Antarctica: Vacationing in a White Desert of Snow and Ice
“I was sleep-deprived and I was malnourished, and I’d been in isolation and severe circumstances. There were days it was 100 below. I’d go weeks without seeing past my hands. It was white-out. It was really tough to navigate. A life unchallenged is one that is very bland… and the challenges need to be almost outside of your comfort zone.”
That’s how adventurer and entrepreneur Todd Carmichael recently described his world-record-setting 700-mile solo trek across Antarctica. Not everyone who visits Antarctica will experience such harsh conditions – in fact, unless you set your own world record it’s pretty much guaranteed you won’t – but you should be prepared for a land of extremes if you plan to visit.
Antarctica is a cold and unforgiving white desert of snow, ice and wind where some of the lowest temperatures on earth have been recorded. It’s also a dream vacation destination for a growing number of intrepid travelers, which may seem inexplicable to those among us who prefer to spend our two weeks’ vacation on a tropical beach.
But for people who catch the Antarctica bug, it can become the holy grail of trips. Maybe it’s the fact that Antarctica is still relatively unexplored. Or it could be the beauty of the land itself, where glaciers meet ice flows and the land and oceans teem with wildlife not found anywhere else on the planet.
If Antarctica is on your bucket list, you likely have a very personal and deeply held motivation driving you to go. The trip can be hard, the window to explore is short – but if you can make it happen, the rewards are incredible and unlike any other experience you’ll find in the world.
History of Antarctica Exploration
Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen led the first Antarctic expedition to reach the South Pole in 1911 – a little over one hundred years ago. For hundreds of years before that, people theorized about a landmass south of Australia, but there’s no evidence that any human saw Antarctica until the 19th century.
This is part of its appeal. In terms of human history, Antarctica is relatively “new” and unexplored, one of the last great frontiers on the planet. Even today Antarctica is one of the least populated places on earth, with about 5,000 temporary residents at various research stations during the peak of the summer season.
How Most People Get to Antarctica
If you’re planning a trip to Antarctica, you’ll have a lot of options for how you see the continent and several different ways to get there. Megan Jerrard, who documents her world travels at Mapping Megan, says that most commonly visitors make their way to the north western tip of Antarctica, known as Antarctic Peninsula, through Chile or Argentina.
“You can only visit by traveling with an organized tour, which generally means booking a cruise,” she says at Mapping Megan. “Cruises leave from Punta Arenas in Chile or Ushuaia in Argentina and set off for the South Shetland Islands, stopping at several research stations while sailing along the Antarctic Peninsula. Some Antarctic cruises, however, also include the Falkland Islands.”
The toughest part of the trip for many tourists is crossing the Drake Passage, the body of water between South America and Antarctica. “Renowned for its tyrannous storms, one in three crossings can be challenging and sea sickness when the Drake is lumpy is common,” says John Newby of Swoop Antarctica. “Normally this sickness lasts a day or so, and then passengers are fine. Although crossing the Drake takes two days, thankfully once you’re in Antarctica further seasickness is quite unlikely. One thing which pretty much everyone agrees though is that it’s well worth the effort once you get to Antarctica.”
Grant Gegwich and his wife Elizabeth visited Antarctica late last year and cruised the same area, but took a slightly different route to get there. They flew from the East Coast of the United States to Punta Arenas, and then flew from Chile to the King George Islands off the coast of Antarctica.
“From the King George Islands, we boarded our ice breaker, which had 65 passengers and about 100 crew on it. The passengers, as well as the crew, came from all over the world – probably more than twenty different countries and only seven from the United States. English was spoken on the ship.”
Gegwich also warns that the trip isn’t for everyone, since it takes a really long time to get there before any of the chilly fun begins. He flew from Philadelphia to Miami, then from Miami to Santiago Chile before boarding another flight to Punta Arenas. They spent at night in Punta Arenas before flying to Antarctica the next morning. All told, flying time was over 17 hours not including layovers. Plan to dedicate at least a day for traveling there, depending on where you are in the world.
