Picking the Best Antarctica Tour

Ron Niebrugge Antarctica, Photos, Travel 1 Comment

Massive icebergs near the Antarctic Circle, Antarctica.

Massive icebergs near the Antarctic Circle, Antarctica.

Who offers the best Antarctica trips for the serious photographer or nature lover?

In a few weeks I will be making my 5th trip down to the Antarctica region as a member of the Cheesemans’ Ecology Tour staff.  Now that I have made a number of trips, and traveled and worked with staff and passengers who have been on a wide variety of trips with different operators, I am surprised at just how vastly different trips really are.   In many cases a little extra money, or even the same price can provide a far better experience if you know what to look for and how to evaluate trips.

Icebergs at Brown Bluff, Antarctica.

Icebergs at Brown Bluff, Antarctica.

First, notice I singled out serious photographer or naturalist when talking about the best trips to Antarctica.  I’m thinking of the person who wants to maximize their time on shore, one who wants to be out at those special times like sunrise and sunset, and have enough time to really observe the wildlife and light.  This isn’t for everyone.  I understand many, if not most people will be as interested in the quality of their room, the food, the entertainment and formal nights; and are fine watching the beautiful scenery from the comfort of a balcony.  There is nothing wrong with this, and you will still have a very memorable trip, but this post won’t be overly valuable for you.

St. Andrews, South Georgia.

King Penguin at St. Andrews, South Georgia.

For me, it is about getting off the ship as much as possible in hopes of capturing those special moments.  Going to shore at Saint Andrews, one of the most amazing places on earth with some 300,000 King Penguins, in time for the 4:00 a.m. sunrise is certainly one of them.  This would begin a 12 hour landing at this world class South Georgia Island beach.  Sitting on Booth Island at midnight for a stunning sunset after doing two other landings that day is another memorable day.  For me, I would be happy with peanut butter and jelly and a cot if I knew it would give me another chance for such an experience.  This is who my post is geared towards, although none of the ships are going to feed you P&J or have you sleep on a cot. 🙂

To understand the difference in the tours to Antarctica you need to understand how travel is managed there.  Travel is managed by a large tour association, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).  IATTO provides site and wildlife guidelines directed at minimizing the visitor impact but maximizing the experience for Antarctica and South Georgia.  Guidelines dictate wildlife viewing distances and other traveler and tour company operational issues.  IATTO also controls the schedule of ships so that two ships won’t share the same landing site and they schedule things in a way that you rarely see another ship, adding to the remote visitor experience. They also require training and annual testing of staff members, like myself, and require operators have at least 75% of its staff have prior Antarctic experience.  In short, you do not want to take a trip with anyone who isn’t a member of IATTO, fortunately the vast number of operators are a member.

Icebreaker Ortelius moving through ice at sunset / sunrise as we travel below the Antarctic Circle, Antarctica.

Icebreaker Ortelius moving through ice at sunset / sunrise as we travel below the Antarctic Circle, Antarctica.

One of the key takeaways from IATTO’s site guidelines is they limit the number of visitors at any landing site to a maximum of 100 passengers (not counting staff).  So if you are on one of the many ships with 200 passengers, or possibly more, you just cut your time on shore in half as they now have to do everything in shifts, or alternate landing sites.  I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be sitting on board waiting your turn and hoping the weather doesn’t deteriorate to the point of cancelling the landing. Ships with more than 500 passengers are not allowed to make landings at all.

So the first thing I would look at with any tour operator is the passenger count, and I would do what I could to avoid trips with more than 100 passengers, especially if they have substantially more than 100.  There are huge economies of scale when it comes to ships,I know that with my own yacht charters, but this is one case where paying a bit more could double your time on shore and greatly enhance your experience.

Zodiac cruising, Antarctica.

Zodiac cruising with a humpback whale, Antarctica.

Some locations don’t lend themselves to landing on shore and are usually enjoyed from a Zodiac as you “Zodiac cruise” looking for whales, seals, penguins and cool icebergs.  The other advantage to a small passenger ship is the ability to “cruise” with all the passengers at the same time.  Again, no shifts.

Another important consideration is the length of the trip.  There are many trips known in the industry as the “milk run” to the Peninsula which allow time for few days actually in Antarctica.  There are a couple of problems with the short trips.  For one, you have little weather latitude.  I once had a two day crossing turn into 5 days thanks to big seas and 90 knot wind.  On a short trip, that would use up almost all your time.

The other consideration, do you have time to get to the “good stuff” which tends to be further South in my opinion.  If you are going to take the time and spend the money to travel to the other-side of the planet and visit Antarctica you want to make sure you have time to travel South through the Gerlache Strait and down to the Lemaire Channel.    In my opinion, this is “real” Antarctica with towering peaks, glaciers and giant icebergs.  Below I have more information on places to look for on your itinerary.

Adelie-penguins

Adelie Penguin.

