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CRUISE TO ANTARCTICA, SOUTH GEORGIA
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IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE BOOKING A CRUISE TO ANTARCTICA
WHAT TO DO AND WHAT TO SEE IN ANTARCTICA?
Antarctica is the last frontier of the traveller and is a unique place in the world for the beauty of the landscapes, forged by an extreme and violent nature, and for its wildlife. The ice, in its bizarre forms that include iceberg of the size of Manhattan island (or even bigger), is the master of Antarctica and its great variability makes each trip unique, even by cruising the same route over and over again, year after year. The typical wildlife in Antarctica is composed by many birds and millions of penguins that often gather in huge colonies extending up to the horizon, not to mention the large marine mammals, which also include many species of cetaceans. South Georgia is not only a possible extension of a tour in Antarctica, but it is a journey within a journey, so that more and more cruises are today focused exclusively on this small island unique in the world, lost in the stormy Scotia sea, where the history of the exploration of Antarctica joins a nature teeming with incredible wildlife. The Falkland Islands are an archipelago where passionate naturalist can observe numerous species of penguin, elephant seals and many species of birds, which certainly worth a dedicated overland trip, rather than just an extension to a South Georgia cruise or Antarctica cruise. A cruise to Antarctica and to its islands all around, is therefore recommended to any nature lover, looking for spectacular landscapes and wildlife scenes that can be normally seen only on National Geographic channel.
HOW TO GET TO ANTARCTICA?
Antarctica is one of the most inaccessible places in the world and there aren't airports served by regular scheduled flights. Apart from a few charter plane, whose ticket price is usually a four-digits number, most tourists get to Antarctica by cruise ships leaving usually from Ushuaia (Argentina), or more rarely from Punta Arenas (Chile) or Stanley (Falkland Islands). Recently, most Antarctica cruise operators are adding departures from other cities in South America, such as Buenos Aires or Montevideo. Finally, there are other cruises departing from Australia and New Zealand bound for the opposite side of Antarctica, but this trip review is focusing on cruises visiting the Antarctica peninsula from South America and its sub-Antarctic islands.
Crossing the Drake Passage, the strait that separates the southern tip of the American continent from the Antarctic Peninsula, lasts less than two days and is the most dreaded part of the journey by those who suffer from seasickness. In this regard, there are more and more Antarctica cruises that depart from South Shetland Islands (very close to the Antarctic Peninsula) where tourists get by an (expensive) charter flights, thus saving travel time and avoiding lot of possible sea sickness. South Georgia can be only reached with 2-3 days of sailing from either Ushuaia, Stanley (Falkland Islands) or from Antarctic Peninsula, and there are no airports of any kind.
If you decide instead to visit the eastern sector of Antarctica, you are required to board the cruise ship in either Australia, Tasmania or New Zealand, sailing for 5-6 days just to get to the first pack ice. Whatever the exact point of embarkation for your trip to Antarctica, I recommend to get to such point at least two nights before the actual cruise departure, to create an extra time buffer in case of any delay of your flight or luggage. The ship will not wait for you!
HOW TO BOOK A CRUISE TO ANTARCTICA?
The cruises in Antarctica can be easily booked through many travel agencies that specialize in this destinations, such as Polar Cruises used by me personally for the cruise to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland islands presented in this trip review. Although the cost of these cruises are typically high, very high is the demand too, so most ships may see the cheapest cabins fully booked more than one year before departure. Therefore, once you have decided to go to Antarctica, it is advisable to book the cruise as soon as possible, to avoid disappointment. If you are travelling alone, the travel agency will try to assign you a cabin mate, to avoid the prohibitive cost of the single supplement.
WHAT IS THE BEST SHIP FOR A CRUISE TO ANTARCTICA?
Browsing the Antarctica cruise itineraries offered by the various operators, you will notice that there is a quite huge selection of ships and, as this can be quite confusing, you may wonder what is the best ship for a cruise to Antarctica. Choosing the right ship for your cruise in Antarctica is very important and can make a difference, since the strict international regulations regarding nature conservation, impose, among many other things, that the number of tourists who can disembark at the same time, cannot exceed 100 passengers.
Therefore, the smaller ships capable of carrying up to 50 tourists, are the ones that allow you to take full advantage of the already limited time available during stops, either because it is not required to disembark in shifts of 100 passengers, either because it is easier and faster to board the zodiacs used to fetch the passengers among the various spots on land. Any ship that can carry more than 100 passengers should be avoided, although the larger vessels give fewer problems of seasickness and are usually much more comfortable.
