Traveling to Antarctica
Antarctica, the seventh continent, one of the most exotic and adventurous places you can visit.
At least that’s what I thought. Surprisingly, a lot of people didn’t share my enthusiasm. There was a lot of, “but it’s so cold”.
Actually, if you’re touring the edge of the continent and surrounding islands, the temperature is around 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer months. Keep in mind that summer is October through March in this part of the world.
Don’t let the naysayers deter you. Antarctica is worth the visit. You’ll come away a different person, having seen a part of the world that’s still somewhat pristine and appears endless.
- Traveling to Antarctica
- Planning and Research
- Arriving in Ushuaia, Argentina
- Boarding the Ship
- The Hebridean Sky – Exploring the Ship
- The Food
- The Passengers
- Heading out to sea
- Getting Off the Ship – Excursions
- Stepping Out on the Continent
- Not Getting our Passports Stamped – It’s a Good Thing
- Beautiful Icebergs
- Close Encounters with Whales
- Overnight Camping
- The Polar Plunge
- My favorite memories
- Antarctica guidelines
- Things to note
- Articles You May Like
Planning and Research
Traveling to Antarctica takes a minimum of two weeks. Between getting to Ushuaia, Argentina where the ships dock, touring the continent and islands, then returning, you’ll need time.
It’s also a complex trip that benefits from using a travel agent, especially if you’re traveling solo.
There are two options: book early and secure your accommodations on the ship you want, or go to Ushuaia and attempt to get on a cruise at the last minute.
Since I’m a bit of a planner, I booked early through Adventure Life Travel and they walked me through every step. I was booked on the Hebridean Sky run by Polar Latitudes.
The ship allowed solo passengers and there was no single supplement if I was willing to share a room.
Since I was booking a year out, I was able to grab one of the two rooms that could accommodate three passengers, which saved money.
The trip started in Ushuaia Argentina. From here we would sail through the Beagle Channel and the Drake Passage, then stop at islands as well as the continent itself.
Excursions included Zodiac tours, hiking and wandering around the islands and continent, and the polar plunge.
There were also add ons with limited spots for kayaking and overnight camping. Camping and kayaking go quickly so book those early!
Arriving in Ushuaia, Argentina
Arriving early is always a good idea for big trips in case you have flight delays.
If all goes smoothly, you can spend a day visiting the local area like I did with Ushuaia Argentina.
The Antarctica tour package included one night in the beautiful Arakur hotel where the tour company placed passengers in rooms based on who you would be sharing the cabin with on the ship.
I know I talk about how you shouldn’t worry about liking your roommates when sharing a room, but my stomach flipped when I saw the nametags on the bed had the same last name.
It turns out they were mother and daughter and they were amazing. They welcomed me to the “team”.
We spent a lot of time on the trip together and really enjoyed each other’s company.
Our tour company, Polar Latitudes, provided a briefing at the hotel where we met other passengers and learned what to expect on our trip.
We even got to see our ship, the Hebridean Sky, pull into the channel.
As instructed, in the morning, everyone placed their luggage with special tags in the lobby. The buses would round everyone up at 3 pm, until then you were free to explore Ushuaia.
Once it hit 3 pm, the buses took everyone straight to the ship where we boarded and found our rooms.
Boarding the Ship
Everything was set up in the rooms when we arrived.
All passengers received a waterproof, windproof Helly Henson sailing jacket. This was yours to take home. Our loaner boots were also placed by the beds.
Trust me, after the trip you wouldn’t want to take the boots home anyway. It’s best they stay on the ship.
There’s not a lot of time to settle in and unpack. Almost immediately after boarding, the crew goes through the standard evacuation drill.
I’ve been on ships before, but this drill was the first with a demonstration on how to put on a suit that will hopefully keep you from freezing in the water.
Next up was the welcome meeting with introductions to the crew and guides.
Our head guide went through the “tentative” itinerary, with a lot of “weather depending” caveats. There were also opportunities to sign up for Citizen Science.
After enjoying snacks and drinks, we were set loose to explore.
The Hebridean Sky – Exploring the Ship
Most of the ships heading to Antarctica are fairly small. With 4-5 decks, they hold around 100 or so passengers.
This is optimal because tours following the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators guidelines do not take more than 100 passengers onshore at a time.
The Hebridean Sky is designed where passenger cabins are on the third, fourth, and fifth decks. The dining room is on the second deck with the crew quarters.
Debriefings were held each day in the meeting room on deck three, and deck four is home to the lounge with bar, library, and outdoor space.
The crew allowed passengers on the bridge to watch the captain and crew manage the ship. The view from the bridge is outstanding.
Through a little bit of hunting, I found a great open space at the front of deck five. A small group would gather there and enjoy the wind as the ship moved towards the ocean.
