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Going to Antarctica: 30 Common Questions Answered

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Ice in Neko Harbour
For most of us, going to Antarctica is a transformative experience

If you’ve been dreaming of going to Antarctica, you probably have a LOT of questions. I know I did. What is it really like? How cold is it? How much do Antarctica holidays cost? How do you even get there?

Before I went I had to look up all these questions and more. I did a tonne of research on dozens of different websites to find the answers. Then I went, and found out a load more stuff for myself. And now that I’m back, I’ve collated answers to all those questions in one handy blog post, so you have everything you need all in one place. I really hope you find it helpful, and if I’ve missed something, feel free to post your question in the comments.

So without further preamble, here are 30 Questions and Answers about Visiting Antarctica.

Going to Antarctica: Frequently Asked Questions

FACTS ABOUT ANTARCTICA

1/ Where is Antarctica?

Antarctica is the term used to describe both the ‘seventh continent’, and the region surrounding it. The continent of Antarctica is the land mass that sits at the bottom of the globe, right below the southern tips of South America, Africa and New Zealand. It contains the geographic South Pole, is surrounded by the Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean, and is the coldest, highest, driest and windiest continent on earth.

The Antarctic region is the area around the land mass, generally defined as everything situated south of the line of latitude at 60° south (also known as the 60th parallel).

2/ How big is Antarctica?

Antarctica measures about 14.2 million square km (about 5.5 million square miles). That makes it about the same size as the USA and Mexico combined, twice the size of Australia, and 50 times bigger than the UK.

Going to Antarctica: First view of the Antarctic continent
First view of the Antarctic continent

3/ What is the difference between the Arctic and the Antarctic?

I always found this one hard to remember too! The Arctic is the area at the top of the globe, where the North Pole is, and the Antarctic is at the bottom, in the south. The other main difference between the two is that although both are vast areas of ice, there is no land in the Arctic – it’s all just frozen sea – while Antarctica has land underneath the ice.

The way I’ve memorised which is which is to note that Antarctica has an ‘N’ in it, for North, and then remember that it’s the opposite. So it’s in the south. This might sound a bit confusing, but for some reason it’s always worked for me!

4/ How much ice is there?

According to NASA, the ice sheet covering Antarctica contains 90% of all the ice on earth. In some places it’s almost three miles thick, and if it were to all melt, worldwide sea levels would rise by nearly 70 metres.

Holidays in Antarctica: There is a LOT of ice!
There is a LOT of ice in Antarctica!

5/ Who owns Antarctica?

No one. Because it’s so cold and inhospitable there is no native population living there, so no one had a historic claim on it. As scientific exploration and interest in the continent started to grow in the 20th century, twelve countries including the UK, USA, Argentina, France, the (then) Soviet Union and Norway tried to stake a claim to chunks of it, but eventually, to avoid conflict, they all agreed to share the territory peacefully.

The Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1961, says that Antarctica is to be devoted to peace and science. No country has ownership, the entire area is protected, and no military activity is allowed. To date, 54 countries have now signed the treaty.

6/ Are there any cities in Antarctica?

No. Antarctica is not like normal continents. There are no towns or cities, few roads, no commercial industries and no permanent residents. The only buildings or settlements on the continent are the 70 scientific research bases, belonging to about 30 different countries. Many of these are accessible only by plane or a long journey by motor convoy across the ice.

Orcadas research base
Base Orcadas on Coronation Island is one of many scientific research stations in Antarctica

7/ What is the capital of Antarctica?

Because there are no cities, Antarctica does not have a capital. However the largest scientific research station is McMurdo Station, which belongs to the USA.

8/ Does anyone live in Antarctica?

The only people who live in Antarctica are the scientists and support teams working on the various research bases. During the summer months there may be up to 5000 people living and working on the continent; most of them go home during the winter leaving about 1000 who will stay the whole year, often entirely cut off from the outside world.

Elvio, an electrician, and Alfredo, an engineer at Orcadas Research base
Elvio, an electrician, and Alfredo, an engineer at Orcadas Research base

9/ Do polar bears live in Antarctica?

No. Polar bears live in the Arctic, in the north. That is why polar bears don’t eat penguins – all penguins live in the southern hemisphere.

10/ What language do they speak in Antarctica?

