Antarctica; a place where only 40,000 people visit each year, a landscape so strikingly beautiful it’s hard to believe it’s real, a continent so isolated it takes two days of intense crossing through the Drake Passage to reach it. This is a continent full of wildlife including whales, penguins and seals and a continent worth exploring in your lifetime. From kayaking next to glaciers to discovering the eight species of penguins that call this place home, here are 12 of the top things to see and do while visiting this incredible continent.
12. Visit Deception Island
Often called an island of doom, it was once a whaler’s station and now all that is left is giant rusting barrels that once boiled whale fat, decaying whale bones on the beach and a sense of gloom in the air. It happens to be one of the safest harbors in the world, as it is protected by high cliffs and a narrow entrance. Visiting here is a unique experience, as it tells the tales of the greed of men and creates a stark looking landscape, with an abundance of black lava sand. Visitors can hike up the mountains for incredible views, take a plunge in the waters that are said to be warmer than anywhere else on the continent due to the volcanic heat or enjoy watching the playful penguins. Described as a landscape from another planet, this is one island you won’t want to miss.
11. Take a Helicopter Ride
If you really want to splurge on your trip to this continent, there is only one thing that should come to mind, a helicopter ride over the incredible landscape. This is also the only way to get the unique experience of getting closer to the incredible Emperor Penguins at their secluded rookeries, that aren’t accessible by boat. The scenery below is stunning as landscapes of layered sandstones, lava flows and glaciers tumble out into the ocean as far as the eye can see. If you are lucky enough to land on Brown Bluff, the most scenic spot in the entire northern tip of the Antarctic Continent you can expect steep canyon walls, tumbling boulders, an ice-cap looming above and beautiful volcanic creations. The scene is complete with thousands of adelie penguins nesting on the slopes and a few gentoos mixed in for fun.
10. Climb Observation Hill
Observation Hill is one of the most iconic features of Hut Point Peninsula and the McMurdo Station surroundings, along with discovery hut and castle rock. This 754 foot volcanic feature is climbed by hundreds of visitors each year to catch amazing views of Mt. Erebus, Mt. Terror, Scott Base (New Zealand), the Dry Valleys, Black Island, White Island, both airports, and Castle Rock. The most notable feature on this hill is the wooden cross that was erected in January of 1913 at the summit, in memory of Capt. Scott’s lost Polar Party of 1912. The trail up isn’t difficult and takes less than an hour. Visitors with good weather will have no wind at the top and spend plenty of time taking pictures of the beautiful 360 degree surroundings.
9. Whale Watching
If you are most interested in seeing whales on your adventure to Antarctica the absolute best time to visit is February and March, at the end of the summer season. It is at this time when the whales seem to have lost their inhibitions and are more relaxed than ever. There are actually eight species of whales that live in these waters, the Blue, Fin, Humpback, Minke, Orca, Sei, Southern Right and Sperm. In Wilhelmina Bay, one of the first places many visitors experience, there is normally an abundance of whales, mostly humpback, orcas and Minke. The Bay has actually been nicknamed Whale-amina Bay because of all the whale sightings. No trip here is complete with whale sightings and the great thing about Antarctica is that there are whales everywhere you look. Although the three species, humpback, Minke and orcas are the most popular, some visitors are lucky enough to spot the rare and humongous blue.
8. Go Sea Kayaking
If there is one thing to splurge on as an “extra” in Antarctica, let us be the first to suggest sea kayaking. Bigger ships offer this experience as an extra excursion while smaller vessels have daily kayak trips included. Zodiacs will take kayakers into calmer waters where it is advised you know how to get in and out of a kayak and what to do if it rolls, as acting fast in these cold waters is a must. Silently paddling through Antarctica will be nothing like you have ever experienced as wildlife gets closer than ever and the only sounds is the scraping of ice against your kayak. Plan on paddling through ice, sucking on age-old glacier chunks when you are thirsty and experiencing a once in a lifetime opportunity.
7. Do the Polar Plunge
It is a rite of passage for anyone visiting Antarctica and if you leave this unforgettable place without doing so, we promise all your friends will tease you. It takes a lot of courage to muster up the will to jump into these water temperatures that often sit around 29 degrees. The history of the polar plunge is much unknown and the earliest recorded plunge was actually in Boston in 1904. Doing the plunge in Antarctica is unlike other polar bear plunges though as the water is extremely cold and dangerous, therefore you will need to spend as little time as possible. If you are travelling on a large ship, a zodiac will take you into the water and it’s a matter of a deep breath before you jump off. Expect to be in shock rather than be cold and don’t try to speak as the cold water sucks that ability right out of you. And when it’s all over, the exhilaration alone will warm you up, along with a shot of something fiery from the bar.
