As travel to Antarctica evolves, exploring the bottom of the world is becoming easier
By ANDREA SACHS | The Washington Post | Published: February 25, 2020
A few weeks ago, I was standing in the immigration line at the Buenos Aires airport, inching closer to Antarctica, when I learned about a drive-by cruise to the White Continent.
"We don't get off the ship," the American traveler said, "but I am still going to count it as my seventh continent."
I don't know if Shackleton would approve - he worked hard for his landing stamp - but the polar explorer would be amazed at how Antarctic travel has evolved. The isolated destination with the unforgiving environment no longer feels so far away, or so grueling. A sea crossing from the tip of Argentina takes about two days, shorter than a transatlantic cruise. By plane, the flight from Punta Arenas, Chile, lasts all of two hours. Once there, you can ski or stand-up paddle; sip champagne in an inflatable tender boat surrounded by seals; or ask your private butler to press your favorite humpback whale pajamas. You can even see - and sniff - penguins from the comfort of your stateroom balcony, without sullying your boots with guano.
"Antarctica is becoming more accessible," said Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, who recently traveled to the southernmost continent with Abercrombie & Kent, a luxury tour operator. "There are a lot more options than there used to be."
Over the past 10 years, cruises to Antarctica have grown exponentially, in number and style. Previously, mainly research ships ventured to the bottom of the world. Then expedition vessels, a category of smaller ships that emphasizes the natural world over onboard indulgences. Now, cruise lines commonplace in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, such as Holland America and Silversea, are appearing alongside such swashbuckling stalwarts as Aurora Expeditions, Quark Expeditions and Lindblad Expeditions, a partner with National Geographic.
Alex Burridge, managing director of Antarctica Travel Center in Melbourne, Australia, said more than 20 operators lead trips to Antarctica, a mix of polar specialists and behemoth cruise lines that have added the destination to their global lineup.
"We have as many luxury polar operators as we do more traditional expedition cruise operators," he said.
And a slew of new ships, with even greater ambitions, are on the way. Call it the next wave of Antarctic cruising.
"A lot of the ships are pushing the limit of what an expedition cruise can do," said Todd Smith, founder and president of AdventureSmith Explorations, which specializes in small-ship adventure cruises. "They are faster, smoother and more environmentally friendly, and they have a lot more amenities."
The toys would not seem out of place on a tycoon's mega-yacht. The ultra-extras include helicopters (Quark Expeditions' Ultramarine), science centers with microscopes (Hurtigruten), infinity hot tubs and an underwater vehicle that can descend 1,000 feet (Lindblad's Endurance), electric snowmobiles and a tethered hot-air balloon (Ponant's Le Commandant Charcot) and a seven-person submersible (Crystal's Crystal Endeavor). On a more practical level, Burridge said cruisers can also expect improved loading areas for tenders and kayaks, upgraded mudrooms and cushier cabins.
Of course, the ship should enhance your Antarctic experience and not subsume it. The perks are nice, but the natural attractions are even better. Case in point: Since returning from Antarctica, I am still talking about the courting dance an adelie penguin performed for me (if only I could live on a bed of rocks and a diet of krill) and not the yoga classes, smoothie bar or sauna with iceberg views on Quark's Ocean Endeavour.
To help adventurers realize their Antarctic dream, I contacted several experts for planning advice, such as when to go and how to choose a ship. I also tapped into my own recent journey. My takeaway: Be flexible. Say yes to every opportunity on and off the ship. And if a penguin offers you love, accept it.
Points of departure
Most of the smaller ships sail round-trip from Ushuaia, Argentina, a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires. Operators can tack on a domestic charter flight, or book your own arrangements and spend a few days in the lively port town near Tierra del Fuego National Park. During the two-day journey to the continent, the vessels cross the Drake Passage, a notoriously rough patch of water between South America's Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands. (Don't let Drake's reputation scare you: Our conditions were as placid as a duck pond.) The larger vessels, such as those run by Holland America, Celebrity and Princess, require more substantial ports and often sail from Santiago, Chile, to Buenos Aires, or vice versa. Ships also depart from New Zealand and Australia, but the trip takes at least a week one way and can cost twice as much as cruises based in South America.
Travelers with rubbery sea legs or queasy stomachs can skip the Drake Passage and fly directly to the South Shetland Islands, about 75 miles north of the peninsula. The charter planes, part of fly/cruise packages, land at a Chilean airstrip on King George Island. There are no commercial docks or cruise ship terminals on Antarctica, so tender boats transport passengers from land to ship.
To be sure, the advantage of flying is the quick crossing. But what you gain in speed, you lose in sightseeing. During our at-sea days, we spotted sei and humpback whales, several species of albatross and petrels, and dolphins leaping in the ship's spray. A fiery sunset over the Beagle Channel appeared hot to the touch. We also used those free days to learn about our destination through daily lectures and got a jump-start on bonding with the other passengers and expedition crew.
