Love is in the air for the 100,000 pairs of Chinstrap penguins at Baily Head on Deception Island – one of the wildest places to visit in Antarctica on an Antarctic expedition cruise.
It’s late November – courting time – and the penguins have returned from the sea to woo and breed.
They puff out their chests and, bills pointed skyward, squawk for their mates. They pick up rocks to build their nests, often stealing from their neighbors’ carefully built mounds. They climb on top of each other for a little penguin love, and sit on eggs they’ve already laid.
They go about their annual rituals oblivious to us as we lie down to photograph them.
Best places to visit in Antarctica
Antarctica’s penguins are perhaps the most endearing sight on the White Continent.
But the lure of Antarctica goes beyond the tuxedoed crowd.
The scenery is also nothing short of mind-blowing.
Okay, but apart from penguins and lots of snow and ice, are there other things to see in Antarctica?
Before going to Antarctica, we really knew very little about the places to see in Antarctica – and about what to do in Antarctica. You may be in the same boat, so to speak.
What’s so special about the coldest, windiest, most uninhabitable place in the world that makes people want to go there?
Hopefully you’ll understand why by the time you’ve finished reading this… You may even be persuaded to ditch the sun holiday to Mexico in favor of visiting Antarctica!
How to visit Antarctica?
A cruise is how you visit Antarctica – preferably on a small expedition ship. And it’s an understatement to say an Antarctic cruise is a trip of a lifetime.
Some passengers gape at the southernmost continent from a large cruise ship.
But to actually land, you must cruise with a small ice-rated vessel.
The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators sets guidelines to protect the fragile eco-system. It only allows 100 people ashore at a time.
Expedition cruises to Antarctica
We visited with Lindblad Expeditions (which partners with National Geographic).
The late Lars Lindblad (father of Sven Lindblad, who founded Lindblad Expeditions) brought the first tourists down to Antarctica in 1966.
The line has two (soon to be three) Antarctica vessels, including two brand new cruise ships – high-tech ice-class vessels (accommodating 126 guests), built specifically to navigate both the South Pole and North Pole year-round.
Other lines also have new polar-class vessels, for example, Hurtigruten’s MS Fridtjof Nansen. Or you can go French with Ponant (and drink fine French wines on their luxury expedition ships).
Different Antarctica expedition cruises offer different itineraries.
Most journey along the Antarctic peninsula jutting northwest from mainland Antarctica. Some even go so far south as to cross over the Antarctic Circle.
Longer cruises often add other sub-Antarctic islands (like South Georgia, the South Orkney Islands and Falkland Islands).
11 Cool places in Antarctica to visit
The following are the top places in Antarctica typically explored on an Antarctic expedition cruise.
1) Drake Passage
Before you can set foot on the earth’s largest wilderness area, you have to get there.
That means two days crossing the infamous Drake Passage, from the tip of South America (from Ushuaia, Argentina, nicknamed the “End of the World”) to Antarctica.
The 600-mile crossing is one of the roughest on earth, with waves surging up to heights of 40 feet. It’s considered one of the most treacherous voyages ships can make.
“It’s the moat that protects the icy castle of Antarctica from hordes of tourists,” mused one of our Lindblad naturalists.
On the advice of our ship’s doctor, we took pills for seasickness a couple of hours after leaving Ushuaia – and we were fine.
Mind you, drowsy from the medication, we spent a lot of time resting or reading in bed.
Occasionally we ventured out on deck to witness the action of the sea. And when hungry, we made our way to the dining room with its chained-down tables, hanging on to overhead ropes to get to our seats.
But any discomfort quickly fades once you reach the isolated wondrous world of sub-Antarctica and Antarctica itself. The seas there are calm and still.
(The industry’s new expedition ships of 2020 and 2021 may also prove more comfortable.)
2) South Shetland Islands
Our first landfall was the South Shetland Islands – from a distance, they appeared as snow-capped black lava outcroppings.
Located some 100 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetland Islands are one of the most popular sites in Antarctica. Popular with people (expedition cruise ship visitors), and popular with penguins.
Setting off from our ship in a Zodiac, we stepped ashore at Barrientos Island. It was bitterly cold, and even with polar jackets (provided by the cruise line), long underwear and thick boots, we shivered in the bracing wind.
But it was also utterly beautiful in a raw and rugged kind of way.
Female Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins were nesting on raised beds of pebbles. Others were squawking for their mates, waddling about and preening on the beach.
It was also our first time seeing penguin guano.
Cool factoid: Penguins can projectile their poop a good three to four feet away! They lift their tails and squirt. The pink-and-red poo has a strong smell too – like a combination of ammonia, rotten eggs and stale tobacco.