Since no one owns Antarctica, there is no official language. The most widely-spoken languages on the continent are Russian and English due to the large numbers of scientists from those countries. When you visit, the prevailing language is likely to be that used by the company you choose to travel with. If you go with a Canadian, American or British company, it’ll be English; if you use a Chinese tour operator, obviously the main language will be Chinese.

Holidays to Antarctica: Gentoo penguin colony in Neko Harbour
Gentoo penguin colony in Neko Harbour

VISITING ANTARCTICA

11/ How do I visit Antarctica?

Apart from scientists, explorers and documentary-makers, the main way over 90% of people visit Antarctica is on an expedition cruise. There are a variety of types, styles and lengths of cruise – some trips are longer and take in places like the Falklands and South Georgia; some boats are larger and don’t make any landings. What you choose do to will depend on your budget, how much time you have, and what you want to see. 

Most cruise ships depart from Ushuaia, at the very bottom of Argentina, and cross the Drake Passage before arriving at the Antarctic continent.  There are also longer and more expensive trips departing from Australia or New Zealand.

Going to Antarctica: Ocean Endeavour at anchor in Neko Harbour
Most people visit Antarctica on an expedition cruise ship like this one

12/ Can you fly to Antarctica?

If you have the budget and want to avoid the rough seas of the Drake Passage, it is possible to fly to King George Island in Antarctica from Punta Arenas in South Chile. From here you would connect with your cruise ship and continue your exploration of the seventh continent by sea. Note that there are no scheduled flights, only charter flights that come as part of a fly-cruise package. It’s not possible to make your own way to Antarctica independently unless you have your own boat.

13/ Do I need a visa to visit Antarctica?

Since Antarctica doesn’t belong to anyone, you don’t need a visa. You do need permission, but that will be organized for you through your tour operator. However, depending on where you’re from you may need a visa to visit Argentina or Chile, where your tour departs from.

Going to Antarctica: Weddell seal sleeping on an ice floe
A Weddell seal sleeps on an ice floe

14/ How much does it cost to go to Antarctica?

Unfortunately this is not a trip for the budget traveller. Antarctica is a long way away, and the amount of equipment, staff and resources required to get you there and back safely and comfortably means you’re looking at splashing some serious cash. However there are still different pricing levels depending on when you book, when you want to travel, the length of your trip, the level of comfort you require and any add-on excursions you may want to do.

Some of the best deals can be had by travelling independently to Ushuaia and then getting a last-minute space on a ship leaving immediately, though of course you may have to wait for a vacancy. If you book ahead and travel in low season, prices (not including flights) start at around £6500 (US$8000) for a 10-day-trip in a basic cabin, and go up from there. If money is no object you can easily spend £25,000 (US$31,000) or more for a trip that includes the Falklands and South Georgia and crosses the Antarctic Circle in peak season.

I added on the Falklands and South Georgia and travelled in peak season (December), but I also booked 18 months in advance, got a group booking and early bird discount and had the cheapest type of cabin – a triple with no window. The price was roughly £10,000 (US$12,500) plus flights.

Read more: The Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica: Our Itinerary

Going to Antarctica: paddle excursion in Graham Passage
Sea kayaking or a paddle excursion are two extras that will add to the cost of an Antarctica trip

15/ What are the best places to visit in Antarctica?

All of Antarctica is stunningly beautiful and no matter where you go, you won’t be disappointed. Where you do end up will depend on the route planned by your ship’s captain, the weather, and how many other ships are in the area. All Antarctic tour operators talk to each other to make sure no two cruise ships are trying to crowd into the same place at the same time.

The majority of cruises head for the west side of the Antarctic peninsula, as this area is more accessible and tends to be favoured with less ice and calmer seas.

Our Antarctica cruise took us to the west side, where we visited Deception Island, Portal Point, Charlotte Bay, Neko Harbour, Cuverville Island and the Errera Channel. Other popular landing sites around here include King George Island, Port Lockroy, Half Moon Island, Plèneau Bay and Paradise Harbour.

For the more adventurous – and those with deeper pockets – there are a few itineraries that take you to the east side of the peninsula and the Weddell Sea, or you can even fly deep into the continent to visit emperor penguin colonies or even the South Pole. This article by Wanderlust has more information on the other types of trips you can do if money is no object.

Charlotte Bay is one of the best places to visit in Antarctica
Charlotte Bay is one of the best places to visit in Antarctica

16/ What are the top things to see in Antarctica?

