When you’re looking for a getaway, there are few places as remote and beautiful as Antarctica. The cost to travel to Antarctica can run upward of $15,000, but a mental vacation to this inspiring scenery doesn’t have to cost you a thing.
Settle back in your chair and enjoy this virtual journey through the stunning scenery of the Antarctic landscape.
The Frozen Continent
Antarctica is the coldest place on the planet, once dropping to -89.2 degrees Celsius at Vostok station in 1983, the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth. But, the constantly frozen continent isn’t devoid of life. It has no indigenous human population due to extreme temperatures, but it’s home to wildlife ranging from seals to penguins and plants from mosses to algae. Although its interior regions are harsh, a summer day along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula can be as warm as 50 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the time of year when tourist expeditions and cruises visit Antarctica the most.
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Due to its remote nature, Antarctica tours barely reach the tip of the continent.
Cruises leaving from Ushuaia, Argentina — known as the southernmost city on Earth — journey to the Antarctic Peninsula 700 miles farther south. Retrace the route of polar explorers along the Drake Passage for three days before getting your first glimpse of the gray peaks frosted in ice and snow — perfect for your first Antarctica pictures. Although the route is the most common, setting off from other continents will give you glimpses of the fifth-largest continent from other angles. Trips from New Zealand and South Africa head for the Ross Sea to visit the world’s largest ice shelf and the Transantarctic Mountain Range, both memorable spots for Antarctica photography.
Largest Mammal on the Planet
If the stunning scenery isn’t enough, don’t be surprised to see whales from the ship deck.
Eight whale species in Antarctic waters include orca, humpback, blue, sperm, southern right, sei, minke and fin. Blue whales top the weight chart at over 130 tons, making them the largest mammal on the planet. They’re also the least likely species to be seen, as they’re still recovering from being hunted to near extinction, offering a rare sight to those lucky enough to spot one. All species except for orcas feed on krill — so you might see pods of up to 25 humpbacks feeding at a time. Get ready to take some travel photos as you look for tails poking briefly out of the sea.
Take the Unbeaten Path
Standing on the deck of a ship and snapping photos isn’t the only way to experience the continent. Some Antarctic expedition ships carry entire fleets of landing craft designed to shuttle travelers from ship to shore and back again. Some even have onboard helicopters to fly to the continent’s interior. Once ashore, marvel at standing where few humans ever have. Several cruise lines even offer day trips to set foot on Antarctic shores. Flights land on King George Island, allowing travelers four hours to observe seals and penguins on the beach and explore life at a Chilean research base before flying back to Chile.
Explore Antarctica by Foot
Get a different perspective of the Antarctic countryside. There are landscapes for hiking, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. The view from the top overlooks vistas where gray peaks poke into a bright blue sky and deep blue sea cups lavender icebergs in its chilly grip. Treks are included as optional excursions on cruises and tourist expeditions, and the company provides everything you need, including trekking poles, snowshoes, rubber boots and picks. Take these treks now — Antarctica is one place that’s changing fast and disappearing soon.
Underneath its icy exterior, Antarctica hides a secret that wasn’t discovered until 2017.
Around volcanoes such as Mount Erebus, steamy caves create warm oases for plant and animal life. Temperatures can reach up to 77 degrees Fahrenheit and DNA from soil samples inside suggest that the caves are home to potentially undiscovered species. Visitors to the McMurdo Station can experience the frozen beauty of ice caves at the Erebus Ice Tongue — where Weddell seals escape predatory orcas and leopard seals. The adventure requires crossing the sea from McMurdo, something that’s only possible for brief periods during the year. All cave tourists must be in the company of a U.S. Antarctic program in order to visit. It’s an incredible opportunity to visit an active volcano.
The Erebus Ice Tongue isn’t the only place to see seals. Six species live in Antarctic waters, each with its own preferred habitat. Look for elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals in large breeding colonies on beaches north of the pack ice zone, such as along the Antarctic Peninsula.
Fur seals and elephant seals are the smallest and largest seal species living on the continent, with fur seals weighing a mere 330 pounds to an elephant seal’s 8,800 pounds. The other four species — crabeater, leopard, Ross and Weddell — breed on the ice in colder regions in the spring, although only crabeater and Weddell seals form colonies. Although all species live mostly on fish, krill and squid, leopard seals will also eat other seals and penguins.
