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Antarctica – The Ultimate Travel Guide to the Frozen Continent

Antarctica – The Ultimate Travel Guide to the Frozen Continent

Michele D´Agostino image
Penguins Antarctic Peninsula

For the travelers who truly love the uninhabited, wild reaches of the planet, Antarctica should be the one and only travel destination. It is the one continent without any permanent human residents, and yet, it is teeming with vitality. Roughly 235 animal species can be found there, and for those who are able to make the journey, it is the ultimate adventure.

Whether you are seriously planning for your bucket list journey, or just beginning to investigate whether people can actually travel to the Antarctic (we do!), this travel guide will serve to introduce you to the magical and sometimes unbelievable experiences available to you while traveling with Secret Atlas.

If you’re short on time and want to jump to whatever excites you most, feel free to tap on the titles below to go directly to the section; otherwise, keep scrolling to read your modern guide to Antarctic travel.

  • Why should I visit the Antarctic?
  • How is Antarctica different from everywhere else on planet Earth?
  • Where should I go in the Antarctic?
  • What can I do on a Secret Atlas Antarctic Expedition?
  • When should I go to Antarctica?
  • Polar Pioneer: why this vessel is best for an Antarctic adventure
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Why should I visit the Antarctic?

Visiting Antarctica is something that a very small population of people will ever get to do.

Many factors have to converge perfectly to visit the otherworldly, vast beauty of Antarctica. Supposing your stars align and you find yourself with the funds, the time, and the right adventure travel operator (Secret Atlas is one of the best options), you will step outside of time and space into the untouched wilderness encapsulated in snow and ice.

Its multi-toned cerulean glaciers will give you an idea of what the “snowball Earth” may have resembled 716 million years ago. Those imagining pure serenity will be surprised; there are also active volcanoes, the tumultuous Drake Passage, and the never-ending activities of the wildlife who treat Antarctica as their personal playground.

Some people simply want to go for the bragging rights alone. Antarctica is the coldest continent in the world, with the temperatures in the winter dropping below -73°C (-100°F) and highs poised around -20°C (-4°F) in the summer, except around the coast, where highs can actually rise above 0°C (32°F). Luckily, when you travel on a Secret Atlas expedition, you will be warm and cozy during your travels. Our vessel even comes with a sauna, so you will never be overly exposed to the elements, nor suffer the cold the way that historical explorers like Ernest Shackleton did at the turn of the 20th century.

Wondering about the safety of the voyage and how it’s all possible? Today, you can relax and enjoy your visit to the “White Continent” led by world-class experts who deftly guide you through respectful exploration in this regulated nature sanctuary. Read on to learn more about one of the most unique holidays in existence and just what you can do in Antarctica.

How is Antarctica different from everywhere else?

Antarctica is the least visited continent, with a total of 15 total landed visits in 2020/2021, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). Instead of government controls, here you will find mostly the scientific community and the voluntary collaboration of the few tour operators who bring people on this once-in-a-lifetime journey.​​

While Antarctica is one large landmass of 5,400,000 sq. km and is responsible for 70% of the Earth’s freshwater, there are no full-time residents, no capital, and no set currency (although the currency most commonly used is the Euro, Sterling Pound, and the U.S. dollar).

There are visitor guidelines your expedition company will help you to follow so that you are able to explore freely, but it is a good idea to examine them before picking your tour operator. This will ensure you choose a vessel correctly sized for your needs (check out the Visitor Site Guidelines here). For example, ​​vessels with more than 500 passengers can’t land in Antarctica, and a maximum of 100 passengers may be ashore from a vessel at any one time unless site-specific guidance requires fewer passengers, so if your vessel is too large, you might not be able to land!

These guidelines make choosing a small tour provider, like Secret Atlas, not only preferable but necessary for having an optimal experience.

Where should I go in the Antarctic?

Antarctica is a single land mass with several surrounding islands and points of interest for explorers, mainly around the coast.

These are the most highly recommended places to visit in Antarctica, with more detail on each below:

The Lemaire Channel (between Kyiv Peninsula in the mainland’s Graham Land and Booth Island)

Bismarck Strait Antarctica Travel Guide

The Lemaire Channel is a passage on the Antarctic Peninsula that will make you a believer of wondrous creatures and endless possibilities. Prepare your cameras as you will be engulfed on all sides by calving glaciers, angular peaks, and full-on icebergs.

While you are admiring the ethereal surroundings, don’t forget to keep an eye out for all of the marine wildlife in the Lemaire Channel. You may see multiple whale species surface to greet you (including humpbacks and orcas) in addition to noisy, joyfully jostling seals.

