Last Updated on December 8, 2022 by Nellie Huang
“And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore.” So said Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who accompanied Captain Scott on his doomed expedition to Antarctica and famously documented their experiences in his memoir The Worst Journey in the World.
Thankfully, discovering the polar regions no longer has to entail such a feat of endurance. Today, they can be explored in safe, small-scale expedition vessels with specialist guiding.
Even if expedition conditions today are considerably more comfortable than those experienced by the first hardy polar explorers, visiting the poles still deserves the title of ‘trip of a lifetime’.
To experience the Arctic or Antarctic is to experience utter remoteness. It’s about witnessing some of the last undisturbed areas of natural beauty on earth – before they disappear. It’s about being awed by a sense of scale, drawing alongside great icy mountainous peaks and glaciers and being dwarfed by their shadow. It’s about watching different species, such as whales and walruses, in their natural habitats and marvelling that these apparently stark places are such biodiverse environments.
Where Do You Go on a Polar Cruise?
Start to plan your polar cruise by deciding which itinerary you’d like. There are usually a few options to choose from in terms of itinerary.
Most Arctic cruises depart from Spitsbergen in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. The classic route is to circumnavigate the archipelago, cruising into its fjords and sailing across ice fields. You’ll also get to go on land and hike on its tundra fields and even climb up glaciers.
Antarctica cruises usually depart from the southern part of Argentina. Most cruises visit the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, cruising past icebergs that are bigger than buildings, zipping by pods of whales and seals, visiting whaling stations and watching thousands of penguins on land. Some cruises also visit the sub-Antarctic Falkland Islands and South Georgia, home to some of the biggest Emperor Penguin populations in the world.
What to Expect: Daily Life on a Polar Cruise
Whether you are on an expedition cruise in the Arctic or Antarctica, day-to-day life takes a similar pattern.
Weather and ice conditions permitting, the crew will aim to get you off the ship and out on zodiacs (motorised dinghies) at least twice a day. This could involve wildlife-spotting, visiting a striking viewpoint or ice formation, exploring a historical site (such as research stations or old whaling huts), or even venturing ashore.
There are options for more adventurous activities, such as kayaking, and in Antarctica, diving or camping on the ice. (The polar bear population in the Arctic makes it unsafe to camp on land.)
But the polar regions are also about stillness, and time spent contemplating these otherworldly landscapes. Ice, you’ll come to realise, is rarely white: it can sometimes be many hues of blue – turquoise, cerulean – or even greenish.
During sea days and some evenings there are lectures by expedition guides, who are all specialists in their field – whether it be glaciology, geology, marine biology or polar history: polar cruising is a real learning experience.
On some expeditions, there’s even the opportunity to take part in real-life science experiments, such as gathering water samples for monitoring levels of plankton, or photographically documenting different whale flukes.
When to Visit the Polar Regions
Antarctic cruises depart in the northern hemisphere’s winter to explore the Antarctic Peninsula during the southern hemisphere’s summertime. Cold-weather clothing with lots of layers is obviously crucial for both environments, although it’s not quite as cold as you may expect – unless you take part in a polar plunge, of course…
Wildlife in the Polar Regions
Wildlife viewing is a highlight of all polar cruises. One of our favorite Antarctic moments was stumbling across a lazing Weddell seal just as the clouds parted. The seal seemed to appreciate the sudden break in the clouds as much as we did, and he basked in the sun as we crept past, whispering our surprise at seeing him so unfazed by our proximity.
As well as spotting a variety of seals at either pole, there is a good chance of seeing whales as they feed or come to investigate the moored ships, giving you a chance to observe behavior such as breaching and spyhopping (when whales raise up vertically and pop their heads out of the water).
The species of whales you’ll see vary depending on destination. The Arctic is home to the shy beluga whale with its distinctive white colouration, while humpback and minke whales can be seen at either pole. It’s wondrous to see whales surfacing near your zodiac, but this is also nature red in tooth and claw: you may glimpse giant petrels or glaucous gulls swooping down to pick off unguarded penguin or guillemot chicks.