Out on the open space of deck five, there are steps that led to the top where the Zodiacs are tethered.
The Zodiacs are the military-like dinghies used to take passengers to shore. I loved hanging out on this top deck.
During my trip, the food on board was really good, thanks to an incredible chef. She made pecan cookies that I still dream about.
The dining room was free seating and had tables that could accommodate anywhere from two to ten, providing a variety of options. The guides spread themselves out and sat with different people each night.
My roommates and I often ate together but tried to sit at a table for four to six so we could get to know the other passengers.
I highly recommend this if you book a similar trip. Everyone we met was wonderful and we had a lot of great conversations with really interesting people.
Breakfast was served as a buffet, but the kitchen would also prepare something if you asked.
Lunch was a buffet in the dining room, but the staff would often set up in the lounge with custom paninis, french fries, and soup. This became my go-to for lunch.
Dinner was a typical cruise menu where you choose one of three appetizers, entrees, et cetera. But if you wanted two entrees, the server would bring them both.
Of course, basics like hamburgers were also on the menu.
The lounge on deck four was home to a self-serve espresso machine which saw a lot of use. One day it broke and everyone stared at it until a crew member finagled a repair.
I had a great time meeting the other passengers.
There were several other solo travelers on the trip. with a majority being women.
In the evenings, a large group would head to the lounge and bar. Drinks were reasonably priced and there was entertainment.
Randy, the one-man band, sang popular songs and some of the passengers turned it into karaoke night which was also a lot of fun.
It also helped that Randy made sure everyone sounded great.
Heading out to sea
The Drake Passage
Anyone on an Antarctica Cruise should find an outdoor area and watch as the ship pulls out of port and enters the Beagle Channel.
There is incredible coordination required to pull in the ropes, get the channel pilot onboard, pull through the channel, then watch the channel pilot leave.
As we started underway, the sea was pretty choppy, which is par for the course in this part of the world.
The biggest piece of advice for anyone going on this journey is to have seasick medications onboard, even if you don’t get motion sickness.
The seas are rough and waves can come front to back or side to side.
Many passengers had seasick patches, and some took multiple products. I found I just needed something for the first three days, then I was fine.
There is a doctor on the ship and he had medications for seasickness, but you really want to try and avoid becoming so ill you needed his assistance.
Within twelve hours, the ship begins to reach the Drake Passage. This is no joke.
The guides will tell you that crossing the Drake is the price for entering Antarctica. You’re going to pay on the way in or on the way out, but you will pay.
We paid on the way back. While it was a bit choppy on the way to Antarctica, coming back to Ushuaia on the return was rough.
I could feel the boat ride up a large wave, then shake (I was told this was the rudder coming out of the water), then crash down as it crested the wave.
Scary – not so much. Awesome – definitely yes!
The Wildlife of Antarctica
Our first two landings in the Zodiacs are small islands since the ship reaches these first and everyone is itching to get out and explore.
It was exciting to see your very first wild penguin.
If you are traveling to Antarctica and worried you won’t see penguins, your concern is unnecessary. You will see penguins. You will see a lot of penguins. They are everywhere.
There are three different types of penguins in the region, Chinstrap, Adelie, and Gentoo.
In case you’re wondering, it’s true that penguins smell. You can smell them before you see them.
I could write an entire 5000-word post about penguins so I won’t bore you here. Just know they’re cute, they’re unafraid of humans and they smell really really bad unless they’re just getting out of the water.
Sea lions are also out and about, lounging in the sun, seemingly unbothered by our presence.
Everyone asks about the whales. We did encounter some whales alongside the boat which are hard to photograph.
I didn’t see any Orcas, but it was earlier in the season so that wasn’t surprising.
What was a bit shocking was the number of birds we saw. The birds follow the ship and draft off of it. Albatross, cormorants, and egrets tend to follow the ship where it goes.
Getting Off the Ship – Excursions
Stepping Out on the Continent
On our third day, we reached the actual continent and got our first pictures standing on Antarctica. It was amazing.
Even though it looks just like the smaller islands, you know where you are and that makes it special.
I have a series of pictures one of my ship roommates took with me standing on the continent. Looking back, I’m still amazed.
Even though I look a little stuffed in the photograph, I didn’t find it very cold in Antarctica. The temperature was around 30 degrees Fahrenheit during most of the excursions.
The wind can be biting on your exposed face, but the jacket and waterproof pants help.
I’ve got one picture that I just love. It sums up why I travel solo and how happy my adventures make me. My hands are out to the sides and I look alive.
Not Getting our Passports Stamped – It’s a Good Thing
Not everything goes according to plan in Antarctica and that’s okay. You’ll need to be flexible and go with the flow. Sometimes things work out for the best.
The day we were scheduled to visit Port Lockroy and have our passports stamped with the not so real Antarctica stamp, word came through that there was too much ice and the ship couldn’t dock.
