Where to Visit in Antarctica?
It used to be that traveling to Antarctica meant playing Russian roulette with your life. Tourism to the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth started in earnest in the 1950s, but even 15 years ago, getting there was a challenge. These days, trips to the continent can be tackled with (relative) ease. Just look at the numbers—last year, 37,405 visitors made the trip south, compared with 10,000 in 1999 and zero in 1914.
Still, it’s the most remote and forbidding stretch of wilderness in the world, exponentially more difficult to reach than nearly every other landmass. You’ll need a permit and you'll have to follow the Antarctic Conservation Act, which prohibits tampering with the ecosystem in any way. I’ve been to Antarctica four times, and if you want to step foot on the bottom of the world, I can safely say that you have only five options to get there.
#1: Become a Villager
The least expensive (and longest-term) way to reach Antarctica is to work for one of the Antarctic research stations. The United States National Science Foundation (NSF) operates three bases on the continent: Palmer, Amundsen-Scott South Pole, and McMurdo. But you don’t have to have to be a scientist to land a gig. They need operational support such as cooks, plumbers, snow shovelers, pilots, and forklift drivers. Lockheed Martin is the private contractor that operates the U.S. Antarctic research facilities. Check its website for available positions.
#2: Be an Artist or a Writer
According to the NSF website, working on an artistic project that will “increase understanding of the Antarctic and help document America’s Antarctic heritage” could land you free round-trip airfare and accommodation in Antarctica. They want people focused on long-term projects (sorry, journalists) and have hosted writers, filmmakers, and even instillation artists.
#3: Scientists Wanted
The government will also pay for scientists able to prove that their research will benefit from traveling to Antarctica. Check the NSF website to see a complete list of funding opportunities.
#4: Sail In
Most people get to Antarctica via tour operators who assist with logistics. They tend to use boats, which are the most economical way to make the journey, though trips still cost from several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. Ushuaia in Southern Argentina is the preferred port of disembarkation (and a worthwhile destination in and of itself). You’ll travel past penguins, icebergs, and through the notoriously choppy Drake Passage before you get to Antarctica. Any operator worth his salt is a member of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, which promotes environmentally responsible travel to the continent.
#5: Fly the Icy Skies
If you want to ski the South Pole, climb Vinson Massif (the highest peak in Antarctica), or visit the continent’s vast interior, you have to fly. Because no commercial flights exist, you'll have to go through a private logistic operator. Antarctic Logistics Centre International is based in Cape Town, South Africa, and flies to a Russian base called Novolazareskaya (Novo for short). Adventure Network International flies from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Union Glacier, a small base where they kick-off guided expeditions. But you won’t find a ticket for less than $20,000 for a spot on their freakishly powerful Russian jet, the Ilyushin II-76, that lands on a three-mile-long, blue-ice runway.
Antarctica Cruise and Adventure Travel With Cool Antarctica and Expedition Trips
Antarctica is not an easy place to get to, but increasing numbers of people visit Antarctica every year. Almost all go as a part of an organized expeditionary cruise, frequently guided by experts who are a mixture of seasoned seafarers, and ice or wildlife experts.
"You can't protect what you don't know."
Lars-Eric Lindblad leader of the first commercial Antarctica cruise in 1966
"We should have the sense to leave just one place alone"
Sir Peter Scott Founder of the WWF and son of Robert Falcon Scott
Tourism in Antarctica - The Continent in Brief
There are no indigenous people on Antarctica. The population varies from fewer than 1,000 in winter to over 50,000 in summer: 5,000 scientists from 27 of the countries party to the Antarctic Treaty, plus tourists. In the 2013/2014 season there were 37,405 tourists, the peak was the 2007/2008 season with 46,069 visitors.
Antarctica surrounds the South Pole. The nearest landmass is South America, which is over 620 miles from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula
Surface area: 14 million square miles (36 million square kilometers).
