Antarctica is an impenetrable plate of rock, twice the size of Australia, covered with a two-mile-thick slab of ice, and with the harshest conditions on earth for human survival.
It’s the final tenth of the world’s landmass which for the vast majority of its existence has remained inaccessible to people; we only found it 200 years ago. Mapping it, much less staying there for any length of time, started a century later and the work so far has taken incredible endeavour and endurance for most of the last century.
But the edges, particularly the mildest, warmest and most biologically rich arm – the Antarctic Peninsula – become just a little accessible (and spectacularly, wildly beautiful) for a few months each southern summer. The only practical way that most people can see Antarctica is via one of 30 or so expedition ships that visit each southern summer, most of them leaving from Ushuaia in Southern Argentina.
Two-thirds of a million or so humans have visited the continent and most of these visitors only see the Antarctic once in their life. The vast majority of them brush the coastline of the most accessible, north-reaching part of the continent – the northern tip of the Peninsula – by ship for four or five days.
If you saw the white and cold Antarctic in early November and then visited in mid-December, you’d see a dramatically different world, of penguin chicks hatching and whales feeding. You’d see another different world for every fortnight, and indeed for every 50 miles in any direction throughout the region.
Everything changes from week to week as the season unfolds. The arrival of the sun which causes the melting of an area of sea ice the size of Australia followed by the production of the largest (and probably the densest) plankton bloom on earth feeds the planet’s greatest seasonal ecological event.
People often ask when is the best time to go. There is no best time – it’s always magnificent, but in different ways at different times of the season and in different places. The ice and the wildlife change so much, the ships have a few distinct itineraries that they work with, so it depends what you’re looking for. Here follows a summary of the seasons, the areas, the wildlife, the ice and the ships and trips on offer.
The Antarctic season: November to March
In the Antarctic Peninsula region, late October and November are about arrival. Much of the area is blanketed in snow and ice as it comes out of winter, and the scenery is crisp and clear, side-lit by a low, oblique sun.
Gradually the sun starts to melt away the sea ice and warms the dormant plankton clinging beneath into its spring productivity explosion. In early November the sea can still be crystal clear in places, but over the course of a few weeks the phytoplankton turns the water a dark khaki green, providing food for this huge ecosystem.
The penguins (and other sea birds) are arriving, squabbling over precious patches of bare rock, courting, mating and laying. The Weddell seals have already weaned and abandoned their pups, and the crabeaters are getting into their breeding season on the ice floes. If your boat can get close enough, November can be a good month to see orcas wave-washing seals off the ice into their jaws.
By December the sun is higher, the penguins are settled in, the snow on the landing beaches and the sea ice are melting back, and the number of whales in the channels is building.The whales are pretty business-like at this time of year, gorging themselves on krill more than interacting with boats.
Before Christmas, the penguin chicks start to hatch, only the size of a human thumb. The seal numbers in the areas we visit are moderate at this time of year, many of them are just a little further south, in the denser sea ice.
Through January and February the krill just keep building up, and so does everything else.
The humpback whales seem to get fatter and happier, and are more inclined to interact with visitors. The number of seals builds; you can sometimes get aggregations of crabeaters in some of the bays, and leopard seals become more commonplace.
As the penguin chicks fledge and go out to sea in February, large leopard seals gather off the penguin rookeries – the naive penguin chicks make an easy and welcome change in diet from the usual krill.
The landscape has changed somewhat by February; the low-lying islands and beaches in the northern peninsula are free of snow, as are the cliffs and slopes above. January and February are generally when the ice has drawn back enough for some of the ships to push south for their dedicated Antarctic Circle trips.
By March the chicks have gone – either out to sea or killed by skuas, starvation or leopard seals. The penguin colonies are emptying fast, only the adults remaining for a post-breeding moult. The seas are still rich and the krill are still there – with the sea ice pulled back to its minimum and the productivity high, the numbers of whales and seals feeding throughout the area just keeps on building.
The season at South Georgia is a little more complicated, partly because of the much higher concentration and variety of wildlife, and partly because of the slightly longer season.
