Antarctica:  Visiting the Great White Continent

Penguins, seals, whales and the splendour of Antarctica

At a Glance

FOCUS:

Cruise: pelagic seabirds, penguins, seals and the splendour of Antarctica

WHERE:

Ushuaia (Argentina) - South Shetland Islands & Antarctic Peninsula - Ushuaia

SAMPLE WILDLIFE:

Drake Passage: numerous albatrosses including Snowy (Wandering), Southern Royal, Black-browed, Grey-headed and Light-mantled Sooty, as well as White-chinned, Blue and Soft-plumaged Petrels, Wilson's and Black-bellied Storm-petrels.

Antarctica: Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie Penguins, Antarctic Cormorant, Brown Skua and Snowy Sheathbill.

Marine mammals: Humpback and Antarctic Minke Whales, Orca, Crabeater, Weddell and Leopard Seals.

Dates and Prices:

Dates: multiple options from November - March each year

Leader: N/A

Prices: on application depending on the voyage selected



  • Gentoo Penguin, Antarctica
  • Wandering Albatross, Drake Passage
  • Black-browed Albatross, Drake Passage
  • Leopard Seal
  • Humpback Whale
  • Leopard Seal
  • Humpback Whale, Antarctica
  • Hourglass Dolphin, Drake Passage
  • Gentoo Penguin, Antarctica
  • Gentoo Penguin (chick), Antarctica
  • Gentoo Penguins, Antarctica
  • Gentoo Penguins, Antarctica
  • Crabeater Seals, Antarctica
  • Chinstrap Penguins, South Shetland Islands
  • Chinstrap Penguins, South Shetland Islands
  • Chinstrap Penguin, South Shetland Islands
  • Chinstrap Penguins, South Shetland Islands
  • Cape Petrels, Drake Passage
  • Brown Skua, Antarctica
  • Antarctic Tern, Antarctica
  • Antarctic Cormorant, Antarctica
  • Antarctic Cormorant, Antarctica
  • Adelie Penguin, Antarctica
  • Adelie Penguins, Antarctica
  • Adelie Penguins, Antarctica
  • Adelie Penguins, Antarctica
  • Adelie Penguin, Antarctica
  • Adelie Penguin, Antarctica
  • Adelie Penguins, Antarctica

Tour overview

Antarctica is like nowhere else on Earth, a huge continent of dramatic ice-covered mountains, vast snowfields, innumerable glaciers, colossal icebergs and some fantastic wildlife, making this a truly unique holiday to a location which only a tiny percentage of the world’s population has been privileged enough to visit.

Generally, the season begins in November and runs until March and every month has its own special highlights. For those visiting at the beginning of the season, there is a lot more snow and ice (especially in the South Shetland Islands) and the penguins will have only just started to nest. By Christmas, it is mid-summer in the southern hemisphere (with almost 24 hours daylight) and the first of the Gentoo Penguin chicks will be hatching. It is then a constant rush for the adult birds to fetch food for their youngsters, dodging the attention of Orcas and Leopard Seals in the water and Brown Skua ashore. Depending on the location, the chicks will typically start to form creches in January and by early March, tranquillity returns to the beaches as the birds head to sea for the winter.

Antarctica is, however, about so much more than ‘just penguins’ and it is almost impossible to put into words, the breath-taking scenery of this very special place. Ice and snow will be a constant feature as your ship cruises between landing sites and on most occasions, you can expect two activities each day with these being a combination of landings and zodiac cruises.

Whilst every voyage is unique, most will offer you the opportunity to visit colonies of Chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo Penguins. There are also excellent chances of Weddell and Crabeater Seals and as the days slowly start to shorten, the chances of finding Leopard and Antarctic Fur Seals generally increases. Almost irrespective of when you visit, you can expect to see Humpback Whales (with the highest numbers being at the end of the summer) and whilst wildlife can never be guaranteed, there are also opportunities to see Orca (Killer Whales) throughout the summer months.

As well as visiting the Antarctic Peninsula, most expeditions also make landings in the South Shetland Islands which are sometimes flippantly nicknamed the “Banana Belt of Antarctica” due to the marginally milder conditions. For birders, a stop here is important to see Chinstrap Penguins, as these are much less numerous around the Antarctic Peninsula itself. The South Shetlands are also where some of the most popular landings are located with one of these being Deception Island, a volcano with an extraordinary flooded caldera which the expedition ships are able to sail inside.

