Where to go in Antarctica
map & Itineraries
When deciding where to go in Antarctica, the biggest issue is accessibility. The Antarctic Peninsula – an extension of the Andes – is the most popular landing spot as it is closest point to South America, but still separated by the notoriously rough 1,000km-wide Drake Passage. The crossing takes two days by boat or two hours by plane. Cruises often stop off at some of the fascinating islands along the way, which helps to break up the long voyage. Those departing from New Zealand will set sail for the distant Ross Sea, pausing to explore tiny Subantarctic islands – some of the most remote specks of land on the planet. The great distances here generally require lengthier expeditions.
Many small islands are found off the Antarctic Peninsula – some more accessible than others. Cuverville Island is a breeding ground for gentoo penguins and brown skuas. Popular with Adelie and gentoo penguins, Petermann Island is the southernmost point of most cruises. On Danco Island, Weddell and crabeater seals can be seen. Zodiac trips take you out to these remote harbours and surrounding fjords.
The stark mountains of this curling peninsula are an icy extension of the Andes, rising some 3,000m into the sky. This is the most “accessible” part of the Antarctic mainland, its fingers reaching just beyond the Antarctic Circle. Ruggedly beautiful, visitors to the peninsula can spot dozens of whales swimming around their boats, and one of the region’s top predators – the leopard seal – hunting.
The stretch of water between South America and Antarctica inspires a sense of both adventure and dread. During the two-day crossing, stomachs will be churned by the waves, gales and the sense of mounting excitement. Watch giant albatross from the deck and join in the fascinating wildlife and geography lectures. And as you reach the frozen continent, you’ll never forget your first sighting of a colossal iceberg.
A bit of Britain at the end of the world, the windswept, wave-bashed Falklands have surprising biodiversity. Commerson’s dolphins may follow your boat, while enormous albatross glide above and four species of penguins nest on the shoreline. Meet the people they share the island with in Port Stanley, home to a fish and chip shop and red phone boxes, plus shipwrecks and an unsettling whalebone arch.
King George Island
One of the last outposts before reaching Antarctica, 120km to the south, the South Shetlands are home to 16 research stations and the continent’s only hotel. The largest island is King George; its airfield can be used by those wishing to avoid the rough Drake Passage crossing. Penguins, gulls, cormorants and giant petrels nest here, and the tundra landscape supports mosses and lichens – a surreal sight.
Cruising through the stunning Lemaire Channel is a trip highlight. Icebergs, glaciers and sheer cliffs are the giants above the water, while humpback whales are the behemoths below. Keep an eye out for orcas too. As narrow as 1,600m in places, with plenty of loose icebergs, the channel is precarious. The scenery and mirror-like waters are a dream for photographers, however – earning it the nickname “Kodak Gap”.
On Wiencke Island, this natural harbour was originally used for whaling, then as a military base during World War II, followed by a research station. It is now a historic site with a museum and post office – and a popular stop-off point for Antarctic travelers. Half of Wiencke Island is closed to tourists – only penguins are allowed!
Ross Sea & Ross Ice Shelf
Few expeditions venture into the wild, remote waters of the Ross Sea during the couple of months each year when the pack ice breaks up. The 3,794m-high Mount Erebus, an active volcano, is found on Ross Island, along with Shackleton’s Hut and a research station. Visits depend, as with everything here, on the weather. Thousands of penguins, colossal glaciers and historical sites are scattered throughout the region.
Desolate and beautiful, South Georgia, one of the exceptionally remote South Sandwich Islands, is the resting place of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. A 3,000m mountain ridge discharges glaciers into sheltered harbours, home to king penguins and enormous barking elephant seals. The museum reveals the island’s fascinating history. Volcanic Mount Michael, on Saunders Island, has an active lava lake.
South Orkney Islands
Few vessels venture as far as the South Orkney Islands, uninhabited other than by researchers at the two bases – and by penguins, fur seals and the odd whale in the surrounding waters. These glacier-covered rocks are remote and rarely visited, but this makes a landing all the more special. Grounded icebergs are a treat for photographers.
These specks of land between New Zealand and the Ross Sea are some of the most isolated and unusual islands on earth. Strange megaherbs flourish on Campbell Island, adapted to the harsh conditions. Visit the Australian Antarctic Base and the enormous penguin colonies on Macquarie Island, where rockhopper penguins skip along the shores, while elephant seals bicker and honk. Snares Island is birder heaven.
Tierra del Fuego
Most Antarctic expeditions start on this island at the end of the world. Having travelled all this way, it’s well worth allowing a couple of days for exploration. There are easy walking trails through the national park forests, and you can paddle canoes on lagoons and rivers. Expedition boats depart via the Beagle Channel, with a backdrop of ice-coated mountains giving a sense of how vast the “tip” of South America truly is.
Photo credits: [Emperor penguins: Eli Duke] [Ushuaia/Tierra del Fuego: Gus Valentim] [Antarctic Peninsula: Gilad Rom] [Drake Passage: NOAA Photo Library] [Lemaire Channel: Liam Quinn] [Antarctic Archipelagos: McKay Savage] [Port Lockroy: Liam Quinn] [King George Island: Aah-Yeah] [Falkland Islands: John5199] [South Georgia: Brian Gratwicke] [South Orkney Islands: Liam Quinn] [Ross Sea/Ice shelf: lin padgham] [Subantarctic Islands (between Ross Sea and NZ): twiddleblat]