No travellers visit Antarctica during the winter when the temperature plummets and the polar ice becomes hard to traverse. Most vessels sail from November to March.
1. Where do the ships depart from?
Most Antarctic cruises depart from Ushuaia in Argentina, but there are some that depart from other locations such as the Falklands or Punta Arenas in Chile. It is also possible to take a Fly Cruise which does not involve crossing the Drake Passage at all! The main deciding factor in choosing a cruise will often come down to the dates and availability, rather than departure point.
2. Why is the itinerary so vague?
Due to the unpredictable weather conditions, in Antarctica you have to take every day as it comes and have a very open mind. For example, on my voyage we took at 1.5 day detour to the Falkland Islands due to a fuel shortage in Ushuaia, then missed a full day of excursions due to high winds meaning the zodiacs could not be launched. It was disappointing, but you have to be flexible and understanding when travelling somewhere so remote. Remember that the staff will get you out as much as they possibly can without jeopardising your safety, they know you’ve come a long way to get there!
3. What’s the truth about the Drake Passage?
The Drake Passage is a notoriously choppy and dangerous body of water, and my advice is to prepare for the worst and take each day as it comes! We had what’s known as a ‘Drake Lake’ on the way down (still around 2.5 metre swells so it wasn’t exactly flat!), but the way back was quite hairy at around 7m waves (though they can get much higher, up to about 20m). Make sure you take seasickness tablets with you, listen to instructions from the captain (I distinctly remember “please secure your belongings…”), and you may just need to spend a day or so in your cabin riding it out. Luckily the boat I was on, the Resolute, has very good stabilisers and it’s a quick ship, so I think this really improved things. It’s definitely an experience and a great story to come back with if you do have very rough seas, and it’ll be worth the effort when you get there!
4. What excursions were offered and how did these work?
All boats offer both land and zodiac explorations. These tend to be twice daily (weather dependent), and last between 1-3 hours. Some boats offer camping, kayaking, snow-shoeing and more - look into the details if you are keen on anything like this because often you need to sign up or pay extra in advance to avoid missing out. Be aware that most of these extras are very weather dependent, so be prepared for them to potentially be cancelled. On my trip, there was plenty of kayaking, but the camping out was cancelled very last minute due to a change in weather conditions.
5. Can you swim in Antarctica?
Most ships offer the ‘Polar Plunge’ for those who are feeling adventurous and fancy a dip in the icy waters! It’s not for the feint-hearted, but certainly something you’ll never do again so if you’re thinking about it, go for it.
6. How close can you get to the wildlife?
However tempting it may be to head straight over to greet the first creatures that you see, there is a recommended rule of not getting closer than 5m to wildlife. It’s important not to disturb animals in their natural habitat to ensure the minimal impact of your trip. However, the wildlife doesn’t always obey this rule and some occasions they will come to you, in which case just enjoy the experience!
7. Do you have any photography advice?
Having a decent camera is definitely recommended, so do some research on this before you go. If you have a new camera, try to practise with it in advance of your trip and learn the functions that you may want for the white Antarctica environment; it’s not easy doing that on a bumpy zodiac boat with 2 layers of gloves and blinding sunshine! If you can afford a good zoom, then you’ll appreciate it to allow you to capture the amazing wildlife that you should encounter.
It’s also worth taking plenty of extra memory cards and batteries - batteries run out much quicker in the cold and you won’t be able to buy new memory cards if they fill up or break which can be heart-breaking. It’s also worth considering UV and polarising filters which can help with the very bright environments and white landscapes.
We had a resident photographer on board which is common, and it’s worth picking their brains for top tips which is exactly what I did! Personally, when it comes to taking the pictures themselves, I found that demonstrating scale was really important, as the landscapes are vast in Antarctica and it can be hard to portray this in a photo. Using things like people, penguins and even your cruise ship can help you to do this. It’s worth spending some time just relaxing amongst the wildlife (without getting too close!) - let them come to you, ideally capture them at their level, and that’s when you’ll get the best pictures. I took hundreds of photos and experimented a lot with different angles and settings, which left me with some that I’ll treasure forever.
However, it’s important not to get too caught up in the technical side of things, and don’t spend the entire time looking through a lens. Enjoy the environment and soak up where you are through your own eyes too!