Editor’s note: of all the places in the world, Antarctica is the one I’d most love to see, although the crossing as described by Hedy seems rough. I hope you enjoy this amazing look into a place so few have been. For more of Hedy’s writing, click here to visit her index page.

This might seem like a strange article coming from me. Normally I write about eating your way through places or all the magnificent cities in the Netherlands that are not Amsterdam. This article is not about either of those subjects, as Antarctica is neither filled with (human) food nor does it lie in the Netherlands. But this destination is the reason I started writing for The Royal Tour, as I wanted to experience my journey to the white continent more consciously, and to share it with as many others as possible. So let me take you on my journey to Antarctica and maybe inspire you to plan your own adventure to the end of the world.

How to prepare for a trip to Antarctica

I would call myself sort of an expert on this subject, as it took me about five years from conceiving the plan to actually going to Antarctica (thanks to a certain global pandemic). So I have taken my time to prepare. The first thing you want to do is check if Antarctica is a destination that fits you and your travel style. If you, for example, really dislike the cold, are afraid of ships, or very easily seasick, or don’t like the same view for two weeks, Antarctica is not the destination for you. If the previously mentioned obstacles don’t frighten you, you can continue preparing for your once in a lifetime, adventuruous trip to the coldest place on Earth.

It is also wise to find out why you want to go, so you can cater your trip to your needs. There are many reasons to go to Antarctica. For most people I met on the trip, their reason to go is to visit their seventh continent. If that is your goal too, you might want to find an Antarctic trip that actually crosses the Antarctic latitude (66 degrees south) or even one that lets you step foot on the Antarctic mainland (weather permitting, of course). But if you are a history buff that wants to follow in the footsteps of Antarctic adventurers like Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, and Roald Amundsen, you might want to look for a different route that visits the places they visited or saw during their voyages (South Shetland islands, South Georgia, Ross Ice Shelf, for instance).

Other people go for the amazing nature and views or certain wildlife; in that case you can try and find an expedition that has a (marine) biologist or an ornithologist on board. And some people just combine all of the aforementioned reasons, to make the most out of the trip (myself included). Whatever the reason, there is a trip available for you, and as long as you know what you would like to get out of your trip I am sure you will find your perfect match.

The Antarctic flag with a view

Now you have found your perfect trip match, so lets talk budget. Now I can assure you there is no cheap way to get to Antarctica. The price range will be somewhere between one kidney to a kidney, a piece of liver, and all the family jewels. But all jokes aside, it is expensive, and if that makes you say “never mind, I’ll just watch Happy Feet for a few years, while I save money,” that’s okay. There are some little tricks to get a discount, but they do require some flexibility (in scheduling, mostly). If you know exactly what trip you want to do, it is wise to book as early as possible. For me, I booked in 2019 for a trip (originally) planned for 2021, to get an early bird discount.

If you are more flexible in your trip and you aren’t time-restricted, the best way for a (big) discount is to travel to a port of departure. Here you can often find last-minute deals for expeditions leaving within a few days. There are ports in Argentina, Chile, South Africa, and New Zealand (and maybe a few places more, but these are the main ones). Traveling to Antarctica this way gives you a good discount (I’ve heard up to 30%) but you might not be on the trip that best suits you, or you may have to wait a while at the port/town to find the right one.

What to take with you before you step on board for your Antarctic trip

Apart from general travel items, it is absolutely a must to take some waterproof clothing with you, mainly pants and a jacket. We brought our ski pants, as they are waterproof and lined with fleece to stay warm. And we got warm, waterproof parkas to wear from the expedition company, but that might not be the case on all trips so to be sure also bring a warm, waterproof jacket to survive the choppy zodiac trips. Next, it is recommended to bring a few sets of thermal clothing, big fluffy socks, a warm hat or beanie, and some waterproof gloves or mittens. On our trip it was around 0-5 degrees Celsius, and we ended up not needing the hats and gloves and scarfs we brought because we are used to that kind of cold in the winter. But better safe than sorry, so bring all your warm and fluffy items, because you never know what the weather is going to be like down there.