All the trips have a substantial fixed time cost when it comes to the ocean crossings, so for every day an operator shortens a trip that deduction comes directly at the expense of time in Antarctica.  So as you compare trips, compare the number of days actually in Antarctica and/or South Georgia not just the total number of days.  Not all X number of day trips are created equal as some operators include days in Ushuaia or even days flying to and from South America.  Study the itinerary carefully.

Another consideration is the staff  Will you have non English speaking ship crew driving your Zodiac, or will you have experienced, English speakers who can help get you in the best positions and explain what you are seeing, and respond to your requests in English.

The ship is another consideration.  Is it stabilized and is it an ice class ship.  I would want a minimum of a 1D ice class, 1A is the best.  I know some of my most memorable moments have been plowing through ice in a ship with a 1A ice class.

Where to Go

Most trips include stops in the South Shetland Islands as this is your first chance to get off the ship at the beginning of the trip, and last chance on the way home before the long crossing.  I find most places in the Shetlands pale in comparison to what you will see elsewhere, and I’m usually eager to move South with one exception, Baily Head.  The huge chinstrap penguin colony at Baily Head is impressive, although the landing there is challenging, and often not possible.

As you travel to areas around the Northern portion of the peninsula it gets more interesting.  Hope Bay and Brown Bluff are two favorites.  Unfortunately I have never made it to Paulet Island because of ice, but it is often listed as a favorite among fellow staff.

Giant icebergs at sunset, from Booth Island, Antarctica.

Giant icebergs at sunset, from Booth Island, Antarctica.

In my opinion, you want to make sure you travel further South.  Cierva Cove is the beginning of the best locations as far as I’m concerned.  These are many of my favorites:  Pléneau / Booth Island, Danco Island, Petermann Island, Cuverville Island, Lemaire Channel, Paradise Bay and Neko Harbour.   If it is your first trip a visit to the Post Office at Port Lockroy is interesting.

Now taking the go South theme to extremes, by far my two most memorable days ever in the Southern Ocean was the trip we made South of the Antarctic Circle.  Unfortunately, lack of time or too much ice has thwarted future attempts, and that would be the risk with any circle bound itinerary.

South Georgia.

If you have seen documentaries on TV about Antarctica, it is not uncommon for much of the footage to be of South Georgia even though it is technically not part of Antarctica.  It is also overseen by IAATO, so the same rules apply.

If you have seen images of 300,000 king penguins, that is South Georgia.  The amount of wildlife there is absolutely amazing, not just penguins, but the beaches are often completely packed with marine mammals, much more so than on the Antarctica Peninsula.  I don’t think there is a larger biomass in one place anywhere on Earth. If you are forced to pick one over the other – good luck!  They really are very different.  If I had to pick, I think I might lean towards the Antarctic Peninsula, but most people I have had this discussion with, who have seen both locations lean towards South Georgia.

One option is to see it all in one trip, but these trips are much longer, and thus more expensive.  I have done a couple of them, to do it right, it takes about 25 to 28 days at sea. Some tours shorten this by a lot, at the expense of many of the good sights in Antarctica.  The best possible option would be two seperate in-depth trips, one to each location.

Huge king penguin colony at St. Andrews, South Georgia.

Huge king penguin colony at St. Andrews, South Georgia.

Must sees in South Georgia?  St. Andrews Bay, Salisbury Plain, Gold Harbour, the old whaling station at Grytviken, and the Shackleton Hike between Fortuna Bay and Stromness are huge highlights and my favorites.  Anything else would be a bonus!

Now I haven’t tried to recommend specific trips or operators, as the offerings are constantly changing – boats, itineraries and even operators change over time.  I thought it would be more valuable to provide the “tools” to evaluate the options.  However, there is one exception at least this year (2016).

The company I work for, Cheesemans’ Ecology Tours historically has offered one of, if not the most in depth trips to Antarctica and/or South Georgia.  I hear this from numerous staff members and passengers.  I, once again, leave for Antarctica with them on a sold out trip this March.  However, this October they will be offering their last in depth trip to South Georgia.   It also includes some landings in the Falklands.  This longer trip allows us to see a very wide variety of places and give us more than one shot at the best places, which we needed last year, plus we visit a whole lot of other amazing locations.

South Georgia.

South Georgia.

In fact, Cheesemans’ isn’t advertising any trips to the Southern region in 2017 and reiterate to me that this will be their last trip to South Georgia thanks to changing market conditions and ship regulations.  I think it is difficult to convey the advantages of the Cheesemans’ offerings given the competitive nature of the industry where price is the deciding factor for many visitors making it harder to fill these trips.  This is just my opinion, not official company talk, but it is a bummer seeing them pull back from these trips down south.  But, there is still one more chance, so check them out.  If you decide to join the trip be sure and  let them know you heard about the trip from me, as I do receive some positive compensation if I send referrals.  And – I’ll be working on board as staff, driving Zodiacs, giving photography lectures and helping people with photography.  And hopefully, getting in one last 4:00 a.m. sunrise morning and 12 hour day at St Andrews!

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