There is no indigenous government, management of the Antarctic is organised through the legal framework of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. Forty-three nations are now party to this agreement, and seven of those - UK, Norway, Chile, France, Australia, Argentina and New Zealand - have historic claims on parts of the continent as national territory. The 1959 Antarctic Treaty preserves the status quo of the continent by neither recognizing nor rejecting the claims of these countries and by not allowing expansion in any way on the continent.
Antarctica currently has no economic activity apart from offshore fishing and tourism, and these are carried out by other nations (i.e. not the continent of Antarctica)
Tourism in the Antarctic is mainly by ship, around 20 vessels carrying 45 to 280 passengers each.
The ships are ice strengthened and sail primarily to the Antarctic Peninsula region sometimes also including South Georgia and the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas).
There have been occasional voyages to Antarctica by larger passenger vessels (up to 960 tourists), some of which conduct sightseeing cruises only without landings. These will no longer happen however since regulations came into force in 2009 preventing such large vessels operating in Antarctic waters.
Yacht travel is also popular, and gives a smaller scale more intimate contact, though often without the luxuries and facilities of the larger Antarctica cruise ship.
Several expeditions take place outside the Peninsula region each season. Voyages are made to the Weddell Sea, Ross Sea region and, on occasion, East Antarctica including islands of the Indian Ocean sector. These expeditions include visits to emperor penguin colonies, historical huts, the Dry Valleys and other remote areas.
Weather and ice, not clocks and calendars, set the schedule for a journey here. No matter what the reason for your visit, you'll be at the mercy of the continent's changing moods and weather patterns. You may be able to make a landing as expected at the appropriate time, but don't rely on it if the weather and sea state have other ideas.
How long are trips?
Most trips take about 10 days to 3 weeks from port to port, though occasionally longer or shorter trips are possible.
Fly - Cruise trips are about 5-7 days flying both ways or another couple of days longer if one leg is by ship.
Can I fly to Antarctica?
Yes - There are Fly-Cruise trips to Antarctica whereby you can fly to Frei Station (Chile) on King George Island in around two hours flying from Punta Arenas, Chile.
You then embark on your ship where you follow the Antarctic part of the cruise for around 6 days along the Antarctic Peninsula before returning to King George Island and flying back to Punta Arenas again.
Avoid crossing the Drakes Passage by ship - this can be a very rough crossing which for some people may prevent them going to Antarctica at all if they feel ill on ships.
Time saving - two sailings across the Drakes Passage saves about 4 days in all meaning that is possible to go to Antarctica without spending so much time getting there and back.
You don't get to cross the Drakes Passage by ship - there is something magical about arriving in Antarctica by ship where the weather and ice change slowly over a longer period, spotting albatrosses following the ship, the first ice-bergs, first penguins and seals etc
Delays to your trip - While no Antarctica Fly and Cruise departure has been cancelled due to weather conditions (yet), some departures in the past have experienced delays of up to three days. The current estimate is that the chances of delay are in the range of 5-10%. Ships can operate in conditions in Antarctica that leave planes grounded. In particular you will need to have some flexibility in your return journey timings.
How much does it cost?
From about USD $6,000 for a place in a twin cabin (triples may be available for 15-25% less) plus the cost of air fares and other sundry costs to and from your point of embarkation and then up to US$50 000 and even beyond. These are for regular scheduled trips. You can usually have a cabin to yourself on payment of a supplement, though if you are a solo traveller, you can be paired up with someone of the same sex in a shared cabin at the standard twin prices. Of course you pay more if you want the best cabins on the more luxurious vessels.
You could put together a trip of your own with other people with the help of a small vessel operator running your own itinerary, cost - negotiable, but not too different to the mid to high range scheduled trips.
$10,000 -$12,000 per passenger for a 10-14 day cruise is a reasonable amount to expect to pay.
When and where do trips take place?
Antarctic visits are mainly concentrated at ice-free coastal zones over the Antarctic summer, the five-month period from November to March, in high summer there will be 20+ hours of daylight.
