Antarctica FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions): About Cruise Expeditions, Animals & More

by Antarctic Peninsula11 comments

I’ve had the chance to visit Antarctica last 2017 and it surely has been the most amazing trip that I have ever done in my entire life! (Antarctica FAQ)

…I’m not even kidding when I say that its pristine beauty and wildlife kept me singing praises for weeks — and even up to now. Thus, given my experience, a lot of you have been asking me tons of questions and it makes me happy to hear that a majority of you are interested in visiting this breathtaking ‘White Continent’. (Then again, who wouldn’t want to visit this amazing place, right?)

So in order to streamline everything in an organized manner, I’ve decided to put up this Antarctica FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) post that will answer all your queries and concerns regarding Antarctica cruise expeditions. I hope this Antarctica FAQ helps!

Antarctica FAQ: Getting There

FAQ: Lemaire Channel

Top featured photo by Marsel van Oosten / Hurtigruten

» What are the different safe ways to get to Antarctica?

The best and safest way to visit the continent is to book through one of the member tour operators under IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators). Not only do they demonstrate a high level of commitment and expertise for following safety protocols, but they also have a great record for being the best and common choice for any Antarctica visit. As for the different ways of reaching the ‘White Continent’, below are some of your options…

By cruise ship. This is the MOST common way to visit the Antarctic and the cruise can start and end from any of these locations: Ushuaia in Argentina, Punta Arenas in Chile, Bluff in New Zealand, or Hobart in Australia. (Antarctica FAQ)

Depending on the provider, the length of the trip, and the kind of cruise expedition that you pick, you can also do additional activities or excursions in the Antarctic as well as visit other Antarctic and sub-Atlantic islands along the way. It helps to note though that the size of the ship matters: in general, smaller ships are preferred because they can go to more places and do more landings. Why more landings, you might ask? Well, according to IAATO guidelines, there can only be 100 people at a time on land — so, if your boat has more than 200 people, you might just spend only a few hours on the shore.

With this, I highly advise that you go for Hurtigruten’s MS Fram ship, which is a small yet strong vessel that carries about 200 guests. This was the ship that I went with when I visited Antarctica and every day, we did at least 2 landings to different locations (which was also packed with optional excursions like kayaking, camping, zodiac excursions, hikes, and others).

NOTE: Most of the Antarctic ships are NOT icebreakers since if they are, you will have a rough time crossing the seas like the Drake Passage (either way, the ships are ice-strengthened which are equally tough).

By plane. There are 3 ways to do this: you can do a [1] ‘fly over’, a [2] direct flight, or a [3] fly-cruise option. First, as the name implies, a ‘fly over’ will just be a sightseeing flight wherein you will be above the continent for hours as you admire the views. This kind of flight only takes off from Australia and it will cost from $1,000 to $8,000. Second, direct commercial flights can be done from Argentina, Australia, Chile, or South Africa — but they can be quite rare. (A quick Google search will lead you to some providers who schedule flight trips to the continent.) Lastly, the fly-cruise option will just cut your time on a cruise ship (to avoid the rough Drake Passage, for instance). These flights will take you to places like King George Island where you will then board your designated ship. Most of the time, prices for this start at $10,000 and departs from Chile.

By yacht. There are about a dozen of these charter yachts that offer 3 to 6-week trips to the Antarctic Peninsula from South America. Even if it can provide more freedom and flexibility, you must remember that it is pricier (starting at $1,000+ per day), more treacherous (the seas will rock you harder), and can require work (since most yachts would want you to help out.)

» Is it dangerous to go to Antarctica?

This is a popular Antarctica FAQ. The answer? Yes and no. It helps to note that Antarctica is an extreme environment and accidents are impossible to rule out — this is why visitors must make a realistic evaluation of their own well-being when choosing to make the trip (e.g. the ability to stay balanced on a zodiac boat when getting on and off the ship to avoid slipping or falling, etc.). Personally, I was not fit when I headed off to an Antarctica expedition, but I guess I had my youthful state to thank as well as the experienced crew staff of the ship that I was with.

Apart from your own capabilities, you should also consider that the weather in the Southern Ocean is unpredictable. A lot of modern ships and cruises nowadays, however, are able to withstand such forces of nature that’s why it’s imperative that you listen well to the safety drills that are usually held before the start of the trip. This is also exactly why it is advisable that you opt for IAATO tour operators (like Hurtigruten) since they have shown great experience and familiarity with operating in any kind of condition.

If anything happens, there are always doctors on board any Antarctica ship, but should there be a need for a hospital, it will be days away and evacuation might be needed that can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars; that’s why it’s important to have good travel insurance to protect yourself from any sudden accidents.

» When can I visit?