A good way to break up the long trip there is to spend some time in Chile or Argentina before the final leg to Antarctica. Here are some tips for healthy travel in South America for ideas on how to spend your time there.
What You’ll See While You’re There
Wildlife is one of the main draws for those traveling to Antarctica. You’ll see a variety of seals and whales almost as soon as you depart South America, and the impressive Antarctic penguin population will be one of the first animals to greet you upon arrival.
It’s not in spite of tourism or because of tourism that the wildlife numbers in Antarctica are growing, it’s because of the international protection Antarctica has been given. “Whale, penguin and seal numbers are all on the up, some from the brink of extinction,” says John Newby of Swoop Antarctica. Antarctica is a very special place, because of the protection it receives from Antarctica’s governing body, IAATO. Looking to the future, as tourist numbers increase, we would hope that treaties like IAATO can evolve fast enough to keep that protection in place. Antarctica and tourism is a real success story.”
The IAATO guidelines for travel to Antarctica provides a very straightforward framework for minimizing your impact. “In terms of protecting Antarctic wildlife, it’s important not to disturb native species in any way,” says Jerrard. “Don’t to feed or touch them, don’t handle birds or seals, or approach to photograph them in ways which alter their behavior.”
If you’re cruising, your daily routine will be similar but the sights you see will be vastly different from day to day. Gegwich and his wife traveled to a different part of the Antarctic coastline for two excursions per day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The ship would anchor, they’d hop into a zodiac and make their way to the coastline. “Our guides would take us on two-to-three-hour hiking and snowshoeing excursions,” Gegwich says. “They would educate us about the wildlife and the terrain.”
If they idea of hopping in a small, 10-foot long inflatable boat and zipping across frozen ocean waters is not exactly your speed, keep in mind that there are a variety of touring options in Antarctica.
Some cruise ships are more about sightseeing and travelers never step foot on land. Other tour operators can arrange to have you sleep overnight in a tent on the frozen tundra, so there’s something for everyone.
Gegwich’s tour operator provided ship passengers with the following checklist of potential wildlife you can spot during your trip. As you can see, it’s chock full of checks, so you’re likely to see your favorite Antarctic animal – from penguins to birds and seals to whales – if you keep your eyes open:
(Click to enlarge these checklists.)
How Cold Is It in Antarctica, Really?
They don’t call it Antarctica for nothing. The conditions are cold and harsh. So cold and harsh, in fact that the European Space Agency uses a research base on Antarctica to train people for a potential manned mission to Mars. In other words, the next closest place you’ll find conditions similar to Antarctica is in outer space. So it’s best to be prepared.
The window for traveling to Antarctica is small. You’ll typically only be able to go from about December to February – summertime in Antarctica – when average temperatures range between -18 to -20 degrees Celsius (or about -4 degrees Fahrenheit). For a little perspective, that’s colder than your freezer, which is somewhere between 0 and -15 degrees Celsius (or 5 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit).
You can find slightly “warmer” places to travel in Antarctica. If you stick close to the western tip of the continent, average temperatures can skyrocket to -1 degrees Celsius / 20 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about the temperatures Gegwich experienced on his trip.
“We were fortunate that it only snowed one or two days of our trip,” he said. “Remember that we were there during Antarctica’s summer and, while we did step foot on the continent, we were still 90 miles from the Antarctic Circle and many more miles to the South Pole.”
Your Antarctica Packing List
Knowing how to dress and what to bring to Antarctica is part art and part science. You want to be prepared, but most tourists actually over-pack in anticipation of the extreme conditions. Anything you can shed from your luggage will be a benefit since the long journey is an ordeal, and space on board an icebreaker is limited.
“Duct tape: you don’t need it. Crampons: you don’t need those either, unless you are heading deep into Antarctica’s interior. Drones: they aren’t allowed, and flip flops – well, please leave them at home, they can be hazardous on a moving vessel,” says John Newby of Swoop Antarctica. “What you should bring is curiosity and base layers.”