The formation and movement of sea-ice outside of these times means that from March to November, Antarctica is left to the over-wintering scientific bases and their crews.
Tourist ships possibly could get in and out earlier or later in the season, but there is the all too real danger of not being able to get to the places on the itinerary, or more importantly of being stuck in the sea-ice and having an enforced winter (for an extra 8 months or more) as has happened on scientific bases occasionally. So apart from the odd ice-breaker trip that may leave in October, tourist ships just don't risk it outside of these months.
Winter pack ice extends over 620 miles around the continent, it is almost permanently dark and temperatures can drop to as low as -90°C (-130°F)
Temperature Range; December to February 20°F to 50°F / -6°C to +10°C
November & Early December (Late Spring / Early Summer)
- Courting season for penguins and seabirds - see spectacular courtship rituals.
- Seals visible on fast ice.
- Spring wildflowers in the Falklands and South Georgia.
- Elephant and fur seals establish their breeding territories.
- Winter pack ice is starting to melt and break up. The scenery is white, clean and pristine with pack ice and giant icebergs.
Mid-December and January (Mid Summer)
- Normally Antarctica's warmest months.
- Longer days create great light conditions and fabulous photo opportunities at midnight.
- Antarctic penguin chicks hatch.
- South Georgia and the Falklands - first penguin chicks emerge and fur seals are breeding.
- Seal Pups visible on South Georgia and the Falklands.
- Receding ice allows for more exploration.
February and March (Late Summer)
- Whale sightings are at their best on the Peninsula.
- Penguin chicks start to fledge, most Adelie and Gentoo penguin colonies are nearly vacated by late Feb to early March.
- Blooming snow algae prevalent.
- Receding pack ice allows ships to explore further south.
- More fur seals on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Where do trips leave from?
Peninsula voyages generally depart from Ushuaia in Argentina, other South American ports are rarely used. The great majority of trips leave from South America, those that leave from elsewhere tend to be longer and more expensive - considerably so.
For trips to the Ross region and Eastern Antarctica, most often used ports are: Invercargill / Bluff (New Zealand) and less commonly Hobart (Australia), These trips may involve two different ports sometimes departing from one and returning to another.
Departures very rarely set out from from Cape Town and Port Elizabeth (South Africa) or Fremantle / Perth (Australia), i.e. they have done in the past, though do not do so every year.
No documentation or visas are required to visit Antarctica, but if your cruise stops off at other countries en route, visas and documentation may be required for them.
It is worth thinking about what you will do on your Antarctic trip beyond icebergs and glaciers. Trips that take in the Falkland Islands or South Georgia for instance can add significantly to the experience. Once you have decided to make the long journey (and for the vast majority of the planets inhabitants it is a long journey) to get there, you should aim to make the most of where you are. You could tie in other visits to South America for instance on the way there or back.
Ship size and the cruise
There are passenger ships of a variety of sizes that sail to Antarctica and the choice of ship can make a big difference to your journey and experiences.
First of all Antarctic cruises aren't like other more well known cruises to warmer climates with professional entertainers, though the larger the ship, the more likely there is to be entertainment provided.
What you will find are a number of very well informed and experienced cruise guides working on the ship who will give lectures on a regular basis about various aspects of Antarctic history and natural history. These will also often be around to socialize in the evenings along with some of the ships crew and captain.
There are rules laid down by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) covering such things as the size of cruise ship allowed to enter Antarctic waters and covering conduct at landing sites in Antarctica. This is a voluntary organization and is well respected, you should always make sure that the ship / tour company you go to Antarctica with is a member of IAATO.
1. People go to Antarctica, like, on vacation?
Yes. In fact, Antarctic tourism is booming. Last year over 34,000 tourists visited the continent, as estimated by IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators.
2. Is there anything there besides snow?
Well, there is a lot of snow there. Ninety-eight percent of the continent is covered in ice and snow that’s, on average, more than a mile thick.
