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The 'Ins & Outs' of Expedition Cruising in Antarctica

August 6, 2015
  |   Lori Goodwin
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The majority of Antarctic travel is undertaken by ship, because infrastructure in Antarctica is nearly non-existent and ships provide the best level of access to the sites and wildlife that travelers wish to experience. Though remote, the region has seen an increase in tourism and there are a number of available options for the Antarctic traveler from types of ship, levels of activity and differences in on-board look, feel and service that are important to consider when deciding on how to travel to Antarctica. There are two main types of Antarctic travel to Antarctica, cruising, and luxury camping and hiking. Below, we will review the options available for each type.

HOW TO TRAVEL

Expedition Cruising

Expedition cruises are typically undertaken on smaller ships, ranging in size from private-charter yachts carrying 10 to 30 people and vessels that carry 40 to 250 people, with the majority averaging about a 100 passengers. Expedition cruises carry Zodiacs, and include landings and explorations on most itinerary days unlike the largest cruise ships. They are escorted by highly experienced trip leaders and crew and specialists in fields ranging from biology to photography. These far-reaching trips can be characterized as in-depth, up-close and informative.

Most expedition cruises sail roundtrip via a gateway country such as Argentina, Chile or Australia or New Zealand and this provides a great variety of environments as the ships progress through the sub-Antarctic region into Antarctica itself. The expedition vessels vary greatly in terms of the level of accommodation and service on board, and we’ll elaborate more in our section on ship styles. Some expedition cruises offer exciting trip activities, such as kayaking, paddle boarding, camping overnight ‘on-ice’,  specialized trekking, ice-climbing and mountaineering, snorkeling and even scuba-diving.

Fly Cruising

Fly-cruises are a relatively new addition to Antarctic travel and allow people to fly either to or from Punta Arenas, Chile one way or round trip in or out of King George Island in Antarctica or Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, skipping all or part of the "at-sea" portion of the expedition cruise. Upon arrival, travelers are transferred to the ship to join the expedition cruise. If your timeframe is tight or you prefer to limit your time at sea, this may be the choice for you. Please note that some "Fly-Cruises" entail fewer itinerary days exploring Antarctica and doing landings, while some are able to maximize the shortened travel times and offer more time exploring, or access to a further flung region. It is important then to read the itinerary carefully on individual voyages. Another important consideration is that the flight departure from Punta Arenas can occasionally be interrupted by inclement weather, causing trip delays and interruptions ranging from minor to significant.

Scenic Cruising

Scenic cruises are the more traditional cruises in the greater Antarctic region on larger ships, typically with passenger capacities of about 300 to 500 passengers. The itineraries include more time at sea and somewhat less time in Antarctica, and shore visits and landings in the Antarctic itself are less frequent than on the expedition cruises.  The vessels are large and offer a comfortable way to enjoy dramatically scenic landscapes.

Camping & Land Trekking

Fly-in camping and hiking expeditions, a more recent addition to Antarctic travel, operate around Atka Bay in the Weddell Sea and other bays north of Ellsworth Land in the Mt Vinson and Mt Sidley environs.  Typically these are high-end luxury base camps located near notable mountains, ice shelves or Emperor Penguin colonies.    

SHIP TYPES

There are different types of ships that operate in the Antarctic region, and it is important to understand the differences.

Research Vessels

Research vessels are among some of the original ships, Shackleton aside, to visit the Antarctic region, ideally suited to the icy environment due to their reinforced hulls and safety equipment.   Built for researchers and crew, they provide a 'bare-bones' style of accommodation with smaller cabins and windows and less passenger friendly layouts. Only a handful of research ships are still in operation and they may offer slightly lower fares and exciting adventure options onboard.

Expedition Vessels 

Expedition Vessels are the most common type of ship used in the Antarctic and are more comfortable than the Research Vessels. Like their larger cruise ship cousins, these ships have a range of cabin types, friendly passenger layouts, public spaces, outside decks and viewing platforms. Interior observation lounges feature excellent panoramic views and a central gathering hub for guests and staff alike.  

Luxury Expedition Vessels

Luxury Expedition Vessels are are similar to Expedition Vessels but tend to have nicer décor in the cabins and public areas, the best observation lounges, and higher service amenities, such as fine dining and turndown service. Sometimes the trips that operate on these vessels offer a bit more inclusions to the fare such as wine with dinner or pre or post accommodations or services.

Icebreakers

Icebreakers are highly specialized vessels that are primarily used only in the most Southern part of the Antarctic region such as the Ross Sea area.  With reinforced hulls and special bows they are uniquely prepared to carve through the sea ice in these colder and more inaccessible regions.  Accommodations are basic, and the trips they offer are longer and more comprehensive.

Mid-Size Cruise Ships

Mid-Size Cruise Ships are most similar to standard or luxury cruise ships and range in size from about 300 to 1,000 passengers. They have more scenic programs, with a limited amount of shore landings and activities available to travelers.  They may spend only a few days cruising in or near Antarctic waters and guests may not have the opportunity to set foot on the Antarctic continent itself.

Yachts & Sailboats

Representing the smallest of the vessels in Antarctica, these are usually operated by highly experienced expedition charter companies, and they offer an intimate and luxurious exploration of Antarctica for small group charters.

WHERE TO TRAVEL

Travel to Antarctica is often by ship and most 10 to 14-day expedition cruises depart from the southernmost tip of Argentina. Crossing the famed Drake Passage, cruises then explore the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula which is comprised of small islands, channels and inlets.  A few itineraries venture to the Weddell Sea on western side of the Peninsula as a stand-alone itinerary or in combination with an Antarctic Peninsula cruise. Longer 14 - 24 day Antarctic Peninsula cruises venture northeast to the wildlife-rich sub-Antarctic islands of South Georgia and the Falklands, and a handful of specialty expedition explore the southern Ross Sea region, departing from Australia or New Zealand.

Fly-in camping and hiking expeditions operate around Atka Bay in the Weddell Sea and other bays north of Ellsworth Land in the Mt Vinson and Mt Sidley environs.

WHEN TO TRAVEL

The Antarctic travel season revolves around the austral summer, from early November through early March, when sea ice breaks up and snowfall and storms decrease. From April through October, it is next to impossible for any ships to break through the heavy pack and sea ice. The most desirable time starts around the 2nd week of December through January when the weather is most reliably at its best and, importantly, most Antarctic species hatch their eggs. During the accompanying holiday season, demand can be high so book early!

Early season: November to mid-December

Peak season: Mid-December to mid-February

Late season: Mid-February to March

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