Unless you’re an experienced polar explorer, the nuances of different expedition cruises in the Antarctic can leave you feeling snowed under. Thankfully, the majority of operators follow very similar routes – as these are the ones that deliver the most reliable experiences in the region. And, while there may be one or two exceptions along the way, Antarctic expedition routes are easy to understand, once you grasp a few of the fundamental itineraries.
To help you plan your polar trip, we’ve put together a guide to the common routes taken by expedition cruises in the Antarctic, explaining where they start and finish, and which destinations are explored in between.
Quick geography guide to the Antarctic
Before we get started, it helps to have a rough idea of the lay of the land. The Antarctic Peninsula stretches out from the eastern coast of Antarctica and extends towards the tip of South America. This peninsula is flanked by a large number of islands, including the South Shetland Islands just off the northern tip. The South Orkney Islands are located over 500-kilometres north of the peninsula, with South Georgia lying a further 800-kilometres beyond that.
Expedition cruise itineraries in the Antarctic
Antarctic Peninsula expedition route
Normally departing from the Argentinian city of Ushuaia, these trips take around two days to cross the Drake Passage to reach their first destination. Located around 100-kilometres north of the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetland Islands are often the first highlight on the itinerary. With more than a dozen research stations spread across several islands, this small archipelago welcomes visitors with an exciting atmosphere of discovery and adventure. The South Shetland Islands also provide some of the first wildlife encounters, as islands such as Aitcho, Livingstone and Half-Moon are home to many bird species, including chinstrap, gentoo and macaroni penguins.
After a stint exploring the South Shetland Islands, vessels typically move south, often spotting whales as they cross to the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Many of the attractions here are located along a 200-kilometres stretch of frayed coastline and the adjacent islands. Highlights often include Wilhelmina Bay, Cuverville Island, Neko Harbour, Paradise Bay, and Port Lockroy. The Lemaire Channel, also known as the “Kodak Gap'', is normally the southernmost stop on the trip. At this point, vessels generally turn around and head back to the South Shetland Islands, before crossing the Drake Passage once more on their return to Argentina.
Polar Circle expedition route
Usually lasting 10-days or more, these expeditions are an extension of the classic Antarctic Peninsula route, taking a few extra days to venture further south with the goal of crossing the Antarctic Circle. Aside from a sense of achievement, these trips offer a glimpse of an authentic Antarctic wilderness that is rarely visited by humans. The extent of the sea ice is a determining factor in the success of these trips, with operators keeping itineraries flexible in order to select the right route based on the conditions.
Alongside all of the highlights offered by the classic Antarctic Peninsula route, Polar Circle expeditions might explore the large, ice-covered island of Adelaide and visit an abandoned science hut on Detaille Island. Some voyages even go as far south as Alexander Island to visit the Wilkins Ice Shelf, close to the base of the peninsula. A toast is often made on deck as vessels cross the imaginary line of the Antarctic Circle, creating a memorable moment for visitors who will feel humbled to visit part of the world that few have had the chance to explore.
South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula expedition route
Itineraries combining South Georgia with the Antarctic Peninsula will either depart from the Argentinian city of Ushuaia, or from the Falkland Islands. Lasting a minimum of two weeks, these voyages take at least two days to reach South Georgia, where they will likely spend between three and five days exploring the island’s attractions – of which there are many. Highlights may include a stop at Grytviken to visit Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave, and nearby Fortuna Bay to retrace part of his epic trek towards Stromness. Several wildlife hotspots will also be visited, such as Gold Harbour and St Andrews Bay. At the right time of year, vessels can also explore Prion Island for up-close encounters with albatross.
From South Georgia, it is another two-day crossing to the Antarctic Peninsula. Depending on conditions, some vessels may also stop at the South Orkney Islands, which are located roughly halfway between the two. Highlights here include the Orcadas scientific base on Laurie Island and the wildlife at Coronation Island’s Shingle Cove. Once vessels arrive at the continent, they typically continue along the peninsula’s western coast, following the classic Antarctic Peninsula route and taking in the same highlights along the way. Again, the Lemaire Channel is normally the southernmost stop, at which point the vessel will turn around and head towards the South Shetland Islands before the crossing to the Falkland Islands or the Argentinian city of Ushuaia.
Fly and cruise expedition route
For those who are a little short on time, or want to minimise the chances of seasickness, several operators also offer the opportunity to fly across the Drake Passage. Departing from the Chilean city of Punta Arenas, flights take around two hours to reach King George Island in the South Shetlands, in contrast to the two days required to sail. At King George Island, visitors will board their ice-strengthened vessel and begin their expedition cruise along the Antarctic Peninsula. After hitting the usual highlights such as Wilhelmina Bay, Cuverville Island, Neko Harbour, Paradise Bay, Port Lockroy, and the Lemaire Channel, the expedition will navigate back to the South Shetland Islands, ready for the return flight to Punta Arenas.
Expedition cruise ships
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Expedition cruise extensions
While we’ve highlighted the foundational Antarctic itineraries, there are many possible extensions to these routes, and various different operators will offer slightly different options. For example, the Antarctic Peninsula routes mentioned above focus on the peninsula’s western coast, but it is also possible to venture east. Backing on to the Weddell Sea, this area can be challenging to navigate due to ice – but those who make the trip are richly rewarded. One of the main highlights here is Snow Hill Island, home to one of the largest emperor penguin colonies on the planet, with around 10,000 individuals all huddled in a relatively small space. Venturing even deeper into the Weddell Sea, visitors can unearth yet more fascinating attractions, and even cross into the Antarctic Circle. The region is known for stunning tubular icebergs and large ice shelves where crabeater, leopard, and Weddell seals breed.
Of course, the Falkland Islands are another popular extension and feature regularly during trips to South Georgia – often even providing the port of departure. The Falklands are a bird-watcher's dream, with scores of species arriving here to breed and around 16 species endemic to the islands themselves. Highlights include the chance to spot rockhopper and Magellanic penguins, along with the world’s largest black-browed albatross colony. Of course, history enthusiasts will also appreciate learning about the archipelago’s complex and conflict-tainted past.
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