The other absolutely necessary item is a camera of some sort, because you want to be able to (try to) capture the beauty of Antarctica because your brain will not fully comprehend it while you’re there and it is always nice to have some pictures of your adventures. I had a Nikon D3500 with me, with a zoom lens to also photograph wildlife further away. And if photography is a big hobby of yours, absolutely bring your fancy camera, but be aware that the weather conditions are not optimal for it (there is a lot of water in the air and around that can cause serious damage). But the cameras on smartphones nowadays are so good that you can take wonderful pictures with them without the risk of them breaking (just don’t drop them in the water or on the ice). And they are a lot easier to quickly get out (in case of a passing whale) or stow away (in case of a big wave in the zodiac).

If you have a cruise expedition, there probably is a small boutique on board with nice, warm, and dry clothing, drybags for your stuff, and some fun souvenirs. So if you do forget something important you can always have a little retail therapy or ask some fellow travelers or the staff for spares.

Layers of clothing, but too warm to wear gloves or a hat

Taking the trip

So you’ve picked your trip, saved (and paid) the money for it, gotten all your warm clothes, and now you step on the ship. Finally the fun stuff really starts. Or maybe you have to wait a few days, because first you (and everyone else on the ship) will have to cross “the Drake.” Famous for its rough waters, the Drake Passage can be very intense to cross. It is where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Oceans come together, which can cause waves up to 12-13 meters (more than 35 feet!) on a bad day. On a good day, the waves are only a decent 2-3 meters, but that is not enough to make most ships shake. Unfortunately, there is no way of predicting if you are going to have the good, the bad, or the ugly Drake so prepare for the worst and hope for the best. We were lucky both crossings and had no naussea at all, but we had a lot of passengers in lots of different stages of seasickness, ranging from not being able to drink the complementary wine at dinner to full fetal position near a toilet for two days. Luckily there was a doctor on board with a full pharmacy (even better stocked than my travel pharmacy) who gave a short talk about seasickness and the options, and when to visit her for advice or help.

So are all these preparations worth it? I can wholeheartedly say yes, it is absolutely worth it. Antarctica is unlike anything else in this world, and even having been there, I can’t still fully comprehend how majestic/magical it is. Of course you can watch some documentaries beforehand to learn what animals live there or what the area is supposed to look like. I myself read the Lonely Planet guide for Antarctica and a wonderfull Dutch book where the writer described his own Antarctic expedition in combination with stories about those who went before him (Magellan, Nobu Shirase, Shackleton), and also stories about Antarctic icons like the albatross and the secret sex life of penguins. But nothing can prepare you for the breathtaking immenseness of the white continent. And personally I was also very surprised by the amount and diversity of wildlife that can survive in the cold; even though I already expected some encounters it was way more. And even though every expedition is different due to changing weather conditions, varying itineraries, and the fact that you can’t plan accurately for wildlife, I would like to show a bit of how our journey to the white continent went and what you might expect and might see when visiting Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula.

So our trip (really) started when we got to Ushuaia, Argentina which, if you have the time, is also a very good place to start your travels to Patagonia. Ushuaia itself is a small town wedged between the Patagonian mountains and the Beagle Channel. It was built around a prison where criminals were sent in exile. There is still a museum in the old prison which is a good way to spend a few hours if you have to wait to board your ship. Ushuaia is a big starting point for several expedition companies; we counted seven ships leaving on the day we arrived. After you board your ship, you sail off through the Beagle Channel, which is the last few hours of visible land and quiet waters. This is also the moment where you want to start with your seasickness medication; because as soon as the ship leaves the channel the two day journey across the Drake starts, and you will feel the change. For me, the constant rocking of the ship gave me the best sleep and naps I’ve had in years, but for others on the ship it was 48 hours of torture. Luckily everyone survived the ordeal (apparently the Drake was relatively calm during our crossing) and we made it to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Photo op in Ushuaia with some ships in the background

So the general schedule was that the ship would sail during the night, going to a different area which we would explore in the morning after breakfast. The exploring was either on land with a marked walking area or route, or by zodiac with a guide, or a combination of both. After the first excursion we would get back on board for lunch, and meanwhile the ship would navigate to a different place for the afternoon exploration. All of the exploring is very weather dependent of course, so it might be that the location is changed to something different than announced earlier, or it might even be cancelled. We, for example, had some rough weather the first few days in Antarctica, which caused three consecutive explorations to be cancelled. After that, we had gorgeous weather and some wonderful expeditions both on land and on the water. But if you are unlucky you might barely be able to leave the ship, and see Antarctica only from a little distance (which still is awesome, but the exploration does really bring that extra experience to fully immerse yourself in the surroundings).

