In part 1 of this two-part series, I offer an overview for what to expect on a cruise to Antarctica. This second part preps you for the journey.
Almost all Antarctica cruises begin and end in Ushuaia, Argentina, a former penal colony that has blossomed as landing pad not just for cruisers but for adventure tourists exploring Patagonia. Ushuaia is the closest city to the Antarctic Peninsula, which on maps resembles the handle of the frying-pan-shaped continent. Most passenger vessels confine their journeys to the peninsula’s northern tip, which is still 3,000 miles away from the South Pole. (You won't be cruising to the South Pole anytime soon — at least I hope not!)
Like Alaska’s Inside Passage, the peninsula’s west coast is protected by a string of barrier islands that keep cruising waters calm, sometimes even lake-like. Icebergs are the wild card that can block channels and alter itineraries, and every vessel’s crew includes an ice master whose job it is to constantly monitor conditions.
Activities for passengers vary according to vessel. Some schedule daily landings at penguin rookeries or geological points of interest, while others take passengers ashore just two or three times during the course of a week’s voyage. Yet everything about Antarctica, from wildlife to geology to human history, is deeply engaging.
Yes, there’s a Catch 22, a reason why more ships don’t travel Antarctica. It boils down to just two words: Drake Passage. But more about that later.
Ushuaia: Gateway to Antarctica
You get the feeling, upon being greeted at the pier by a guy prancing around in a head-to-toe penguin costume, that others — many others — have preceded you.
Penguins are everywhere in Ushuaia (oos-WY-ah), where kitsch meets history at latitude 54 degrees, 48 minutes south. Stuffed penguins, stone penguins, wooden penguins, plastic penguins, snow-dome penguins, human-size penguins—any kind of penguin souvenir you could imagine — can be found on a shelf in this community of 60,000 that also bills itself as the southernmost city on Earth.
A thriving cross-country ski center in winter, Ushuaia during the Southern Hemisphere summer (December-February) is a tourist town catering to cruise-ship passengers, yachties, outdoor enthusiasts and overland adventurers who have made it to the southern terminus of the 11,066-mile Pan American Highway. The town sits on the north side of the Beagle Channel connecting Atlantic and Pacific, and its main pier is a hub of maritime activity. Small cruise ships, scientific research vessels and converted icebreakers headed to Antarctica dock here to provision and load.
Situated about the same distance from the equator as Ketchikan, Alaska, Ushuaia is the capital of Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago shared with neighboring Chile and part of the broader Patagonia region. Craggy, glacier-clad peaks form a dramatic backdrop, and the border of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego National Park is just 10 miles from town.
Best bets for cruisers in Ushuaia
Given its location, it’s not surprising that Ushuaia has played a fascinating role in world history. The stories are told in three museums, one of which, the Museo Maritimo, is creepily housed in a former prison that once held as many as 800 inmates. Exhibits staged in the former cells include displays on both Antarctic exploration and Ushuaia’s penal-colony past. The Museo del Fin del Mundo (End of the World Museum) focuses on European exploration and on the indigenous Yámana, or Yaghan, a nomadic people who inhabited the region for 7,000 years before European contact. The small Yámana Museum also focuses on their culture.
Aside from penguin souvenirs, Ushuaia is known for beautiful hand-knit sweaters, scarves and hats made from the wool of sheep raised in the region. Argentine mate cups — hollowed, decorated gourds used for drinking yerba mate, a ritually consumed herbal tea — make lightweight conversation pieces. Gaucho wear, particularly the distinctive, flat-brimmed leather hats, are another take-home favorite.
Food & drink
Ushuaia is famed among travelers for its hearty local cuisine. King crab, Patagonian lamb and Beagle beer (locally pronounced “beegley”) are the specialties. Restaurants come and go, but Kaupé and Maria Lola are established, upscale choices for seafood (with tourist prices to match), while Moustacchio packs in the crowds for grilled specialties such as skewered meats and Patagonian lamb cooked “parillo” style over an open fire.
Passengers returning from wi-fi-less Antarctica are often starved for communication, and Ushuaia delivers with a plethora of Internet cafes, most along Avenida San Martin and Calle Gobernador Paz. You may have to wait in line for a terminal, as ships’ crews also make extensive use of these facilities, as well as the banks of pay phones at the end of the pier. For those satisfied with thumb-typing on their smartphones, a growing number of free wi-fi hotspots are springing up around town.