The chicks of some the wildlife – notably the king penguins and wandering albatrosses – can’t grow enough to fit into a spring laying/summer hatching and fledging cycle and instead have a year-long (or longer in the case of some of the king penguins) extended breeding period.
From October to mid-November on South Georgia the smaller penguins are laying and courting, but the king penguin chicks that have survived the winter are still building up their strength and have not yet fledged. They share the beaches with almost half of the world’s southern elephant seals.
Higher up in the tussock grass on a few of the islands, the wandering albatross chicks from the previous summer finally fledge.
The adult elephant seals disappear in November, leaving adorable, chubby, month-old weaners scattered around the beaches. From early November the second shift of breeders arrives; even greater numbers – perhaps five or six million – of Antarctic fur seals pack the beaches of the island.
This is by far the greatest concentration of marine mammals on earth, and in the last few years has made it all but impossible to move safely around some of the beaches until late December. Later in December the big breeding bulls head offshore, leaving the pups and their mothers, and a bit more peace for the penguins sharing their beaches.
As in the Antarctic Peninsula, the summer-breeding penguins and other sea birds fledge their chicks in the summer, although South Georgia’s incredibly rich seas allow them to finish the season somewhat earlier in January and into February, particularly in the case of the macaroni penguins. Fluffy young fur seals fill many of the beaches, playing while their mothers head out to sea to feed.
King penguins are on the beaches year-round, and you can have the last of the previous year’s fledglings, almost the size of their parents, as well as tiny hatchlings on the same beach.
As February becomes March, and then April, the wildlife still around on the beaches – mostly fur seals and king penguins – just seems to get fatter and happier, and the oceans around them seem to keep getting richer.
Offshore, late season brings increases in whale numbers, and in recent years there have been some amazing spectacles, including gatherings of several hundred fin whales feeding on a large swarm of krill, as well as dozens of humpbacks, several southern right whales and the occasional blue whale.
Areas of the region
The majority of trips to the Antarctic will spend two full days crossing the Drake Passage, visit the South Shetland Islands for a day, then spend three or four days along the western Antarctic Peninsula, among the islands of the Gerlache Strait area.
The Drake Passage
The Drake Passage is the mass of open ocean between South America and the Antarctic. It is by far the narrowest crossing to get to the Antarctic, at a little more than 500 nautical miles, nearly two full days’ steaming. It takes you to the biologically richest area of the Antarctic continent, the seas around the South Shetlands and Antarctic Peninsula area.
It has gained a reputation as a particularly stormy ocean, and is indeed a narrow funnel in the largest moving body of water on the planet – the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. There is a continuous string of depressions funnelling through the Drake Passage, and on a bad day the waves and wind can be spectacular.
On the other hand, the average Drake Passage is considerably less dramatic than travel writers would have you believe. The plus side to the Drake is seeing some of the most spectacular sea birds on the planet. On the first morning out of Ushuaia you can sometimes see all three of the largest sea birds on earth flying around the ship (wandering, southern royal and northern royal albatrosses) as well as many others.
The two-day crossing also performs the subtle, but important, service of forcing you to leave the world behind, and to mentally preparing for the unique environment that awaits you. As you cross the Antarctic Convergence half way through the Drake Passage (a line in the sea – the biological barrier that separates the cold Southern Ocean from the warmer waters to the north) everything changes, and the whales, penguins and icebergs start to build.
South Shetland Islands
These are the most accessible and mildest part of the Antarctic Peninsula region. The sea ice doesn’t really ever surround them so they are accessible to the wildlife, and the seas around them are rich and productive.
Penguins, particularly chinstrap penguins, like this climate and most areas support colonies. There are gentoo and Adélie penguin colonies, and a few macaronis. Weddell and elephant seals breed on some of the beaches, there are a few crabeater and leopard seals, and fur seals have been returning in ever greater numbers in recent years. Fin and humpback whales and orcas are regularly seen feeding in more protected waters, and, particularly towards Elephant Island, beaked and bottlenose whales can be seen out in the ocean channel.
