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Planning for Antarctica

Planning for Antarctica

It’s not difficult to find cruises to Antarctica. A quick online search will lead you to the websites of various operators or resellers, each offering multiple options and packages.

Unfortunately, while these websites will describe specific trips and itineraries, they don’t often cover enough background detail to help you plan a voyage or compare alternatives. Travel agents are also somewhat hit and miss because outside of a few select cities, most agents have limited experience with Antarctica.

That’s why I’m beginning my Antarctic blog entries with some context – essentially, the kind of information we used to make our decisions when faced with dozens of different variations on the theme. Given that I’m not an expert and also don’t want to write a novel, I’ll focus on five areas:

  1. Cruise timing and the Antarctic tourist season;
  2. Modes of access;
  3. Routes and durations;
  4. Ships, facilities and activities; and
  5. Pricing, value and discounts.

As for more details on what visiting Antarctica is like (and how incredible it is), I’ll leave that for later and more photo-heavy blog posts.

1. Timing

The Antarctic tourist season begins in October and finishes in March. To my knowledge, tourists can’t visit in the colder months – not only is the continent far less accessible, but the Antarctic winter is sunless, dark and cold. Only a few of the research stations operate all through the year.

Port Lockroy, one of the summer-only bases which we visited

Port Lockroy, a summer-only British base that we visited

Within the cruise season, your choice of timing will depend on various factors, including your availability, budget and scenic preferences. Availability is self-explanatory. Budget-wise, the cruises towards the beginning and end of the season tend to be less popular and hence somewhat cheaper.

Different times of the year also offer different experiences. It is important to realise that with sunlight and spring comes phytoplankton growth in Antarctica. The phytoplankton then feeds the zooplankton, including krill. The availability of krill enables various other animals in the food chain to feed themselves, produce young and raise their young. This gives you some idea of what the Antarctica “scenery and wildlife timeline” may look like.

Floating ice in mid-December

Floating ice in mid-December

October and November tend to be fairly icy, and as a result, some areas and landing sites may be inaccessible. Penguins and other birds are mating and building nests, but it is far too early for chicks, and other wildlife (e.g. whales) are less common because the krill is not yet as widely available. However, the otherworldly landscapes of ice are at their most spectacular, and the mating behaviours can be fascinating.

Chinstrap penguins mating and nesting

Chinstrap penguins mating and nesting

From December, the nights virtually disappear and the days are warmer. Accessibility improves. Wildlife is more abundant, and towards the end of the month, the penguin chicks start hatching. From January onwards, you can see the chicks at their various stages of development, which is a thrilling, adorable and pungent experience – all the feeding and pooping has its consequences, and you often smell a penguin colony before seeing it. The chicks of other bird species begin hatching too. You may catch more glimpses of predatory behaviour, such as skua or seals snatching penguin chicks.

Blue-eyed cormorant chick

Blue-eyed cormorant chick

By late February, a fair amount of ice and snow will have melted, and what remains may be less pristine due to tourist activity (and animal guano). That said, the melting allows greater accessibility to parts of the peninsula, and you are also more likely to get whale sightings. Penguin chicks start to reach adolescence, so you can see them swim and explore the world. If you are lucky, they may even approach you in curiosity. Predatory behaviour also continues, particularly from leopard seals.

Leopard seal with its one watchful eye

Leopard seal with its one watchful eye

In short, there is no universally “best” time to visit Antarctica. We chose December partly because we happened to be in Ushuaia at the time, partly because a good deal came up, and partly because we thought it would provide a good mix of landscape and wildlife. If we had free reign, we would potentially have tried for late December or early January, but we love icy landscapes too much to wait much later than that. Anyhow, we were lucky – an Adélie chick hatched early so we saw some baby action despite our timing!

The first Adélie chick of the season

The first Adélie chick of the season

2. Modes of access

Most Antarctic cruises depart from (and return to) the Argentine city of Ushuaia, which is just under 4h by air from Buenos Aires and a fair distance from most of the world. Its relatively close proximity to Antarctica allows ships to spend less time in transit – the crossing of the Beagle Channel and Drake Passage lasts around two days. That said, a few cruises do depart from Punta Arenas in Chile, and some of those disembark in Ushuaia, hence offering a way to visit both cities. There are even a couple of longer cruises that visit more northern parts of the continent before or after heading to Antarctica.