Ship captains have more wiggle room than airplane pilots, and Smith warns air travelers about the risk of delays or cancellations due to inclement conditions. "If there is a flight delay because of weather," he said, "you can have a domino effect." Smith suggests padding your itinerary with extra days before and after the flight, so you don't jeopardize the cruise portion of your trip or your flight home.
When to go
Antarctica's summer is shorter than ice hockey season - from November through March. The peak time (December and January) is often more expensive, but the 20-plus hours of sunlight, warmer temperatures and typically calmer seas can help alleviate the financial pinch.
The marine animals and seabirds have a small window to establish the next generation, so many species move at a rapid pace. Penguins typically court, mate and lay their eggs in November and December. During the following two months, the fuzzy chicks are born and fatten up before they start to molt and resemble plucked feather dusters. On our late January to early February trip, for example, we saw gentoo, chinstrap and adelie chicks waiting for their parents to return from sea with their meal or chasing the food-dispensing adults around the rookeries, squawking their demands. The penguins shared ice floes and rocky outcroppings with fur, crabeater and leopard seals, which dip into penguin flocks like a moviegoer's hand in a tub of popcorn.
Whales are focused on feeding early in the season but turn more social as the months wear on. We saw several humpbacks, including a sleeping youngster, and a minke whale that flashed its tail several times, swam under our tender and bobbed its head like a buoy, surveying us with its giant eye. (This behavior is called spy-hopping.)
For snow sports and outdoorsy shore excursions, the earlier months of summer are better, Burridge said. "As the season progresses, the temperatures rise and it can be harder to find good or safe places to ski or snowshoe," he said. Camping also fits into this time frame. For environmental reasons, travelers can only sleep on snow and ice, not bare earth. Kayaking and stand-up paddling take place all season long, but the staff might cancel the excursion in the event of high waves, storms or excessive ice. The polar plunge is always a go.
Choosing a ship
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is the guardian angel of Antarctica. Seven expedition operators established the group in 1991, with the mission "to advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic."
IAATO organizes its members into four categories: C1, or traditional expedition ships that carry 13 to 200 passengers; C2, or midsize vessels with 201 to 500 people; CR, or vessels with more than 500 passengers; and YA, or sailing or motor yachts that carry no more than a dozen guests. This season, the organization claimed 40 C1 and C2 members and expects the number to increase by a dozen over the next two years.
"Aside from small yachts, none of the passenger vessels operating in the Antarctic are operated outside of IAATO at this point," said Hayley Collings, an IAATO spokesperson.
When selecting a vessel, you should first consider passenger load. Ships carrying more than 500 travelers are described as cruise-only, which means passengers are not permitted to go on shore. According to IAATO, nearly 10,900 passengers during the 2018-2019 season visited the continent without stepping foot on it; by comparison, 44,600 cruisers sailed on ships with landing privileges. Princess Cruises explains the experience: "Antarctic Peninsula is a scenic cruising site. Ships will slowly travel past while a knowledgeable port lecturer points out significant sites you'll be able to see from onboard."
This arrangement is ideal for travelers with mobility issues or a tight budget. A 16-day Princess cruise starts at about $3,000 per person double; a smaller ship typically charges at least twice as much for a shorter trip. Whether you can claim Antarctica as your seventh continent is a debate best hashed out over drinks.
Ships permitted to disembark passengers must also follow strict guidelines. The biggest one is that only 100 people are allowed to visit a landing site at a time. Vessels with more than the maximum number will divvy up the groups, with half exploring by land and the other by tender. (Each inflatable boat fits about a dozen people.) Then they switch. For example, on our trip, Quark divided our 200-strong group into four parties named after critters. Once the crew called our team - "Penguins, head to the mudroom!" - we had about 10 minutes to get suited up (borrowed muck boots, keeper parka) and line up for loading. The two-part outings lasted a couple of hours. If risky conditions prevented us from landing, the expedition leader would extend the sea portion. Upon returning, we would scrub our boots and rinse them in a tub of disinfectant to avoid cross-contamination. A staff member would welcome us back with hot cocoa or cider.
When the ship is on the move, guests fill their hours with lectures by experts knowledgeable in such subjects as seabirds, whales, geology and Antarctic politics; entertainment (more homespun than Atlantic City); and eating (so much food). On the Ocean Endeavor, I ran from activity to activity, attending talks and yoga classes, plus any special events, such as a concert performed by a trio of crew members and an auction to raise money for a penguin foundation. I took catnaps in the sauna. McDaniel's Ponant ship, Le Lyrial, organized a painting class and happy hours with live music.
"Each company has its own personality and specialty," said Smith, who has traveled to Antarctica a half-dozen times, including a recent ski trip with Aurora Expeditions.
I booked directly with Quark, which fit our style of travel (intimate, low-key) and time restrictions (two weeks). But if you need a sounding board, contact a specialist such as AdventureSmith (read its ship overviews on its website) or Antarctica Travel Center (check out its online primer). Or reach out to a cruise consultant. Gillian Clark, of Cruise Specialists, first visited Antarctica 20 years ago. A lot has changed since then, but fortunately a lot has also stayed the same.