Antarctic travel has epitomised adventure for more than a century. Now between 50,000 and 75,000 lucky tourists visit Antarctica each year and while most are there for sightseeing and wildlife watching, some operators offer additional opportunities for one-in-a-lifetime adventures in this incredible wilderness.
Antarctica remains the one continent where you can’t just take a cheap flight, turn up and do your own thing. Unless you skipper your own yacht to the ice, you have to arrive with a commercial operator who provides all the logistics for travel here. But even travelers enjoying a fully pampered cruise may want to try some of the more historic means of polar travel such as skiing and kayaking.
Sea kayaking with wildlife in Antarctica
The most popular adventure activity conducted by operators on the Antarctic peninsula, sea kayaking offers visitors a way to fully immerse in the landscape.
Unlike planes and ships, a kayak brings you back to the pace of the place, in tune with the waves and the wind, powered only by yourself as you glide past icebergs to explore popular sites such as Neko Harbor, Cuverville Island and Cierva Cove – as well as hidden gems inaccessible to larger vessels.
There’s something intimate about moving around this blue world, plugged into the fluid polar environment around you, spotting whales while penguins zoom underneath your paddle. Sea kayaking options are available on several cruises as optional additions (usually for an extra cost), although some operators run dedicated trips that aim to take travelers for a paddle every day.
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Skiing and climbing expeditions in Antarctica
The Antarctic Peninsula is basically one long mountain range dropping straight into the sea, flanked by equally steep islands poking out of the stormy straits and bays. Some of the larger islands have giant peaks – such as Mt Français (2822m) on Anvers Island and Mt Parry (2520m) on Brabant Island, which are both popular climbing and skiing areas – while dozens of lower islands and promontories provide easier days out.
Though barely any snow falls in the icy Antarctic interior, the maritime environment of the peninsula coast means softer, skiable snow on the mountain slopes. The skiing here is backcountry style, you won’t be catching any chair lifts here. As there are crevasses and the possibility of avalanches, all outings are with well-qualified guides. However, even skiers without huge experience can end up making some tracks with an iceberg-strewn ocean as a backdrop.
Several established companies offer cruises with ski and mountaineering opportunities but the only ship-based option fully dedicated to ski adventures is Californian outfit IceAxe Expeditions, which runs regular trips at the start of every season. On most trips you can backcountry ski, encountering wildlife along the way, but nights are spent safely aboard ship in well-catered comfort.
A longer, tougher and more expensive option is aboard a yacht such as Icebird, the base for Ski-Antarctica, a company that has made numerous first ascents, descents and ski trips on the coastal peaks and hinterland. It also offers multi-day tent-based adventures.
For those seeking to explore deeper into the big white void, Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, incorporating the inland-Antarctic pioneers Adventure Network International (ANI), offers two-week ski or climb programmes. These are separate to its long-standing operation on Mt Vinson (4892m), the continent’s highest peak, and magnet for Seven Summiteers. After a four-hour flight from Punta Arenas, Chile, visitors spend some time at Union Glacier acclimatising and preparing for their adventure, before heading out with experienced guides on multi-day adventures.
Consider polar snorkeling or scuba diving in Antarctica
To enable even more immersion in Antarctica, some operators, such as Swoop Antarctica offer scuba options to experienced, certified divers with drysuit and open-water experience, at very low temperatures.
A whole new underworld is open to these incredible adventurers: ice walls and caverns, historic wrecks, wildlife unseen from above and the truly unique chance to touch the ice from the inside.
If you’re not scuba ready, but keen to get into the sea and peer below the surface, polar snorkeling is an option that requires a lot less pre-training.
The best times to go for Antarctic adventure activities
Weather governs everything here, but even with inevitable delays, most trips get plenty of time for active adventure. Ships and yachts visit from November through late-March, but sea-ice conditions vary greatly year to year, and this affects access to some locations. Skiing and climbing are best done in November and December, while January to February is better for kayaking and whale sightings.
Far from the flat, monochrome void of the deep interior, the Antarctic Peninsula is beautiful and richly diverse. A melding of sea, snow and rock, enriched with wildlife and stories of human endeavor, it’s no wonder most visitors consider it the trip of a lifetime.
This article was first published on September 20, 2019 and updated on April 7, 2022