It's important to note that most of the cruises in Antarctica are not operated with true ice-breaker ships, but with ships equipped by reinforced hull to better manage the impacts with small pieces of ice and drifting pack ice. The cruise to Antarctica presented in this trip review was operated by Professor Molchanov ship, an expedition vessel that can accommodate up to 50 passengers in addition to crew members.
DOES IT WORTH TO EXTEND THE ANTARCTICA CRUISE TO SOUTH GEORGIA AND THE FALKLANDS?
Absolutely! If you have enough time and a sufficient budget, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands are fantastic destinations, perhaps the most beautiful places on the planet and even better than Antarctica itself, at least when talking about wildlife.
In South Georgia, the landscape is far less imposing than Antarctica, but it is one of the few islands in the world where you can see the wonderful king penguins, and not a single penguin or a small groups, but colonies of hundreds of thousands of individuals who are not only "inside" the landscape, but that make up the landscape itself. On a cruise to South Georgia you can also visit historic whaling stations, which have been abandoned for decades and turned into large open-air museums, or maybe you can pay homage to the great explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton at his tomb in the village of Grytviken.
In the Falkland Islands you will find instead a totally different environment from Antarctica and South Georgia, without any ice, but with the beautiful beaches of fine white sand, where penguins belonging to different species, as well as many other birds, wander undisturbed. The steep cliffs of the Falkland Islands are the ideal place to observe the beautiful rockhopper penguins, so called because of their habit to climb cliffs by jumping from foothold to foothold. Both in Falklands and South Georgia, you can see the huge elephant seals, an encounter that becomes less frequent in Antarctica.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO SEE THE EMPEROR PENGUINS ON A CRUISE TO ANTARCTICA?
There are many myths about cruises to Antarctica, and the possibility to easily see a colony of Emperor penguins taking care of their chicks over the sea ice, is one of these. The emperor penguin is the largest penguin in the world and perhaps it is also the most beautiful. Unfortunately, the emperor penguin live in very remote and isolated places along the coast of Antarctic continent. Except for a small colony of emperor penguins usually present along the northern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula (near Snow Hill island on the shores of the Weddel sea) all the other colonies live far to the south and can be visited only by hiring small planes having prohibitive costs, or with large icebreakers that still does not provide any guarantee of sighting. The colony present along the Antarctic Peninsula can be reached more easily through cruises generally dedicated to the sole purpose of seeing the Emperor penguins, but the cost as of 2014 starts from a minimum of nine thousand dollars. That said, I would add that sometimes, with a bit of luck, tourists can observe some isolated emperor penguin during a normal cruises along the peninsula, but this has nothing to do comparing to stay near a colony of thousands of individuals.
HOW TO PREVENT SEASICKNESS?
If you're reading this here, perhaps you want to go to to the white continent, but maybe you're wondering if you will suffer from seasickness during the cruise to Antarctica, especially if you are particularly sensitive to this annoying trouble. So, is it true that most passengers will suffer from seasickness on a cruise to Antarctica? How to prevent seasickness while on a cruise to Antarctica? We will try to answer these questions, but the most important thing is: don't be scared about seasickness, because going to Antarctica is so beautiful that even if you will have seasickness problems, it still worth and you will want to go down there again and again!
After having said this, you should be aware that the seas at those latitudes are among the planet's most stormy waters, and the waves that are generated during the most extreme situations may exceed ten meters of height, well proving the resistance of passengers and crew. But fortunately this is not the rule: cruising in a middle of a storm is something that you will never forget, however, this happens rarely and is quite more frequent to find calm (or near calm) sea rather than very rough conditions. Furthermore, rough sea is possible only while cruising the Drake passage or the South Scotia sea to South Georgia, so the problem is limited to a few days of travel. When the ship is cruising or is anchored along the Antarctic Peninsula or off South Georgia, the sea is usually very flat, because protected by natural barriers. In any case, the following tips may be useful to prevent seasickness:
WHAT IS THE BEST TIME TO GO TO ANTARCTICA?
When to go to Antarctica? The best season to visit Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, is the Austral spring and summer, roughly from October to March. There are many differences from month to month, so the exact period should be chosen according to own interests:
The penguins that are an exception to the model described above are the king penguins. The king penguin has a reproductive cycle of 14 months, meaning that is possible to observe them during all times of the year, including both juvenile and adult stage, and colonies are never left deserted.
HOW IS THE WEATHER IN ANTARCICA? IS IT ALWAYS VERY COLD?
Another myth affecting Antarctica is that the continent has bone-freezing temperatures, anytime, anyplace. Actually, although Antarctica is certainly the coldest place on the planet, we must consider that most tours to Antarctica are limited to coastal areas during spring and summer only, therefore ensuring temperatures usually much milder than an average winter in New York City. Anyway, we must consider that Antarctica and South Georgia are places often swept by strong winds, causing to feel a temperature much lower than actual, and these winds may be accompanied by damp, drizzle and some light snow showers.
