Pack Your Bags - You're Going to Antarctica!
Updated: Jul 11, 2021
If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare... and yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it.
- Andrew Denton
This quote for me summarizes our journey to the final frontier.
The last continent for us. I couldn’t be more grateful to be able to say this at 31. When we started telling colleagues and friends about our trip, we were met with a lot of “Why Antarctica”? “What are you going to do there for 2 weeks”? “Oh but isn’t it just all icy”? I am mildly amused by how people “visualize” the less-frequented places.. maybe it’s ignorance? After all, nothing could be farther from the truth about the Antarctic!
What could be more fascinating, humbling and gratifying than being in the most pristine isolated places in the world? Why have we decided to go there now when we still have countless more accessible countries to experience? Well, I for one have never been enthralled by man-made wonders. Yeah, they are cool but it has always been about the natural phenomenon. From the Japanese Cherry Blossoms to the towering mountains in NZ. I want to feel insignificant in front mother nature, only then can we respect it. I went there to be humbled by the smell of what could possibly be the purest air found anywhere and by the tranquility from being surrounded by nothing but wildlife and big boulders of living breathing ice. I knew this trip was going to change my view about travel and help me unlearn everything I think we know.
A lot of people have said to me they didn't know the continent can be visited. I guess on some level people find it overwhelming to think about traveling to places this remote. These places capture your imagination, make you wonder - but since it is so intimidating, it goes into a "bucketlist" and quickly gets pushed to the back of the list only to never be explored. This blog post is meant to change that.
What we did in the West Antarctic Peninsula
Day 0 - Ushuaia
Day 1 & 2 - at sea, drake passage Day 3 - Arctosky Station Day 4 - Yankee Harbor Day 5 - Antarctica Sound Day 6 - Esperanza station Day 7 - Pendulum Cove Day 8 - Neko Harbour
Day 9 - Chiriguano Bay
Day 11 - Demoy Island
Day 12 - Lemaire Channel and Cuverville Island.
Day 13 - Fournier Bay
Day 14 & 15 - drake passage
Day 16 - head back to Ushuai
Best time to visit
All expeditions run from October through to late March. Each month offers something different - from slightly varying weather conditions, to ice-scapes and of course, wildlife. Once you decide what you want to see, half your work is done.
Most voyages start with a minimum of 10 days.. some are as long as 22 days. Pick the one that works best for you. A and I can't take off from work for more than two weeks at a time, so we went during the December festive season. I would have preferred to do the trip in February. We traveled in mid-December when the weather was at its warmest and the penguins were nesting. We were even lucky enough to see a few chicks. That being said, no matter when you travel to Antarctica, you’re in for an unforgettable adventure.
Flights and Visa
Your flight would depend on where your cruise starts. Ours started in Ushuaia, Argentina. We flew direct with Emirates to Buenos Aires.
Our package with Hurtigruten included an internal transfer from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, so we didn't have to book that. If your cruise line does not offer the internal transfer, you would need to fly from the capital to Ushuaia.
The staff and expedition team are articulate - everyone speaks fluent English. The second language on board was German, followed by Norwegian. Most of the staff on the cruise were Filipino, so we were perfectly at home speaking to them in Tagalog.
Travel and Medical Insurance, Currency
You would need a special travel and medical Insurance to travel to Antarctica. I would recommend World Nomads. Currency on board the ship is NOK (Norwegian NOK) - but all major credit cards are also accepted on the ship.
A lot of people have asked me about this. I don't usually like to talk about the costs of a trip because it is all relative. That being said, this trip is going to cost you - no matter how early you reserve your seats. Of course, the cost also depends on the cruise line you go with, the time of year you choose to travel and the size of the ship. The smaller ships offer a more "premium" experience but this will cost more.
Most mid-size cruises start at around US $7000 per person for full board for a twin inside/outside view cabin. Suites and luxury cruise lines can go up to US $15,000. Depends on your cabin choice. Of course, as always, solo or single supplement cabins cost more. If you are traveling solo but want to save, find yourself a cabin-mate.
Something else to be mindful of are the extra activities on board. While most cruises offer you the opportunity to set foot on the continent, all other activities like kayaking, camping, hiking come at an additional cost.
Choosing a cruise for your expedition
There is an overwhelming amount of information available on cruises to the continent. How do you pick one that works best for you? Well, it's actually not that complicated. First, pick a time of year and your budget - like with any trip, work around dates that would be most suitable for you (within the limited window you have to travel down South). Second, what sort of experience do you want to have: are you interested in a luxury cruise line? are you ok with any experience? Are you a photographer? Do you absolutely need to see the Emperor Penguins? There are cruises that can you fulfill all your dreams. For instance, there are ships that go exclusively to South Georgia and Falkland Islands, which is one of the few places on the continent where you will find the Emperor Penguins.