People mainly visit Antarctica for three reasons: to see wildlife, to see the stunning unspoiled icy landscapes, and just because it’s really cool and not many people go there. For me it was about all three. As it’s far away from most human interference and it’s protected, there’s an abundance of animals, from blue, minke and humpback whales and orcas, to gentoo, chinstrap and king penguins, to fur, leopard, Weddell and crabeater seals and much more. You’ll also be awed by enormous blue icebergs, wowed by huge glaciers that sometimes calve and crumble into the sea, amazed by glassy-smooth bays that reflect the surrounding mountains like a mirror, and humbled by huge open skies and far-off empty horizons.

Read more: 60 Awesome Antarctica Photography Tips

Gentoo penguins are one of the top things to see in Antarctica
Gentoo penguins are one of the top things to see in Antarctica

17/ How cold is it in Antarctica?

Not as cold as you’d think! Or at least, not when you’re likely to be visiting. The temperature on the Antarctic peninsula, which is the bit that is furthest north and therefore has the mildest climate, ranges from about 1 to 2 °C (34 to 36 °F) in summer, to −15 to −20 °C (5 to −4 °F) in winter. Antarctica tours only operate between November and March, in the southern summer, so you’re likely to be looking at the warmer end of that scale. In other words, it’s likely to be no colder when you visit Antarctica than it is on a particularly cold winter’s day in London.

However, the weather can be unpredictable and there can be a lot of wind chill, especially if you’re sitting still on a zodiac for a long time. It’s really important to make sure you bring the right clothing. Your tour company will be able to advise you, or read my Antarctica packing list.

Tourists wearing winter clothes on a zodiac in Antarctica
It can get quite cold in Antarctica, so you’ll need to make sure you have the right clothes

18/ When is the best time to visit Antarctica?

It depends what you want to see. November and December is when there is most ice and snow and it’s nesting and mating season. Late December and January is when all the chicks and pups are being born; you also get the most hours of daylight. February and March are peak whale spotting time, the chicks are a little bigger, and there are fewer tourists.

I visited in very early January and there were masses of penguins incubating eggs and a few newly-hatched chicks. The weather was great too, so I’d say January is the best time to visit Antarctica – though for that reason it’s also the most expensive.

A gentoo penguin with two chicks, Antarctica
Visit Antarctica in January to see penguin chicks

THE ANTARCTICA CRUISE EXPERIENCE

19/ What was the ship like?

A range of companies run trips to Antarctica, offering ships of varying sizes and levels of comfort. Note that in most places only 100 people are allowed to step ashore at any one time, and some of the bays are too shallow for the deeper-hulled vessels, so if you’re keen to get off the boat and walk around you’ll need a smaller one.

Our ship, the Ocean Endeavour, carried 198 passengers and about 150 crew. There were a range of cabins to choose from, from compact triples with no window, to more luxurious doubles with views. The ship had a restaurant, two bars and a coffee bar, two lounges, a small gym and a sauna. This is a far cry from the enormous floating resorts you think of when you normally picture cruise ships, but I thought it was the perfect size and levels of comfort for an Antarctica expedition.

If you’d like to travel on Ocean Endeavour (and I would certainly recommend it) you can now book your trip through Intrepid.

Inside a triple cabin on the Antarctica cruise ship Ocean Endeavour
Our triple cabin on the Antarctica cruise ship Ocean Endeavour

20/ What was the food like?

Surprisingly good, actually. What you get fed will obviously depend on which company you travel with, but I really couldn’t fault the service on our Antarctica trip. In fact the food was so good that I gained half a stone. Here’s an idea of what we had:

  • Breakfast: a huge buffet with all the options you would expect, and eggs cooked to order.
  • Lunch: also a buffet, with a range of salads, hot and cold mains and a choice of several desserts. There were always options for people with specific dietary requirements.
  • Afternoon tea: on sea days we were served sandwiches, cakes, and scones with jam and cream in the upstairs lounge.
  • Dinner: a set à la carte menu served at your table, with a choice of three starters, soups, mains and desserts, and unlimited wine or beer.
A chef serves fish in a creamy sauce on board Antarctica cruise ship Ocean Endeavour
The food on our Antarctica trip was really good with loads of variety and friendly staff

21/ What were the other people like?

I was expecting most of the other guests to be much older couples enjoying their retirement – and while there were certainly plenty of those, I was happy to find that there were quite a few younger people too. I soon found myself in a great group of like-minded solo travellers in their 20s and 30s.