Although some companies now offer the opportunity to fly from Chile to the South Shetland Islands, we recommend a voyage which sails from South America, as there is plenty to see in the Drake Passage which you will not encounter around the Antarctic Peninsula. Although notorious to mariners for the swells, storms and inclement sea conditions, in reality, you will be unfortunate to encounter really bad weather on the crossing and the two days at sea provide a perfect opportunity to look for a great variety of seabirds. Snowy (Wandering), Northern Royal, Southern Royal, Black-browed, Grey-headed and Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses are all possible, along with both Giant Petrels, Southern Fulmar, Cape, Snow, Soft-plumaged, Blue and White-chinned Petrels. Amongst the smaller species, both Wilson’s and Black-bellied Storm-petrels are regular, as are Antarctic Prions, and with perseverance and a degree of luck you could see something less common such as Antarctic or Grey Petrel, Great Shearwater or Rockhopper Penguin.

Whilst you are cruising around the Antarctic Peninsula, Humpback and Antarctic Minke Whales are the most likely species, but a much wider variety of cetaceans are present out in the deeper water of the Drake Passage. Once again, it is a case of being out on deck, ‘putting in the hours’ and hoping that luck is on your side but Blue, Fin, Southern Right and Sperm Whales are all possible, as are smaller species such as Strap-toothed Beaked Whale and Hourglass Dolphin. Indeed, we strongly recommend always having a camera to hand as photos are often the best way of identifying the trickier species.

Except for those who choose to fly to the South Shetland Islands (something we also do not advise due to the not infrequent delays), most voyages sail from Ushuaia, a small town of c.60,000 people, which sits on the northern side of the Beagle Channel in the extreme south of Argentina.

With excellent birding nearby at both the Tierra del Fuego National Park and around the Martial Glacier which overlooks the town, we recommend allowing time before your voyage to visit these stunning locations. Local specialities including Magellanic Woodpecker, White-throated Caracara and Magellanic Horned Owl can be found at the national park and the scree slopes and woodlands around the glacier offer chances for White-bellied Seedsnipe, as well as Thorn-tailed Rayadito, Austral Thrush and Andean Condor.

WildWings have been assisting clients in visiting Antarctica for almost 30 years and Chris Collins (WildWings Managing Director) has made over 50 trips to the “Great White Continent” so we are well placed to advise you on the multitude of options which are available, although at this point we would not consider booking a trip advisable due to the uncertainty created by the pandemic.

Sample itinerary

Day 1: Mid-late afternoon board vessel in Ushuaia.

Days 2-3: Drake Passage

Days 4-7: South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula (no. days depends on trip)

Days 8-9: Drake Passage

Day 10: Disembark in Ushuaia.


NB: As applies to all expedition cruises, the exact itinerary will be subject to weather and local conditions. All landings are subject to government permissions.

Potential Seabirds (selected species only)

Seabirds in Drake Passage: Wilson's Storm-petrel, Black-bellied Storm-petrel, Snowy (Wandering) Albatross, Southern Royal Albatross, Northern Royal Albatross, Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, Grey-headed Albatross, Southern Giant Petrel, Northern Giant Petrel, Southern Fulmar, Antarctic Petrel, Cape Petrel, Snow Petrel, Blue Petrel, Antarctic Prion, Slender-billed Prion, Soft-plumaged Petrel, Grey Petrel, White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, Great Shearwater, Subantarctic (Little) Shearwater and Common Diving Petrel.

Birds in South Shetlands and Antarctic Peninsula: Snowy Sheathbill, Kelp Gull, Antarctic Tern, South Polar Skua, Brown Skua, Emperor Penguin (very rare), Adelie Penguin, Chinstrap Penguin, Gentoo Penguin, Antarctic Cormorant.

Potential Cetaceans and Marine Mammals in Drake Passage and in Antarctica (selected species only)

Antarctic Fur Seal, Leopard Seal, Weddell Seal, Crabeater Seal, Southern Elephant Seal, Southern Right Whale, Antarctic Minke Whale, Blue Whale, Fin Whale, Humpback Whale, Peale's Dolphin (Beagle Channel), Hourglass Dolphin, Dusky Dolphin (Beagle Channel), Southern Right Whale Dolphin, Orca, Sperm Whale, Southern Bottlenosed Whale and Strap-toothed Beaked Whale.