Antarctica is a place of extremes. Temperatures range from -67°F (-55°C) in the winter to 59°F (15°C) in the summer. It’s also the windiest continent on Earth with winds up to 200 km/h (124 mph). Despite these conditions, there are still many opportunities for exploration and adventure. However, planning the trip, logistics and knowing exactly what to do is no easy feat.
The scenery in Antarctica is like nothing else on Earth - it's a must-see for any nature lover. It is also home to some of the most unique wildlife on the planet. Penguins, seals, whales, and birds are just some of the species that live here. This makes it a great destination for those looking for a challenging and adventurous experience.
We have been very lucky to interview Laura Gerwin, who lived there for over 2 years and is now running trips to the White Continent!
Calling Antarctica home is an extraordinary life experience. Antarctica is a place, unlike any other place on the planet. Owned by no one and governed by all. At the bottom of the world, people from nations across the globe are living in harmony as stewards of the Antarctic environment in support of Science.
Over 50 countries have science stations and field camps scattered across the continent. I spent 5 Austral summer seasons living and working at McMurdo Station, the largest science station in Antarctica. In the summer season of October - February, McMurdo operates 24-7, sometimes housing over 1,000 people. This is a place for scientists or support staff. Each individual at the station says goodbye to their family, pets, friends, trees, fresh foods, and cell service and travels to New Zealand, where they typically board a C-17 military aircraft and deploy to Antarctica. After landing at an airfield made of ice, a monster bus named Ivan the Terra bus transports you to the little island on the Ross Sea, shadowed by Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world.
Surrounded by spectacular views of the Royal Society Mountains, the station is a mismatch of buildings held together by duct tape and folks at the Carpenter Shop with decor left behind from the 1950s and treasures left behind by participants of the United States Antarctic Program.
Everyone has a job to do at McMurdo, from washing dishes to traversing to the South Pole with bladders full of fuel. Typical town hours are 7:30 to 5:30, Monday through Saturday, with Sunday as the town's day off, though many departments operate around the clock maximizing the 24 hours of sunlight in the summer season.
I worked in the Shuttles department, operating speciality vehicles transporting passengers from the town to the airfields and science stations out on the ice shelf and assisting with passenger logistics at the airfields. I drove supped-up Ford vans, and Deltas left over from the Military in the 1950s. We took the deltas out when the temperature rose, and the ice melted. The Delta could plough through just about anything providing a wild ride to the folks in the back. And I drove the station's iconic 56-passenger monster bus, Ivan. One of the best parts of working in the Shuttles department was seeing the expression on folks' faces as they stepped off the aircraft and saw the Antarctic for the 1st time or have been returning for years, either way, it’s always all smiles and a little bit of bitter cold.
Meals + 24 hours of free pizza are served up around the clock in the galley at the end of “Highway 1.” The food was sometimes questionable, and freshies were nearly always rare, but the one thing you could always find in the galley were tables full of friendship, laughter, and community.
McMurdo Station, Antarctica, is a bustling place with yoga classes, science lectures, dodgeball tournaments, onesies, live music, international visitors such as David Attenborough and Anthony Bourdain, and opportunities to get outside and explore the ice. Magical landscapes, with gardens made of ice, seas with space for the Orcas to roam, and masses of penguins whistling a happy harmony in a land made of water and ice, is an incredible place to call home.
Antarctica is a life-changing trip because it is unlike any other experience available on the planet. There is nowhere else that provides a landscape made of ice where trees don’t grow, and cell phones don’t work. In Antarctica, you can hear the sound of silence and feel the fresh cool breath of the universe. The wildlife is abundant and curious, and the landscapes are absolutely unreal. Antarctica has been a part of my life since 2009, and I have not yet met one person who is not completely blown away by its beauty and utmost uniqueness.