Your daily schedule may change easily and unpredictability, although this can add to the excitement. It’s not unusual for dinner to be interrupted because a pod of whales have made a sudden appearance portside, or for planned activities to be disrupted by unpredictable weather.
In the Arctic, any sighting of a bear will be called out over the tannoy, so keep your coat and camera with you at all times. In Antarctica, you are allowed to roam independently for short distances, but again, you will need to head quickly back to the zodiac should bad weather come in.
Penguins vs Polar Bears
Choosing your polar cruise is a question of priorities. Travel time may be one (see below). But that aside, it comes down to wildlife. Which creatures are you most eager to see?
Huge colonies of penguins are found in Antarctica, with scientists apparently being able to locate colonies from space, while the Arctic has larger mammals – you could see herds of reindeer, and tusked walruses lurching across the ice floes. And then there’s the polar bear. All are fascinating in their own ways.
In Antarctica, you’re likely to see Gentoo, Adélie and Chinstrap penguins, and while they can seem ungainly and comical as they waddle overland (look out for their energy-efficient slides downhill on their stomachs), they are sleek in the water as they shoot through shoals of krill, producing a waterproofing and friction-reducing oil that spreads over their feathers. Their main predator is the fearsome leopard seal and you might spot one snoozing on an ice floe in between hunting (but keep your distance – their warning growls defend their personal space).
The sheer remoteness of Antarctica means that penguins have no land predators, and so they feel unthreatened by human presence. Interaction with wildlife is forbidden under Antarctic treaty, but don’t be surprised if a few penguins flout that rule and come and investigate you.
Polar bears are more elusive, and facing extinction. As global warming causes sea ice to melt earlier and reform later, polar bears’ hunting time is reduced. They are solitary animals, who hunt and live alone once they have been weaned from their mothers, with the males being particularly aggressive. Sightings are never 100% guaranteed and are entirely unpredictable – but this only makes the prospect more thrilling.
Svalbard is home to 3,000 polar bears and the sight of a white bear is memorable. You may see one foraging on a shoreline, coming to sniff a moored boat, swimming amid ice floes or crashing through pack ice with its front legs.
For Antarctica, getting there is all part of the fun – a flight to Buenos Aires and then on to Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city, and the departure point for crossing Drake’s Passage to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Crossings are notoriously rough, and you may find yourself gaping at 15 to 20 metre-high waves crashing around the ship, so it’s a test of your sea legs. However, there is the option to fly to join your cruise ship at the South Shetland Islands if you wish to avoid this particular rite of passage.
By contrast, journeying to the Arctic is much quicker and can generally be accomplished in the same day, flying to Longyearbyen, one of the world’s most northerly settlements located in the northern reaches of Norway. Scenery-wise, you can expect more free drifting icebergs in Antarctica, while cruising in the Arctic often involves progressing through pack ice to get to the day’s destinations and more spectacular scenery, such as the sculpted ice of the Sparreneset headland.
Ships that lead expeditions to Antarctica during the northern hemisphere’s winter often sail up to Spitsbergen for the Arctic summer. One of our current favourite vessels is the MS Expedition. Carrying 132 passengers, the ship has an open-air panoramic observation deck and comfortable interiors.
We recommend vessels that carry fewer than 200 passengers, as they are able to offer a greater number of trips on the zodiacs. But cruising in the polar regions is really about the quality of the guiding and we have been impressed by the expedition leaders on MS Expedition. All are polar travel veterans and live and breathe their specialisms.
Polar Packing Tips
Some cruises provide expedition jackets, but you should also pack thermals, waterproof trousers, and at least two pairs of gloves (swap them over while one pair is drying out).
Finally – and surprisingly – don’t underestimate the need for polarised sunglasses and sun cream: the ozone layer is thinnest at the poles, and the sun’s glare across miles and miles of brilliant whiteness can be blinding. The slightest movement, whether a tickle of wind or the slow rumble of the boat’s engine, blurs the image, like the gentle wash of a brush over a delicate watercolour painting.