There were only a couple of families on board – most companies advise against taking children under 8 and it’s obviously very expensive to go, so it’s not really a family-friendly holiday. Most people came from English-speaking countries like the UK, USA and Canada, though there were some other Europeans and Chinese as well.

Passengers relax on board an Antarctic expedition ship
Fellow passengers relaxing in the coffee bar and library

22/ Is there WiFi in Antarctica?

Obviously there is no WiFi on land in Antarctica. Whether there is WiFi on board your ship depends on the company you are travelling with. On my voyage everyone was given access to a free (and rather intermittent) connection to text messaging services like WhatsApp, but if you wanted to use websites or social media during the trip you had to pay a one-off fee of about £100 – and I’m told the connection was pretty slow and unreliable.

Your best bet is just to accept that there won’t be any internet for the duration of your voyage, and embrace the chance for a digital detox!

Iceberg in Charlotte Bay, Antarctica
You won’t need WiFi in Antarctica: you’ll be too busy looking at stunning views like this

23/ What should I pack for Antarctica?

I’ve written a separate post about that, find it at An Antarctic Packing List: Clothes, Gear And More

24/ How bad is the Drake Passage?

The Drake Passage, the stretch of water between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula, is particularly notorious for being one of the roughest stretches of sea in the world. If you search on YouTube (and I highly recommend that you don’t if you’re heading down that way any time soon!) you’ll find quite a few horrifying videos of ships being tossed about like rag dolls. It’s so notorious there’s a name: the ‘Drake Shake’.

So it can be bad. But it can also be fine. When we crossed we got the ‘Drake Lake’ – just a gentle swell that didn’t trouble anyone. The fact is the weather changes rapidly and you just don’t know. You might get lucky or you might not. The trick is to be prepared and if you’re prone to seasickness, bring medication with you or talk to the on-board doctor when you arrive.

Crossing the Drake Passage to Antarctica
The Drake Passage can be rough, but it can also sometimes be really calm

25/ Is it dangerous in Antarctica?

Travelling to somewhere so remote is not without its hazards. You’re far from civilisation, so if something goes wrong help is limited. The weather, as mentioned above, can be fierce. It’s cold and sometimes wet. You’ll be getting in and out of small boats and coming into close contact with wild animals. All of these things do, obviously, carry some level of risk.

But the companies who run expeditions to Antarctica are extremely experienced and professional. They simply would not take inexperienced tourists to a place like that if they didn’t think they could manage the risks. We were given the right gear, comprehensive briefings, and were accompanied at all times by experienced polar experts. At no time did I ever feel afraid or in any danger at all. The key is to make sure you pay attention during the briefings and follow your guides instructions at all times and you’ll be fine.

Leopard seal, Errera Channel, Antarctica
Don’t get too close to the leopard seals – they have sharp teeth!

26/ How physically demanding is a trip to Antarctica?

You’ll need to have the agility to be able to step in and out of zodiacs and hold on when they’re bumping over the water. If the sea is rough, you may find walking around the ship and going up and down stairs a challenge. Most of our land excursions involved a couple of hours of walking around, but it’s not a hike, more a gentle stroll looking at penguins. Sometimes we also spent an hour or two more cruising around in the zodiac, so if you’re someone who needs immediate access to bathrooms that may be a problem. Obviously it can be quite cold, windy and rainy too, but in general if the weather is really bad it’s not safe to go ashore so you can stay in your nice dry cabin.

If you’re worried about whether or not you’ll be able to cope, have a word with your tour operator or your doctor.

Getting out of a zodiac and back on board Ocean Endeavour
You’ll need to be able to get in and out of zodiacs, but there’s always someone with a helping hand

27/ What is there to do in Antarctica?

Antarctica is all about landscapes and wildlife. Most days we did two excursions off the ship – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. This usually took the form of a zodiac cruise around the harbour marvelling at seals, whales and icebergs, followed by a landing for a couple of hours to visit wildlife on the shore. We often visited penguin colonies or stopped to look at seals resting on ice floes. Time between excursions was mostly spent napping (the early starts and fresh air really get to you!), socialising with new friends, relaxing with a book or a TV programme, or eating one of the many delicious meals we were served.

28/ What did you do on sea days?