Vernadsky Research Station (on Galindez Island)

Vernadsky Research Station Antarctica Travel Guide

Most of our travelers become fascinated while in Antarctica about the type of research being conducted there, in addition to wanting to know more about the scientists and experts residing on the continent. For them, the Vernadsky Research Station is a highlight of their travels. 

The station is the base of the study of all things Antarctica, and most of the year there are six scientists there at a time: a biologist, two geophysicists, two meteorologists, and an ozonometer specialist, and also specialists like a mechanic, diesel operator, doctor, and a system administrator. While researching there, each scientist has predetermined research and measurements they are solely in charge of: for example, measurements of the ozone level have been done the same way since 1957, which makes it possible to see exactly how the ozone layer changes, what affects it, and the results of that change. It is this very data from the Vernadsky station– called the Faraday station at the time– that led to the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer (uac.gov.ua).

The history of how the station came to be is especially interesting – after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was refused the right to govern any of the 5 existing stations by Russia, but Great Britain wanted to transfer its Faraday station to a country that didn’t have a research base. So on February 6, 1996, the blue-yellow Ukrainian flag was hoisted up, and renamed for Volodymyr Vernadsky — Ukrainian mineralogist, geochemist, founder and the first president of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

Today, the scientists conducting research open their doors so that travelers can understand what it is they do, and appreciate what a working scientific Antarctic base is like. The base is also home to the southernmost bar in the world, the Faraday bar, and a post office so that you can send a momento to all your loved ones from Antarctica!

South Shetland Islands

The South Shetland Islands are a small group of islands about 120km (75 miles) north of the Antarctic Peninsula. In the islands, the temperature is generally warmer than in the mainland, and it has a plethora of exploring opportunities.

Highlight on Deception Island (in the South Shetland Islands)
Deception Island Gentoo Penguins

In contrast to what its name suggests, Deception Island is usually a favorite for Antarctic travelers. Although it was abandoned by the British due to its active volcanic activity, the surrounding water is therefore warmer, making it an ideal spot for a polar plunge!

Deception Island is also a breathtaking sight to behold with its black sand beaches, Norwegian whaling station (dating back to 1912), and largest penguin colony on the western side of the Antarctic peninsula.

As you continue to explore the island, you will encounter snowy sheathbills and brown skuas (who happen to love penguin eggs). Cape and storm petrels living in the cliff crevices create an interesting backdrop as you hike the beaches to observe the seals like the famous Weddell seals and big-nosed elephant seals.

Other interesting South Shetland Islands hotspots
  • King George Island has Villa Las Estrellas, is a Chilean settlement with a population of 15 during the summer and 80 inhabitants in the winter. Nobody is there permanently, people move and leave the island within a maximum of two years, and the majority of them are air force officers and their families. 
  • Aitcho Islands, made up of islets and rocks just north of Greenwich, is a birdlife paradise.
  • Elephant Island is the main island 200 km east of King George, where Ernest Shackleton’s crew took refuge after their ship was crushed by ice.

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

The South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands are a chain of subantarctic islands in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. The islands are all UK overseas territories, though they have no permanent residents.

Here, travelers will get the full nature immersion experience: hundreds of thousands of king penguins dominating the beaches, 4-tonne elephant seals engaged in epic battles for mates, chunky little petrols diving into the waters, and the largest bird in the world, the Wandering Albatross.

30 million breeding birds, 7 million penguins, 250,000 albatrosses, 2 million fur seals, plus half of the world’s population of southern elephant seals! There is so much to see in this area alone that we offer an exclusive South Georgia Antarctic expedition for those who want to take their time to explore in depth all it has to offer.

Highlight South Georgia Island
Wildlife at the beach in South Georgia Photography Holidays

Head to the remote and fully wild South Georgia Island for a land wildlife immersion experience. 1390 km southeast of the Falkland Islands and 2150 km from South America, South Georgia Island is full of bays and islets, home to vast arrays of birds, marine life, and you can experience the impressive wildlife statistics of South Georgia in person.

There are no roads on the island, so all travel is by boat or on foot. It is mountainous and covered by massive glaciers, so travel by land requires appropriate gear and backcountry travel skills (don’t worry, Secret Atlas will help you pack- here is our sample Arctic packing guide).

There are 49 official landing sites on the island for small-to-medium-sized ships so choose a small ship expedition with Secret Atlas to be guaranteed the opportunity to immerse yourself and fully explore. The majority of the sites are along the north coast of the island, but depending on the time of the season, some sites are closed to ensure the protected wildlife breeding that takes place there is not interrupted or disturbed.