On the side of the islands exposed to the Drake Passage the weather can be changeable. For much of the season it’s just warm enough for the snow to be a chilling sleet that soaks through to the skin – on a grey and windy day many guides refer to the ‘south shitlands’. On a good calm day, though, these dramatic volcanic islands, rich with wildlife, are utterly beautiful.
Sixty miles to the southeast of the South Shetlands is the centrepiece for almost every expedition voyage to the Antarctic. The Peninsula is basically a continuation of the Andes, a 600-mile long, 40-mile wide arm reaching northwards and eastwards from the massive ice dome of the continent. It’s the mildest part of the continent, and the most accessible; the northwestern tip is ice- free almost year-round, and from November to March the sea ice melts away, attracting millions of breeding penguins and other sea birds, seals and feeding whales.
The Peninsula is also where the mountains and islands push through the ice and into the sky, and it is incredibly spectacular and beautiful. During the natural history TV programme Life in the Freezer, David Attenborough’s soothing voice memorably summarised: ‘Nowhere is Antarctica lovelier’. Here, 1,000-1,500m peaks rise sheer from the sea, capped with a 20 to 200m thick slab of ice, fractured into enormous blue-white glacial blocks. On a clear day – and most trips will have at least one clear day in the Peninsula area – the views give genuine meaning to the terms ‘awesome’ and ‘breathtaking’ that are so over-used elsewhere.
The few low-lying areas where it is safe to land (that is free from glaciers or other overhead ice) – mainly rocky spits, beaches and islets. They are usually occupied by penguins or other wildlife during the southern spring and summer. The channels and straits of the western Antarctic Peninsula, protected and sheltered from the Drake Passage to the west, and north by islands and shallow shoals, are foraging areas for whales (mainly minke, humpback and orca) and seals, as well as the penguins and flying birds.
For most voyages the central area of operations is the 15-mile wide Gerlache Strait area. Protected by Anvers and Brabant Islands to the west, the Gerlache area has most of the island, channel and bay sites seen by the 40,000 or so visitors to the Antarctic each year. It has stunning scenery, protection from the open ocean
and is rich in wildlife. The islands and beaches of the Gerlache area are a particular stronghold of the gentoo penguins, and the bays and channels are good for spotting Weddell seals and humpback whales. There is also a decent chance to see the distinctive looking orcas – most of them belonging to the two to three subspecies (or possibly species) distinctive to the Antarctic.
Many trips to the western Antarctic Peninsula try to push just a little south of the famously beautiful Lemaire Channel, into the Penola Strait area. South of the Lemaire it gets cooler and icier, gentoo penguins start to give way to the more cold-specialised Adélie penguins, and you seem to get larger numbers of both crabeater and leopard seals. In November and December, the sea ice in the Lemaire is simply too densely packed for many ships to pass through. All the ships operating in the area have some degree of ice strength rating. Until the ice has melted back somewhat, which may take until January, some ships will not attempt the push south.
Further south still, the area becomes rather poorly charted and rocky close to shore. The wildlife and the scenery are stunning, but time and ice rather limit accessibility for most trips. In order to push south to the Antarctic Circle, ships usually have to wait until January or February and plan longer itineraries.
An alternative to the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula and Gerlache Strait area is to head through the Antarctic Sound at the tip of the Peninsula towards (and hopefully into) the Weddell Sea. The sea ice is more persistent in the Weddell, and the climate chillier. The rewards, though, are spectacular. Huge tabular icebergs come in and out of the Antarctic Sound, and the sea ice habitat is both beautiful and biologically productive. Adélie penguins and crabeater seals, in particular, abound in the Weddell Sea. It can be a bit of a risk on a short voyage heading there, as the constant clockwise rotation of the sea ice, even late in the summer, can block landing sites or even block off the whole area.
South Orkney Islands
A day’s sailing to the east of the tip of the Peninsula lie the South Orkney Islands. Only visited by a few voyages each season on the way between the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia, the Orkneys are wild and spectacular.
The Weddell Sea’s clockwise current pushes both the sea ice and the enormous tabular bergs breaking off the ice shelves to the south, north past the Orkneys, and the area is probably the best place on earth to see giant icebergs. The melting of both sea ice and icebergs generates plankton blooms that in turn feed enormous concentrations of krill in this area.