Traveling to Antarctica is an adventure. It’s far away, and you leave the creature comforts of the modern world and immerse yourself in a new environment and experience. Antarctica is full of discoveries for any age. Adults are simply giddy and just happy to just be in such an extraordinary place. I think the thing is that folks spend a lot of time wondering, “What am I going to do in Antarctica?”, but the thing is, once you are there, you are simply happy just being and delighting in what is happening around you.
There truly is not a bad time to go to Antarctica as a tourist, right now it’s only possible to go from the end of November to the beginning of March. However, when the tourist travels south, there is no time that is better than another, but it is different. The lifecycle of the wildlife varies, in early December, you will see the penguin eggs and the parents sitting on their eggs. By January, the chicks will start to hatch, and you will see baby penguins borns. Later in February, you will see the chicks playing and causing havoc in the rockeries.
Weather can always occur in Antarctica, but the wildlife and the amount of ice are variables for when you travel.
There are two main ways to travel to Antarctica, by ship or by plane. Once in Antarctica, all guests stay on board expedition ships with nearly no land-based facilities.
Going to Antarctica by ship means that you have to cross the Drake Passage. The Drake is infamous and known as the wildest waterway in the world, taking 2 + days each day to cross and wasting 4-5 days of your vacation sick at sea. Expect to see the occasional seabird or stray iceberg, but there is not much out there. You can feel the history of Shakelton, but that is strong in Antarctica as well, without having to spend time out at sea.
When you fly to Antarctica, you depart by private jet from Punta Arenas, Chile. About 2.5 hours later, you arrive on King George Island, Antarctica, where you board your expedition vessel and set sail in the calm inner passageways of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Air Cruise maximizes your time in Antarctica! You spend 5 hours of your trip crossing the Drake Passage vs. 5 days!
Another key thing to consider when choosing Antarctica travel is the ship size. The Antarctic treaty does not allow more than 100 passengers off the ship and to shore at the same time. Therefore nearly every ship has to play a merry-go-round game with the guests rotating folks from ship to shore. Larger cruise ships are not even allowed to make landings and are “Cruise Only”.
Our ships hold less than 76 passengers, making it quick and easy for everyone to get off the ship and to shore to maximize the time on land and enjoy two landings a day with nearly 8 hours off the ship, weather permitting.
Zodiac cruising, hiking, snowshoeing, kayaking, retracing historic footsteps, visiting science stations, experiencing tons of wildlife, citizen science programs, polar plunge, photography, in-depth lectures and more.
Your outermost layer, top and bottom, need to be waterproof/gortex for shore landing in zodiacs. Think ski clothes. Layers are really important. Typically I can be in as little as a warm base layer and a puffy vest. But you always want to have layers with you and gloves, a hat, eye protection, and full face covering. The wind can be relentless, so you want to have good wind-blocking gear. Really good socks are key. Heavy-weight expedition socks and take at least 2 more pairs of socks than originally planned.
A waterproof backpack is a great touch. And an oh-shit handle for those folks that like to take photos with their cell phone is necessary.
We have the most guides to guests in the industry, offering an ultra-flexible experience. Those that want to hike the mountain can hike the mountain, and those that want to stand on the shoreline and listen to the naturalist speak about the penguins can do that. All activities are welcome as long as you can go up and down a couple of flights of stairs and have the mobility to get out of the zodiac with assistance. Children must be 8 years or older to come on the trip.
In the summer, it really doesn’t get that cold. It can be a balmy 45°F. You need to be prepared for cold weather, but don’t let the cold scare you. Just take an extra layer.
The ship is carbon neutral and strives to lead the way in sustainable development.
Don’t fixate on kayaking. There is plenty to entertain you and ample opportunities to be on the water in zodiacs.
Go with a sense of adventure and flexibility. Mother Nature governs all in Antarctica, and the weather DOES happen. Be prepared to be flexible. No one can change the weather.
Be ready to disconnect digitally. Cell phones have zero services. You may as well leave it in airplane mode. Wi-Fi can be purchased and accessed on board, but it’s often spotty and always slow so I would not count on sending pictures home or posting to social media while in Antarctica.
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