What It’s Really Like to Visit Antarctica
It’s as breathtaking as you think, but there are definitely a few things you need to know before trekking to the most remote place on Earth.
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Courtesy Judy Koutsky
Antarctica is a bucket-list destination for many travelers. In fact, reaching the “white continent,” as it’s known, is a major accomplishment for those who want to hit all seven continents. (This one is generally the last to be reached.) Plus, it’s a huge draw for nature lovers, penguin enthusiasts, and those looking to experience the most remote place in the world. For me, it was a personal quest. As a travel writer, I’ve visited more than 100 countries, and before this trip, I’d hit six of the seven continents. I had also wanted to go to Antarctica since I was a kid. But honestly, I didn’t know what to expect from my cruise into one of the world’s true final frontiers. Let’s just say I was more than happily surprised.
Here’s the thing that most people don’t realize about Antarctica: Ships that carry more than 500 passengers cannot let any of those passengers land in Antarctica. Those ships are cruise only. For ships with fewer than 500 passengers, only 100 passengers can land at a time. What this means is that smaller is better. On a ship like the Scenic Eclipse, which is the one I was on, there is a maximum of 200 passengers, so 100 of those passengers can be ashore and then switch with the other 100. On larger vessels, it’s a longer wait to get off the boat. Also, since there are only two landings a day on smaller ships, you’ll get to visit more places and have more experiences. Plus, the Scenic Eclipse has 192 staff members for 200 passengers, private butlers for each room, and a living room and veranda in each of its 114 suites. Talk about cruising in style. Before you set sail, here’s what travel experts wish you knew about booking a cruise.
Penguins—lots of penguins
Courtesy Judy Koutsky
For most people, penguins are a big reason, if not the very top reason, to visit Antarctica, and these friendly creatures do not disappoint. You can see a variety of penguins when cruising on the white continent, and you’ll be able to see even more if you include Falkland and South Georgia in your itinerary. There’s no guarantee that you’ll see all the varieties on your trip, but there are a plethora of penguins found in the area, including the Adélie, emperor, chinstrap, king, rockhopper, gentoo, and macaroni.
Here’s a quick penguin primer so you know what you’re looking at. Emperor penguins are the largest—they can be around four feet tall and weigh 100 pounds—and have yellow and orange plumage on their necks and chests. The chinstrap penguins are adorable and literally look like they have a black strap around their necks, while the gentoo penguins are super fun to watch since they’re really fast swimmers. My favorite were the king penguins, which are smaller than the Emperor but still have the pretty plumage. And then there’s the macaroni, with their spiky orange eyebrows, and the rockhopper, which also sport colorful eyebrows as well as spiky crowns on their heads. Check out these facts (and pictures!) that prove penguins are the world’s most adorable animals.
Explore by land, sea, and sky
Very few ships in Antarctica have both helicopter and submarine options. The Scenic Eclipse, however, does. If Antarctica is your bucket-list destination and you’re not planning on going back, these splurges are well worth it. You have to pay extra for the helicopter and submarine excursions, though the other excursions on the ship—the zodiac, kayak, and walks—are included in the price. The ship’s submarine, the Scenic Neptune, takes six guests at a time. Descending into the icy deep more than 1,000 feet, it’s an amazing way to see fast-moving seals and penguins. The helicopter ride also takes six passengers, and it allows you to get a completely different perspective of this vast, ice-covered continent from the air.
Don’t skip South Georgia and the Falkland Islands
As a working mom with two kids, it’s not easy for me to get away for a huge chunk of time, and many Antarctica itineraries are, quite frankly, really long. Sure, there are some shorter ones, but those only cover Antarctica. Trust me: If you’re going to commit to a trip here, it’s worth it to include the Falkland and South Georgia Islands. Falkland Island is where I saw dozens upon dozens of king penguins, only inches away. And South Georgia, which is often called the Galapagos of the Antarctic, is where you’ll see emperor penguins and a ton of other wildlife. The Scenic Eclipse offers a 19-day tour of Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands, so you can do everything in one fell swoop. This is just one of the reasons Antarctica landed on our list of the 20 places you need to go in 2020, according to travel experts.
