Just Two Bros and the 7th Continent, How to Visit Antarctica
It was 2017 shortly after our trip to Iceland when I decided that I wanted to rival Eric’s national parks goal. I was reminiscing on our trip to Iceland desperate for another adventure when it hit me: “I want to visit the 7 continents before I turn 30.” For those of you who know me you know that I am neurotic when it comes to travel planning. Within 10 seconds of deciding on this goal I was on Google searching “how to travel to Antarctica.” Insert Adventure Life Travel; I completed a general inquiry form and waited anxiously for a reply.
Fast forward a day or two and I was on the phone with Mary, a trip adviser, having a funny conversation about traveling to Antarctica 4 years from then. Apparently I was one of two extremes planning that far in advance, but she was pleased that I wasn’t the other extreme, calling a month in advance with the hopes of making it on a ship. We chatted for awhile, she sent me a catalog, I called Eric A, and suddenly I didn’t want to wait 4 years to visit Antarctica.
Climate change, my excitement, and Mary’s support had us signed up for a 13 day cruise setting sail in November of 2019.
As luck would have it, 21 months into our anxious waiting period, we were out setting up a back country camp site in Petrified Forest National Park when I got a dreaded email from Franny, our trip coordinator. Our trip had been cancelled due to the Russian Government pulling all of it’s ships from the 2019/2020 Antarctic season. With no service to reply I was left sitting by our campsite in tears and disbelief.
The following week was a lot of back and forth with Franny, One Ocean Expeditions, and a new potential cruise option, Quark Expeditions. By some miracle, Quark Expeditions was able to get us on a cruise departing on the same date as our original trip, with the same excursion options, AND they upgraded us to a twin private room!
Describing the experience of visiting Antarctica is practically impossible so the intent of this blog post is to help it’s readers understand how to plan a trip of their own to Antarctica, how to prepare, and what to expect.
For most people, the first obvious question when planning a trip to Antarctica is “how can I visit Antarctica?” The answer is pretty simple, either work in research or on a base, go as a guide, or join an expedition ship. In reality, if you are reading this you probably aren’t a scientist or researcher which means you will likely be looking for expedition options.
There are several polar adventure options out there. As you read, we ended up on a Quark Expeditions ship, and we are elated that we did, however, Quark is one of several expedition companies that are a part of IAATO or the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. Members of IAATO work closely together to ensure a safe, isolated, and environmentally friendly experience to all passenger aboard their ships. Because of this, it is highly unlikely your ship will ever cross paths with another ship, adding to the isolated and remote experience of visiting Antarctica.
For a full list of operators in the IAATO click here.
There are three major places to depart from for a trip to the 7th Continent: Port of Bluff, New Zealand, Ushuaia, Argentina, or by private charter from Cape Town, South Africa.
Ushuaia, Argentina is the most common and most economical option available. Depending on where you are coming from this usually entails several connecting flights typically with a stopover in Buenos Aires before continuing onto the southern most city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina.
When to Go
The Antarctic season starts in early November and ends in March. When to go depends on what you are hoping to see and experience.
Those looking for pristine, untouched landscapes and leopard seal mating will want to opt for an early November cruise like we did. Typically more adventure or excursion options are available at this time of year.
If you are hoping to see baby penguins then you will want to head down south toward the end of December leading into January.
January-March offers peak whale watching. Now this doesn’t mean you won’t see whales during the other months it just means you will see a heck of a lot more of them during these months.
Every ship offers different excursion options so this is something to keep in mind when deciding on a trip and provider. Below is a list of the most commonly offered adventure options. Keep in mind these activities are usually an additional cost and have limited availability. We were 2 of 16 kayakers aboard a 199 passenger ship, and we felt extremely lucky to have had the chance to kayak every day. Plan ahead to secure your spot!
Kayaking, Stand-Up Paddling Boarding, Mountaineering, Snowshoeing, Cross Country Skiing, Camping, and Snowboarding.
All activities are weather dependent. We attempted to camp 4 different nights and weather prohibited us from doing so.
Another common question I get about our trip is about the ship. As someone who has never been on cruise before, I can’t speak to how this compares other than to say that we did not have any water slides, movie theaters, or ice skating rinks. We did, however, have a comfortable, spacious twin room, wonderful hotel service/staff, a juice bar, full dining hall, gym, spa, outdoor heated salt-water pool, and two lounge rooms.
The main lounge room offered a fully stocked cash bar that I frequented often.
In terms of food, expect to gain weight on your trip. They feed you every chance they get, the food is surprisingly good, and there were new menu options daily.
Cruise duration vary anywhere from 8-21 days, but most commonly are between 10-14 days in length.
The duration of your trip will determine potential stops in South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, and the South Shetland Islands en route to Antarctica.
Keep in mind that 2-3 days of your trip will be spent traversing the infamous Drake Passage on both ends.
The Dreaded Drake Passage
The Drake is a “right of passage” to the most desolate place on earth and offers the world’s roughest waters. During our trip we experience a 5/10 on the way down and a 6.5/10 on the journey back when it comes to Drake “ratings.” Whether you get sick or not will depend on the person.
I experience motion sickness when I do not take medication but with medication was fine. I will tell you that when I woke up at 6:00 AM after our first night, sliding out of my bed as things shot off our desk into the door on the other side of the room, I instantly heard echoes of people getting sick down the hall. Take the medicine people.
I had absolutely no issues managing the Drake simply by taking Meclizine every 6 hours or so, and I was also drinking plenty of wine.
Other suggested medication options are Dramamine or Motion Sickness Patches.
Note that the boat is rocking quite a bit so even if you don’t get sick you will definitely want to practice caution when navigating aboard as several people on our boat fell causing minor injuries. You definitely don’t want to break a bone en route to Antarctica.
Packing for Antarctica isn’t really as hard as you think it would be especially if you are someone coming from colder winter climates.
November-March is Antarctica’s “summer” so you will be experiencing temperatures ranging from 20-40 degrees Fahrenheit during the day.
Most ships provide a parka to borrow or keep so you can already count out that big coat you wanted to pack. Below is my suggestion of what to pack. I brought my Patagonia MLC and a small day pack, and I still feel like I overpacked.
1 pair waterproof pants
2 pair waterproof gloves
2 pair glove liners
2-4 fleece long sleeved base layer tops
2-4 fleece base layer leggings
1 wool hat
2 wool buffs
1-2 fleece mid layer jackets/sweatshirts
1 light weight puff jacket
2 on-board casual light weight outfits
1 “dressier” outfit for farewell dinner
gym clothes optional
waterproof day pack or trash bag liner for day pack
ski goggles for the windy snowy days
waterproof smart phone case
Traveling to Antarctica can be very manageable if you plan ahead which was one of our motivations when planning the trip two years in advance, but plan on spending anywhere from $8,000-20,000 depending on the duration of your cruise and type of cruise ship.
For those flexible back-packers out there, you can travel down to Ushuaia last minute and often times find deals for 50% off or better but bare in mind options are limited and adventure options may already be completely booked. Our friend, the Fabulous Ed Gay, was able to get on-board our boat for $5,000 and secure a spot cross country skiing.
Operators and third party companies like Adventure Life Travel offer options to make monthly payments toward the overall cost. They also offer Black Friday and Christmas deals so now is a good time to shop for Antarctic cruises.