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Things to do in Antarctica

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Antarctica is a wild and relatively undiscovered continent compared to the rest of the world. However, it’s fast becoming the ultimate adventure for alternative travelers. While there are some flights to get to Antarctica, the only real way to see Antarctica is via cruise or boat expedition, which typically explores around the Antarctic Peninsula. Just because it’s a boat tour, however, don’t think for a minute that you’ll actually stay on the boat the whole time; there’s plenty of opportunities to get off and get up close and personal with everything Antarctica has to offer. Whether it’s penguin observations or kayaking with whales — there’s no shortage of things to do in Antarctica.

1. Kayak with whales

Kayaking is a must do activity in Antarctica
Two visitors kayak in the icy waters of Antarctica

Cruising slowly atop the mirror-esque surface of one of Antarctica’s pristine bays along the Gerlache coastline might just be the most peaceful experience in the world. It’s hard to feel anything other than complete tranquility while surrounded by glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and clear blue skies. Spotting seal, minke, orca, and humpback whale is common, and seeing them from the water level is beyond spectacular. It’s certainly an Antarctic activity not to pass up.

Good to know: The water in Antarctica is chilly. That’s why you’ll be kitted out in a dry-suit and provided cold-water kayaks to ensure you stay relatively warm and dry.

If you are into spotting marine wildlife from a boat then try Antarctic Explorer.

2. Watch penguins

Getting to Antarctica
A group of King Penguins in Falkland Islands in Antarctica

One Antarctica activity that’s on everyone’s bucket list is hanging out with penguins. Antarctica is home to six different types of penguins — Adelie, Gentoo, Rockhopper, Chinstrap, Macaroni, and the most impressive, Emperor. Lucky for you, it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll get to spend some quality time with them.

The penguins in Antarctica are totally unfazed by humans, so don’t be alarmed if they waddle right up to you (although visitors are asked to keep a respectful distance). The Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Circle are the most popular for penguin watching.

Good to know: Emperor penguins are the largest type of penguin, reaching up to 4 feet tall! When a female emperor penguin lays an egg, it’s incubated by resting on the father penguins’ feet, protected and warm, until ready to hatch.

Try this 14-day Antarctic Expedition tour that takes you through Weddell Sea allowing you to witness colonies of emperor penguins and other iconic wildlife.

3. Camp under the stars

Camping in Antarctica
Sleeping under the infinite number of Antarctica’s twinkling stars is a surreal experience

Camping in Antarctica isn’t an activity for everyone — cozying up on the frozen ground in sub-zero temperatures isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. However, if you’re willing to sacrifice the luxuries of a comfy bed surrounded by four walls, you’re in for one of the coolest sleepovers you’ll ever have. While every boat tour company’s “campground” varies, one option could be Hovgaard Island on the west-facing side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Some outfitters provide tents while others opt for a more au natural experience of only a waterproof, cold weather sleeping bag (bivy sack) and thermal mat. Sleeping under the infinite number of Antarctica’s twinkling stars is a surreal experience and knowing there’s nothing between you and all of Antarctica’s frozen glory is truly a magical feeling.

Good to know: Camping overnight on the continent is purely up to the discretion of the expedition leader. If temperatures dip too low or the weather takes a nasty turn, the whole thing could be called off.

4. Go Zodiac cruising

zodiac cruising in antarctica
A group cruises among icebergs in Antarctic waters

Go where your cruise ship can’t — hop aboard a small, sturdy inflatable boat and buzz between the icebergs and around the mountains. This is your chance to get an up-close look at some of the more cautious wildlife in the ocean, on land, and in the skies. It’s common for leopard seals, penguins, and other curious animals to pop up alongside to say hello. You’ll never feel so small in your life as you gaze up at the massive glaciers and icebergs from sea level. To call it a humbling experience would be an understatement.

Good to know: This activity is a big favorite of photographers. Zodiac cruising allows for more intimate viewing as well as an entirely different perspective.

Antarctic Express: Fly the Drake from Punta Arenas is an Antarctica tour that offers four days of zodiac cruising to several sites in Antarctica.

5. Take a Polar plunge

This could be a love-hate activity, but we recommend you do this. The polar plunge is exactly what it sounds like; fully submerging your bathing-suit clad body in the icy waters of the Antarctic. Terrifying and exhilarating in the same moment, it’s definitely a memory you won’t soon forget. And how many people can really say they swam in freezing waters of the Antarctica?

Good to know: This is a typical activity aboard a cruise ship. Some companies will allow you to jump off the back of the boat, while others will organize a mad dash from one of the beaches into the icy waters during a land excursion.