Third, size of your ship. When you have 500 people on your ship, the lesser the chances of you making frequent landings. There is a limit on the number of people who can be on land at a time. Go for a small to mid-size cruise to make the most of your trip.
After months of research, I finally went for Hurtigruten. Why did I choose them?
1. The MS Midnatsol is a mid-size cruise i.e. the ship was going to be bigger than usual, which meant it would be sturdy on the drake passage, should we get sea sick.
2. The timing was perfect - it was a longer trip and it was a slow period at work.
3. They are sustainable - they are the greenest expedition cruise fleet. This was definitely an influencing factor for me.
Ours was a twin cable - so two comfortable beds/couches with an attached bath. Amenities on board included two viewing decks, library/board game room, gym, Jacuzzi and a pool. I highly recommend going with a reputable cruise line. This guarantees safe, organized landings. I was more than satisfied with the experience. The service fantastic, the crew was fabulous and knowledgeable, the landings extremely well organized. I could not recommend it highly enough.
Sustainable travel in Antarctica
While I am by no means anywhere close to calling myself an "eco-friendly" traveler, I do try to minimize our footprint. One of my biggest concerns going into this trip was the impact our trip to the South would have on the fragile ecosystem. Having been there and back, I can tell you that nature dictates everything in Antarctica. Human influence is negligible thanks to the strict rules dictated by IAATO. There are extremely strict riles for brown water waste disposal, food waste to exhaust fumes. Nothing gets disposed off in Antarctica (they bring everything back to Argentina).
The animals and the environment are protected by IAATO, which means you will be disinfecting yourself every time you go on shore and get back. You will also be required to maintain a distance of 5 feet from all animals - yes, including penguins. I strongly recommend not giving into the urge to pick up one the little penguins (I know it's going to be real hard)!
Traveling with an environment-friendly carrier also minimizes your footprint substantially. For instance, for every day you don't change your lines or towels, Hurtigruten donates to a sustainable charity organization.
The internet on board is paid (was around $20 per night). We decided to only pay for it once a week; we would have skipped it altogether if it wasn't for work. The connectivity was not great; I was barely able to use whatsapp. Choose wisely - don't pay for it if you can go a few weeks without internet.
Most cruises are full board meaning there are meals served three times a day (also, a light tea/coffee snack at 4 p.m.). The spread was generous - think huge four-course meals. Being vegetarians while traveling is always a struggle - this time was no different. You should be alright if you eat seafood/meat. If you are vegan, it is NOT going to be easy. Plan accordingly.
Activities and days on board
One of the other most common inquiries has been about "travel plans and itineraries". News flash: there is NO itinerary and no plan for a cruise to the continent. Things can change in an hour down there. There will be an expedition team who have done this a 100 times - you just to have show up on time!
Choosing to go an expedition cruise means you get to step onshore to experience the white continent up close . Days are split between landing and cruising - most of the times it will be both, sometimes just one. The landing and cruising activity depends on where the ship docks, weather and ice conditions. If the water is icy, it won't be safe for the zodiac boats to take us ashore.
Once you get to the peninsula, there will be an activity planned. If you have your extra activities like kayaking or camping booked, there will be time for these as well. All you need to do is relax and wait for the expedition team to take care of the arrangements.
What to pack for a cruise to Antarctica
This is important, so listen up - DO NOT OVER PACK. Mr. A and I already travel light, so we had no issues doing this but I can tell you right now you can leave your gowns and fancy shoes at home. You will NOT need them on this trip. One way to minimize your footprint is to pack sensibly and just carry a backpack.
This is what you will absolutely need: (yes I fit all this in my trek bag)
Waterproof pants - this is an absolute MUST but just pack one of this!
Shoes - gum boots; our cruise line was going to give us this so we did not pack it. Please check about this with your ship before packing
Jeans or light pants to wear when inside
Layers - one sweater to wear over your t-shirts
Jacket - I recommend bringing a parka or thick winter jacket. The jacket the cruise gives you is just water and wind-proof, not good enough for the cold.
Swimsuit - if you want to use the common pools
Gym wear - if you plan to work out Thick beanie, Scarf or balaclava to keep your face and lips from drying up in the wind
Sunscreen - minimum of 50SPF
Moisturizer and chap-stick
We landed in Buenos Aires and spent a day exploring the city. Our flight to Ushuaia was not until the next morning (arranged by the cruise line). The journey to the southern most city in the world takes a good 3 hours, so if you are leaving on your own, be sure to account for flight delays and leave enough travel time before you have to board your ship.