There was loads to do! The ship had a gym, sauna and offered yoga classes on sea days. There was also a comprehensive series of lectures from the guides about all things to do with the wildlife, history and landscapes of Antarctica. I spent a lot of time sorting and editing my photos; other people read books, watched TV shows, played board games or just spent time on deck watching for whales and seabirds. On sea days we were also fed a huge and delicious Afternoon Tea, so there was a fair amount of eating to be done and then napping afterwards!

An on-board lecture is one way to spend a sea day in Antarctica
Lectures about wildlife were a common feature of sea days on board ship

29/ How bad is the Polar Plunge?

If the idea of jumping into the freezing sea of Antarctica for no discernable purpose fills you with horror and dread, you’re not alone. I thought the same, and had absolutely no intention of doing anything so ridiculously stupid… until the peer pressure and the FOMO got to me and I found myself doing it anyway. And you know what? It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be!

There’ll be a full post about this coming soon including a video, so check back later if you want to know more.

Jumping in for the Polar Plunge
The Polar Plunge is a rite of passage for anyone visiting Antarctica

30/ Which companies travel to Antarctica?

All reputable Antarctica tour operators are members of IAATO, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. You can see who they are by searching in their Member Directory.

And that’s it! Did I miss anything? Feel free to post your questions in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer!

Further Reading

If you want to know more about what it’s like on a cruise to Antarctica, have a read of South Georgia and Antarctica: What Is It Really Like?

To find out where we went and what we got up to, head over to The Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica: Our Itinerary

Or my 60+ Awesome Antarctica Photography Tips post contains loads of advice to help you improve your Antarctica photography.

A kelp gull flies past an iceberg
A kelp gull flies past an iceberg, Antarctica

I travelled to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica with Quark Expeditions in December 2019 – January 2020. I paid in full for the trip. All opinions are my own and all prices correct at the time of writing.

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Going to Antarctica: Frequently Asked Questions
Going to Antarctica: Frequently Asked Questions

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14 Comments

  • Katy Kuhlwilm
    4th July 2020 at 10:41 am

    Really interesting to read and beautiful pictures. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • passportandpixels
      4th July 2020 at 9:58 pm

      Thank you so much Katy!

      Reply
  • Suvarna Arora
    4th July 2020 at 10:41 am

    It’s a dream to go to Antarctica and this is very helpful. Bookmarking it for the future.

    Reply
    • passportandpixels
      4th July 2020 at 9:58 pm

      I’m so pleased you liked it. Hopefully you will get to go there someday 🙂

      Reply
  • Natasha L
    4th July 2020 at 10:57 am

    So terrified of the Drake Passage which is why as much as I’d love to visit, I’m scared to do so, haha! I watched the videos just like you suggested I shouldn’t. Stunning photos though, love all your wildlife shots. Great read too, super informative. Hopefully, one day…. need to conquer my fear!

    Reply
    • passportandpixels
      4th July 2020 at 9:59 pm

      I was pretty terrified too! I was fully resigned to spend the first 2 days of the trip vomiting in my cabin, but in the end I was fine. You might get as lucky as we did, and you can always take travel sickness medication!

      Reply
  • Jiayi Wang
    4th July 2020 at 3:52 pm

    I love your photography to bits — that shot of the seal is beyond adorable and makes me want to visit even more! Definitely saving this guide for the future 🙂

    Reply
    • passportandpixels
      4th July 2020 at 10:00 pm

      Thank you so much Jiayi, I’m so pleased you liked it! Thank you for taking the time to comment 🙂

      Reply
  • Nichole
    4th July 2020 at 4:02 pm

    This is an amazing and comprehensive guide! And the photos are beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing.

    Reply
    • passportandpixels
      4th July 2020 at 10:00 pm

      No, thank YOU for reading and commenting! 🙂

      Reply
  • Amanda OBrien
    4th July 2020 at 6:48 pm

    Wow amazing photos!!! I can’t wait to go to Antarctica – not sure if my photos will ever be so good. the bedroom looked more spacious than I would have expected

    Reply
    • passportandpixels
      4th July 2020 at 10:01 pm

      That was quite a wide angle lens to be fair. It wasn’t huge, but it was definitely better than I was expecting. The lack of a window was weird, but not having one was much cheaper, so…

      Reply
  • Emily Underworld
    23rd July 2020 at 10:57 pm

    I’d absolutely love to visit Antarctica someday! Thank-you for such an informative post. Your photographs are beautiful!

    Reply
    • passportandpixels
      31st July 2020 at 11:03 pm

      Thanks Emily, I’m so pleased you like the post!:)

      Reply

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