Planning for Antarctica (or how to make most of the trip)

I am deeply and hopelessly in love with The White Continent. But I’m perfectly aware that planning for Antarctica played a big part in the success of the trip. This is far from the typical backpacker trip: travel to the continent is a considerable expense for the average traveler. But with the right preparation, the money will be well spent and the investment will return memories you will cherish for a lifetime.

When and where to go

The diversity of the landscape, wildlife and the seasonal changes on the White Continent can make for completely different experience at different times of the year. But no matter what trip you decide on, you can always expect lots of birds, whales, seals and gentoo penguins.

gentoo mom and babies in Antarctica
gentoo mom and babies in Antarctica

Go earlier in the season for:

  • a wilder, frozen Antarctica
  • cleaner penguin colonies as they become saturated with the penguin guano (poop), later in the season
  • colorful sunrises and sunsets

Go later in the season for

  • open access to areas that are blocked by ice earlier in the season
  • baby penguins
  • colorful sunrises and sunsets

Tip: Many people want to experience the midnight sun, and for that, you should choose a trip around the December solstice, but remember that your days will be full with activities and you will most probably be in bed early. I sure was 🙂

Choosing operator and ship

For any trip to Antarctica, the ship will be your home, but deciding on one is more than just choosing accommodation. It entails safety (going through some of the roughest waters on Earth), the services you have available during your trip and how much time you spend on the continent.

Ship size

When planning for Antarctica, keep in mind that the smaller the boat is, the tougher the Drake Passage crossing (bigger boats are more stable in the crazy waves), but also the better the experience once in Antarctic waters, because you will probably spend more time on the islands. Whatever size it is, make sure it’s less than 200 passengers otherwise you will not be allowed to set foot on the continent.

OceanWide's Expeditions Plancius on a sunny day in Antarctica
OceanWide’s Expeditions Plancius on a sunny day in Antarctica

I joined OceanWide Expeditions on the vessel named Plancius and I can’t recommend them enough.

Activities

When selecting your trip, keep in mind what other activities they offer or what’s the focus of the trip.
Most guides on my trip were passionate photographers and could help with this aspect, kayaking was an option for people with adequate experience, camping on the continent was another extra activity and some very few trips offer scuba diving (experience diving with a wetsuit is required). But the options are very diverse so if there’s anything in particular that you want to do, make sure you enquire, since it may or may not be available.

Itinerary

Different operators also have different itineraries. If you want to see something specific, you will choose your trip accordingly.

For example, for king or emperor penguins you will have to go to South Georgia or, respectively, Wedell Sea, so you will select a trip that covers that area. Some people want to cross the Polar Circle so they will pick one of the trips that takes them further down south.

Tip: book directly with the operator as you are more likely to get the best prices and an upgrade if they have availability. If you found the perfect trip on a distributor search engine and want to find the operator, google the ship name and it will take you to the source. Or go directly to the source to get the list of officially approved operators.

What to bring with you

I found the weather to be like a regular European winter and except for one day I didn’t need to wear gloves or hat (most people wore them daily, so it’s a bit up to how each of us resists to cold).

  • winter outer layers should be water resistant and wind-proof. Ski wear is a good option as they are water-resistant (you want to keep away snow, splashes in the zodiac or general humidity)
  • inner layers for warmth while outdoors and comfort while onboard the ship
  • rubber boots – really important as you will be stepping in cold water when getting off of the zodiac on land; most operators lend these to the passengers
  • comfortable warm shoes to wear onboard; ideally, these will have a non-slippery sole as the deck gets humid and a good grip will keep you standing
  • thick woolen socks as well as thinner ones to wear underneath;
  • gloves and hat
  • bathing suit (see plunge)
    medication: bring whatever you usually take with you plus sea sickness pills
  • camera gear: you’ll want to bring home as many memories as possible. Most important is that you are comfortable with the camera settings so you’re not struggling with the technical side. And if you have a telephoto lens or a super-zoom camera (for the wildlife), even better.
minke whale surfacing next to my zodiac in Antarctica
minke whale surfacing next to my zodiac in Antarctica

Tip: Your boat will stop also at a ‘tourist shop’ that has the only post office from Antarctica. You can buy overpriced souvenirs there and also send postcards home. If you’re planning on sending postcards to all your friends, buy the actual postcards in Ushuaia where there is more variety and better prices and only buy the postage stamp there.

What to expect

The Drake Passage

Two days navigating the rough waters to get to Antarctica sounds worse than it really is. But then, I wasn’t sick for the full duration of those two days. Depending on your body, you might or you might not get seasick. If you know you are prone, make sure you pop the pills before it sets in. If you’re sure you’ll make it, kudos to you. I didn’t know how I would react, I risked it and was fine. Other people spent the 2 days making friends with the toilet. Although nausea tried its hand at me, I found a way around it and managed without medication (let me know if you want some tips on that). But after as soon as you’ve crossed the Drake, it’s all rainbows and icebergs.

iceberg in the green waters of Antarctica
iceberg in the green waters of Antarctica

Meeting lots of cool people

I shared my trip with people ranging from 7 to 90 years old and the great majority of them were in their 40s and 50s. Over 100 people coming from different places in the world, each with incredible stories and all of them sharing my excitement and amazement at the white continent. And even though I didn’t get to hear all of their stories, I’m happy to have made some great friends.

The “Polar Plunge”

Something that I only found out on board is that there is the tradition to do the ‘polar plunge’. It’s what you expect: getting your sexy a$$ in the freezing ocean. As much as I hate getting in water that is less than tropical temperature, YOLO, right? Plus I didn’t want to be the chicken that skips the plunge. You won’t believe me unless you do it too, but this is an adrenaline-filled activity with positive consequences both short- and long-term. As soon as you get out of the water, your body will warm up and your skin will glow. Long term, you will finally realize you are a superhero that can do anything if you put your mind to it. Cause if you can do the polar plunge, nothing else will ever feel impossible.

Tip: To make the polar plunge safer and a bit more comfortable, wear some sneakers to make your frozen feet more stable on the slippery stones. The bathing suit is optional 😉

 

 

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