What can you see during one of those explorations? It depends on where you are, but icebergs are a 100% guarantee, together with breathtaking vistas of Antarctica. It sounds like a cliché but it is true: pictures and even words cannot show the beauty of this continent. I still find it difficult to describe and show what I saw there, as it can’t be compared to anything else in this world. It might be similar to the fjords in Norway or Alaska, but on steroids. We cruised around in a zodiac in a bay that I can only describe as an open-air museum of icebergs. All different sizes, shapes and colors – it is amazing how nature can make such sculptures out of (frozen) water. Our zodiac guides were very knowledgeable and explained to us how the differences in exterior come to be in icebergs (depending on age mostly) and it is very fun to bring your newfound knowledge to use on the surroundings. But its not just the views, but also the sounds that impress. From the total silence when being a little away from the group on land to the sound of the sea ice crushing together in the swells, it still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.

One of the masterpiece icebergs

Land explorations are about surroundings, but more so about how the rocks, mountains, and layers in the landscape formed, as well as the political history of the area. We had a very enthusiastic geologist on board who taught us all about the formation of Antarctica. And our historian told us all about the political history and how the continent was discovered.

But on land and on water, what made me (and most other people) the happiest was spotting wildlife. Most abundant were the penguins, and they are a multisensory experience with their sounds, smells (they do stink quite intensely), and behaviors. We encountered gentoo, Adelie, and chinstrap penguins, and they all have their own characters. On land we often had the option to visit a colony, and I could just stand there and watch them (and in the case of gentoos, listen to them) all day. They are very social, and some are also curious and come and check you out. Unfortunately, due to bird flu, you are not allowed to let them come near you so you slowly have to back away. But nonetheless you can really watch them behave in their normal ways; they are not freightened by a group of humans coming into their area.

A gentoo penguin family

Besides the penguins, there were plenty of other birds (petrels, skuas, albatrosses) for the birders on board. If you are not into birds (but who doesn’t like penguins), you might prefer to spot whales and seals. Depending on the time of year when you visit, you can encounter loads of different whales. We mostly saw humpbacks, with the highlight being two humpbacks relaxing around our zodiac, swimming underneath it, and popping up for a little breather. In the seal department we also had no complaints, as we saw most of the species of the Antarctic area (Weddel, elephant, fur, crabeater, leopard, and only missed the Ross). We even saw a leopard seal hunting, killing, and eating a penguin; it almost felt like we were in a nature documentary at times.

Unfortunately there is always an end to the adventure and you have to go back and again cross the Drake. But those few days of rocking are a good way to get some rest after the overwhelming days filled with new experiences. It also helps to wrap your mind around what you saw, and you can talk about it with the other people aboard: tourists, guides, and staff alike. You swap photos, experiences, and ideas, but most of all a deep appreciation of the power and beauty of Mother Nature and the urgency to preserve it. For me, it gave me a new kick in the butt to become more aware of my footprint. I can’t stop traveling (or rather I really don’t want to), but the way I travel or how I can compensate in other ways has become a new part of my lifestyle. I’ve started with little steps (re-usable cotton swabs and cotton pads, less throwaway plastic, less meat eating) and hope to slowly implement more and more steps to play my part in the prevention of the destruction of the little unspoiled nature we have left. This realization is what my adventure to Antarctica gave me, next to amazing memories and thousands of photos.

Thinking about it now, the best way to describe an expedition to Antarctica is that it at times truly feels like being in a nature documentary. So if you want to experience your inner David Attenborough and are willing to be changed forever, start planning and come join the few that have witnessed the deeply impressing beauty of the white continent.

P.S. If you are planning to go to Antarctica and have some questions or want to know more, don’t hesitate to contact me!

Like it? Pin it!

Leave a Reply