Quest for the Antarctic Circle is an activity-driven Antarctic tour that also offers a chance for a polar plunge!

6. Scuba dive

diving in antarctica
A diver rests on a small iceberg

If the polar plunge gets your adrenaline pumping, imagine what it would be like to actually explore those icy waters? Some of the highlights of the underwater world include crystal-clear waters, underwater iceberg viewing, some unique corals and marine life, as well as the chance to encounter a walrus or two, different types of seals, and penguins. Not to mention the ice formations, sunlight, and deep blue color of the water create an ever-changing color spectrum. Diving the remote waters of Antarctica allows for a very special and intimate experience not had by the majority of visitors.

Good to know: The Antarctic Peninsula and the Antarctic Circle are the most popular areas to dive. All dive operators require at least an Open Water Certification with 20 logged dives (at minimum) and dry-suit training before you can brave the waters. Some places may require you to have your Advanced Open Water Certification. If your heart is set on diving here, get certified prior to the trip and practice as much as possible!

7. Visit a research station

Visiting Research Centers is a must do thing in Antarctica
A cruise ship tourists visit a research base in Antarctica

Antarctica is the site of some of the world’s most cutting-edge research. There are dozens of scientific research centers here, and one of the most interesting things to do in Antarctica is to take a tour of one of these fascinating facilities. The Vernadsky Research Base on Galindez Island opens its doors to visitors all while studying everything from meteorology, ecology, biology, glaciology, seismology and physics. It was at this research station that the hole in the ozone layer was first discovered.

Another cool and unexpected aspect of this research center is the Vernadsky Station Lounge, one of the southernmost bars in the world. Try the vodka, which has been distilled on site. Bottoms up!

Good to know: The post office at the Vernadsky Station is one of the few places in all of Antarctica from where you can send a mail. Mailing a postcard will cost you around USD 2 while a letter (including stamps) is about USD 6*.

8. Explore Deception Island

Just as the name implies, there’s more to Deception Island than meets the eye. Although its protected port has provided excellent shelter to sailors from the wild seas, the island itself is actually an active volcano! It holds many secrets of the continent’s old whaling industry, which thrived in the early to mid-1900s. Whale blubber processing plants rose, flourished, and then fell here as ship-based processing took over.

Scientific research stations moved into the old, abandoned processing plants, but due to multiple volcanic eruptions in the 1960’s, they were abandoned once again. Now, Deception Island is a collection of old whale skeletons, decrepit buildings, and rusted oil drums surrounded by ominous black, volcanic sand. This is definitely one of Antarctica’s spookiest attractions.

Good to know: Here lies Antarctica’s only thermal spa! Thanks to the volcanic activity beneath the surface, visitors can dig into the black sand and release the steam below the surface.

9. Witness Blood Falls

A visual and scientific wonder, the Blood Falls is a fascinating anomaly upon which to feast your eyes. This bright-red waterfall spills from the Taylor Glacier in McMurdo’s Dry Valleys. The color is due to something truly phenomenal — life existing in the form of tiny, iron-packed microbes that were frozen in time when the glacier closed around them about two million years ago. The microbes, frozen within a small body of water, have been able to survive with no light or heat and very little oxygen. The fissure in the glacier allows the water to flow out, creating one of the most striking sights in all of Antarctica — a five-story, blood-red waterfall spilling over pure white snow.

Good to know: The awe-inspiring view is accessible via helicopter from McMurdo Station or cruise expedition via the Ross Sea.

10. Visit the Trinity Church

The southernmost Christian Orthodox Church in the world, the Trinity Church on King George Island, was built by the Russians in their homeland and then transported via boat to their permanent base, Bellingshausen Station, in the mid-1990s. Two Russian priests volunteered to relocate with the church and run it year-round. Their duties include praying for the Russian souls who have lost their lives in various expeditions and providing spiritual support for the nearby researchers. They’ve even got one wedding under their belt — a ceremony between Russian and Chilean researchers was held here!

Good to know: King George Island is one of the most populated areas in Antarctica and houses research centers from Russia, South Korea, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay, Poland, and the US. Charter flights can be arranged via tour agencies from mainland Chile to King George island. Cruises from Punta Arenas are also another way to visit the island.

There are a massive range of things to do in Antarctica. Clearly, this continent is more than just ice and snow. From the unique wildlife, to the mind-blowing scenery and landscape, to the dark corners of the continent’s history — Antarctica remains an unpredictable and fascinating place for those seeking to travel way outside the box.

To get the most of Antarctica, planning is key. Read our best time to visit Antarctica and other travel guides to prepare well.

Note: Prices listed are as of February 2018.

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