Not surprisingly, then, huge colonies of penguins and large numbers of whales can be seen around the islands. At fledging time in February, the big chinstrap penguin colonies of the South Orkneys attract large numbers of leopard seals.
South Georgia is like nowhere else on earth. Sitting 900 miles to the east-north-east, down-current of the Antarctic Peninsula, at the confluence of several biological and oceanographic phenomena, you could scarcely design better conditions for an explosion of marine life.
Quite simply, it is the greatest breeding and feeding area on earth for warm-blooded marine animals. It supports about 100 million sea birds including several million penguins, nearly half the world’s elephant seals, and five million or more fur seals.
In terms of biological productivity and sheer volume of life, on the beaches there is nowhere on earth that compares. It makes the Galápagos look like a petting zoo. Prior to whaling, South Georgia’s seas supported the largest concentrations of big whales ever seen, and late in the summer in the last few years, aggregations of dozens to hundreds of fins or humpbacks whales, and even a few Antarctic blues and groups of southern right whales, have been seen gathering again.
South Georgia is a 100-mile long ridge of alpine peaks rising 3,000m straight from the sea, the mountaintops and valleys ice-capped and flowing with glaciers. The island can only be reached by ship. To get there you have to join an 18- to 20-day voyage that includes the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula area, with about a week of that voyage spent at sea. Captain James Cook’s descriptions of the concentrations of wildlife attracted sealers to the islands, starting the run of exploration that a few decades later led to the discovery then opening out of the Antarctic itself.
Wildlife, ice and scenery
The diversity of wildlife in the Antarctic in terms of the number of species is low, but the numbers of individual penguins, flying sea birds, whales and seals are greater than anywhere else on earth.
After a winter at sea following the edge of the sea ice as it expands then contracts, most penguins come ashore in the spring (October) to mate and nest. Nests are made of stones and need rock which is clear of snow as a base – so the experienced penguins climb up rocky ridges where the snow clears earliest to get a head start.
On most trips, you will visit gentoo and chinstrap colonies, and you should also see Adélies – although they like it a little deeper into the ice and most colonies are a little less accessible. A few pairs of macaroni penguins breed on the South Shetlands, but the vast majority of the ‘Macs’ live on South Georgia.
If you want to see chicks of these penguin species, you need to wait until mid-December for most colonies to hatch, and late January to early February to see large, active chicks.
Flying sea birds
The flying sea birds follow a similar October-to-March arriving-nesting-hatching-rearing-fledging cycle to the summer-breeding penguins. Antarctic shags, the gulls and terns, the spectacular predatory skuas and the scavenging sheathbills are pretty conspicuous, nesting near or within penguin colonies. By far the majority of Antarctica’s sea birds, though, are the tens of millions of tubenoses – the gliding petrels, prions and albatrosses seen out at sea. The tubenoses tend to nest inconspicuously, on islands and in cliff crevices. The northern half of Drake Passage and the areas around the Falklands and South Georgia are the best places to see the magnificent albatrosses.
By far the most conspicuous in the areas frequented by the tourist ships are the humpbacks, which are seen most days. Further into the ice are the smaller minke whales, and further out into the open ocean is where you tend to see more of the large, sleek, fin whales. Several types of orca are frequently seen throughout the area. Large numbers of whales, particularly fin whales, gather off South Georgia to feed in the second half of the season.
Six species of seal live in the Antarctic: Ross, Weddell, crabeater, leopard, fur and elephant seals. Breeding takes place in the first half of the season, and for the second half they are intensively feeding. The Weddell seals breed early and are seen throughout the Peninsula and South Shetlands throughout the season. The crabeater and leopard seals, though, can be more elusive for the first half of the season, often a little deeper into the pack ice. Elephant and Antarctic fur seals are seen in a few places in the South Shetlands and the Peninsula, particularly late in the season, but are seen in truly huge numbers around South Georgia.