HOW TO DRESS IN ANTARCTICA?
During any tour in Antarctica, it's of paramount importance to dress in layers, to be added or removed as necessary, depending on the solar radiation, wind and physical activity. Due to the damp and frequent light rain or snow showers, but also for the possible sprays during zodiac cruises, the outer shell must be water & wind proof and of the best quality. Some Antarctica cruise operators will provide suitable parkas for free, otherwise, you will have to bring one from home. Cotton must be strictly avoided due to transpiration issues, preferring instead wool or synthetic for under layers, while for top layers, pile and gore tex are the best choice. Since most landings will be wet, good waterproof rubber boots, extending up to the knee and without any leak, are essential during any cruise to Antarctica (some operator will provide them for free once aboard the ship, but in most cases, tourists are required to bring them from home). Protecting head and hands is also of paramount importance, especially in windy conditions or during zodiac cruises. During land excursions, you may wish to carry a small waterproof backpack to store clothes carried "just in case" or removed after a chilly zodiac cruise.
WHERE TO FIND ADDITIONAL TRAVELOGUES ON ANTARCTICA?
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ANTARCTICA PICTURES AND TRAVELOGUE
|<<-- GO Some picture from the long trip to Ushuaia, via Madrid and Buenos Aires. Most Antarctica cruises leaves from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, and getting there is part of the experience.|
|<<-- GO Tierra del Fuego national park, located in the southernmost tip of the American continent, is interesting for the beautiful landscape and for the unique vegetation that can't be found in other parts of the world.|
|<<-- GO Because of her small size and versatility in icing conditions, this ship, with a capacity of just 50 passengers plus crew, is ideal to navigate the southern ocean and the Antarctica peninsula.|
|<<-- GO The first zodiac cruise and landing in Antarctica is made at Paradise Bay, near the closed Argentinian station of Almirante Brown, where there is also a nice colony of moulting Gentoo penguins.|
|<<-- GO This narrow passage separates Antarctica's mainland with the nearby islands. The severe icing conditions, with a 10/10th pack ice, weren't an obstacle and the ship has navigated through beautifully.|
|<<-- GO In Port Lockroy there is a British station with a working post office and a nice colony of Gentoo penguins, in addition to a superb landscape made of glaciers and icebergs.|
|<<-- GO A place of amazing beauty in Antarctica, dominated by huge glaciers flowing into the sea and icebergs, full of Fur seals and Gentoo penguins everywhere. One of the best excursion in Antarctica!|
|<<-- GO The cruise to Antarctica continues to Orne Island, a place surrounded by nice blue icebergs and where I met the Chinstrap penguins for the first time during the trip.|
|<<-- GO We disembark at Whaler's Bay, where a Norwegian whaling station was active until a disruptive volcanic eruption happened suddenly. Today is still possible to visit the station's ruins and take a nice hike all around.|
|<<-- GO Half Moon Island is so called because of its shape and it is interesting for the presence of a vast colony of Chinstrap penguins covering a vast extension of the ground.|
|<<-- GO We are fortunate enough to set foot at Point Wild, where part of the Shackleton's expedition members camped waiting for a rescue. A spectacular zodiac cruise to a nearby glacier and penguin colony follows.|
|<<-- GO A nice and welcome short stop during the long way between Antarctica and South Georgia across South Scotia sea. In the South Orkney there are many very colorful icebergs, as well as lot of Fur seals and Elephant seals.|
|<<-- GO Our first landing in South Georgia is close to an enormous colony of King penguins, an absolutely stunning view immersed in a fantastic landscape.|
|<<-- GO If the yesterday view was stunning, what to say about today's, where about 100.000 couples of King penguins live all together in this huge colony? This is easily one of the most beautiful place of the world.|
|<<-- GO During the first half of the past century, several Norwegian whaling stations were operative in South Georgia and abandoned later. Today is still possible to visit the ruins, as well as the tomb of the "Boss" Sir Ernest Shackleton, located in Grytviken.|
|<<-- GO Our last landings in South Georgia are at Fortuna Bay and Prion Island. They are interesting for the beautiful views, for the presence of penguins, fur seals and, in Prion Island, for the giant albatross.|
|<<-- GO The capital Stanley and other points of naturalist interest are our last landings of this Antarctica cruise, before heading back to Ushuaia and say goodbye to the southern seas.|
|<<-- GO A brief description of the equipment used to take the pictures throughout this Antarctica voyage. Although it's from a trip in 2005, you may still find useful information here.|
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