There’s actually a lot to see there, geography-wise. The Antarctic Peninsula — where the majority of tourists go — is a continuation of the Andes Mountains, meaning it’s quite mountainous. Peaks often rise out of the ocean, interspersed by enormous glaciers. It’s one of the most pristine places on Earth, in no small part because it’s mostly untouched by humans.
3. How do you get there?
On a boat! While big, traditional cruise ships do go to Antarctica, they aren’t able to bring passengers to shore. For this reason, expedition-sized boats that carry more than 13 but fewer than 500 passengers are popular.
4. Where do boats leave from?
Most cruises leave from the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina (above), which is located at the very tip of South America on Tierra del Fuego. Others depart from Punta Arenas, Chile, and Montevideo, Uruguay. These usually head across Drake’s Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. A small number of cruises also leave from Hobart, Australia, or Lyttleton or Bluff, New Zealand, and head toward the Ross Sea side of the continent. A very small number also leave from South Africa.
5. How long do cruises last?
It depends on the operator and the package, but generally speaking the shortest trips — from South America to Antarctica and back — last about 10–12 days. Some trips last up to three weeks, and those will generally go further south, or include excursions to the Falklands/Islas Malvinas and/or South Georgia Islands.
6. Isn’t it really expensive?
It’s not cheap, to be sure. It’s sort of in that once-in-a-lifetime travel category for most who do it, and price ranges a great deal depending on your carrier, package, length of trip, level of desired luxury or outdoor activity, and so on. That said, there are ways to buy last-minute spots on boats for a moderate discount; this guide breaks it down. (This is a novelty dollar, by the way.)
7. What time of year should you go?
Tourism season in Antarctica is during the austral summer from about November through March or April. During the summer’s height, the sun won’t really set, but things will get dusky through the wee hours of the morning, as in the shot above.
8. Is it dangerous?
Flickr: 38007185@N00 / Creative Commons
While of course no travel, especially travel by boat to somewhere remote, is entirely without risk, Antarctic travel is not especially dangerous. If you go from South America, the most dangerous part is the open ocean between the Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula known as Drake’s Passage. While it has a reputation for being the most tumultuous ocean on earth, some voyages cross what’s fondly called “Drake’s Lake.” It takes about a day to cross each way in a medium-sized vessel.
9. What should you pack?
Your tour company will likely tell you exactly what you need. On our cruise, we had to wear at least two layers plus an outer wet layer — rubber boots as well as waterproof pants and jackets — and then sunglasses, gloves, hats. While in summertime temperatures generally hover around freezing, bad weather and/or the wet conditions in a Zodiac can make things feel colder. You’ll also want a camera, of course, sunglasses, and sunscreen, because of the high UV levels that far south. IAATO, of which our tour operator was a member, also has some tight biosecurity rules. We had to vacuum our outer layers, including our camera cases, and step through a disinfectant every time we exited or boarded the ship. (Because Antarctica is so isolated and relatively untampered with by humanity, its flora and fauna are very susceptible to invasive species.)
10. Is Antarctica a country? Who owns it?
There’s no simple answer. The Antarctic Treaty, signed by 12 countries in 1959 (now 49), suspended all territory claims on the continent. It also did other things like make the continent politically neutral, establish freedom of scientific investigation and environmental protection, and make the entire land mass — the fifth largest continent in the world — a bio preserve. That said, there are many territory claims that predate the treaty, many of which overlap each other. The short answer is that for now nobody’s fighting a war over Antarctica. Were something like oil to be discovered there, chances are this delicate balance would be upset.
11. Does anyone live in Antarctica?
Flickr: elisfanclub / Creative Commons
About 1,000 to 5,000 scientists and others live there on a temporary basis at research stations controlled by numerous countries, most of which are located on the continent’s shores or islands. Some tours prearrange to visit various bases. The U.S.-controlled McMurdo Station, located on Ross Island, hosts an Ice Stock festival (above) each New Year’s Eve.