We were happy we were visiting at the beginning of the Antarctic season (the first expedition voyage of the season). Feet of snow still covered the ground and there wasn’t too much poop around.
Later in the season, the ground is blanketed with pinkish-red poo, we were told, and the stink is, well, unforgettable.
Mind you, there’s compensation for visiting Antarctica later (in February or early March).
Some people think this is actually the best time to go to Antarctica – because this is when you see penguin chicks hatching and feathered babies chasing after the adults.
3) Deception Island
Located in the South Shetlands, Deception Island is one of the best places to visit in Antarctica for its history and variety of experiences.
The ring-shaped island – a sea-filled caldera of an active volcano – offers a natural harbor with a narrow entry.
You may recall the heroic story of the Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton.
He and his 28 men survived a brutal Antarctic winter after their ship Endurance was crushed by pack ice in the Weddell Sea. (Shattered boat planks and grave crosses can still be seen on icy Antarctic beaches as poignant reminders of several of the early explorers.)
Crowded into two open lifeboats, Shackleton’s crew were aiming for Deception Island in 1916 to find shelter and provisions left by whalers, who worked on the island each summer.
Unfortunately, a gale blew his party off course to a less hospitable island (Elephant Island).
Today, Deception Island is protected by the Antarctic Treaty System, which preserves Antarctica as an independent scientific research base.
(Antarctica doesn’t “belong” to any country, though many countries, like Norway, Chile, the U.S. and Russia lay claim to it.) The Spanish, Argentine and U.K. governments each have a research station on the island.
And for today’s visitors, unlike for Shackleton, a landing is fairly certain.
4) Baily Head
A rocky headland on the easternmost part of Deception Island, Baily Head (sometimes spelled as “Bailey Head”) is famous for its huge penguin colonies.
“This is the Serengeti of Antarctica,” pointed out one of the 11 naturalist guides accompanying us on our Lindblad Expeditions voyage.
Indeed, colonies of lively raucous Chinstrap penguins in their black tailcoats and white shirtfronts stretched out over the ice and snow as far as the eye could see – mating, wooing mates and building nests.
It was hard to imagine that in December and January, the site would be even busier and noisier when the chicks hatched.
Baily Head also has a “penguin highway” – where thousands of penguins head downhill to the sea and thousands more waddle uphill to their nests. Fun to watch!
5) Whaler’s Bay
After enjoying the Chinstrap love-fest at Baily Head, our ship moved to Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island, one of the most haunting Antarctica landmarks on our trip.
Some 40,000 whales were butchered in this small bay in the early 1920s during the height of the whaling industry. Humpback whales. Blue whales. Smaller Minke whales. More than 1 million whales all told were slaughtered in Antarctica.
As you walk the black volcanic sands of the beach, you can still see the enormous rusted iron boilers and vats that once contained whale oil.
Usually, there’s also a chance for a polar plunge at Whaler’s Bay.
Thankfully, this is followed by a warming “swim” (more a wallow) in the geothermal waters that rise up through the island’s volcanic sand.
While we explored the whaling station ruins on the beach – side-stepping the Weddell seals flopped about – ship staff scooped out shallow pools in the sand. Then stripped down to bathing suits, we dashed into the sea (yes, it was frigid!) then rolled around in the steamy pools.
Whaler’s Bay is definitely one of the coolest places to swim in the world!
6) Neko Harbor and Paradise Bay
Surrounded by high glaciers, Neko Harbor (Neko Harbour, for you English-spelling folk) was our first continental landing. It’s known as a continental landing, because it’s part of the mainland Antarctic Peninsula.
Once ashore, we climbed single file above a nesting colony of Gentoo penguins and dropped to our bellies to photograph them.
The afternoon found us sea kayaking in nearby Paradise Bay.
Paradise it was – a sea garden of surreal ice sculptures shaped like swans, lotus flowers and cathedral arches.
The weather conditions were so favorable (calm, warm and sunny) that we even paddled without our hats and gloves.
And what a treat! Staff in a Zodiac puttered around the sun-splashed ice floes, offering us kayakers hot chocolate with whiskey and Bailey’s.
7) Iceberg Alley
Iceberg Alley is one of the most gawk-worthy places to see in Antarctica.
In the Southern Hemisphere, Antarctica is the place where icebergs calve. They drift toward Iceberg Alley, a 50-mile-long channel in the Antarctic’s Weddell Sea, where they travel north to warmer waters and slowly melt.
There are many types of icebergs in Antarctica. Tiny “growlers” are chunks of sea ice smaller than some six feet across. Bigger “bergy bits” are less than 15 feet in size above the ocean surface.
We saw the biggest icebergs in Iceberg Alley. Ginormous tabular icebergs (broad and flat bergs) – incandescent blue in color – floated by like toppled skyscrapers.
