Kayaking in Antarctica

A stern eye gives you a bald stare from just below the water surface. It’s a whale, turned on its side to inspect you. You, in your low-lying sea kayak and practically eye level with a whale, are having the most extraordinary encounter of your life – but so are they. Of the tourists that visit the Antarctic every year, very few get to kayak. This whale might have never seen the likes of you before.

“The whale experiences are pretty incredible. You get close encounters when you get away from the main group. You’re in a small group and you get the wilderness to yourself,” Simon Evans, the product manager for our vacation company Chimu’s Antarctic cruises, explains the appeal of kayaking here. It’s an activity that’s growing more popular in the Antarctic. As cruise ships get bigger and bigger to accommodate more customers, so too is there more call for adventures that take you away from the crowds. It’s a privilege to fill one of the thirty or so kayaking spots on a 250-passenger cruise.

It’s the unabashed curiosity of the whale pod that might get to you. As they take it in turns to come up and inspect you, they seem to ask: what are you doing here? It’s an innocent question – but one with a complicated answer. After all, should big cruise ships really be on Antarctica at all?
You don’t get the sound of engines. You can hear the ice cracking, the glaciers calving. You get up close and personal
- Simon Evans, from our specialist vacation company Chimu.

What does kayaking in Antarctica entail?

On a 250-passenger Antarctic cruise, the kayakers are an elite group on board. There might be just 32 kayaking spots available, across 16 double kayaks. This means that the activity can get booked up far in advance of the cruise. Don’t get caught out, regretting that you didn’t book any before you got on board. If you want to kayak, get it sorted soon.

It’s a commitment. Kayaking doesn’t come cheap, and it’s an additional extra on top of your cruise cost. You will want to like kayaking enough to do it every day, forgoing whatever other activities are planned for the rest of the passengers. But when you get out onto millpond-like sounds, brush through brash ice, or see a slick whale back scroll out of the water ahead, you’ll know you’ve made the right choice.
When whales come, being in a kayak is an incredible position from which to see them, but bear in mind that you won’t be able to take high quality photos; you won’t want to risk an expensive camera in your boat. You are also less mobile than if you were zipping in a zodiac (reinforced inflatable motor boat, used to transport guests) so if the whales are far away, you won’t be able to catch them up. If you are a keen photographer, you may want to sit out on kayaking altogether – or ask the crew when the best day for photography will be, and sit out that day.
Your group will try and go out every day once you’re on the Antarctic Peninsula, where you’ll get the calmest weather. “Once you get down to the peninsula, it’s pretty special down there. It’s pretty sheltered, too. In South Georgia and the Falklands it’s too rough and windy. When I was down there last the kayakers were barely able to get out in those areas. And obviously you won’t be kayaking on Drake Passage!” Simon Evans explains. If you’re on a longer trip you might find that, once you’ve left the peninsula, there are fewer opportunities to kayak: as Simon says, South Georgia and the Falklands can just be too rough.
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You’ll get a full dry suit, buoyancy aid and helmet and the support of a zodiac vessel. It’s good to have done a bit of sea kayaking before your trip, as much so you know you’ll enjoy it as for your safety and comfort in the water. Consider booking into a day course on the sea in your home country before you travel. At the start of the trip, your kayaking leader will speak to everyone and get an idea of people’s requirements.
Whilst kayaking isn’t particularly taxing, if the conditions are perfect, you might want to be out kayaking all day. After a few days this rhythm can get quite tiring. “You can be out for quite a long time. I know a couple of the days some of the guys were getting quite tired,” Simon agrees. This means you’ll enjoy it most if you’re reasonably fit.

Best time to kayak in Antarctica

Kayaking is offered throughout the cruising season, from November to March. November will be cold, but there’s a good chance of seeing elephant seals on the ice. On the Antarctic Peninsula in December and January you get the longest daylight and more frequent whale sightings – but whale sightings reach their peak in February and March. February is the warmest month – something to consider if you’re going to be out on the water all day.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Christopher Michel] [Simon Evans quote: Polar Cruises] [What does it entail?: Andreas Kambanis] [Practicalities: Christopher Michel]