Journey to the White Continent

One vast stretch of the planet has remained beyond humans’ grasp. Antarctica. This frozen continent has never been permanently occupied. It has no towns or villages; just grand, icy and unpredictable wilderness. A journey to the seventh continent is about as other-worldly as it gets on the planet Earth.

This icy splendor is home to a unique collection of wildlife. The wildlife is generally unafraid of humans: visitors usually elicit no more than an uninterested raised eyebrow from seals and penguins focused on their babies. Here’s just some of what you’ll see:

Penguins. You’ll see colonies of Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. King and Macaroni penguins are found in the sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia.

Seals. Crabeater, Southern Elephant, Leopard, Fur and Weddell seals can be seen feeding in the ocean, floating on ice-floes or simply hanging out on the shore.

Whales. Humpback and killer whales plus minke whales will play and show-off beside the ship and along the zodiacs. They are often so close you can see their great barnacled heads, their eyes and blowholes.

Sea Birds. Albatrosses – giant birds with the largest wingspan in the world. Antarctic skuas, snow petrels, blue eyed shags, American sheathbills, cape pigeons, giant petrels, and tiny dancing Wilson's storm petrels amongst others may pass by.

Icebergs. A panorama of icy shapes whipped by wind and water and with arches and grottos of such intense blue you’ll think you’ve found a treasure of aquamarine gems.

What to Expect: The best way to experience Antarctica up close and personal is on a smaller expedition ship carrying between 50 and 200 passengers. Expedition ships are not cruise ships. They aren’t as fast or luxurious as their larger sisters on the seas. But they provide a comfortable sailing environment and have ice-hardened hulls and a captain and crew with specialist knowledge of Polar Regions. Most have expert lectures onboard to prepare you for the experiences ahead and about the history and wildlife of the area.

Antarctic visits are mainly concentrated at ice-free coastal zones over the Antarctic summer, the five-month period from November to March, in high summer there will be 20+ hours of daylight.

Your trip typically starts with a flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina or Santiago, Chile (depending on your itinerary). You’ll change for an internal flight to a southern port – typically Ushuaia in Argentina or Punta Arenas in Chile.

You’ll board your ship in the late afternoon and spend two days or so crossing the Drake Passage on your way to Antarctica. The waters of the Drake Passage are notoriously fickle: they can be extremely rough or surprisingly placid. Regardless of the kinds of seas you encounter, think of crossing the Drake as a rite of passage – signaling your entrance into the league of explorers – and make the most of the experience.

Once officially in Antarctica, you’ll go ashore for 2-3 hours at a time with groups of less than 100 people. Landings are made using Zodiacs, or rubber inflatable boats. There are typically 1-2 landings a day.

Itineraries can be just the Antarctic voyage or include other sites such as Patagonia or the Falkland Islands.

Practical Tips: You may be travelling during the Antarctic summer, but the temperature will typically be around freezing. Layering is the key so you can easily adapt to the environment both onboard and on shore: thermal underwear, a thin insulating layer (like a wool shirt), a sweater or sweatshirt, then a fleece or down jacket. Your outer layer should be waterproof (jacket and trousers) – you won’t see much rain or snow, but you can splashed by cold sea water when riding on a zodiac.

Boots are important. They should be knee-high, waterproof and have a solid, “grippy” sole for scrambling over rough terrain. Most polar expedition cruises provide essentials like waterproof wear and boots for rent – saves on having to pack heavy, awkward items in your checked bag.

Other items to consider are binoculars, a camera with a zoom lens, a waterproof backpack, and sunglasses and sunscreen. The sun in Antarctica reflects blindingly off the snow and you’ll want to protect your eyes and skin. Stock up on lip balm too. The cold wind combined with sun can wreak havoc on your lips.

Are you ready to adventure to Antarctica? AAA can get you there! Just visit a AAA Travel office or call 800-444-8691 to get started. And, a great way to get started is to check out this Hurtigruten expedition cruise to Antarctica!

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