6. Survive the Drake Passage
Most people get to Antarctica by boat and that means one thing, surviving the Drake Passage. It is the body of water between the southern tip of South America and the northernmost reaches of Antarctica and is the shortest route to reach this continent. The weather and sea conditions here can be described as chaotic, violent, unpredictable and notorious. It is a two-day journey across these waters and visitors should expect to get knocked around, seasick and unable to read, concentrate or doing anything other than try to keep down the morning’s breakfast. The good thing about this crossing is that it allows you sufficient time to learn about the destination, with biologists on board to give daily lessons, guides to brief you and plenty of wildlife to look at. And once you spot your first iceberg, this journey will all be worth it. Just don’t forget you have to cross it once more to get home.
5. Visit Port Lockroy Museum
This natural harbor was discovered in 1904 and used as a whaling station until 1931. It was in WWII when the British decided to build the Port Lockroy base and it continued to operate until 1962 as a research station. Luckily for visitors to this continent, this base was renovated in 1996 and turned into a museum and post office. During the summer there is a staff of four who are responsible for sorting through the 70,000 letters that are sent by visitors. That’s right; it is here where you can send yourself a postcard from the southernmost post office in the world. Visitors here should be prepared for the smell as a colony of penguins has taken over the island as their own and needless to say, it doesn’t smell great. There is a small museum and gift shop here as well, perfect for picking up a souvenir and proceeds go back to upkeep of the site and other monuments around the continent, a worthy cause in our opinion.
4. Go Zodiac Cruising
If you are travelling on a larger ship you will want to make sure you book a day or two out in the zodiac. A normal zodiac only fits about 8-12 people and can zip in and out of smaller places that you wouldn’t otherwise see. Some of the smaller passages in Antarctica are absolutely loaded with beauty and although you may want to put your camera in a waterproof bag, there will be plenty of picture taking opportunities. Get up so close to glaciers that it feels as though you can reach out and touch them, watch as huge ice chunks fall off and splash into the water and see wildlife up close and personal. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for penguins jumping in and out of the water, whales who will surface in front of you and leopard seals that will glide right beside you.
3. Discover Paradise Bay
Technically it’s called Paradise Harbor, a name that was given by whalers in the early 1920’s but most people refer it to Paradise Bay. It is only one of two harbors used by cruise ships to stop on the continent and get yourself ready for some incredible scenery. Surrounding the harbor are glaciated mountains and ice cliffs, which in turn help to protect the harbor and on calm days the water is as clear as glass. One of the best ways to discover this bay is to paddle it in kayaks, coming closer to the glaciers than you ever thought possible. Wildlife will surround you in the varying shades of blue and white, seals lounging on ice flows while albatrosses spread their wings overhead. If there is one place to truly experience the magic of this landscape, this would be it.
2. Cruise the Lemaire Channel
The Lemaire Channel is one of the most scenic waterways in the world, often called the Kodak Gap because it is so photogenic. This steep sided channel is only 5250ft wide and runs for 7 miles between the mountains of Booth Island and the Peninsula and if you are lucky enough to be here when the ice is not blocking it, count on snapping some amazing photos. So what makes this channel so photogenic? To start with the mountains rise dramatically out of the water, vertically, covered in glaciers and snow. When the wind is still the water is as smooth as glass, creating incredible reflections. Fairly devoid of wildlife, seals can sometimes be seen lounging on the floating pieces of ice. Whether you will pass through this channel or not will be a mystery as it is entirely dependent on conditions but cross your fingers you do as this is something to check off your bucket list.
1. Discover the Penguins
Penguins are the number one attraction for many visitors that go to Antarctica and it is guaranteed you will see at least of few of them on your adventure. Although there are 17 species of penguins throughout the world, in Antarctica you will only find 6-8 different species. Not that that will matter once you are a mere few feet from one of these unique creatures. Notably the Emperor Penguin is what people hope to see here, standing at nearly 4 feet tall; these incredible animals are quite the sight in person. The Magellanic penguin that is found here is perhaps the one that is most familiar to people, the one that looks like a little man wearing a tuxedo. These playful penguins will whip by you underwater, waddle their way across the ice and the chicks are often very curious of humans. Just make sure to follow the rules set out by your guide.