In recent years, a few more “fly in, fly out” options have become available. They still require some days on a ship, but they shorten the overall passage by largely eliminating the Drake crossing. I can see how this would be of benefit to those who are very time-poor, but personally, I enjoyed the extra time on board – it was fun to share the build-up of anticipation with the other passengers (as well as the seasickness), exciting to spot icebergs and whales as we approached Antarctica, interesting to listen to the various lectures and stories offered on board, and much easier to say goodbye to the incredible continent over a two-day return voyage than it would have been to leave abruptly by air.

Humpback whale sighting

Humpback whale sighting

Outside of South America, there are also cruises run from New Zealand. Those follow a very different route, and are also much longer. I describe them briefly in the next section.

3. Routes and durations

The South American cruises focus on the Antarctic Peninsula and its surrounds. The shortest cruises will allow around four days in Antarctica, visiting various islands and continent landing sites; the longer cruises obviously allow more time, and hence more opportunities to cruise further along the peninsula. Even so, no tourist cruises to my knowledge will access more than a fraction of the peninsula.

Some longer cruises will also include other stops outside of Antarctica. The most popular are the Falkland and South Georgian Islands, typically visited on cruises of fifteen days or more, and they are home to a large number of animal colonies that aren’t found in the peninsula. These range from albatrosses to various penguin species.

The main thing to keep in mind is that a typical ten-day or eleven-day cruise will only provide around four days of actual activity in Antarctica. The other days are spent crossing the Drake or on pre-departure briefings, embarkation, disembarkation, and so forth. If you’re looking at a cruise, read the itinerary closely – the part in Antarctica is usually only indicative because nobody can predict the weather or ice conditions, but the general distribution of days should be largely correct.

Map of Antarctica - we only visited a tiny fraction of the peninsula

Map of Antarctica – we only visited a tiny fraction of the peninsula

The cruises from New Zealand visit an entirely different set of sub-Antarctic Islands and don’t go generally go to the Antarctic Peninsula. Instead, they head towards Ross Sea. Weather permitting, you may be able to access various different parts of the area, such as the Ross Ice Shelf (the world’s largest body of floating ice), Mt Erebus (the tallest mountain in Antarctica), McMurdo Station and various historic huts. We aim to take one of these cruises someday, but it will take some planning and saving – these generally run for around thirty days, and prices are steep.

4. Ships, facilities and activities

Ships range from larger, more luxurious cruise ships potentially carrying a few hundred passengers, to smaller research vessels with around fifty passenger berths. The larger ships often offer more stability and facilities, while the smaller ones can have better manoeuvrability in the icy waters as well as a less crowded experience during landings. The latter are typically more expensive, but all ships offer different cabin types at different price points.

Ocean Diamond

Ocean Diamond

In our case, we had a cabin with an outward-facing window (obstructed view), double bed and private facilities. Our ship, the Ocean Diamond, was one of the larger and more comfortable ones available, and carried almost two hundred passengers. We found that it meant some of our landing sites were quite busy – even with half the passenger group zodiac cruising while the other half did landings, some of the walks and the landing sites grew congested. However, the ship was also quite fast, and reached Antarctica quickly enough to allow us an extra half day of excursions, so there were both pros and cons.

Food is included on all the cruises, and alcohol on some of them. Each ship also has various indoor and outdoor public areas for dining, viewing, lectures and so forth, and some ships also have additional facilities such as pools, saunas, gymnasiums and libraries. Whilst most facilities are optional in my opinion, I’d recommend researching the viewing areas before booking a cruise. You would ideally want accessible decks which provide panoramic views on all sides of the ship, and indoor areas with good windows for rougher weather.

Everyone out on deck during the crossing of the Lemaire Channel

Everyone out on deck during the crossing of the Lemaire Channel

Different ships also offer different activities. Cruising on inflatable zodiacs is offered on all voyages to my knowledge, as is some amount of walking in the snow during landings. Depending on the ship, you may also have access to helicopter rides (including landings), kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, snorkelling, scuba diving, mountain climbing, cross-country skiing, trekking, snow shoeing, camping and polar plunging. The bulk of these will cost extra money, though inclusions versus optionals will change depending on the cruise. Spaces tend to be limited so those with late bookings may miss out.

Zodiac cruising along incredible icebergs

Zodiac cruising along incredible icebergs

Keep in mind that while each activity offers a different way to experience Antarctica, your time there is still limited – so if you’re kayaking, for example, you will probably do less zodiac cruising, and if you’re doing cross-country skiing, you may spend less time at the penguin colonies. It’s really a bit of a prioritisation game.