This is another usual Antarctica FAQ. Take note that Antarctica is inaccessible to tourists for the majority of the year due to its extreme conditions — it IS called as the world’s coldest and windiest place after all. In fact, winter temperatures can fall up to -70°C (…it even reached -94.7°C back in 2010 and -89.2 in 1983) and that comes together with 24 hours of darkness too!

Nevertheless, things get better during the summer season between November and March when the ice starts to break and the temperature gets warmer; hence, cruise expeditions are run during this time of the year and most landings are done at the tip of the continent along its west coast. It helps to note that temperatures there average at only about 0°C to 8°C (with close to 24 hours of sunlight).

  • NOVEMBER: This is said to be the time when you will see Antarctica in its most ‘untouched’ form. Icebergs are at their biggest, snow is pristine, and the penguins start to mate (with them laying eggs at the end of the month in their nests). However, the temperatures are still quite cold, and polar ice is still breaking up so the downside of traveling to Antarctica this month is that you might not be able to access some areas. Moreover, wildlife such as whales and penguins are more difficult to spot.
    .
  • DECEMBER to EARLY FEBRUARY: December is said to be the BEST month for traveling to Antarctica. As the continent starts to warm up, it creates the perfect conditions for seals, penguins, and whales — therefore, wildlife is a lot easier to find (including the cute little seal pups and penguin chicks who have just been born). Whales, in particular, are best seen in February. Also, since these are some of the months wherein there are more hours of sunlight, you’ll have plenty of opportunities in the day to take wonderful photos.
    .
  • MID-FEBRUARY to MARCH: There are several pros and cons for visiting during this time of the summer season. Let’s start with the cons: temperatures start to get a bit colder, most wildlife would have already gone out to sea, and landings will tend to be rockier and muddier. But for the ‘pros’: whales are still abundant for spotting, the penguin chicks are larger and starting to ‘molt’ (or shed their fur), and there are lesser vessels (so there’s less competition for landings).

For my case, I landed in Antarctica sometime in early to mid-December with Hurtigruten’s 20-day ‘Ultimate Antarctica Experience’ and I’ve seen a lot of different penguins, whales (orca + finback + humpback ones), seals, glaciers, and massive icebergs. There was no problem with landings nor was there any competition — we were the only ship around during the days of our visit. The weather was also perfect averaging at about 2°C to 5°C, so I didn’t wear too many layers; at one point, I even sweated a lot when we were hiking up a hill! The winds were still pretty strong though and there were times that it was cloudy; but for the most part, we had great sunny weather.

All in all, it’s best to remember that every trip to Antarctica is unique. No matter if your friend went on a different trip in the same month and the same cruise as you do, the experiences you’ll both have will most likely be dissimilar because every voyage will depend on ice and weather conditions. This means that there can be days where you will experience and see amazing things that some others might not (if you’re lucky!). For example, our ship sighted about 50 humpback whales while we were on our way to the Antarctic Peninsula and they say that this occurrence was quite rare in December! (Antarctica FAQ)

» Do I need a visa to go to Antarctica?

Since there is NO single country or government that owns nor controls Antarctica, visitors technically do NOT need visas. However, with the existence of the Antarctic Treaty’s Protocol on Environmental Protection, it requires visitors (who are citizens of countries that are signatories of this treaty: including the USA, Canada, EU, and Australia) to acquire a permit prior to visiting Antarctica. These permits are almost always acquired through tour operators.

EXAMPLE: If you booked via a cruise ship, permits are covered by the cruise company that you’re going with. If visiting by air, you must check with your local government or airline if you have the right paperwork. If in doubt, you could always ask your Antarctica tour operator.

Meanwhile, as I’ve already discussed, most ships and vessels depart from ports in places like Argentina, Chile, Falkland Islands, New Zealand, and South Africa. Depending on your nationality, you might need a visa to be able to set foot on the ports of any of these said countries in order to start your voyage to Antarctica.

So for my case, since I’m a Philippine passport holder and my cruise started in Ushuaia, Argentina, I needed to apply for an Argentina Visa. As such, it is your responsibility to check if you need visas to any of the aforementioned starting ports.

Antarctica FAQ: About the Cruise

FAQ: Antarctica Shore Landings

» How much is a cruise trip to Antarctica?

Antarctica is obviously NOT a budget destination given how most cruise expeditions start at a price of $5,000 per person. However, there’s the possibility of paying only $4,000 if you manage to get a last-minute deal in Ushuaia (the main starting point of cruise ships in Argentina) during November or December. This option is only ideal if you have the time and patience to wait for a chance to come by — which they say can be quite rare. Yet again, it’s worth a shot!

For a more hassle-free experience, naturally, it’s better to book in advance. Hurtigruten‘s expeditions usually start at $5,000 per person. But if I may add a tip: if you email Hurtigruten via [email protected] and mention my promo code ‘IAMAILEEN’, you will get a special discounted price quote! (Antarctica FAQ)

» What money currencies should I bring?

