The enormous continent of Antarctica is an unknown land and the least frequented of all the cruise regions. Undertaking a cruise expedition to Antarctica will leave you with one of the most memorable experiences ever, including stunning scenery and breathtaking wildlife viewing opportunities. Cruise expeditions visit just a tiny area during a short season, but what awaits the visitor is truly spectacular.
Among the many islands and bays to visit are Deception Island which provides an opportunity to sail inside a volcanic caldera with hot, geothermal springs and Paulet island with its thousands of Adelie penguins. Just north of the Antarctic Peninsula is South Georgia where you may be fortunate enough to see hundreds of king penguins, fur seals and elephant seals.
The Antarctic season is very short and operates from mid-November to early March. Temperatures vary between -5ºC and 18ºC during what is known as the warmer season. Itineraries usually start and finish in South America, at Buenos Aires, Montevideo or Ushuaia which is the world's southernmost city. Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands and Grytviken, in South Georgia are also featured on many expeditions.
While cruise expeditions only visit a tiny corner of the area, known as the Antarctic Peninsula, and the South Shetland Islands, the 540 km long chain of islands that forms the South Shetland Islands is navigated over four or five days and it is usually possible for passengers to leave their ship at Deception Island, Elephant Island, Prion Island and Snow Hill Island.
Those wishing to travel to this stunning, mostly unexplored wilderness have a number of cruise ship options but mostly this is expedition cruising on smaller vessels for those who wish to be educated by leading lecturers and naturalists, as well as watching the entrancing scenery. Whales are sighted more frequently during the later season and at this time penguin chicks begin to leave their nests and the area's fauna is at its most colourful.
As with Alaska, much of the Antarctic scenery is admired from the decks of the ship or its observation lounges and balconies. Most excursions are in especially designed Zodiacs (inflatable landing craft) for which the passengers are provided with weatherproof protective clothing and lifejackets. Specialist lines offer a particularly wide range of excursions onto the Antarctic continent to their adventurous guests.
To really appreciate the beauty of the scenery and wildlife, some excursions may be organised as early as 4 am. The sunrises are amongst the most dramatic on earth and the memory of seals, penguins and even albatrosses roaming against such a backdrop is everlasting.
Crossing the Drake's Passage, to the south of Cape Horn where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet, can be quite choppy and it is impossible to predict in advance which islands and ports may be visited as the ice packs and ice floes dictate the ship's progress. For the majority, this is all part of the fun and excitement of expedition cruising.