The best strategy is to rely on your tour company for their recommendations on what to bring. Gegwich put his faith in his tour guide, and it worked out well for him.
“When we would do our excursions, we would dress warmly in many layers, including long underwear, waterproof pants, ski jackets, hats, two pairs of gloves and UV-resistant sunglasses since the sun’s rays are very potent at the poles,” he says. “Our tour company provided us with great waterproof boots to wear. We did not pack an abundance of other clothes since dress on the ship was very casual.”
So, it’s best to leave your formal wear at home – leave the tuxedo-wearing for the penguins.
Experienced Antarctica travelers advise that the key to dressing is layers. You want to have a warm base layer (like a wicking long-sleeved shirt), a warm mid-layer (like a sweater) and waterproof outerwear, like ski pants and a ski jacket. You’ll also need waterproof gloves and glove liners, a hat, and sunglasses for the extreme glare that comes off the ice. Make sure you bring sunscreen with a high SPF since, as Gegwich pointed out, the sun’s rays are stronger at the poles. You’ll also need a good pair of boots for excursions.
Onboard dress is casual – similar to what you would wear indoors during wintertime. A few pairs of long pants, sweaters and comfortable shoes should be sufficient.
Experienced Antarctica traveler Carin Clevidence provides a very thorough Antarctica packing list. She suggests formal wear for the “Captain’s Welcome Dinner,” which some cruises have. Check with your tour operator, but you’ll likely be able to skip packing a suit or nice dress.
Life Onboard a Ship in Antarctica
If you’re visiting Antarctica, being onboard a ship is an inevitability. However, not all ships are the same and each has its own pros and cons. Many tour operators have different types of ships in their fleet for you to choose from. The most common ships touring Antarctica are:
- Research Vessels: These ships were originally built for polar expeditions and repurposed for tourism. They generally offer more action-oriented tours and cater to younger clientele. The accommodations are simple and not luxurious.
- Expedition Ships: Expedition ships focus on a more academic, educational experience. Some of the staff will have deep knowledge of the science and culture of Antarctica, so you’ll learn a lot when you explore the continent during day trips. Accommodations are comfortable and higher quality than what you’ll find on research vessels.
- Luxury Expedition Ships: Luxury expedition ships are expedition ships with five-star dining and amenities. The focus on these ships is more about onboard life than exploring the harsh wilderness of Antarctica.
- Icebreakers: As their name implies, these ships are designed to break sea ice. For that reason, icebreakers travel farther south to explore more remote areas of Antarctica. Onboard life is focused on cultural and scientific education. Accommodations are comfortable but typically not luxurious.
Grant Gegwich traveled on an icebreaker. “Our room was simple, comfortable and was similar to most cruise ships,” he says. “The only difference was that there were two single beds instead of a large queen or king bed. On the ship, there was a large lounge with bar, fitness center and library.”
While internet access is available on many ships, it’s typically extremely expensive. Gegwich decided to go without since it was a nice change of pace from everyday life. Food onboard ranges in quality depending on the type of ship. You’ll find everything from simple fuel that will keep you going to world-renowned haute cuisine.
Here’s How to Get Started with Your Antarctica Travel Plan
Traveling to Antarctica takes a little more planning than jetting off to your favorite beach. Give yourself a few months to research and plan out the logistics. Gegwich booked his trip about a year before stepping foot on Antarctic ice.
“We conducted our research almost entirely online, looking at sites of companies as well as reading reviews on objective travel sites like TripAdvisor,” he says. “One of the best ways to really plan your trip well is to speak with someone who has been there. Luckily, we had some friends and acquaintances who had been to Antarctica before.”
If you need a little extra inspiration to plan your own trip, keep in mind the immortal words of explorer Roald Amundsen: “The land looks like a fairytale.” With a little planning, a heavy winter coat, and the spirit of adventure, you too can have a vacation in Antarctica with its own storybook ending.
Images courtesy of Swoop Antarctica.
Checklists courtesy of Grant Gegwich.