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Answers to your 10 biggest questions about Antarctica

Answers to your 10 biggest questions about Antarctica

David McGonigal has been to Antarctica more than 100 times and wrote the definitive book on the southern continent. Here are his answers to common questions.

Should I go?
I consider Antarctica the most remarkable destination in the world. But others regard it as a cold wilderness full of penguins. Don’t go if you don’t want to but if you want to, you won’t be disappointed.

South Georgia – yes or no? 
It might come as a surprise that there’s a range of options for holidays in Antarctica. The great majority leave from the bottom of South America and cruise to Antarctica and back over about 10 days. If you wish to cross the Antarctic Circle or venture into the Weddell Sea expect to be on board for about 12 days or more.

The big choice is whether to include South Georgia because that adds at least a week and more sea days to the voyage. I’d unequivocally say “do it if you can afford it”. This island crowded with penguins, seals and albatross is the most remarkable wildlife experience in the world. Much of those documentaries of king penguins to the horizon were taken in South Georgia. The only reason not to include it is if you want an excuse to return south again.

An increasingly popular option is to fly one way to King George Island and join a ship there. It’s fast and avoids the sea days but you don’t get to venture far off a well-trodden route.

When to go? 
The peak Antarctic season is January but that’s more a result of home holiday seasons than Antarctica itself. The whole Antarctic season runs during the brief Antarctic summer from November to March. When to go depends what you are most interested in.

  • November: lots of snow, penguins on pristine snow, maybe some places still iced in and inaccessible.
  • December: penguins nesting, snow and ice clearing.
  • January: some penguin chicks around, whales more frequent towards the end of the month. 
  • February: chicks fledging, adults moulting, colonies becoming messy and smelly, lots of whales (mainly humpbacks).
  • March: penguin colonies emptying but whales well fed and curious around the ship and Zodiacs.

If you’re going to South Georgia, there are still some quite aggressive male fur seals at the start of summer but the beach chaos has calmed down by the new year.

Because it’s summer it doesn’t really get dark so there’s no opportunity to see the aurora australis.

What to pack? 
You’ll get a packing list so follow it. Check if gumboots and wet weather gear is provided. You’ll spend a lot of time on the water so it’s more important to have good waterproof gear (especially gloves – ideally two pair) than extra warm gear. It’s easy to get clothes washed on board.

Why do most go from South America? 
From Ushuaia, the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula are about two sea days away. However, from Tasmania or NZ’s South Island it’ll take about five days to reach East Antarctica. So 10 days of your holiday will be taken up getting there and back – against just a day and a half air travelling to get to the South American southern ports.

Will I get seasick?
Unless you are pregnant and can’t take any medication the answer should be “no”. There’s a wide range of treatments (up to an injection) to prevent seasickness and some less-effective ones that may cure it. Many passengers arrive on board with jet lag and travel exhaustion and largely sleep across the whole Drake Passage.

The Drake Passage has a reputation as the roughest stretch of water in the world. However, that’s not all the time. Roughly, I’d say you have about a 25 per cent chance of experiencing a flat “Drake Lake”, about a 60 per cent chance of a rolling sea and about a 15 per cent chance of encountering an exciting Southern Ocean storm.

Also, while a substantial proportion of passengers may feel queasy on the sail south, once you get there the ship is stable and all are well. Over the next few days you find your “sea legs” so few of those who are unwell on the voyage south are sick on the voyage home.

Are there any hotels? 
As a general rule “no” but some of the bases have some simple accommodation that could be regarded as a hotel. Effectively, all accommodation is ship-based but you may be given the option to sleep on the ice one night – it won’t be restful or comfortable but it will be memorable.

Am I adversely affecting Antarctica? 
Every Antarctic operator works from the IAATO wildlife and environmental guidelines to minimise their impact. In my experience, every staff member and expedition leader is passionate about Antarctica and works very hard to ensure the trip has as little impact as possible on the environment.

How cold is it? 
It’s not that cold – about the same as a ski holiday in Australia. Expect temperatures between about -1°C and +3°C. Of course, you may encounter colder conditions if you venture further south or head down at the end of the summer.

What will I see? 
You’ll be in the greatest wilderness on earth. Humans are irrelevant here and can’t survive without technology. There’s a remarkable sense of space. More specifically you’ll see ice in all its forms – glaciers and ice cliffs, icebergs and maybe sheets of sea ice.

On the way down, albatross will accompany the ship and once you’re there you’ll be greeted by penguins, seals and whales and a few flying birds like kelp gulls and snowy sheathbills.

Most of all you’ll discover every shade of blue, green and white within the clefts in the ice. Most staff state that they came down for the wildlife but keep returning for the ice.

Written by David McGonigal. Republished with permission of Wyza.com.au.