Antarctica is not a country, so it does NOT have its own currency. However, there will be some places in the Antarctic Peninsula such as Port Lockroy (where you can find the Penguin Post Office museum and souvenir shop) and some research station facilities that will sell some stuff to visitors. With them, currencies like the USA dollars, Pound Sterling, and Euro are generally accepted (together with MasterCard and Visa cards).

As dependent on your ship too, they can accept other currencies (e.g. Hurtigruten is a Norwegian company so they accept the Norwegian krone currency on board.)

» How do I stay healthy during an Antarctica trip?

First and foremost, it can get quite cold so you have to pack the right Antarctica gear such as waterproof apparel, waterproof boots, gloves, and others. Other than this, you must pack sunscreen and sunglasses especially since the sun’s rays can be harsher when they’re reflected off the white ice, snow, and water. Lastly, pack seasickness medicine that will be essential on your first days as you get accustomed to the boat/ship life.

» What should I pack or wear for the trip?

There is a LOT to take note of — from seasickness medicines to the proper clothing. So if you want to learn more or if you want to see a complete packing list, read my Antarctica Cruise Packing List.

» Should I get travel insurance? And how about immunizations?

It is a MUST to get travel insurance for your Antarctica trip (most ships require it too after all). When purchasing one, I would highly recommend World Nomads since aside from being a highly-rated insurance provider, they also have more than enough coverage for overseas medical help, evacuation, emergencies, flight problems, extreme sports activities, and more.

Meanwhile, when it comes to immunizations, there is NO such requirement when entering Antarctica. However, if you are staying in Chile or Argentina (which often are points of embarkation for cruise trips), you should check the health recommendations or requirements for these respective areas as per your nationality.

» What can I expect on the cruise?

A LOT! Besides, Antarctica is known for being a magical place in this world that will absolutely give anyone an unforgettable experience — from enjoying breathtaking landscapes to witnessing unique Antarctic wildlife up close… the possibilities are simply endless in every shore landing!

Of course, everything still relies on weather and ice conditions but there are always so many activities you can enjoy such as overnight camping, hiking, snowshoeing, kayaking, and more. For a complete list of things to do in Antarctica, see here.

» How fit do I have to be?

In general, you must be in good health and are able to walk reasonable distances or even on uneven terrain — however, this does NOT mean that you have to be extremely fit like professional athletes or hikes because there are options for everyone in every shore landing (such as walking only a short distance or doing a different activity from the rest.) Anyhow, if you have problems or physical limitations, just notify the tour operator in advance and they will make a way for you. That being said, there are ways for everyone to participate in this trip of a lifetime!

» Will I get seasick?

This totally depends on the sea conditions and on the person itself: some people surprisingly have no problems while some only experience seasickness for only a day or two. Personally, I did get sick on our first day at sea but with the help of Sea Bands, I didn’t feel seasick anymore for the rest of the trip. (If you happen to still be dizzy, doctors on the Hurtigruten ship also handed out these transdermal ear patches for further preventing nausea).

All in all, if you’re someone who gets easily seasick, it’s a good idea to check with a doctor beforehand or to pack Sea Bands and seasickness pills; otherwise, there will always be an onboard doctor to assist you. But to give you some peace of mind, you will NOT be sailing all the time. Cruise tour operators always space the days so you’ll have time to catch a breather.

» Is the Drake Passage dangerous?

Some people are incredibly concerned about the infamous Drake Passage which most Antarctica cruise ships will have to go through. If you don’t know it yet, Drake Passage is said to be world’s roughest seas given that it is where the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern seas converge. There aren’t any nearby landmass either so the currents here meet with NO resistance, resulting to it being the choppiest waters in the world.

However, one’s experience here can either be called ‘Drake Lake’ or ‘Drake Shake’, and our ship’s crossing was somewhere in the middle. It was swaying more than usual, but it was manageable. Therefore, everything will depend on weather conditions as well as the speed of the ship (bigger ships can make the crossing in just 24 hours while smaller ones can take 36 to 48 hours).

Nevertheless, with today’s technology and polar-ready ships, the Drake Passage is more of an experience and not entirely dangerous.

» Is it hard to sleep on the ship?

From my experience, not at all. There is the issue of how sunshine exists for almost 24-hours in a day during the Antarctic summer, however, all cabins have thick blinds so it should not disrupt your body clock. Alternatively, you can pack along some eye masks to shield away from the light. (Antarctica FAQ)

» Is there internet and entertainment on board?

Some ships have it, some don’t. With Hurtigruten, they have a reliable WiFi connection on board at an extra cost. They also have an internet café with available computers on select ships that they have. (Antarctica FAQ)

As for entertainment, unlike typical cruise ships that have ostentatious entertainment facilities, the ships that sail to Antarctica have minimal entertainment on board; rest assured, there is enough to keep anyone busy including social events, workshops, and lectures from experienced staff who are typically made up of scientists. After all, this kind of adventure is more about relaxation and discovery!