No polar bears, but plenty of other animals
People always ask me if I saw a lot of polar bears on my trip—the answer is no, because polar bears are in the Arctic (the north) and penguins are in the Antarctic (the south). However, if you’re into penguins, seals, whales, and other wildlife, you won’t be disappointed. There are seals galore, including leopard, crabeater, Weddell, and southern elephant varieties. I saw plenty of leopard and elephant seals during my visit. Plus, there’s a chance to see many different types of whales, including humpback, blue, fin, and killer whales. I even got to see a large pod of humpbacks blowing water through their spout, which was a truly amazing sight. If you need a polar bear fix, check out these polar bear pictures that will melt your heart.
It’s so quiet
Courtesy Judy Koutsky
Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent size-wise, and it’s almost completely covered in ice. There are no hotels, no roads, and no people. (Well, there are scientists, but they aren’t in the tourist spots.) The cruise-ship captains from the various ships talk to one another and try to coordinate so not everyone is going to the same spot at the same time. The result is that cruise passengers, especially on a small ship, feel the solitude of the destination.
As a solo traveler, it felt almost spiritual to be in the world’s coldest, iciest, windiest, driest, and highest place on earth. I made sure to separate myself from other cruise passengers when I was on land in order to take the time to really appreciate and enjoy the quiet, the whiteness, the vastness. To be in a place where humans don’t take over, to be in a place where animals are the main attraction and I’m the minority is such a mindful, meditative experience. Even on the zodiac rides, everyone was quiet, and the only sounds were the ice crackling, the penguins talking, or the seals barking. It was incredibly soothing and peaceful. Here are another 12 of the most peaceful places on Earth.
The sunsets (or lack thereof) are amazing
Yes, I expected the penguins to be amazing, and they were. Yes, I expected the icebergs and glaciers to be fabulous, and they were. But I didn’t expect the sunsets. Technically, the sun doesn’t set for several months during the tourism season. Instead, it goes lower on the horizon in the late evening and produces the most beautiful purples and pinks that can be enjoyed for hours. There was enough light to see, even at midnight, but the time between 9 p.m. and midnight felt truly magical. It wasn’t really a sunset, but it felt like one to me. I always thought African sunsets were the best, but Antarctica sunsets are right up there because they last so long.
Kayaking next to an iceberg
Courtesy Judy Koutsky
Glaciers are plentiful here. After all, the continent has 90 percent of the world’s ice and 80 percent of its freshwater. Watching glaciers calve (when large pieces of ice fall off the glacier and into the water) into icebergs is truly amazing, and watching this from a kayak ups the ante. That said, our guide always made sure we stayed a safe distance from the glaciers and any potential action. Another amazing part of kayaking in Antarctica? Getting super close to the penguins swimming and the seals sunning themselves. Plus, the miles upon miles of white and the lack of overstimulation made this place like none I had ever visited.
That said, the ice caps are shrinking, so you might want to consider going to Antarctica sooner rather than later. It’s on our list of the most breathtaking places to visit before they disappear.
Getting up close and personal with nature
Courtesy Judy Koutsky
A good chunk of the cruise is divided into walking excursions and zodiac tours. (In the latter, you go out on small inflatable boats, which makes for a peaceful, intimate experience.) Walking on land in Antarctica was super amazing, because it wasn’t uncommon for us to stumble upon a penguin rookery consisting of hundreds of penguins just waiting for our visit. (Or so it seemed.) Taking a moment to watch the penguins look at one another, interact, walk, and slide on their bellies—and to walk where so few humans have walked before—was incredible. While walking and hiking, we also saw whales spouting. Taking the zodiac to cruise close to the glaciers, icebergs, and animals on land was equally satisfying.