Drake shake - Day 1 & 2
If you have been researching this trip, you already know about the DRAKE PASSAGE. Crossing the passage takes two days, in reasonable weather - after all, this is the roughest sea in the world. If you are worried about being bored, don't - you will have plenty to do on board. Your expedition team will give you your boots, help you clean all your outwear, orient you about what you can and can't do while on shore and a lot more. You will have plenty of time to enjoy the mind blowing landscapes and photograph the wildlife as well.
This is a good time as many for me to give you a heads up about sea sickness - it is no myth. The weather was rough on day two and we did feel nauseous. We thought it was pretty severe already but the expedition team told us that all we experienced was a “Drake Lake” - which isn't nearly as bad as the Drake Storm *shudders*
Pro Tip: stand on the deck and look out into the horizon. It helps the brain reorient itself. The most difficult part would be trying to sleep - I was so excited, I could barely close my eyes. I was so mesmerized by the miles and miles of ice.
Day 3. Arctoski station.
We were not quite in the continent yet but getting there. Our first landing was at the Polish station called Arctowski Station. This a research station that is located on the southern hemisphere in the Southern Shetland archipelago, on King George Island, off the coast of Admiralty Bay.
Of course, it was also our very landing and our first penguin sighting - we were lucky enough to see all three species - Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie. The people at the station were really friendly too.
Seeing glaciers reminded me of my trip to Iceland. Forever crushing on these beauties.
One of the most FAQ on DM was if we saw any Emperor Penguins. We went to the Western Peninsula of the continent - the Emperor Penguins breed exclusively on the South Georgia-Falkland Islands. That being said, there are three beautiful species of Penguins on this part of the peninsula. These ones here are the Gentoo Penguins - the third largest species of Penguin. How do you identify a Gentoo? Well, they will have a bright red-orange bill and a conspicuous white eye patch.
Day 4. Yankee Harbor cruising and landing. Our second day in Antarctica involved a full day which started off with a landing at the Yankee Harbor, a long glacier moraine where we could really stretch our legs, and also enjoy the sight of penguins and Elephant seals at the beach.
Antarctica is majestic and overwhelming but if truth be told, it’s all about finding these furry little neat freaks. Watching them go about their business is the most rewarding highlight of any expedition down South. I just loved watching the goings-on in Penguin colonies and learning about their courtships and how they raise their chicks. They are a captivating bunch.
Later in the day, we also did a cruise to Hospital Point, today inhabited with hundreds of Gentoo penguin colonies. They all stood in a line - ready to jump in - but alas, it wasn't meant to be. They just walked back, in the same uniform manner. Fascinating creatures!
Day 5 - traveling to the Antarctica sound.
Officially inside the continent... at a place called the Brown Bluff. The scheduled island landing had to be pushed because of excessive icy conditions... but we still did a one hour zodiac cruise. Bluff Volcano landing site.
Location: Brown Bluff, Antarctica.. on one of our first few days in Antarctica. We had originally planned to do a landing, but it had to be canceled due to the quickly shifting ice.
All was not lost. Our awesome expedition team took the zodiac boats out for a spin between all the ice. Not only did we get to see penguins on ice-floes but we could also see that we were really in the icy white desert continent now.
The stillness in the air was astounding - you can almost hear it.
Fun fact: penguins spend 80% of their day preening - so if you want to picture of them standing straight, you're going to have be very patient.
Day 6 - Esperanza station. Today we landed at the Argentinian Esperanza station - last foothold of Argentina in the world. It also happens to be one of the largest bases in Antarctica, with both a school and a chapel. We were guided buy some of the “locals”, and learnt about the history of the place. Apparently, people live here year long - 60 people and kids, there is a school. During the harsh winters, where the weather is a mere -50C, people stay indoors and play games.
You may have seen videos of male Emperor Penguins huddled together in the snow, protecting their egg against the brash Antarctic winds. It is not just the Emperor dads - almost all species of these semi-aquatic birds are some of the most dedicated parents in the world. They make long, often treacherous trips to collect krill for their baby. The parents also have magically accurate timing between themselves, taking it in turns to feed and protect the chick. This was one of our first sightings of chicks on the peninsula. So glad we were able to watch this!
Not only did we get to see baby chicks, but we also go to see the long suffering nature of Penguin males. Here you can see the male penguin holding a stone in it's bill. The male penguin will pick up a stone to place below the female penguin, who sit atop a tiny stone mountain with her egg. I swear, I have never seen anything like it... I could watch them all day long.