When the weather is clear, a half-day tour to Tierra del Fuego National Park provides a teasing glimpse of the mountain grandeur for which Patagonia is known. The Southern Fuegian Railway, or Train to the End of the World, operates within the park, taking tourists along a scenic route that was used for transporting timber during Ushuaia’s penal-colony era. Another option is a Beagle Channel catamaran excursion to the Hammer Island Penguin Rookery, where you’ll see Magellanic penguins (a species that doesn’t live in Antarctica) close-up, along with other natural and historical sights. Offered as shore excursions by many cruise lines, trips also can be purchased from kiosks just off the dock.
Getting to Antarctica: The dreaded Drake Passage
Six hundred miles of open ocean — the most consistently violent patch of saltwater on earth — lie between Cape Horn and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Drake Passage stymied European explorers, made a chronically queasy Charles Darwin want to throw himself overboard, and inflicted misery on many a square-rigger traveling to California during the Gold Rush.
Navigating the Drake in the course of a pleasure cruise is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the Panama Canal opened in 1914, no ship transporting people or goods from Atlantic to Pacific could avoid an encounter with the wild and wooly seas. These days, only supertankers too broad to transit the canal must confront the Drake out of necessity. But in the past two decades, spurred by an increasingly curious public, a growing number of cruise vessels have begun taking it on.
What does the Drake mean for cruisers? Toss the dice: You could get lucky and encounter calm conditions. Or it could be hideous. Anti-nausea medication is a must. Don’t count on ginger tablets or sea bands to do the job; you’ll want something stronger. Many passengers use the prescription scopolamine patch, which nips nausea in the bud but leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Dramamine, Bonine and other over-the-counter antihistamines also work, but the drowsy factor can cause you to miss the natural-history lectures that cruise companies typically schedule on what is benignly described in their literature as “a day at sea.”
The best thing about the Drake: While it confronts cruise passengers with the roughest waters they’ll likely ever experience — gale conditions measuring force 8 or 9 on the Beaufort scale are typical — it doesn’t go on forever. When the first albatross is spotted circling overhead, the South Shetland Islands heave into view and icebergs begin dotting the horizon, excitement takes over and the Drake is relegated to the realms of memory.
Highlights of the Antarctic Peninsula
On a typical cruise, your ship won’t stray far from land, and scenery like nothing you’ve ever witnessed will surround you. Sunsets over the ice can be spectacular, and due to the southern latitude, it never gets totally dark at night.
Time on land is a highlight, but hardly the only one. Most vessels put passengers ashore in 12-passenger, inflatable Zodiac boats (on your way you’ll see whales, seals and swimming penguins, among other critters). On land, responsible cruise operators follow strict environmental-protection protocols developed by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. That means not approaching penguins (which doesn’t mean that they won’t approach you) or blocking the paths, among other things. Don’t worry: There will be plenty of opportunities for close-up photos. Bear in mind that weather and ice dictate where ships can go; nothing is guaranteed.
A few itinerary highlights
South Shetland Islands
These glaciated volcanic islands at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula are the first land passengers will see after crossing the Drake Passage. From a distance, the islands look like misshapen lumps of chocolate streaked with bright-white syrup. The first icebergs — each one an exquisite sculpture totally different from the next — also appear here.
A dozen nations maintain scientific or military bases here, and the occasional cluster of buildings can be spotted from deck.
Your first close-up view of the Shetlands comes when your ship enters the flooded caldera of this bleak volcanic cone that blew away two research stations in the late 1960s and most recently sputtered to life in 1991.
In the early 19th century, a short-lived fur-seal industry brought 100 and more ships at a time to the harbor considered one of Antarctica’s safest anchorages. By the early 20th century, Deception Island had become one of the hemisphere’s prime rendering grounds for whales. Whalers towed so many carcasses to be processed here that the 8-mile-wide bay often was clogged with them, its waters stained crimson with blood. Several of the tanks that once held whale oil still stand, rusty sentinels of a vanished era.
Gliding between the 3,000-foot ice-capped pinnacles marking the entrance to this photogenic strait is like gliding into an IMAX movie. The water here is often mirror-still, adding further dimension to the panorama. A standard part of Antarctica cruise itineraries, the Lemaire often is referred to as “Kodak Gap.”