I was disappointed. Even though it’s not a real stamp, I was hoping to get all seven continents on one passport.
However, it turned out to be a lucky break for us. Thirty minutes after being notified of the issue, our lead guide announced that the ice had come from an area of the Weddell sea usually blocked.
Since it was free, we could get through and see all of the beautiful icebergs.
Cruising through the alley of icebergs was one of the highlights of the trip. It was amazing to see iceberg after iceberg.
I look at my pictures now in wonder over the size and color.
The guides explained that Antarctica only receives around two inches of snow a year. That’s it!
But it never melts so the weight continues to accumulate. Over time, the snow on the bottom compresses as more and more weight piles on top.
The color of the ice changes from white to light blue, to dark blue, and then to crystal clear as it continues to compress.
I found the ice difficult to photograph as an amateur. Different grades of blue with white don’t contrast well.
The photographer on board gave lessons which were helpful, but my little camera could only do so much. The good news is that the pictures I do have are great reminders.
Close Encounters with Whales
Some outings take passengers to land for hiking and touring the area. Other times it’s a cruise on a Zodiac.
On one of the Zodiac tours, word came in that there were whales near the ship. All the Zodiacs raced back for a look.
Unfortunately, the one I was on was a slow-moving machine and we were way behind.
However, we had one of the more experienced guides who thought the whales were coming our way. He shut down the motor and, sure enough, they came right up to us and explored our Zodiac.
There were three whales and they swam under and around us, just gently exploring.
When they’re underwater, the whales appear like blue blobs on the camera and to the naked eye. As they finally swam away, they gave us a simultaneous tail flip.
Because I booked early, I was able to secure one of the overnight camping slots. Even if you’re not into camping, I recommend trying to get one of these coveted spots.
Onboard the ship, the guides give a lesson in how to pitch the tent and set up the sleeping pad and sleeping bag. Then campers are loaded into the Zodiacs.
After being dropped off, you set up camp and then have time to explore the area.
I wound up with a tent to myself since my tent roommate opted to try a bivy sac instead. Surprisingly, it didn’t feel that cold. It was very comfortable and I enjoyed my night in the tent.
Feeling like an adventurer, all I could think was I’m out here on my second ever trip as a solo traveler, in Antarctica no less, and I just spend the night camping in the snow!
The Polar Plunge
On the last outing, we had the option to do the polar plunge.
It was in an area with a volcano and a beach providing a few feet of warm water before the bottom went out from under you and the ice hit.
If you plan on trying the polar plunge, be aware that the ice water actually hurts. It feels like an electrical current going through your body.
Coming out of the water, the cold air actually feels warm because it’s a lot warmer than the water.
I can’t believe some people actually jump in all at once. That has to hurt.
I did it and am glad I did, but I can safely say it’s not necessary to ever do it again.
My favorite memories
Of all my memories, my favorite was standing on the top deck I had found and watched the ship sail back through the Beagle channel, just enjoying my final hours at sea.
Overall, I was left with a feeling of zen.
It’s hard to describe how vast Antarctica feels. When you’re on land, looking out over the ocean, there’s no end.
It’s white and blue as far as you can see. The sense of space is a rare find and I’m grateful I had the opportunity.
Many tour companies that travel to Antarctica voluntarily follow the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) guidelines.
I highly recommend only booking with a company that follows these guidelines.
Some of the IAATO rules include: Only allowing 100 passengers on land at a time, keeping tourists a minimum of 5 meters from any wildlife and respecting protected areas.
These guidelines keep Antarctica wild and safe.
There are tour companies that will take over 500 passengers on land at a time and that can be overwhelming and dangerous for the wildlife, especially during mating season.
It says a lot to me about ethical travel when booking with a company that voluntarily becomes a part of something like IAATO.
I used Adventure Life travel agency and everything was booked for me.
Follow through via the travel agency was excellent. Everything was taken care of.
Once in Ushuaia, the touring company, Polar Latitudes, had a process down that was well designed and well explained.
It was clear what to do and when to do it at all times. If you had a question, plenty of staff were on hand to answer.
I booked my flight through a company recommended by Adventure Life.
They were able to secure the same price as I could independently and I liked having someone oversee my itinerary.
If something was rescheduled or if there was an issue, I had the power of a company behind me.
Things to note
You’ll need sunscreen and lots of it. The glare of the sun off the white snow can burn skin quickly.
Follow the instructions you’re given and take the packing list to heart.
Even if you’re not prone to motion sickness, consider having something like a patch or meclizine available.
The ship has two computers on board, or you can purchase wifi. Keep in mind you’re sailing to Antarctica so signal will not be strong.
The best times to be online are the wee hours of the morning (think 3 am). Assume you’ll be disconnected the entire time and plan accordingly.