10 Surprises From Antarctic Expeditions
Alexandra Hansen has spent the last two years working as a Lecturer and Expedition Guide on all 7 continents. She is a certified Polar Guide, Zodiac Driver and Snorkel Instructor. She is passionate about the world’s cultures, history, and wild spaces.
Hello! My name is Alexandra, and I am an Antarctic Ambassador. I am passionate about Antarctica's continued protection for international cooperation, conservation, and scientific research. When I am out in the field, I spend my time sharing my knowledge about Antarctic history, exploration and wildlife. At home, I write articles and share images to raise awareness about the continent's beauty and fragility.
I've been lucky enough to visit the "Frozen Continent" on 4 occasions, and can say with certainty that it is my favourite place in the world. If you are thinking about taking a voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula, here are a few things that may surprise you!
1) The “Dreaded” Drake Passage Can Be Enjoyable
The Drake Passage extends from Cape Horn at South America’s southernmost tip to Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands. Due to the convergence of oceans and temperatures, these waters have earned a reputation of being infamously rough. That being said, modern ships have advanced stabilisation systems and GPS technology which allow them to navigate safely all season.
It takes about 48 hours to cross the Drake, depending on the departure point and sea conditions. In my opinion, the Drake Passage is one of the most exciting times of every voyage, and an important rite-of-passage. It builds anticipation. You spend your time onboard listening to lectures, looking for wildlife on deck, and searching for your first icebergs!
Don’t let the fear of the Drake keep you from the adventure of a lifetime. It may surprise you and become one of your favorite parts of the trip. Embrace the sea conditions you are dealt, whether it is the Drake Lake or Drake Shake.
2) The Scale of Everything is Unlike Anything You've Ever Experienced
Antarctica is huge, and the landscapes are massive. Everyday, you wake up surrounded by uninterrupted wilderness. The scale of the continent is hard to describe. Let me give a fun fact to try convey this... the largest iceberg ever recorded was an Antarctic tabular iceberg that was over 31,000 square kilometers. That’s larger than Belgium.
The following statement is true for many places in the world, but I find it particularly apt in describing Antarctica: You can’t really understand and appreciate the full sense of a place until you are completely immersed in it. The frigid air, calving glaciers, popping brash ice, noisy penguins, gale-force winds... no camera, words, or audio recordings will ever truly capture that experience. Because of the vastness and size of everything that surrounds you, this feeling is magnified when you're down South. Nothing in the world compares to physically being there. That’s the amazing thing about this place.
3) The Abundance of Wildlife
During the summer months, marine wildlife is very active around the peninsula. Most famous perhaps are the penguins. The continent and sub-Antarctic islands are home to eight different species! But penguins won’t be all that you can see. Keep your eyes peeled for whales, seals, and all sorts of seabirds.
If you're lucky you may see hunting orca, breaching humpbacks and/or curious minkes. Always give icebergs a good check too...you might just find leopard, weddell or crabeater seals resting on top of them. Scan the skies for wandering albatross, storm petrels, antarctic terns and skuas.
Of course, I’ve only mentioned a few creatures but there’s many more you could see. Oftentimes you won’t know where to look because there’s so much abundance!
4) Penguins Are Actually Quite Smelly
Speaking of wildlife, you can usually smell that there is a penguin colony near before you even see it. This is due to penguin guano (aka poop). The smell tends to permeate everything...
If you’re going ashore, it’s likely that you will get penguin guano all over yourself (especially during mid to late season). Don’t worry, you’ll scrub it off your muck boots and pants when you’re back aboard. The aroma might not be pleasant, but penguin guano means that there are penguins around - and that in itself is pretty marvellous.
5) Biosecurity Checks Are Serious & Helpful
When you cross the Drake Passage, you will attend a biosecurity briefing followed by an inspection. This is an INCREDIBLY important part of any antarctic trip. A biosecurity check reduces the risk of introducing non-native species to Antarctica.
In this process the expedition team will ensure that all clothing, footwear and personal effects that you are planning on bringing ashore are free of Biosecurity Risk Material. The guide checking your items will use tools to pick out seeds, sand, or any other potentially harmful organic material. They may even vacuum your clothing. To be prepared for this, check and clean your items before bringing them aboard the ship. Remember, this process is a good thing, you’re limiting your impact on the fragile environment.
6) It’s Not All Wildlife, There’s History and Science As Well
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Antarctica was the largest uncharted wilderness on the planet. The exploration of the continent brought stories of danger, heroism, survival and courage. In order to preserve this history there are 94 protected sites, including whaling stations, boats, message posts, expedition huts, monuments and more.
You may also have the pleasure of visiting (or sailing by) research stations. Antarctica has been a beacon of international diplomacy, scientific and peaceful cooperation since the Antarctic Treaty was put into effect in 1961! A whole continent for science and peace! Fantastic, right? During the summer season there are up to 5,000 scientists and researchers that live there. This drops to about 1,000 during the winter.
7) The Expedition Itinerary May Change
Antarctica is unpredictable. Weather conditions, wildlife encounters and safety protocols govern all activities. This means that the itinerary originally presented to you may change. But, keep in mind that the goal of every expedition is to authentically experience the region’s environment. That means fully-embracing whatever the continent has to offer you! This isn't a negative thing. Flexibility could mean that you get to spend more time appreciating awesome wildlife encounters, or avoiding a storm system.
8) It May Sound Crazy... The Polar Plunge Is Fun
If you are medically fit and able, I highly recommend the Polar Plunge. Usually the plunge takes place from the ship’s gangway, and involves stripping down to your bathing suit, putting on a tethered harness and jumping into the icy water (all the while having your fellow travellers cheer you on). It’s cold, and sometimes downright uncomfortable, but absolutely exhilarating. It’s a real highlight!
9) What You See May Vary Depending On When You Visit
Voyages to Antarctica occur during the summer (November to March). Over the course of this season, there is considerable variation in what you may see.
Early season has colder temperatures and beautiful snowy landscapes. It’s mating season for penguins who will be doing courtship displays and nest-building.
Mid-season is warmer, and has more daylight (20-24 hours). During this time you may see chicks beginning to hatch and grow. You’ll also see an abundance of seal activity.
Late-season has less ice, which means that you can venture even further south. The penguin chicks will now be larger and more curious. Also, this is a spectacular time for whale sightings.
There is no “bad” choice. Before you book a trip though, you should consider what you want to see!
10) The Continent Doesn’t Stop Surprising You
No voyage to Antarctica is the same. Whether you are going to the continent for the first time, or the twentieth time, you’ll learn something and see something new. It’s a destination that never ceases to amaze.
Consideration When Booking
For anyone considering a trip to Antarctica, I highly encourage you to select a tour operator that is a member of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). IAATO is a member organisation founded in 1991 to advocate and promote environmentally responsible travel to the Antarctic. Click here for full list and information.
Want To Follow Alexandra's Adventures?
You can find more of Alexandra Hansen's work on her INSTAGRAM to the right.