12. Where do the cruise ships land?
They don’t, really, because there aren’t docks big enough. Cruise ships with fewer than 500 passengers, though, will usually load passengers into rubber, motorized Zodiacs and zip them to shore, or take them cruising around.
13. So you can’t actually sleep on the continent?
You can. Our company, for example, let us “camp” for one night, for a price. Others have semi-permanent camps they access.
14. Did you see penguins?
So, so many. Penguins are very cute, but after a while they start seeming sort of stinky and loud. Some trips do go down further south specifically to see iconic Emperor penguins, though such tours are typically longer and more expensive.
Among the species that live along the peninsula are Adélies…
Penguin pairs often mirror each other, like the above chinstraps are, in order to sort of affirm their bond.
Baby penguins will be hatching in mid- to late December on the Antarctic peninsula so it’s fun to go in early January.
15. Are penguins afraid of people?
Not really. Because penguins don’t have any natural land predators, they’re totally indifferent to people. Either that or they’re mildly curious.
In the water, though, penguins are both predators and prey. They’re also way more elegant and a heck of a lot faster.
16. Did you see whales?
Many. The Southern Ocean around Antarctica is the largest marine mammal feeding ground on earth. The combination of oxygen-rich waters and near round-the-clock sunlight during the summer means it’s home to a big algae bloom and therefore attractive to everything up the food chain. Baleen whales like humpbacks and minkes are a very common sight, as are dolphins, such as orcas.
17. Did you see seals?
Many. Seals will hunt for hours on end and then come onto land to sleep, so most of the seals we saw at least were very sleepy.
18. Did you see the southern lights?
No. The southern lights are primarily visible during the non-tourist season, from March to September, and mostly at the South Pole (where the above was taken). It’s also not dark enough in summer to see them.
19. What sorts of things did you do?
Other than walk on Antarctica and Zodiac around, many companies offer additional adventure packages that may allow visitors to kayak, cross-country ski, mountaineer, scuba dive, and so on. This is in addition to all the amenities aboard the cruise ship itself, which in our case included lectures from experts about the history and science of Antarctica.
20. What else did you see?
Glaciers, icebergs, avalanches…and basically nothing man-made, which was a sight unto itself.
21. Was it worth it?
Yes. After having been there, it wasn’t hard to see why so many people go back again and again. Antarctica was one of, if not the, most memorable places I’ve ever been and anticipate I’ll go in my life. If you ever have the opportunity to go, don’t miss it.
It’s hard to escape the rat race these days. There are queues to reach the summit of Everest, direct flights to remote Pacific islands and luxurious hotels in the rainforest. We’ve tamed and colonised most of the world, but one vast stretch of the planet remains beyond our grasp: Antarctica. This frozen continent at the end of the Earth has never been permanently occupied by man. Accessible only from November to March, it has no towns, no villages, no habitation bar the odd research station or expedition hut; just grand, icy, unpredictable wilderness. Even if you’re travelling there on a cruise ship, as most people do, the solitude and the emptiness will envelop you and bring you down to scale.
Not that solitude is the first thing that comes to mind when you’re standing in the middle of a penguin colony on an Antarctic shoreline. When I visited, in early February, there were thousands of birds packed tightly on every rock, both shy gentoo penguins and the bolder adélies, which seemed happy for us to wander among them, our cameras clicking furiously at the grey fluff-ball chicks tapping their parents’ beaks to be fed. Adult penguins nudged each other into the sea and “porpoised” through the water like leaping salmon, their oiled white feathers gleaming silver in the sun. Later in the trip I saw chinstrap penguins on Livingstone Island, looking just as if they were sporting old-fashioned motorcycle helmets.
Adélie penguins leaping from an iceberg into the wind-whipped sea
But penguins are by no means the only stars of the show here. I found it equally thrilling to see a wandering albatross circling above our ship, dipping its great wings into the rolling waters of the Drake Passage. Or fat elephant seals lolling on the beach in a soup of algae, snorting and bellowing at each other like elderly members of a gentlemen’s club.
