Weigh up the options before visiting the coldest continent, says Stephen Scourfield.

For many adventurous travellers, the thought of sailing to Antarctica is a big-ticket trip of a lifetime.

Stephen Scourfield

And for anyone considering it for the coming Antarctic summer, this is decision time. Cruises are filling up (some voyages are full) and many room categories will fill. This means that travellers looking for entry-level priced rooms may find the category full and be faced with only more expensive options.

And for those wanting to really push the boat out, they may find that the best staterooms are already booked.

This is likely to happen over the next few weeks, so now really is decision time.

But first, let’s look at some geography, which has to underpin any commitment to such a big investment.

Antarctica is basically a round saucer sitting on the bottom of the planet. Obviously, if you just sail south, you could get there from Albany but, having once sailed way south from there on a Patagonian toothfishing boat, I wouldn’t recommend it.

The two most popular departure points are from New Zealand and South America.

From NZ south, the voyage to Antarctica takes several days and it’s likely to be a short “touch” on the great white continent. These voyages are more about wandering through sub-Antarctic islands such as Disappointment, Bounty and Macquarie.

From Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America, it usually takes about 40 hours to cross the Drake Passage. Here, south of Cape Horn, the state of the ocean is a lottery — Drake Lake or Drake Shake, as the experienced sailors call it.

But there is now also the option of flying in less than two hours from Ushuaia to King George Island and skipping that crossing.

Compared with sailing from NZ and arriving the other side of Antarctica, from South America the nearest point is the Antarctic Peninsula. Essentially the spine of this is a continuation of the Andes mountains, which duck under Drake Passage and re-emerge. Because it is the furthest point north, animals and birds breed here.

So the Antarctic Peninsula is the main game but off to the side are the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. These have different wildlife and landscapes — and most travellers will take one of two options. They will either decide “we’re going all that way, we want to see it all”, and combine a back-to-back cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula with one to the Falklands and South Georgia. Or they will go first to the Antarctic Peninsula and sometimes get drawn back to the Falklands and South Georgia on a subsequent trip.

So, deciding where to leave from is one issue — deciding whether to book a ship which crosses the Drake Passage or fly over it is another. But do be aware there is wildlife, such as the wandering albatross, in the Drake Passage that you won’t see when you are meandering through the protected waters in the intricate coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. And you will miss the “build-up” of getting used to the ship, hearing the lectures and feeling you have earned that first sight of Antarctica.

Another important thing to know is that only 100 people are allowed onshore (or on the ice) at Antarctica at one time. So if you are on a ship with more people, they may be broken into groups (nothing worse than the morning group seeing lots and your afternoon group getting bad weather and little viewing).

If you are on a ship with fewer than 100, everyone will get off all the time.

Then, look for a ship with a high ice rating, one that’s built for the conditions. One Ocean Expeditions’ Akademik Sergey Vavilov and Akademik Ioffe are stand-out examples. They were built for the Russian equivalent of our CSIRO and specifically for acoustic scientific research work, so they are quiet. They also have 450 tonnes of water ballast, pumped quickly from side to side, which helps stabilise them.

The third big aspect in the decision making is when to go. You only sail to Antarctica in its summer — from December to March. Early in the season, mating begins, then come eggs and chicks and late in the season there are more whales. So be aware of this cycle and the slice of it you would like to see.

Also be aware that early and late in the season, there’s a bit of night and in the middle, it’s light almost all the time. This matters to me as a photographer, as early and late in the season there will be a changing colour palette and light angles.

So, we have a plan unfolding. We’ve decided to go from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula (we’ll leave the other islands out of it for now). We’ve decided to go late in the season, when everything is born, hatched and the whales are feeding on the krill which is the planet’s biggest biomass.

We are going on a ship of less than 100 people, with a full ice rating, good ballast and an experienced, knowledgeable crew and we are going to cross the Drake Passage and not fly over it.

And if you, like me, have made all those decisions, you may just end up in the cabin next to me on Vavilov in March (and through the preparation and photography sessions beforehand).

But whatever trip, itinerary or ship, the important thing, if you are considering Antarctica, is to tackle it now, while you still have options.


Journey to Antarctica with Travel Editor Stephen Scourfield in March on an RAC Travel holiday.

Including time in Buenos Aires, it is 18 days from $14,998 per person triple share and from $16,945 per person twin share. This includes return economy airfares from Perth flying Qatar Airways, internal flights within South America flying LAN, four nights in a luxury hotel in Buenos Aires, a city tour, culinary tour, dinner with a tango show, one-night pre-cruise accommodation in Ushuaia with a Tierra del Fuego National Park tour, the 10-night marine mammals expedition cruise aboard Akademik Sergey Vavilov, all meals, expedition gear and excursions on the cruise, all airport, hotel and port transfers and an RAC tour escort from Perth.

Phone RAC Travel on 1300 655 898 or visit RAC Cruise Club.

This article originally appear at The West Australian and has been reproduced with permissions.