraries Vary Depending on Ship

Ushuaia serves as the embarkation point for most cruises to Antarctica. (Photo: John Roberts)

Most Antarctica cruise itineraries (and fares) include charter flights to the cruise port of Ushuaia, Argentina, from (and back to) Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Santiago, Chile. There is generally an overnight stay scheduled at a hotel in Buenos Aires or Santiago on the way to the cruise. Your ship probably will leave from Ushuaia.

Cruises to Antarctica are longer than a typical weeklong journey; you won’t find a sailing that is less than 10 days, and with added time for transport to and from Ushuaia, two weeks is a reasonable minimum expectation for an Antarctic vacation.

In the large-ship, conventional cruise category, the journey to Antarctica is usually a shorter portion of a two-week around-the-horn South America cruise.

Most expedition ship itineraries visit the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, where you will be able to walk on the continent among the penguins and seals.

Longer journeys on expedition ships will add South Georgia and the Falklands Islands, two spots that some guests say exceed the beauty of Antarctica. Here, you can visit large albatross colonies and learn about the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and Britain. The voyage continues onto the wilderness mecca of South Georgia, where you can watch four-ton elephant seals battle on beaches, and history buffs can pay respects at Shackleton's grave.

No matter what ship you choose, where you go depends on weather conditions. The itinerary you book is unlikely to be the one you actually sail, as weather, animal migration patterns and even outbreaks of avian flu can affect where you land and how you get there.

If it's too windy and dangerous to land the Zodiacs at one spot, the captain will sail to another landing. The idea of a scheduled itinerary with defined port calls simply doesn't exist in Antarctic cruising.

Drake Passage with 15-meter swells as seen from Ponant's Le Lyrial. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

Whether you choose a large or a small ship from South America, there's almost no getting away from sailing across the notorious Drake Passage -- roughly 36 to 48 hours of often choppy seas and gale-force winds.

The area is nicknamed the Drake Lake on calmer days and the Drake Shake on wilder days. Come prepared with a supply of seasick patches, but remember that Antarctica is well worth a few days of discomfort.

For those who just can't stomach the idea of the Drake Passage, several cruise lines, including Silversea, Lindblad, Quark Expeditions, Atlas Ocean Voyages and Antarctica 21 offer options to fly to and from the South Shetlands and pick up your ship in Antarctica. Be aware, however, inclement weather can sometimes delay flights.

Antarctica Cruise Port Highlights

Sapphire Princess guests in Antarctica (Photo: Tim Johnson)

Antarctic landings are unlike anything you will experience on a regular cruise. There are no cafes, shops, towns or people, except at a handful of research stations.

Most ships drop anchor and take passengers by Zodiac to roughly the same landing spots. (With more cruise lines sailing in Antarctica, though, some companies visit more off-the-beaten path spots.) What follows are some of the more commonly visited landings:

Deception Island: An active volcano with black ash, Deception Island is one of the most-popular landings, and when arriving through Neptune's Bellows -- a 200-meter-wide gap in the wall of the caldera -- it's easy to see why.

On the shore is an abandoned British Antarctic survey base and crumbling boilers from a Norwegian whaling operation. It's a great hiking spot, and from the higher peaks, you might be lucky enough to spot a pod of humpback whales in the sea below.

Elephant Island: A habitat for chinstrap and gentoo penguins, this is where Shackleton's crew was stranded while he took five of his men in search of help. The men were eventually rescued from the island but only after spending a grueling winter there. Landing at the campsite is almost never possible; if conditions are good, expect a Zodiac cruise around the area instead.

Find out more about what Antarctica shore excursions are like.

Port Lockroy: A British station on Wiencke Island was secretly established by Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II to report enemy activity and provide weather reports.

Now, the rustic building is like a time capsule from the 1960s, complete with original cans of food in the kitchen and peeling, painted pin-ups in the bedroom. Managed by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, it is manned and maintained by a small team each summer. The building is part museum and part shop, so get your cash ready. There's a great selection of souvenirs, and you can even send a postcard from here.

Hiking in Antarctica with Atlas Ocean Voyages (Photo: Jeri Clausing)

Half Moon Island: This crescent moon-shaped South Shetland island is the site of an Argentine research station, and you'll find the wreck of an old wooden whaling boat on its shores. It is home to a large chinstrap penguin colony, as well as nesting Antarctic terns and kelp gulls. You'll also find fur and elephant seals lazing on the beach or ferociously fighting in the surf.

The Lemaire Channel: This is one of the most spectacular and photographed waterways on the planet. You’ll glide through clear sapphire seas among mountain peaks capped with pristine white snow and ice-blue bergs. This is not a landing, but the Zodiacs might be lowered for seal-spotting and taking photos of the ship.

Antarctica Cruise Tips

A cruise passenger stops to take photos of approaching penguins in Antarctica. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

Knowing what to expect can help you better plan your trip. Here are a few Antarctica cruise tips to help you with your planning.

Extend your trip: One night isn't nearly enough time to explore the vibrant departure cities of Buenos Aires and Santiago. It pays to add a few days -- or even a week -- on your own. You won't regret it.

Bringing a camera: Many people visit Antarctica with just their mobile phone camera, and for many people, that’s fine. (Chances are, a photographer onboard will hold a session on using your camera to capture the scenery.)

Where cell phone cameras might fail is for capturing wildlife. You’re unlikely to be close enough to whales or albatross to make a picture that has the detail you would like.

If you want those photos, bring a good SLR camera, and practice using it before you sail. More importantly, you’re going to want a great lens.

Travel responsibly: IAATO is an organization founded to advocate, promote and practice safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic. The continent is still unspoiled, and it's vital to keep it that way. So, before you go, clean and examine clothes and equipment thoroughly for dirt and other organic material to avoid cross-contamination.

Be flexible: Any Antarctica itinerary is likely to change from what was originally planned, because of weather and other factors beyond anyone’s control. Your cruise ship team will do its best to provide you with an incredible experience and communicate changes as they arise. Your frame of mind will influence your enjoyment.

Publish date January 09, 2019
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