Most exciting of all, though, were the whales. As the call went up from the bridge of our ship – “Humpbacks!” – we spotted three of them leaping from the water, their magnificent tails emerging and dipping as if in slow motion, so close that we could see their great barnacled heads, their eyes and blowholes.
One even swam under the ship, flippers outstretched like an enormous aeroplane, clearly visible in the clear turquoise water. Later, several minke whales played alongside us as we took a Zodiac cruise among the icebergs.
Less acrobatic, but just as vast and mesmerising, are the icebergs. The glassy world of the Weddell Sea is a surreal panorama of icy skyscrapers stretching to the horizon. Some are whipped by wind and water into fantastical shapes – oriental palaces, ruined fortresses, an Art Deco cinema. In others you can glimpse arches and grottos so blue they look as though they’re lined with topaz or aquamarine.
“Of course many of the people who go on those big Alaskan cruise ships would hate this,” a fellow passenger said to me as we were buffeted by winds and showered with icy water on one of our trips ashore. “There’s no disco and no spa. It would be too rough and remote for them, too strange, too adventurous.”
All of which is precisely what makes a voyage here so extraordinary. A journey to Antarctica is about as other-worldly a travel experience as you can have, short of a flight to the Moon.
When to travel
You can only visit the area during the Antarctic summer, from November to March. Prices are cheaper at the beginning and end of the season, but there is less to see in the way of wildlife. Photographers wanting to capture classic images of pristine Antarctic ice will get their best shots in November, and at this time, penguins start to come ashore for courtship rituals and nest building, but the days are shorter and the ice thicker, restricting access to some areas.
From mid to late December penguin chicks start to hatch on the Antarctic Peninsula, and in January you can watch the feeding frenzy. By February, penguin colonies are busy, noisy and smelly as the young penguins begin their moult; February to early March is the best time to see whales, and a good number of fur seals. By mid March most penguin colonies are emptying as the birds return to the sea.
Is it safe?
Yes, if you go with a reputable company. Check that your chosen operator is a member of IAATO (the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators), which has strict guidelines for safe and environmentally responsible operations. Captains and crew on expedition voyages are likely to have experience of polar conditions, and will be very aware of safety issues.
The two-day crossing of the Drake Passage, the stretch of water between Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctic Peninsula, can be very rough indeed, but conditions are usually fairly calm once there.
A leopard seal on an ice floe
How to travel
Most people visit Antarctica on a cruise ship. The IAATO website (iaato.org ) lists all the operators cruising in the area, and while this includes some of the large, mainstream cruise lines, I would strongly recommend opting for one of the smaller expedition ships carrying between 50 and 200 passengers.
They may not be as fast or luxurious as the larger vessels and you won’t find casinos or themed dining on board. But they all provide reasonable levels of comfort and are much more likely to have ice-hardened hulls and a captain and crew with specialist knowledge of polar regions. Most have expert naturalists and polar historians on board, who give talks and lead frequent shore trips and Zodiac dinghy tours (weather permitting). This is when you get a real feel for the landscape and can see (and photograph) the wildlife close up. Prices for an 11-day trip to the Antarctic Peninsula start at about £4,000 per person in late November, excluding flights.
Larger ships with more than 500 passengers are not allowed to land passengers, so you can only look at the landscape from the ship. While this might be a sensible option for anyone with restricted mobility, who would have difficulty getting into and out of a Zodiac dinghy, it does mean you miss the essence of this great ice wilderness.
While most people find the daily shore excursions and Zodiac rides fulfilling enough, there are cruises that offer the option of kayaking, snowshoeing, mountaineering or cross-country skiing. And on some Aurora Expeditions' cruises (auroraexpeditions.co.uk ) from February 2014, passengers will be given the opportunity to dive and snorkel in Antarctic waters (UK bookings through steppestravel.co.uk ).