» Can children come?

Most Antarctica tour providers have a minimum age requirement that ranges from 6 to 12 years old, while others leave it up to the parents to decide whether the cruise will be appropriate for their children. That being said, it’s best to check with your tour operator for any restrictions that they may have. Most of the time though, given the limited access to medical facilities, children with chronic conditions such as asthma, etc. are not advised to go on an Antarctica cruise.

Just take note that long trips to the sea can be tiring for children. Of course, there is a lot of fascinating wildlife and scenes to keep them occupied but it’s always a good idea to bring plenty of entertainment options for your kids. (Antarctica FAQ)

» Is it a trip that can be done by solo travelers?

Absolutely! Some ships have single occupancy rooms or have shared room cabins; and of course, you’ll never really be alone during the trip because there are so many opportunities for mingling with others. (Or of course, if you want more solitude, you’re free to maintain that too!).

FAQ: When in Antarctica

FAQ: Emperor Penguin

» Will we have a chance to learn more about Antarctica?

All IAATO operators are encouraged to provide ways of enriching and educating their guests about the environment of Antarctica and its protection — so yes, there will be educational programs or lectures available that will be conducted by trained professionals.

With Hurtigruten, there were FREE movies and lectures every day in which everyone was free to participate or not. They let us learn more about the wildlife and the islands we were visiting, and they were even delivered by the expedition team that was made up of expert geologists, marine biologists, historians, and ornithologists among many others! If you happen to have any specific requests, you’re always free to approach any of the staff scientists onboard or onshore.

» What penguin species will I see? Can I touch them?

Yet another top Antarctica FAQ, naturally, penguins are the first type of animals that people think of when Antarctica comes to mind, but don’t forget that there are other kinds of wildlife to see there such as whales and seals! Anyhow, to date, there are 17 species of penguins in the world BUT only 7 of them live on and around Antarctica:

  • Four (4) live and nest in and around the Antarctic continent: Adélie, Emperor, Chinstrap, and Gentoo
    • The first 2 are found way further in the icy continent and the rest prefer to be at the northern tip
  • Three (3) breed in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands: King, Macaroni, and Rockhopper

For a complete list of Antarctic animals that you will see, read here.

As for touching them, it helps to note that there are strict wildlife guidelines that all visitors to Antarctica must abide by. For instance, we were advised to maintain a 5-meter distance from any wildlife at all times (there are some species that require greater distance and your expedition team will tell you). Nevertheless, most of the penguins and seals were curious creatures so there were many instances wherein they were super close to us; which then makes for a great experience (other than it being a great opportunity for taking amazing photos and videos!).

So simply put: we didn’t approach them, we let them approach us.

Are there polar bears in Antarctica?

No, polar bears live in the Arctic Circle (north pole) — NOT in Antarctica. Though both of the poles have lots of snow and ice, polar bears are only found in the north such as Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland, and some northern islands in Norway, such as Svalbard.

Are there any citizens of Antarctica?

Not really because no one truly owns Antarctica nor does anyone have actual sovereignty. There was one time though when an Argentinian baby was born in Antarctica as an effort of Argentina to leave a mark of sovereignty in the continent but that didn’t count! Bottom line: there are NO citizens of Antarctica. There are only two main groups of people there: they can either be tourists or researchers and none of them live there indefinitely.

Will I see the Southern Lights and the Southern Cross in Antarctica?

The Aurora Australis or Southern Lights are only visible in Antarctica from March to September, however, there’s a slim chance for tourists to see this because it’s not often visible in areas in which cruise ships are allowed to land — plus, there needs to be sufficient darkness for it to be seen. As for the Southern Cross, it’s visible at any time of the year; but then again, there needs to be enough darkness which is not the case during the height of the tourist season (which is summer).

Can I fly my drone in Antarctica?

No. IAATO does NOT allow any recreational use of drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to protect the pristine scene and wildlife. But if you really need to use it, there are instances wherein it’s allowed — kindly just check with your operator since all requests are usually lodged via an application permit.

Is there anything else I should take note of?

Always remember that Antarctica is a fragile environment, so in order to maintain its pristine conditions, please act your part in being environmentally responsible. Do NOT pollute, do NOT introduce any foreign organisms into Antarctica’s ecosystem, and do NOT harass any wildlife. Listen to your expedition leaders very well and follow their instructions — and of course, have fun! An opportunity to visit Antarctica is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

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11 Comments

  1. Katie Wilson

    Thanks for the tip about considering when to go on a cruise. If you are going somewhere with extreme weather, you would want to find the right time of year. This kind of thing would also help ensure that you can go on good shore expeditions that you will enjoy.

    Reply

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