Other interesting South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands hotspots
  • Okay, so this is a stretch to list as a hotspot since its existence is questionable, but you might like to know about the rumoured Aurora Islands, also known as Phantom Islands. First sighted in 1762 between South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, they have since been spotted and recorded at about 53°S, 48°W. Only later was it discovered that there isn’t any detectable land at that location. There’s really no satisfactory explanation for the multiple sightings–but we implore you to solve the mystery while in the area! 
  • Zavodovski Island is 5 km across and mostly unglaciated, with a million pairs of chinstrap penguins. Travelers love it for its peak, the well-named Mount Asphyxia (551 m), an active strato-volcano that last erupted in 2016, and now exudes sulfurous smoke.
  • Lots of islands with recently active volcanoes: Candlemas, Saunders, Montagu, Bristol, and Cook.

What can I do on an Antarctic Expedition with Secret Atlas?

1. Spend time with wildlife

While expeditioning during Antarctic summer (January to March), you are likely to fall in love with the winter sun “sunsets”– where the sun hovers near the horizon for several hours, refracting a spectrum of pinks, oranges and purples in the sky, but never setting (24 hours of daylight lends itself to even more wildlife encounters!).

Penguin colonies

There are about 20 million breeding pairs in the Antarctic region, so you’re highly likely to come home with a few penguin experience stories. You will probably be able to see gentoo penguins, as well as Adélie and chinstrap penguins. Depending on the site, you may hike up to some of their colonies and experience them in all their raucous glory. Though macaroni penguins are less common on the peninsula, there’s a good chance to see them, and for those looking for king penguins, a sub-Antarctic island expedition to South Georgia will take you to the heart of their breeding grounds.

Southern Elephant Seals and King Penguins in South Georgia
Whales, seals, and seabirds

The whale population is slowly making a comeback after years of overhunting. You will be able to whale watch from December to April with peak times in February and March.  

Minke and humpback whales frequent the area, as do large pods of orcas. Sperm whales can also be spotted in Antarctica, although it is slightly less habitual.

One can’t forget the seabirds. Antarctica is the bird lover’s paradise for a reason – you’ll see rare types of birds wheeling, careening, and calling at sea and over the land. Wandering albatross, cormorants, skuas, blue-eyed and imperial shags, sheathbills, terns, prions, gulls. Emperor, King, Chinstrap, Adelie, Gentoo, and Macaroni penguins, and several types of petrels. Need we say more?

The rule of thumb when it comes to interacting with wildlife on Antarctica is: keep your distance, at least 2 meters away from all wildlife, but if they approach you, that’s no problem! Most of the wildlife are very unfamiliar with humans, so chances are they will come right up to you if you have the patience to wait.

2. Visit the historic sites and immerse yourself in wonder

Antarctica’s history is full of adventure, exploring, risk-it-all behavior, and, at times, spectacular defeat. The protagonists are explorers, businesspeople, scientists, and fortune-seekers. As a result, you may find yourself immersed in the history of Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island, where you can see the remains of the Norwegian Hektor Whaling Station.

You might also visit Goudier Island, where you can see Port Lockroy, a living museum operated by the United Kingdom and managed by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. There you will be greeted by a member of the team and guided through the living museum, home to artefacts from many of the historic bases. Proceeds from the gift shop and post office pay for the operation of Port Lockroy and toward protecting other British historic sites on the continent. The Port Lockroy team looks after ongoing conservation management of the area and monitors wildlife and data collection, on behalf of the United Kingdom’s national polar research institute. You can investigate data from this research via the Port Lockroy data portal.

When you land, you’re likely to experience the full explorer fantasy, as you’re unlikely to see any other cruise ships in the area. An IAATO guideline known as “Wilderness Etiquette” states that only one ship can visit a landing site at a time, with further regulations on the number of visits each site can have per day. It serves to protect the continent and wildlife from overcrowding and noise pollution while allowing each visitor to enjoy their expedition.

3. Do expedition activities and make lifelong memories

Take the Polar Plunge
Polar Plunge

Whether you’re jumping from a boat or sprint into the icy waters at the beach on Deception Island, it’s going to be frigidly cold. But the pain only lasts a minute, and you’ll have expert guides around you to warm you up with blankets and hot chocolate.

Climb and hike the amazing sites, including Mount Vinson

For those that want a serious adventure, and have the skills to go with it, why not consider climbing the tallest mountain in Antarctica, Mount Vinson!

Kayaking amongst the marine life
Humpback Whales Greenland

Sea kayaking in Antarctica, get even closer to the icebergs, huge glaciers, and if you’re really lucky, you might even encounter whales and other curious marine wildlife!

When should I go to Antarctica?

The Best Time to Travel to Antarctica

The only time to travel on a touristic expedition to Antarctica is during the Antarctic summer (December through March). But what month should you visit? For most, the answer is clear– from late December to March.