If you want to play the intrepid explorer and trek to the South Pole, you can join a land expedition; see coldclimates.co.uk or the various options available through Discover the World (discover-the-world.co.uk ). Companies such as White Desert (white-desert.com ) will fly you in to their temporary pod campsite in Antarctica, from where you can trek to see emperor penguins. These trips usually cost upwards of £30,000 a head, however.
Most cruises leave from Ushuaia in Argentina or Punta Arenas in Chile, and take about two days to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. But if you are short of time, or can’t face crossing the Drake Passage, it is possible to fly to the South Shetland Islands and join a ship there, though this will add at least £2,000 a head to the cost of the trip.
What to take
You may be travelling in the Antarctic summer, but temperatures are still likely to be at or below freezing. Dress as for skiing in January: thermal underwear, a thin insulating layer, then a fleece or a thin down jacket, all topped with seriously waterproof trousers and jacket (with hood). Also a hat, ski gloves, good sunglasses and waterproof boots to at least knee height for wet landings; if the boots have grippy soles for scrambling over rocks and ice, so much the better.
Also take the best binoculars you can afford, and a camera with a good zoom if you want to avoid photos of black humps of whales on the horizon; carry both in a waterproof case or backpack, as Zodiac trips can be splashy. And do pack bucketfuls of seasickness pills. You’ll be crossing the notoriously rough Drake Passage, so don’t be tempted to cut costs by picking a cabin without en suite facilities.
Who will it appeal to?
Anyone who enjoys seeing wildlife and the natural world. If this isn’t your thing, you might find yourself asking why you’ve come all this way to stare at icebergs.
Where to go
This might seem obvious, but many Antarctic itineraries include the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, as well as the Antarctic Peninsula. If you are very keen on bird and animal life, it’s worth taking one of the longer cruises to all three destinations, but these tend to take between 18 and 22 days. For most people a classic 10 or 12-day cruise to the Peninsula gives a really good feel for the special nature of the place: the icebergs, penguins, whales, seals, expedition history and solitude. South Georgia will appeal to devotees of Ernest Shackleton, since this is where he made his famous journey to save the crew of the icebound Endeavour, and it’s also the site of his grave.
While you’re there
Since most international flights land in Buenos Aires or Santiago, where you change for an internal flight to southern ports, it’s worth spending a few days in either city, or a week or so exploring further afield. Popular side trips include Iguazu Falls, a stay on an estancia or trekking in Patagonia. Ushuaia, the departure point for most Antarctic cruises, is also a good base for exploring the lakes, valleys and forests of the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego.
Discover the World will organise side trips for customers booking an Antarctic tour; and LATA (the Latin American Travel Association) has a list of specialist tour operators on its website (lata.org ).
Who to travel with
Discover the World has a good range of cruises on various expedition ships. If you want a deeper level of comfort, opt for Abercrombie & Kent’s Le Boreal (abercrombiekent.co.uk/antarctica ). Noble Caledonia (noble-caledonia.co.uk ) also offers a range of cruises in the area, while the luxury cruise operator Seabourn will visit the Antarctica this winter as part of a 28-day South America and Antarctica itinerary. See the IAATO website for details of other operators in the region.
Adult emperor penguins returning to their nesting colony
Most cruise ships have a good library of reference books on Antarctic flora and fauna, but to get a feel for the area, try to buy or borrow a book of the black and white photographs taken by Frank Hurley and Herbert Ponting, the official expedition photographers with Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott respectively. Looking at these is the next best thing to visiting Antarctica.
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (Vintage) is a fascinating account of Scott’s disastrous South Pole expedition, written by one of the young members of his team. By contrast, South: The Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton (Penguin) tells the extraordinary story of the mission to rescue his 1914 expedition – all members of which survived.
John A Harrison has recently won the English-language non-fiction award in the Wales Book of the Year competition for Forgotten Footprints: Lost Stories in the Discovery of Antarctica (Parthian).
When i t comes to fiction, Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski (Virago) contains an accurate and entertaining account of an Antarctic cruise – and captures the allure of this icebound world. The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (Abacus) is based on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.