Day 7 - Pendulum Cove and Whalers Bay
Today was the Volcano-day. We sailed into the caldera of an active Volcano, trough the Neptuns Bellows. First landing was Pendulum Cove, where a Chilean station had burned down in 1967 due to an eruption.
In the afternoon, we landed about 7km away, at Whalers Bay. A place with lots of history and remains both from the whaling era and later from the British station located here. Again, we found ourselves inside an active volcano - last big eruption in 1969, Chilean base evacuated. Spain and Argentina stations actively monitoring seismic situation. Don't miss the epic Neptune Billows.
Antarctica is an enigma. There is an excitement in trying to understand the Southernmost landscape of the world. Though rightly know as the land of white, there is much history in how that came to be. Over thousands of years, the South American continent and Antarctica drifted apart. This lead to cold winds circulating around the continent, blocking the sun from entering - thus becoming the icy white place it is today.
Remember how I was telling you about the different types of penguins and the differences? Well here is one more with a Chinstrap penguin amidst Gentoo. You can clearly tell the one of the right is a chinstrap - instantly recognizable because of the black band under it's chin. They are not as big as the Gentoo but they are the most commonly found penguins on the peninsula. We spotted over 50 colonies over two weeks.
Day 8 - Neko Harbour
We landed at the ethereal Neko Harbour. By far my favorite morning on deck.. we spent an hour after breakfast just staring at this.
We started making our way to the station there. It was a bit steep to walk to the penguin rookery, but at the top we got to enjoy the fantastic view to the majestic glacier front, and the penguins up close and personal.
In the afternoon we were cruising in Paradise Bay, by the Brown Station and heard the story of the doctor who burned the station down so he could return home to his “senorita” - so bizzare!
“Make way - it’s the Penguin highway”
If you followed me while we were in Antarctica, you may have seen a lot of these little trails on my stories. They are paths for the penguins to move up and down from the lake below to their colonies on higher ground. If you haven’t watched the stories yet, you must - watch them stumble then gracefully pick up themselves up to carry on without a care in the world. It is a lesson for life!
Day 9 - cruising at Chiriguano Bay.
This place is famously know as the Balloon islands with pristine blue glaciers. There is also no wildlife because of the closely packed glaciers - there is no room for penguins to nest.
Landing at Danco Island. It is an island inhabited by huge colonies of Gentoo penguins.
We got to see them (and the smell) up close. Once we got to the top, we were rewarded with an amazing view of the rookeries and the channel with some huge icebergs. There was also a super cool snow slide down, which I posted about in my insta-stories.
Let me tell you a little about the icebergs in Antarctica and their soul-stirring beauty. You may have seen thousands of films, documentaries and slow-mo videos of icebergs but none of them compare to the magic and grandeur of watching these humongous sculptures of nature up close. The sheer size of the glaciers here is enough to make you feel insignificant. The first sighting of an iceberg on an expedition is unforgettable but you never get used to their size, no matter how many times you see them!
Day 10 - landing and cruising at Orne Island.
Another day of epic landings with a nice steep walk to the top of the hill.
On the way to the top we had to cross several penguin highways. In Antarctica, the penguins have the right of way, so we experienced “traffic delays” from time to time.
We also spotted our first crab eater seal on the island.
Day 11 - landing at Demoy Island.
Christmas Day. We spent it at Damoy Point, watching more penguins and also taking a hike to two old cabins, one Argentinian and one British.
A lot of us did a long hike with snowshoes on, up the hill behind the cabins for a stunning view to the surrounding mountains, MS Midnatsol and Port Lockroy down in the bay.
The snowshoeing activity was around 2 hours in total. We went around the hill to reach the summit point where the famous explorer Roald Amundsen built his tent. What you see behind us is the southern most post office in the world.
The evening was celebrated with traditional Norwegian Christmas dishes, and carol-singing in the main stairway of the ship.
Day 12 - Lemaire Channel and Cuverville Island.
Today was the last day of landing in Cuverville Island. This landing offered us even more penguins, a few seals, and a hike to a stunning viewpoint.
Due to the wind and the shallow waters, there were a large amount of amazing icebergs just off the beach. What a view.
One of Antarctica’s most striking features is that of scale. The continent is considered larger than Europe and one and half times the size of United States. It also has nearly 90% of the world’s ice, and its deepest, the ice layer is 15,000 feet thick. The ice is unlike anything you have seen in other countries. We saw this massive iceberg as we were crossing the famous Lemaire Channel. You would be hard pressed to find something else this bewitching.
Day 13 - Fournier Bay
All good things come to an end, so did our trip. There was a silver lining, we had one final day of cruising ahead of us, which we spent it in Fournier Bay.