The landscapes and ice that covers the whole area are spectacular – 1,500m mountains covered by a 20-200m thick, flowing slab of glacial ice. The islands and channels have house-sized bergy bits. In terms of the really large icebergs, the South Shetlands area has always been where we least expect to see them. The 2015-2016 season, however, has had huge (100-2,000m wide) tabular icebergs around the South Shetlands and offshore from the western Peninsula. Whether this is associated with the breakup of the last two years of ice shelves to the south or simply an unusual flow of icebergs out from the Weddell Sea is unclear.
The greatest number of big bergs is at the mouth of the Weddell Sea, between the Antarctic Sound and the South Orkney Islands. A continuous stream of enormous bergs flows off the ice shelves and out to sea through here. This last season has had a large number of these bergs grounding off the southeast corner of South Georgia, 1,000 miles down-current.
The most common trip offered by most of the companies and ships to the area is the Classic Antarctica 11-day trip to the Antarctic Peninsula: an embarkation day leaving Ushuaia, two days across the Drake Passage, a day in the South Shetlands, four days in the Antarctic Peninsula area (usually the Gerlache Strait area) and then two days back across the Drake Passage, with the eleventh day being a morning disembarkation in Ushuaia.
If you want to get to the Antarctic Circle (currently at 66°33'76" south) you need a slightly longer voyage – 13 days or so. The Circle is not that much further south than the areas often reached on 11-day trips, but you also have to go further west, and usually on the outside of the Peninsula’s islands to get there. Most companies offering Circle trips do them in January and February.
Most expedition ship staff regard the 18 to 20-day Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica trips as the best expedition-ship voyage on earth, and the guests overwhelmingly agree. A day at sea, a couple of days in the Falklands, two to three days at sea, three to four days around South Georgia, then two days crossing to the Elephant Island area (some ships will put in an extra stop at the South Orkneys on the way) then the last two or three landing days in the Antarctic Peninsula area, before spending two days crossing the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia. It seems like a lot of sea days, but actually you’re spending proportionately fewer days at sea compared with a Peninsula trip, and each run of sea days and each run of landing days passes through a different ecosystem, with different wildlife highlights.
For those on a time constraint, or those for whom the idea of the Drake Passage crossing fills them with utter dread, another way to see the area is the ‘fly cruise’. Leaving from Punta Arenas in the south of Chile, a little over an hour sees you landing at the gravel airstrip on King George Island, the largest of the South Sheltands and where you get on board your ship and spend five, sometimes six days around the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetlands area. It’s basically a classic Antarctica trip without the Drake Passage.
…and the ships
The size and style of the ships visiting the Antarctic has changed over time. A decade ago, ships carried between 45 and 100 passengers, and they were slow, old and scruffy by modern standards, but superb workhorses, strong in the ice. Ships with 100 passengers then became popular which were slightly faster and usually more comfortable with better cabins and on-board comfort. Up to about 110 guests, you can increase the numbers of staff and Zodiacs and still have pretty much the same landings and Zodiac cruises as the smaller ships. It makes more economic sense to have slightly bigger ships, and you can add a bit of comfort and speed, and a larger team of staff specialists.
The financial woes of 2008 and 2009 came along, at the same time as fuel price hikes, and the expedition ship industry struggled. This drove the recent trend of slightly larger, 190 to 200-passenger ships. These ships have better fuel economy per passenger. Economies of scale are rather helpful on trips as expensive as Antarctic voyages, and there’s often a bit more onboard comfort and amenities, and more choice of food and beverage, as well as the activities offered by the larger onboard teams. These ships can still offer an excursion both in the morning and in the afternoon for all guests, although the amount of quality time on each excursion tend to be somewhat less than on the smaller ships.
Speed makes a difference to what you can achieve in terms of itinerary. The smaller ships tend to be a little slower – 10 to 11.5 knots cruising speed, compared with 12.5 to even 15 in the case of some of the 200 passenger ships – and after a long crossing this can make the difference of squeezing in an extra excursion ashore.
Last but not least except for size, are a handful of smaller yachts that ply these waters. This is proper expeditioning, and much of the time these yachts are on charter to wildlife documentary film-makers. Most of these boats are smaller, and take a little longer to get anywhere around the area. They allow considerably longer for each voyage than the bigger, faster ships.