Some of the most interesting Antarctica geography includes towering white icebergs, some carved by the wind into dramatic sculptures. Some loom as tall as skyscrapers, others might only be a few feet across. Don’t let what you see above the water fool you, however, as only about 10 percent of an iceberg floats above the surface.
The largest iceberg was 183 miles long and 23 miles wide, breaking off from the Ross Ice Shelf in 2000. Get close enough, and you might hear the hissing sound of air trapped inside the iceberg as it slowly melts. The melting ice also releases minerals that nourish a microclimate of phytoplankton that in turn attracts fish and seabirds to the area. The icebergs break off from the ice shelves that make up 75 percent of Antarctica’s ice sheets. A warming planet means more ice shelves are breaking up, slowly raising the levels of the world’s oceans.
It might seem counterintuitive to go for a dip in waters bobbing with icebergs. However, modern drysuits keep adventurers toasty in the 32-degree waters, opening up a new vantage point for interacting with ocean life. The one-of-a-kind experience doesn’t come with brilliantly colored fish, but snorkelers can check in on the underwater activities of rare wildlife like penguins and seals.
No matter where you’re cruising, going snorkeling is a bargain shore excursion that’s worth trying.
Pick Up a Paddle
Glide across the sparkling blue surface of the water in a sea kayak or on a stand-up paddleboard. The only sounds you’ll hear is the music of nature, the cry of seabirds and the fizz of melting icebergs. Both activities are a great way to exercise your core and get up close to penguins and icebergs. The paddleboard’s standing position gives the added advantage of a greater view down into the water.
No experience is needed for either activity, but your guide will likely provide instruction before you set out.
With 20 million breeding pairs living on the continent, taking an Antarctic excursion practically guarantees coming home with lots of penguin pics. Emperor penguins are the largest, reaching a height of more than 3.7 feet tall. Keep your camera ready to photograph the crazy yellow head feathers on the Macaroni penguin or the classic black-and-white tuxedos of the Adélie penguin. Chinstrap penguins are common to see from the expedition ship, with 7 million pairs breeding in northern areas like the Antarctic Peninsula.
Spend the Night
Take camping to a whole new level when you spend the night under the Antarctic sky. Some tourist expeditions and cruises include a night ashore in a tent, but if one night just isn’t enough, eight-day camping expeditions to an Emperor penguin rookery — accessed by ski aircraft — let adventurers observe the big birds up close for five leisurely days.
Even Antarctica wouldn’t be complete without at least one glamping option. White Desert’s luxury pods at Whichaway Camp are just a 5.5-hour flight from Cape Town, South Africa. Immerse yourself in luxury that includes sumptuous decor and en-suite bathrooms. A 9-day package includes time at an Emperor penguin colony, ice-carving and a trip to the South Pole.
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Sky of Stars
A day in Antarctica isn’t all shades of icy blue and gray. Sunrise and sunset bring hues of lavender that reflect off the beautiful white landscape. Travelers on a cruise in December can catch the sunset and sunrise blending into one another during a twilight that begins around 11:15 p.m. Antarctica is also one of the best places on earth for stargazing. Not only is it remote, but the air is also so still that starlight isn’t disrupted as much as other places in the world.
Starlight begins to appear by Jan. 22 when the sun dips farther below the horizon, leaving the sky dark enough to see the stars. For the very darkest skies, go after Feb. 12.
Live Miles from Nowhere
Arctowski Station on King George Island is one of the most secluded places on Earth where people live year-round. The scientific research base has welcomed researchers since 1977 and houses up to 70 people during the austral summer research season. Scientists and support staff working at Arctowski not only get to see Antarctica for free, but they also get paid to do it.
You Don’t Have to Be a Scientist
Not all jobs in the Antarctic are scientific. In fact, most of the 3,000 people deployed yearly by the United States Antarctic Program are support personnel. Larger bases like McMurdo Station are developing into company towns with yoga classes, bars, a fire department and hiking trails.
You could see even more of the Antarctic landscape if you find work on a ship. Besides tour excursions and cruise ships, cargo ships, container vessels and “icebreakers” provide much-needed support and supplies to science bases. Keep in mind that cargo usually needs to be unloaded the old-fashioned way — by hand — with ships docking on ice floes and freight traveling across the ice by manpower or machine.