Mention an expedition cruise to Antarctica and the first departure point that comes to mind is most likely South America. When you think about the ship, you might imagine a clunky looking ex-research vessel or perhaps a Russian ice breaker that's been converted into a tourist ship.
This was certainly at the front of my mind when I started to research my own trip. To my surprise however, I discovered that Antarctic cruises not only departed from Australia and New Zealand, but in 5-star, purpose-built ships.
A trip to Antarctica is typically a once in a life time experience so choosing the right cruise is extremely important. But how do you choose the right trip? How do you sift through the various tour operators, itineraries and ship options? It's not that daunting once you have the right approach.
Here are some tips and insights to help you demystify the almost endless stream of information you will confront when planning your trip to the great, white wilderness of Antarctica.
What Does Your Ideal Antarctic Experience Look Like?
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful... These are some of the words from an advert by Ernest Shackleton for his 1907-09 expedition to Antarctica.
Today's adverts read quite differently and the cruise activities vary so you first need to make a list of what you want to see and do. Most tourists want to see penguins, seals and icebergs. These are pretty much guaranteed, but if you want to see the wildlife up close, make sure your tour does shore excursions.
Something else to consider is crossing the Antarctic Circle (approximately 66° south of the equator). Only once you're below this imaginary line are you considered to be in the Antarctic. Tradition dictates that the first time you cross the Antarctic Circle, you must pay homage to King Neptune by being hosed down with icy sea water, though thankfully most cruises won't enforce the rule!
The Sub-Antarctic Islands off South America and Australia/New Zealand offer a fantastic opportunity to see wildlife up close and in warmer, more comfortable temperatures. As you read through the various itineraries you will find more activities that may be of interest - for example, visiting historic sites of the early explorers, kayaking, climbing, scuba diving and helicopter rides.
Once your list is complied, rank each item as either must do, nice to do or not important.
You also need to have an idea of your minimum standard of accommodation. Some of the ships are ex-research vessels whist others are purpose-built tourist ships. Therefore accommodation options range from rooms with bunk beds and shared bathrooms to 5-star luxury with private facilities.
Budget and available time are the final two criteria to consider, so make a note of your maximum budget and trip duration.
Once you have your list of activities, minimum standard of accommodation, budget and time frame, you are ready to start reviewing itineraries. Simply assess each itinerary and eliminate the ones that don't meet your criteria. Start with cost and duration to create your first short list and then proceed to activities and accommodations to create your final list of options.
To choose the best cruise from there, it's often best to go with your gut instinct -which tour feels better. You can only take the ticking and crossing so far and because travel is an emotional experience, use your emotions to help you make your final decision.
Something that may help you decide is the tour company's commitment to preserving the Antarctic environment. The International Association of Tour Operators provides operator guidelines aimed at minimizing the impact of tourism. The site publishes a list of members, however, membership however is not mandatory.
The South American Experience
South America is the most common departure point due to its close proximity to the Antarctic Peninsula, a thin finger of land that reaches out above the Antarctic Circle.
Most operators leave from Ushuaia and offer a range of itineraries, some of which may include sub-Antarctic islands. Additional activities such as kayaking, climbing, and scuba diving are available on itineraries to this part of Antarctica due to the more temperate climate of this region. Quark Expeditions and Peregrine Adventures are two companies that offer itineraries ranging from 8 - 31 days costing between $5,500 and $38,000 per person.
Other ports of departure exist such as Buenos Aires; however these are typically served by larger cruise ships that might not allow shore landings. Princess Cruises offers a 20-day scenic cruise costing between $3,500 and $5,000 twin share.
There are many sights to be seen on the Antarctic Peninsula including the Lemaire Channel whose waters are often as still as a lake. Deception Island is another unique experience offering up hot thermal waters from its volcanic caldera.
The Sub-Antarctic Islands such as South Georgia, South Orkney, King George and the South Shetland Islands provide wildlife experiences including whales, Chinstrap, King, Gentoo, Emperor and Macaroni Penguins, seals and sea birds.
The cruise season runs from October to March. Itineraries deeper into the Antarctic commence later in the season once the winter sea ice has retreated. Two great resources for Antarctic information and a (non-exhaustive) list of cruises by multiple operators are www.antarcticconnection.com and www.coolantarctica.com.
The Australia & New Zealand Experience
An alternative to expeditions that leave from South America, the trip from Australia or New Zealand to the continent is further and deeper. The continent is not reached until you cross the Antarctic Circle where you will be met by towering ice cliffs and the curving dome of the Antarctic plateau. You will also sail close to the magnetic South Pole, which causes compasses to go a bit crazy.
Itineraries include the Commonwealth Bay region and may extend as far and deep as the Ross Sea. Shore landings are offered at the French station at Dumont d'Urville and also at Cape Denison, the home of Mawson's Huts. A unique experience, the interior of these historic huts has been left untouched since Mawson departed in 1914. They have also seen fewer visitors than the top of Mount Everest.
As the journey to the continent takes several days, tours typically include the sub-Antarctic islands of Snares, Enderby, Campbell, and Macquarie Islands. This not only breaks the journey up, but provides the opportunity to see wildlife that rivals South Georgia. There is also the opportunity to visit Australia's permanent research station on Macquarie Island and possibly see the rarest of all penguins, the Yellow Eyed Penguin, on Enderby Island.
Other wildlife to be seen on trips from Australia and New Zealand includes Fur, Weddell, Crabeater and Elephant Seals; Hooker Seal Lions' King, Gentoo, Royal, Rockhopper, Emperor and Adelie penguins; and whales and sea birds.
Quark Expeditions, Orion Expeditions, and Heritage Expeditions all offer itineraries departing from Australia and/or New Zealand. The season runs from December to March with trip durations of between 16 and 31 days and prices from $15,000 to $38,000 per person.