We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.
Antarctica is the final frontier for even the most seasoned of travelers. With its floating ice shelves and extreme climate, Antarctica offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those willing to brave the elements. The best time to visit this remote continent is between fall and spring, so plan your trip accordingly. To reach Antarctica, you'll likely take a ship from Ushuaia, a town on the southern tip of Argentina and the starting point for 90% of the trips to Antarctica. If the White Continent is already on your bucket list, be sure to keep these additional things in mind as you make your plans. If it isn't on your list, you might want to give this unique destination another look!
It Might Not Be That Cold
Although you might envision Antarctica as a permanent winter wonderland, it's important to remember that the climate is warmest from November to March. During this time, temperatures can often reach as high as 40 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, you'll see daily highs of 33 degrees Fahrenheit and 24 hours of sunlight in December. Interestingly, Antarctica experienced its warmest day on record in February 2020 with temperatures at a balmy 65 degrees. While you need to be prepared for cold weather, you might not have to worry about sub-zero temperatures if you visit during the summer.
You also want to be cognizant of temperatures at any stops you might make along the way. During this same time of year, Buenos Aires generally hits highs in the 70s and 80s, which isn't exactly parka weather! Make sure you have cool, comfortable clothes if you're planning a day or two of exploring. Even in Ushuaia, you can expect to find temperatures in the 50s.
The Cruise Line You Choose Matters
In 1959, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty to designate Antarctica as a scientific preserve. Since Antarctica isn't a country and has no government of its own, the treaty is instrumental in protecting its peaceful use. Today, 54 nations have acceded to the treaty. Of the 54 countries, 29 are consultative members (and can participate in decision-making during meetings), while 25 are non-consultative members.
What does this mean for you? Well, the treaty establishes certain limits on tourism. Notably, only about 100 passengers are allowed on-shore at any time. This means that if you arrive on a large ship, you might have to wait your turn to explore. Smaller ships such as the 50-person "Spirit of Enderby" allow you more time onshore. If you're interested, check out upcoming expeditions like this 30-day expedition, which includes the New Zealand Subantarctic Islands and Macquarie Island. Another thing to keep in mind is that ships carrying more than 500 passengers don't get to land on the continent at all and can only view the landscape from a distance.
Of course, each expedition offers unique activities and varying levels of amenities, so consider your priorities when choosing an itinerary. Keep in mind that even if your cruise offers the excursions you want, they might be limited. Be sure to sign up early for activities like camping or kayaking through a glacier bay since these popular options tend to fill up months or even a whole year in advance.
Seasickness Is Common
Drake Passage is the body of water that connects the southern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It's one of the roughest waterways in the world and since it separates the southern tip of South America from Antarctica, it's considered a rite of passage for travelers to the southernmost continent.
The passage is very deep and the largest ocean current in the world flows through it. Add in strong winds, eddies, and potentially violent storms, and the waterway becomes justifiably intimidating. While you might get lucky and experience the serene "Drake's Lake," it's best to be prepared for "Drake's Shake" and its accompanying waves and swells.
Sure, modern ships might be up to the challenge that Drake's Passage offers. However, our bodies aren't always so accommodating. Be sure to bring plenty of motion sickness medication with you and take it at the first sign of discomfort or earlier if you're prone to motion sickness. Since the trip takes roughly 48 hours, you don't want to be caught off-guard!
Packing Takes Careful Preparation
As strange as it might sound, one of the most important things to bring to Antarctica is sunscreen. With reflective snow and ice all around, the risk of getting a serious sunburn is high. Make sure you lather on the sunscreen early and often. This includes areas you usually ignore like under your nose and chin.
Don't fill up an entire suitcase with bulky outerwear. Many cruise operators include a complimentary expedition parka for every traveler, which makes a fantastic souvenir to show off at home. You might also want to take advantage of the option to rent waterproof boots from your tour company. It's critical that you have the right footwear on hand and renting saves you the hassle of hauling extra luggage around.
Also be sure to have cash on hand — especially if you want to tip staff on board the ship. If you want souvenirs, stop by Port Lockroy, the first British base in Antarctica, which is now managed by the U.K. Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT). UKAHT also carries eco-friendly, hand-dyed silk products, Gentoo decorations, and tartan woolen scarfs. At Port Lockroy, you'll have the opportunity to mail postcards to friends back home and visit the gift shop.
Your Guide Always Knows Best
Finally, it's important to realize just what kind of environment you'll be experiencing. The pristine, surreal beauty of Antarctica carries with it risks that are unfamiliar to most of us. From the health risks associated with frostbite or hypothermia to hidden crevasses, a visit to Antarctica is not for the faint of heart. Thus, survival in Antarctica requires ongoing vigilance. Be sure to pay attention to visitor guidelines and listen to the guides and experts traveling with you.
Depending on where you've traveled, the margin for error will likely be much smaller than you're used to. In the United States, a warning sign might keep you 100 feet back from a dangerous precipice, but Antarctica's evolving terrain renders such proactive measures ineffectual. Don't ever veer from the path your guide has set for your own safety and the safety of the environment. After all, you wouldn't want to cause a traffic jam on the penguin highway.