Choosing an Antarctic Expedition

I have just returned from an amazing journey to the last continent – Antarctica – my last continent. It was, of course, incredible and I will recount the experiences over the next few postings. But first, let’s start at the very beginning. How do you choose an Antarctic expedition? This is actually a much more complicated question than you would expect given an increasing number of tour operators and options in the area.

The first thing to consider is whether you want to stick with an Antarctica only itinerary or if you’d like to extend the trip to include the Falklands and South Georgia. Having just done the latter, I highly recommend it. The Falklands and South Georgia are unique and interesting in their own right. They provide a geographic and cultural transition between South America’s Tierra del Fuego, where most journeys embark, and, importantly, they have ample and different wildlife than you’ll encounter in Antarctica. There’s nothing quite like standing on a beach literally covered in penguins, seals and seabirds, having to occasionally join the smaller critters in scurrying out of the way of an 8-ton elephant seal bull as he charges another to protect his harem. To experience this, you need to go to South Georgia.

The next thing to consider is when to go. The tourist season is limited to Antarctica’s summer months and trips generally run from November to March. November is best for observing nesting birds and experiencing sea ice. December and January are the warmest options and provide opportunities to observe penguin chicks hatching and being fed. February and March are best for whale-watching and seeing penguin chicks fledge, as well as molting adults. I chose November somewhat reluctantly given my hatred for and concerns about cold weather, but I’m convinced that it was the right decision, particularly since I survived the cold unscathed. All the expedition staff on my boat claimed that this was their favorite trip, and judging by how many came in just to run that trip and then left, I think the comment was genuine. By going to the Falklands and South Georgia as well, I experienced penguins at all possible colony stages, including courtship, mating, egg tending, chick rearing and molting. And I saw every possible species of penguin other than emperors, which are almost never seen by tourists anyway but who would most likely be seen at this time more than others since they’re hunting near shore to feed their chicks and will abandon their colonies and go further away later in the season. Fur seals were beginning to set up their territories, but weren’t at the peak of their breeding at which time they are apparently so aggressive that beach landings are frequently abandoned. This happened only once on my trip, but I was told by travelers who had come later in the season that itineraries can be entirely dictated by these adamant beach masters. The other benefit is actually the thing I dreaded the most – the ice. At times in Antarctica you couldn’t even see the water as our boat pushed through fields of iceburgs and sea ice of all sorts, shapes and sizes. And the surrounding vistas looked like someone had chopped the top off the Rocky Mountains and placed just the snow-covered parts all around us, glaciers extending right down to the water. This winter wonderland is how I’d envisioned Antarctica in my head and apparently that’s not what you see later in the season. Yes, there will be snow at the top of the peaks and the big iceburgs will remain, but you’ll be tromping through mud to observe guano-reeking colonies rather than crunching through fresh snow in mildly guano enhanced environs. And keep in mind that nearly 50,000 people now visit Antarctica every year. That’s nearly 100,000 feet hitting the same colonies over and over, so that mud will likely be well-trampled. The other thing to keep in mind is that the later you go in the summer, the more and more wildlife will have completed land-based breeding operations and will have returned to sea where they’re not as easily observed. Personally, I’m happy I went in November and would recommend going earlier in the season than later.

Now you’re ready to choose a company to travel with. There are ample options and you can literally spend days comparing the pros and cons of what’s available. One thing to keep in mind while researching is that only 100 people are allowed on shore at a time in Antarctica. Tours get around this by offering zodiak trips, kayaking options and the like, but for maximum land time you’re best choosing a trip with as close to 100 people, or less, as possible. After my own research marathon, my short list (in no particular order) included: Quark Expeditions, Ambercrombie & Kent, Hapag-Lloyd and Lindblad/National Geographic Expeditions. Below is a brief review of my discoveries and decisions about each.

  • Quark Expeditions has a strong reputation for polar excursions; has several itinerary options, including some more unusual and adventurous ones; and runs several different ships, with maximum passenger numbers ranging from 112-189. My marks against Quark Expeditions were that the decor on all ships seemed a bit Motel 6, the number of people on larger ships was more than I wanted and the quoted price wasn’t comprehensive. Options like kayaking would cost extra and it appeared that they may add a fuel surcharge, issues that made me wonder what other fees and extras might show up on a bill.
  • Ambercrombie & Kent is known as one of the world’s leading luxury travel companies and one would therefore expect them to deliver a good experience one way or another. Their boat, Le Boreal, is one of the newest and most luxurious vessels visiting Antarctica at the moment and all cabins include a private balcony. The downsides were that they held up to 199 people, offered the fewest days at land on their trips, did not offer a kayaking option and had very mixed reviews, including complaints about cabin flooding.
  • The Hapag-Lloyd company has lots of experience at sea given that another line of the business is a cargo container shipping line. They run a variety of Antarctica tours on two different ships, both of which appear to be quite comfortable and elegant, and offer some of the highest number of land days of the itineraries I was considering. The reasons I rejected them were that they carried higher numbers of passengers (164-184) than I wanted, did not offer kayaking and was a German company primarily catering to Germans. I was nervous about potential language barrier issues despite their reassurances that there would be none.
  • I ultimately chose Lindblad/National Geographic Expeditions, keeping it to what made this stand out over the other options as I made my decision. Both companies have impressive reputations and indeed Lindblad was one of the pioneers in adventure excursions, already organizing tours to Antarctica as early as the 1960’s. National Geographic’s trademark is top quality naturalists and photographers, both of which are important to me, and every excursion includes a strong photography instruction element with experts there to advise. Their itinerary included the highest number of land days of any I was considering and I was under the impression that the number of people on the boat was capped at 110 (though there were 128 on our actual trip). I also liked the fact that kayaking was an option at no extra cost. The boat looked both comfortable and elegant, as well as having a strong safety endorsement.

The final decision, depending on your carrier, is whether to add extensions or not. Iguazu Falls and Easter Island are two of the more commonly offered options. I seriously considered the Easter Island extension, but decided against it in the end and am glad I did. This is of course a very personal decision, but for me, I’m not much of a group traveler and had had enough of being herded and on someone else’s schedule by the end of my 3-week excursion. Besides, I wanted time to absorb the amazingness I’d just experience and feel that places like Easter Island and Iguazu Falls probably deserve their own amount of awe absorption without being a tack on.

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