8) Lemaire Channel
The stunning Lemaire Channel is another of the top tourist attractions in Antarctica – if your ship can navigate through it.
Lined by towering cliffs of ice, this iceberg-filled passage is guarded by two ice-capped towers of basalt, Una Peaks, at its entrance.
For us, the ice floes got too thick for our ship to plow through.
So we backtracked from the ice-clogged Lemaire Channel, and the Zodiacs were lowered for an iceberg cruise instead. Pancakes of ice moved in also against the Zodiacs.
To clear a passage back to the ship, the Zodiacs had to push up against smaller bergs and use them as icebreakers.
9) Port Lockroy
One of the most fun Antarctica attractions is the Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy – where you can actually mail a postcard from the world’s southernmost post office.
Each year, roughly 70,000 postcards get mailed to more than 100 countries around the world!
Found in a sheltered harbor on Wiencke Island, Port Lockroy started life as a small British military base. It has now been restored as a historic site, with a tiny museum, post office and gift shop (run by the U.K. Antarctic Heritage Trust).
The museum shows how early Antarctic explorers and researchers lived. You can see food rations, wool long johns drying above a stove, antiquated radio equipment, kitchen supplies and so on.
Only four personnel can staff the site each Antarctic summer, living in one bedroom (in small bunks at each corner of the room).
They share their island home with Gentoo penguins that were building their nests around the buildings.
10) Brown Bluff
Brown Bluff is a million-year-old volcano on the northeast tip of the Antarctic Peninsula (it erupted under an icecap).
It’s one of the best places to visit in Antarctica to see Adelie penguins. A breeding colony of some 20,000 pairs of Adelie to be more precise!
After disembarking from our Zodiac, we plonked ourselves down the mandated 15 feet away from hundreds of Adelie penguins marching up and down near the water’s edge.
Smaller than Chinstraps, they were hilarious to watch as they hopped from one ice chunk to another and tobogganed down snowy slopes on their tummies.
A leopard seal prowled on a nearby ice floe, so the Adelies were cautious entering the water for food. Only after much calling, jostling and shuffling back and forth did they scurry into the sea as one swarming mass.
But there was sadness in viewing them too. We had a scientist from Oceanites (a non-profit organization monitoring penguin populations) traveling with us on our Antarctica cruise. As she explained, Adelie numbers are rapidly declining due to global warming and the Antarctic ice melting.
11) South Georgia Island
Remote and unspoiled, South Georgia Island is the place to go to see macaroni and King penguins, along with thousands of elephant and fur seals, Norwegian reindeer (introduced to the island) and giant albatrosses.
Because it’s 1,733 miles from Antarctica, it’s included as a stop on longer Antarctica cruises (usually 17+ days).
Remember the documentary March of the Penguins? That was about the 4-foot-tall Emperor penguins, the largest penguins in the world. (They mostly reside on Snow Hill Island, and you need to sail on an expedition ship with helicopters to reach their colony.)
With yellow throats and orange patches on their heads, Kings look similar to Emperors.
They’re the second tallest penguins – about 2½ to 3 feet tall when full-grown – and equally impressive, especially when 250,000 of them spread out in front of you.
Apart from seeing the King penguins, excursions also typically take you to Grytviken, once the largest whaling station on South Georgia.
Grytviken is also the final resting place for Sir Ernest Shackleton.
After Shackleton and his 28 men were blown off-course to Elephant Island, he sailed with five companions in a small lifeboat, across 800 miles of open Antarctic waters, to Grytviken.
There, he organized a rescue of the remaining men left behind on Elephant Island. Ultimately, all of Shackleton’s crew miraculously survived.
It’s perhaps fitting that Shackleton’s widow chose Grytviken as the place where he should be buried.
We didn’t visit South Georgia on our Antarctic cruise, but we hear that exploring the wildlife-rich island is an incredible experience!
Best time to visit Antarctica
When can you go to Antarctica?
When it’s winter in the northern hemisphere, the great white southern continent shakes off its heavy winter coat. It’s summer in Antarctica – and the time when you can do an Antarctica expedition cruise.
And while Antarctica is a harsh frozen place during its winter, it really isn’t all that cold during its summer.
Between November and March, the Antarctic Peninsula (the area most visitors explore) averages about 20 F (-6 C). It’s mild enough that you can even go for a quick polar dip.
November and December is when you see penguins mating. And there’s more snow covering the ground. Go early enough in the season (i.e., November), and you can add cross-country skiing to the list of things to do in Antarctica.
Penguin chicks start to hatch in January. Later in the season (February and March), you see lots of comical penguin nurseries. The weather is warmer, and a lot of the snow has turned to slush.
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Photo credits: 2, 7 to 9, 11 to 14, 16 to 26 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase