Antarctica, the Great Ice Continent, is the last continental-scale wilderness area on Earth. Protected from resource exploitation by the Antarctic Treaty, Antarctica remains undeveloped and is the only place on Earth dedicated to peace and science. The mountainous Antarctic Peninsula is stunningly beautiful with tongues of glacial ice pouring into the sea, propagating numerous icebergs.
Wildlife abundance and diversity is quite impressive. The Antarctic marine ecosystem is shaped by some of the most nutrient-rich waters in the world. Extensive ice sheets and sea ice form critical habitat for Antarctic Krill, the most abundant multi-cellular organism on the planet. These super-abundant crustaceans are the basis of the Antarctic food web and principal food for penguins, seals and whales.
There are three species of Penguins that breed on the Antarctic Peninsula. Penguins are adorable and fascinating flightless seabirds that are unafraid of people and up-close-and-personal encounters are typical on any Antarctica cruise itinerary.
While penguins often steal the show, a multitude of other seabirds occur in Antarctica including skuas, terns, and various petrels including the beautiful Snow Petrel. On shore you may encounter the peculiar Snowy Sheathbill wandering among penguin colonies. The South Shetland Islands harbour many of the same species with the possibility of finding a Macaroni Penguin.
In terms of marine mammals, Humpback Whales are the most commonly encountered cetacean. Antarctic Minke Whales and Orcas are sometimes encountered and Fin Whales can be seen in the Drake Passage. Seals are quite prolific with up to five species encountered: Weddell Seal, Crabeater Seal, Southern Elephant Seal, Leopard Seals and Antarctic Fur Seals.
Antarctica is a great place to visit and often sought after by folks getting their 7th Continent. But Antarctica is far more than a continent tick. It harbours tremendous marine wildlife and unrivalled scenery. These trips offer wonderful first-hand experience of a place that few have ever visited. It is a life-changing trip that will not be forgotten!
Different Antarctic cruise itineraries:
Highlights include Beagle Channel navigation as you leave Ushuaia and return, crossing the Drake Passage which is an excellent place to find albatrosses. These Antarctica cruises typically include 5-days exploring the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands, and include penguins galore, exploration history, spectacular icebergs, glaciers and other amazing scenery.
Antarctic Circle Expedition
Highlights are the same as the Antarctic Peninsula cruise itinerary with two additional expedition days with Zodiac tours, shore landings and scenic navigations, crossing the Antarctic Circle (66 deg 33’ South) if ice conditions allow. This itinerary is a great option if you want to travel further south on a slightly longer Antarctic cruise. You are likely to encounter more icebergs and more sea ice.
Falkland, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula
Highlights include navigation of the Beagle Channel, 2 days exploring the wildlife-rich and unique Falkland Islands, and typically 4 days exploring the island of South Georgia. South Georgia is regarded as the Serengeti of the Southern Ocean for its sheer abundance of wildlife, especially King Penguins, Southern Elephant Seals and Antarctic Fur Seals.
There are approximately 450,000 pairs of King Penguins breeding on South Georgia Islands. Here you can visit Grytviken where famous heroic age explorer Ernest Shackleton is buried. Shackleton was a famous Antarctic explorer known for leading several expeditions including the first successful crossing of the interior of Antarctica and the Endurance Expedition.
You then have approximately 4 days exploring the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands. This is the longest Antarctic cruise itinerary with 7 days at sea and is geared toward folks interested in a more immersive Southern Ocean experience. Being at sea is a great time to enjoy albatrosses and other seabirds and take in some presentations about your cruise.
Typical seabirds encountered on an Antarctic Peninsula trip:
Antarctic Cormorant (Blue-eyed Shag)
Southern Giant Petrel
Northern Giant Petrel
South American Tern
South Polar Skua
Additional birds typically observed on Falkland & South Georgia itineraries:
Southern Rockhopper Penguin
South Georgia Diving-Petrel
South Georgia Cormorant
South Georgia Pipit
When to go to Antarctica:
The Antarctic cruise season spans from November through March during the austral (southern) summer. There is no best time to go, however the earlier trips (November/early December) are when the penguins will be incubating so there won’t be any chicks around, except on South Georgia where large King Penguin chicks from the previous summer can still be present. This is a good time of year to see courtship behaviour and nest building. January and February are best for seeing the penguin chicks. Storm patterns in the Southern Ocean are not predictable so you can expect foul weather at any time.