Antarctica – The White Continent
Situated at the bottom of the world, surrounded by the Southern Ocean. At 5.4 million square miles it is twice the size of Australia. It is the fifth largest continent, but it is more affectionately known as the 7th continent because most avid travelers who have already visited the other 6 continents look to Antarctica to complete their quest to visit all seven.
It is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent, and temperatures have been known to reach as low as – 128 Fahrenheit, but average about -80F in winter. There are no permanent residents in Antarctica, it is primarily used for research with multiple research stations across the continent whose experiments and resources are shared by scientists from other countries.
Antarctica is not owned by any one country, but part of the Antarctic Treaty which was signed by 12 countries back in 1959 as a place free from military action used to promote peacefulness and scientific cooperation. Since its’ inception, thirty-eight other countries have signed the Treaty, bringing the total to 50 nations.
So, why would anyone want to travel to Antarctica?
Pristine white snow, massive icebergs in a million hues of blue and the deafening silence of nothingness.
Thousands of pairs of penguins and their chicks dot the landscapes and if you are lucky enough to do a landing, you will be rewarded an opportunity to see them close-up in their natural environment, unafraid and curious of these humans that come visit.
Whale watching. Not from your hotel room, or even from your ship – which of course is entirely possible, but from your zodiac. The opportunity to see Minke, Southern Right or Humpback whales breaching off to the side or maybe even bubble net feeding right alongside your zodiac. These types of once in a lifetime experiences are what bring people to Antarctica.
Bucket list destination
As mentioned before, Antarctica can be that elusive destination for those serious travelers who want to put a checkmark next to Antarctica on their bucket list.
When is the best time to go?
While the Antarctic Season is very short, there are essentially 3 micro-seasons within the larger season. The best time to go is determined by what your goals and expectations are. Go too early and you miss out on opportunities to whale watch. Go too late, and you miss the season’s first ice and the iconic photo op of your expedition ship parked in the ice. Here is a quick glance of what to expect during each micro-season:
Late Spring / Early Summer (Late November-Early December)
- Courting season for penguins and seabirds
- Seals visible on fast ice.
- Spring wildflowers in the Falklands and South Georgia.
- Elephant and fur seals establish their breeding territories.
- Winter pack ice is at is best. As the first explorers of the season you are treated to pristine white ice and opportunities to “park” in the ice and snowshoe ashore.
Mid Summer (Mid-December- January)
If you are planning at trip around Christmas New Year, this is what you can expect.
- The warmest months of the season. You could easily be swimming in your ship’s pool enjoying the balmy weather.
- With almost 24 hours of daylight, the longer days create great light conditions and fabulous photo opportunities.
- Antarctic penguin chicks hatch.
- South Georgia and the Falklands – first penguin chicks emerge and fur seals are breeding.
- Seal Pups visible on South Georgia and the Falklands.
- Receding ice allows for more exploration.
Late Summer (February-March)
- Best time for Whale watching
- Penguin chicks start to fledge, most Adelie and Gentoo penguin colonies are nearly vacated by late Feb to early March. The snow will be brown with penguin guano and a pungent aroma will prevail.
- Snow algae blooms
- More opportunity for southerly exploration as pack ice recedes
- More fur seals on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Who sails there? What is the best company to travel with?
Again, this question is dependent on what your travel goals are for Antarctica. There are many cruise and expedition companies that offer the Antarctica experience. Your travel style should be taken into consideration when choosing the right company. Cruise companies range from luxury cruises to research vessels, the former being the most basic of experiences.
All the luxury cruise operators offer an all-inclusive product for this market including gratuities, wi-fi, alcoholic beverages and zodiac & land excursions, with some even including butler service. All ships are Polar Class ice vessels with reinforced hulls and at under 200 guests per sailing offer the best opportunities to go ashore. More about that later.
Other expedition cruise lines may not offer top shelf luxury like the others, but their premise is based on adventure and exploration with some offering excursions such as snowshoeing or camping on the peninsula. There is even an opportunity to sail aboard a Russian Icebreaker. You will certainly not be “roughing it” with these outfitters, all staterooms are very comfortable and nicely appointed, but balconies are few and far between and you might not get that beverage package or wi-fi to FaceTime your family back home.
How do I get there?
The majority of cruises depart from Ushuaia, Argentina, while some will depart from Punta Arenas Chile. This does involve a lengthy trip in itself. It requires a flight to Buenos Aires, or Santiago, with a recommended stay overnight. Then, (most often) a charter flight to Ushuaia or Punta Arenas with another overnight before boarding your ship. At least 2 travel days are needed to get to the embarkation city. A decent cushion is required in case of missed connections. If you miss your departure, there isn’t much you can do to catch up to the ship once it has left, so allow plenty of time for bad weather or airline delays.
Can I fly to Antarctica?
There are a few companies that offer a fly/cruise combo. Usually it allows the traveler to fly one way and cruise back the other way. Keep in mind that the weather will play an important part in arriving in Antarctica, and conditions will need to be favorable to land. If the weather does not cooperate, you may find that your departure is delayed by one or several days, and you will miss much of the cruise portion of the trip.
Do I need a visa?
You do not need a visa to visit Antarctica. A reciprocity fee was required until recently for US Citizens traveling to Argentina, but has since been waived. For the most up to date information on visa requirements, it is best to check with the local embassy. Alternately, Visa HQ is a great online resource for verifying visa requirements and can help you obtain visas for any of your upcoming travels.
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