November to early December

Considered the early season, or “Spring”, this time of year is the way to experience Antarctica in its most undisturbed form. After the winter months, its landscape is covered with a fluffy blanket of snow and ice, leaving everything looking even more striking and mystical. However, you are less likely to see whales as the water temperature is still too chilly, and you may be forced to travel on a larger vessel. 

Summer Months – December to March

It’s “peak” season for a reason. With the highest temperature and 20-24 hours of daylight, think of a plenitude of animals, and even more adorable, baby animals. Vessels have more access to areas blocked by sea ice at other times of the year to reach more sites. However, make sure to travel with the smallest ship possible to ensure you can have an authentic cruise experience. This is currently the only time of year available to travel with us, guaranteeing the most authentic experience on the smallest vessels legally allowed in Antarctica, so look no further. 

Late March to Early April

Late summer in Antarctica is the best time for whale spotting as they migrate. However the temperatures slowly start to lower, making the weather more unpredictable, and snow storms are more frequent. Again, travelling at this time of year may require you to travel on a larger vessel for a less preferable experience.

Visa Requirements for Antarctica

Antarctica doesn’t belong to any one government or jurisdiction, and for that reason, no visas are required.

That being said, citizens of nations that have signed the Antarctic Treaty’s Protocol on Environment Protection (USA, Canada, EU, and Australia) must get prior permission before visiting.

Don’t worry though, the Secret Atlas team will help you get this organized.

Travel Itinerary Suggestions

Join Secret Atlas on a 12-day in-depth Antarctica cruise with an extended focus on wildlife viewing and photography in the Antarctic peninsula. This expedition is aimed at those wanting to spend the maximum amount of unhurried time ashore observing wildlife and is suited for photographers and wildlife watchers.

What makes this trip even more special is that our vessel takes just 48 guests, the smallest group size in Antarctica. When you are ashore you will be in a small group of just 12 guests for an intimate wildlife and photography experience. Traveling on a small expedition vessel gives the group more flexibility and more time ashore, allowing you to visit landing sites that the large cruise ships can’t visit.

This expedition is meant to give you the maximum time ashore. All guests can fit in the Zodiacs and land at the same time, so no waiting around! Additional details include:

  • Numerous opportunities to photograph Antarctica’s icy and stunning landscapes from the ship and shore.
  • Excursions led by highly experienced expedition leaders and photography guides.
  • Ability to explore key wildlife sites on the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula.
  • Ability to go Zodiac cruising and hiking.
  • Option to take in expert lectures from onboard marine biologists, geologists, ornithologists, historians and other guests and guides.
  • Opportunities to spot wildlife and take photos from the deck and the open bridge, where you can also observe how the Captain and Officers sail and navigate the ship.
  • Free classes, special events and activities offered while onboard.
  • Trade travel stories in the lounge, relax and enjoy creature comforts and panoramic views, stretch your legs in the gym or feed your thirst for knowledge.

Polar Pioneer: Why this vessel is best for an Antarctic adventure

Polar Pioneer Antarctica Travel Guide

Learn more about Polar Pioneer, the Secret Atlas Vessel headed to Antarctica and South Georgia

Polar Pioneer is a capable expedition vessel with the highest ice class. It gives the best chance of reaching the sea ice edge. The Polar Pioneer can transit open water crossings with ease and comfort due to its integrated dynamic water ballast system, which guarantees a great reduction of rolling in heavy seas. As a result, Polar Pioneer is among one of the most stable small vessels currently in operation in the Antarctic regions.

The Polar Pioneer is equipped with:

  • Zodiacs
  • A dining room with unreserved seating serving chef-prepared meals
  • A presentation room or lounge for expert lectures and presentations
  • A bar staffed by professional bartenders
  • A polar library
  • A polar boutique
  • A gym or exercise room
  • A small clinic with an onboard doctor
  • Open decks for wildlife viewing and photography
  • An open bridge policy

A little more on the Polar Pioneer

Rough seas and seasickness:

Travelers to Antarctica should be prepared for the possibility of rough seas. Cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula cross the Drake Passage, which is known for its way of roughing up stomachs. From Ushuaia, Argentina, it takes 2 days to cross the Drake Passage each way, however, once ships arrive in Antarctica, seas tend to be calm as ships cruise in protected waters close to shore. Our expert team will help you prepare and mitigate potential seasickness leading up to your expedition.

Antarctica is sure to be one of the best travel experiences of your life, as long as you do your homework researching which expedition is best for you. That said, you don’t have to do it alone, as it can be confusing to know all the details on your own. Reach out to a member of our team to explore which expedition is best for you, and learn more about our Antarctic and South Georgia 2023 and 2024 expeditions.

Have a great voyage!

Guest Stories

People are at the heart of everything we do here at Secret Atlas, and our guests' experience is top of our list.

We've put together a video for our guests to share their experiences with you, or you can read guests' stories below.