Trip to Antarctica

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Don’t just look at the alluring brochures and websites of luxury cruises to Antarctica. Talk to people who have sailed there. Here are 12 tips I wish someone would have told me before my first trip to the White Continent.

Guide Sasha Zulas points out wildlife in Cierva Cove
Guide Sasha Zulas points out wildlife in Cierva Cove. Image by Mark Orwoll

What to Wear in Antarctica

The temperature may not be as cold as you think. The summer daytime highs average around 32 degrees F. on the Antarctic Peninsula (the site of most Antarctic itineraries). So, you probably won’t need as many clothes as you had thought.

I stopped wearing my upper thermals and my wool ski cap after the first Zodiac excursion. I always brought my waterproof gloves on day trips, but half the time didn’t feel the need to wear them.

READ MORE: Penguins and Polar Plunge on a Luxury Cruise in Antarctica (with Video and Podcast)

Antarctic expedition ships usually provide guests with warm, waterproof parkas which guests can take home. Also, waterproof rubber boots are provided for shore excursions, so no need to bring your own.

Don’t be afraid to wear the same articles of clothing multiple times. You can probably get away with just one pair of comfortable shoes. The interior spaces of the ship are, of course, heated to a comfortable level, so a single layer of clothing is usually fine onboard.

Here are 12 tips for your first trip to Antarctica from someone who has been there. Find out what to wear, what to bring and what to expect. #Antarctica

How to Survive the Drake Passage

The body of water between South America and Antarctica, the Drake Passage, is likely to be rough. Ship crews will tell you that 12-foot waves barely rate as moderate, but passengers generally feel differently. Even passengers who say they never get seasick often feel queasy and lethargic when making this crossing.

While the ship is crossing Drake’s turbulent waters, many of the stateroom doors are decorated with Do Not Disturb signs as guests deal with mal du mer.

The most popular and effective seasickness preventative is Scopolamine in the form of a three-day timed-release patch worn on the neck below the ear. Scopolamine patches require a prescription and they’re expensive. But they are worth the hassle and cost. Over-the-counter Dramamine in pill form is also effective.

Orientation on Robert Point, South Shetland Islands
Orientation on Robert Point, South Shetland Islands. Image by Mark Orwoll

Who Will Your Fellow Passengers Be?

A trip to Antarctica isn’t cheap. An expedition cruise averages around $10,000 per person (depending on the cruise line and the length of the voyage) This means you’ll generally be mixing with a crowd of very successful, educated and well-off people.

However, don’t let this intimidate you.  Almost all of them on a recent sailing of Atlas Ocean Voyages new World Traveller were friendly and unpretentious. Your fellow passengers will likely be dressed in well-worn Columbia or L.L. Bean outdoor wear and will be just as excited to be in the polar zone as you are.

Snowpack in Lemaire Channel
Snowpack in Lemaire Channel. Image by Mark Orwoll

Topography of the Antarctic

Imagine if the Rocky Mountains were surrounded by an ocean. That’s what the Antarctic Peninsula looks like. The polar peaks are impressive, covered by glaciers. The inlets and coves are mind-numbingly beautiful. If you thought a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula would be full of vast snowy plains, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the variety of land features.

Climate in the Antarctic

Antarctica is among the driest places on earth, receiving an average of only two inches of precipitation a year. Of course, the snow rarely thaws, so after millennia of such precipitation, the continent is covered in snow, glaciers and ice sheets, some more than a mile deep.

Gentoo penguins on the shore of Cuverville Island
Gentoo penguins on the shore of Cuverville Island. Image by Mark Orwoll

Animals of Antarctica

The wealth of wildlife is obvious to anyone who has hiked on the peninsula and made Zodiac excursions. Expect to see humpback whales, minke whales, multiple species of penguins (Gentoo, Chinstrap, Adelie) and seals (fur, leopard, crabeater).

Then there are the birds of flight (skuas, Antarctic terns, southern fulmars, albatrosses, cape petrels, whale birds). But the only life form indigenous to Antarctica is the midge, a wingless fly that begins life frozen in ice.

Iceberg in Cierva Cove
Iceberg in Cierva Cove. Image by Mark Orwoll

Iceberg Art

Most of us think of icebergs as being almost pyramidal, with a sharp point floating above the surface. In fact, the wind can carve an iceberg into almost any shape. A bay full of icebergs can look like the open-air studio of a Surrealist sculptor.

Antarctica Map
Antarctica Map. Image from Canva

Three for the Price of One

Although no country owns any part of Antarctica, thanks to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, a number of countries did lay claim to specific portions of the continent before the international treaty was ratified.

At one point in the 20th century, the Antarctic Peninsula (the part that most cruise ships visit) was claimed simultaneously by Britain, Chile, and Argentina.

Evening skies near Cierva Cove in Antarctica. Photo by Richard Love
Evening skies near Cierva Cove in Antarctica. Photo by Richard Love,

If you keep a running total of all the countries you’ve visited, you’ll appreciate this: The Travelers Century Club, for people who have 100-plus destinations under their belt, says that if you set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula, you get credit for having visited British Antarctica, Chilean Antarctica and Argentine Antarctica—three countries for the price of one!

The Fearsome Sun

As counterintuitive as it might seem, the intense sunlight (on rare sunny days) in Antarctica can be brutal and damaging to skin and eyes. It’s essential to pack one or two travel-size tubes of high-SPF sunscreen and polarized sunglasses (There’s a reason they’re called “polarized.”)

Narrow stretch of Lemarire Channel
A narrow stretch of Lemaire Channel. Image by Mark Orwoll

The Polar Plunge

When your ship reaches the Antarctic Circle, you may be offered the chance to take a dip in the frigid ocean. Do it. The anticipation is far, far worse than the actual jump. Besides, you’ll be belted into a safety harness and surrounded by professionals in Zodiacs and on the ramp.

Once you jump, you’ll be in and out of the water almost before your body realizes what a daredevil you really are.

No Sitting or Kneeling

During land excursions, you may be instructed to remain standing at all times. Kneeling or sitting could contaminate the ground with the avian flu virus that you may have inadvertently picked up on your clothing.

The avian flu could decimate the animal population there, and not just birdlife. There will be times during a hike when you might want to sit and rest. Don’t.

Zodiac trip past Yalour Islands
Zodiac trip past Yalour Islands. Image by Mark Orwoll

Book the Right Sized Ship

If you want to experience Antarctica up close with Zodiac water tours and hiking on land, book the right ship. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO, a member organization founded in 1991) limits such tours to ships that carry 500 or fewer passengers. On larger cruise ships, passengers aren’t allowed to make landfall or even tour the waters in Zodiacs.

Author Bio: Mark Orwoll sailed to Antarctica on Atlas Ocean Voyages’ World Traveller.

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