Waterboat Point, Paradise Bay
Many ships stop here and put passengers ashore for an hour or so at the site of a former Chilean air force base built amid a huge gentoo penguin rookery. The experience is like a documentary come to life. Thousands of penguins and their chicks sit squawking on nests constructed of stones, and visitors watch as parent birds regurgitate food into their chicks’ gullets, just like in “March of the Penguins.” Skuas — birds of prey that like nothing better than a juicy fluff ball of a chick for dinner — swoop low, soaring off again with screeching prizes in their talons. Visitors who stop and watch will stare into the birds’ bright-orange mouths as they coo and bleat, watch as territorial adults defend their stony thrones, and laugh in delight as the comical creatures swagger and hop about their habitat.
Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Island holds another landing site used by many cruise lines. It’s home to a chinstrap penguin colony so large — more than 10,000 birds — that passengers smell and hear it long before they arrive. On shore, the sight of so much teeming life is almost overwhelming, and the birds’ incessant cawing echoes from one location to the next. Zodiac trips along the shoreline are especially rewarding in Half Moon Bay. Huge rafts of penguins often can be seen porpoising through the water, while orca whales and voracious leopard seals patrol the shores.
Few landmarks anywhere arouse the imagination like this rocky island at the tip of South America. Strong winds, high seas, deadly currents and rogue icebergs contribute to its nasty reputation. A very few cruise vessels land (or attempt to land) passengers at the lighthouse station here, which is in Chilean waters. Ships returning to Ushuaia pass within sight of the landform — close enough to take a photo if skies are clear.
- Antarctica superlatives: The world’s highest, driest, emptiest, windiest, most isolated continent is, at 5.4 million square miles, about 1.7 times the size of the continental United States. Average altitude is 7,500 feet above sea level, and about 87 percent of the continent is a frozen ice sheet up to three miles thick.
- Antarctica holds about 70 percent of the planet's fresh water and 90 percent of its ice. Eleven percent is floating glacier ice and 2 percent is rock.
- Government: Twelve nations, including the United States, have territorial claims in Antarctica.
- Penguin paradise: Only five of the 17 penguin species (gentoo, Adélie, chinstrap, emperor and macaroni) breed on the white continent, but they number in the tens of millions (a recent aerial survey estimated 3.8 million breeding pairs of Adélie penguins alone).
- Ice vocabulary: Many terms are used to describe ice, and cruisers will learn quite a few. Anchor ice, for example, is ice attached to the seabed. Firn ice, or névé, is hard, granular snow atop a glacier. Brash ice is the wreckage of larger pieces of ice. Frazil ice is a formation of needle-shaped crystals. Grease ice is frazil ice in a later state of freezing. Nilas is a thin crust of floating ice. Shuga is lumps of ice formed from slush. And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
- Iceberg nomenclature: A tabular berg is one with a flat top and vertical sides. “Bergy bits” are floating chunks of ice up to about 15 feet high. “Growlers” are small bits of ice awash in the sea. Most bergs carry about seven-eighths of their mass below the waterline.
- A salute to Darwin: The Beagle Channel was named for the royal navy ship HMS Beagle, which made its first hydrographic survey of the south South American coast from 1826 to 1830. Charles Darwin was a passenger on the second voyage and cruised the channel in 1836.
Dallas Murphy’s “Rounding the Horn” is a can’t-put-it-down read that would add immensely to your understanding of Tierra del Fuego, Cape Horn, the Drake Passage and the maritime and anthropological history of the region.
What to bring
First and foremost, don't forget your passport. Most cruise lines issue passengers brightly colored parkas that at once provide warmth and ready identification on land. Packing lists generally include waterproof boots (inexpensive ones you can leave behind will do) and warm clothing.
Insider tip: Bring ski pants and goggles, which will provide wind protection you need to stay out on deck ogling the scenery long after less well-prepared passengers have retreated inside. And throw in a small, collapsible umbrella for Ushuaia, where it will likely rain a bit during your pre- or post-trip visit.
Interested in a cruise to Antarctica?
Interested in a cruise to Antarctica? Contact a Cruiseable travel advocate at 1-877-322-3773, or by email, to get additional information and to find the best rates and value for your vacation dollar.
- My visual list: Off to Antarctica: Voyage to the bottom of the world
- Part 1: Antarctica travel guide & photo tour