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Antarctica Travel - How We Explore

Ship is the primary mode of Antarctic travel. In a region where infrastructure is lacking, we can help you choose the Antarctica cruise and itinerary of your dreams. With decades of Antarctic experience as expedition staff and as Antarctic specialists, and utilizing a carefully curated selection of vessels and itineraries, Exploring Circle can help you choose when to go, where to go, and how to go.  

Where

Antarctica travel is often by ship and the majority of 10 to 14-day expedition cruises depart the southernmost tip of Argentina. Crossing the famed Drake Passage, cruises then explore the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula which is comprised of small islands, channels and inlets.

A few itineraries venture to the Weddell Sea on western side of the Peninsula as a stand-alone itinerary or in combination with an Antarctic Peninsula cruise.

Longer 14 - 24 day Antarctic Peninsula cruises venture northeast to the wildlife-rich sub-Antarctic islands of South Georgia and the Falklands, as well as a mere handful of specialty expeditions that typically depart out of Australia or New Zealand and explore the southern Ross Sea region.  

Fly-in camping and hiking expeditions operate around Atka Bay in the Weddell Sea and other bays north of Ellsworth Land in the Mt Vinson and Mt Sidley environs.

When

The Antarctic travel season revolves around the austral summer, from early November through early March, when sea ice breaks up and snowfall and storms decrease. The most desirable and in-demand timeframe is mid-December through January, when the weather is most reliably at its best and many Antarctic penguin species hatch their eggs and the chicks are in the rookeries. In South Georgia and The Falklands, the King penguins hatch their chicks year round, but in November here it is sometimes possible to see the mating battles of the enormous male elephant seal 'masters'.

Early season:  November to mid-December

Peak season:  Mid-December to mid-February

Late season:   Mid-February to March

How

There are four main types of Antarctic travel: expedition cruising, fly-cruising, scenic cruising and luxury camping and hiking. 

Expedition Cruising

Most travelers cruise to Antarctica. Expedition cruises are typically undertaken on smaller ships, ranging in size from private-charter yachts carrying 10 to 30 people and vessels that carry 40 to 250 people, with the majority averaging about a 100 passengers.  Expedition cruises offer a taste of a wide range of Antarctica, and include landings on most itinerary days.  Expedition cruises are escorted by highly experienced trip leaders and crew, as well as specialists in fields ranging from biology to photography. These far-reaching trips can be characterized as in-depth, up-close and informative. Most expedition cruises sail roundtrip via a gateway country such as Argentina, Chile or Australia or New Zealand and this provides a great variety of environments as the ships progress through the sub-Antarctic region into Antarctica itself. The expedition vessels vary greatly in terms of the level of accommodation and service on board, and we’ll elaborate more in our section on ship styles below. Some expedition cruises offer exciting trip activities, such as kayaking, paddle boarding, camping overnight ‘on-ice’,  specialized trekking, ice-climbing and mountaineering, snorkeling and even scuba-diving.

Fly Cruising

Fly-cruises are a relatively new addition to Antarctic travel and allow people to fly either one way or roundtrip in or out of Antarctica, skipping all or part of the "at-sea" portion of the expedition cruise. Upon arrival, travelers are transferred to the ship to join the expedition cruise. If your timeframe is tight or you prefer to limit your time at sea, this may be the choice for you. Please note that some "Fly-Cruises" entail fewer itinerary days exploring Antarctica and doing landings. Flight logistics can occasionally be interrupted by inclement weather, causing trip delays and interruptions ranging from minor to significant.

Scenic Cruising

Scenic cruises are the more traditional cruises in the greater Antarctic region on larger ships, typically with passenger capacities of about 300 to 500 passengers. The itineraries include more time at sea and somewhat less time in Antarctica, and shore visits and landings in the Antarctic itself are less frequent than on the expedition cruises.  The vessels are large and offer a comfortable way to enjoy dramatically scenic landscapes.

Camping & Land Trekking

Fly-in camping and hiking expeditions, a more recent addition to Antarctic travel, operate around Atka Bay in the Weddell Sea and other bays north of Ellsworth Land in the Mt Vinson and Mt Sidley environs.  Typically these are high-end luxury base camps located near notable mountains, ice shelves or Emperor Penguin colonies.

 

Ship Types

There are different types of ships that operate in the Antarctic region, and it is important to understand the differences. Below we describe the types of ships that provide the opportunity to do excursions and landings in Antarctica.  Scroll through the slideshow below for example images of ship types.

  • Luxury Expedition Vessel

  • Research Vessel

Expedition & Luxury Expedition Vessels

Expedition Vessels are the most common type of ship used in the Antarctic and are more comfortable than the Research Vessels. Like their larger cruise ship cousins, these ships have a range of cabin types, friendly passenger layouts, public spaces, outside decks and viewing platforms. Interior observation lounges feature excellent panoramic views and a central gathering hub for guests and staff alike.  Luxury Expedition Vessels are similar to Expedition Vessels but tend to have nicer décor in the cabins and public areas, the best observation lounges, and higher service amenities, such as fine dining, turndown service and so forth.

Research Vessels

Research vessels are among some of the original ships, Shackleton aside, to visit the Antarctic region, ideally suited to the icy environment due to their reinforced hulls and safety equipment.   Built for researchers and crew, they provide a 'bare-bones' style of accommodation with smaller cabins and windows and less passenger friendly layouts. Only a handful of research ships are still in operation and they may offer slightly lower fares and exciting adventure options onboard.

Icebreakers

Icebreakers are highly specialized vessels that are primarily used only in the most Southern part of the Antarctic region such as the Ross Sea area.  With reinforced hulls and special bows they are uniquely prepared to carve through the sea ice in these colder and more inaccessible regions.  Accommodations are basic, and the trips they offer are longer and more comprehensive.

Mid-Size Cruise Ships

Mid-Size Cruise Ships are most similar to standard or luxury cruise ships and range in size from about 300 to 1,000 passengers. They have more scenic programs, with a limited amount of shore landings and activities available to travelers.  They may spend only a few days cruising in or near Antarctic waters and guests may not have the opportunity to set foot on the Antarctic continent itself.

Yachts & Sailboats

Representing the smallest of the vessels in Antarctica, these are usually operated by highly experienced expedition charter companies, and they offer an intimate and luxurious exploration of Antarctica for small group charters.