5. Pricing, value and discounts

Going to Antarctica is expensive. For twin-share rooms with private facilities, you’d expect to pay around $1,000 USD per person per day for a cruise that would run for at least ten days – and that estimate doesn’t even optional activities, onboard purchases or various sundry expenses, including airfares to one of the southernmost cities in the world (whichever your chosen port may be). Our travel agent joked that he always kept some whisky at hand because some customers just baulked at finalising such a large charge on their credit cards.

Is it worth it? For us – keeping in mind that we had a discounted rate that I’ll discuss below – yes, it was. While we haven’t travelled extensively, we’ve travelled enough to know that we usually fall in love with stark, harsh environments that feel remote and somewhat alien. (Apart from Antarctica, our favourite locations include deserts, salt flats, glaciers and towering mountain ranges like the Hamalayas and the Andes – though diving in the ocean is also amazing.) We’re also happiest in the cold. Our itineraries almost always steer away from the beaches and jungles and tropical climates, and towards the ice and the snow. That meant the two polar regions were high on our list of travel priorities, and given their comparable prices, we preferred to head south.

And we don’t regret a single cent, because we had the best trip of our lives.

Cobblestone beach, gentoo penguins and spectacularly icy views at Cuverville Island

Cobblestone beach, gentoo penguins and spectacularly icy views at Cuverville Island

That said, it isn’t necessarily something I’d recommend indiscriminately. For one, not everybody enjoys the cold, the desolation, the penguins or being on a cruise. For another, the price tag of a trip for two means you’re juggling Antarctica against things like a new car, a fair chunk of a home deposit, or a fantastically long and / or luxurious holiday elsewhere – and if any of those will likely bring you more pleasure, they’re probably better options. Thirdly, trips to Antarctica are not predictable and you don’t know which sites you’ll be able to visit. Particularly in the early parts of the season, the weather and ice conditions may mean that you don’t do nearly as many landings as you hoped or expected. Taking a cruise means accepting that risk.

If Antarctica is on your to-do list, there are a few ways to try to reduce the monetary hit. Some ships offer cheaper berths in quadruple or triple cabins, or cabins with shared facilities. Additionally, almost all the cruise companies offer early bird discounts for voyages booked a year or two in advance. You can already browse and book cruises for the 2015-16 season, and can often get around 25% off.

However, the best rates are generally offered closer to the time or during the season. If you stalk cruise company and reseller websites or sign up for mailing lists, you will find various specials – including potential two-for-one bargains. The timing and extent of the discounts are unpredictable, but I’ve seen events such as Black Friday and New Year sales. In addition, last-minute discounts typically become available in the month or weeks leading up to departure. You can again find these through the websites or through travel agents. If you walk through the streets of Ushuaia, you’ll find plenty of agencies listing last minute deals.

Of course, even with discounts, the cruises aren’t cheap, and you need to have the cash (or at least the credit) at hand to finalise any booking. You may also need to quickly confirm other logistical arrangements, such as leave from work, visas, travel insurance, airfares and so forth. That means it could be difficult to take advantage of last minute special offers unless you’ve already done some planning and preparation, and unless you have some flexibility in your schedule.

In our case, we learned that from experience. We first visited Ushuaia in 2009. A travel agent told us about a deal that was almost 70% off – which was rare even back then, and is practically impossible these days due to the increased popularity of Antarctic tourism. We wanted so badly to go for it, but our non-refundable return flights (both domestic and international) were already booked and we had commitments waiting for us. Since then, we vowed to return, not least because I flew over Antarctica from Buenos Aires to Sydney, and it looked incredible even through my tiny, scratched porthole.

We therefore returned to Ushuaia this year as part of our Patagonia road trip, and this time, we made sure we had time on our side. Literally nothing was booked for December or January – no flights, no hotels, no other activities. Our thoughts were that we would live out of our car or hostel for a few weeks and see whether anything came up, and if not, we’d just continue on our way.

It wasn’t looking particularly optimistic at first because two of the cruises due to depart in early December had been cancelled, and most of the passengers were shuffled onto the two or three other ships departing within the next week. Suddenly, there were significantly fewer available berths and discounts. We visited agency after agency to be told the same story, and we knew that with the busy Christmas period and the popular month of January around the corner, our chances weren’t great.

In the end, however, we were lucky enough to get a good deal for the last remaining cabin on our cruise and the rest is history. Quark Expeditions has a special policy regarding discounted rates, including a contractual requirement not to disclose the relevant amounts, so we won’t share the details – but if you do the website stalking I mentioned above, you’ll probably find similar rates during promotional periods.

And that’s probably it, as far as I can remember. The next post(s) will be about the voyage itself. Come along for the ride and decide for yourself whether it seemed to be worth it!

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