Everything You Need to Know When Visiting Antarctica

Antarctica is the dream destination, the place on your bucket list that calls loudly to you.

But you have questions about trip to the White Continent. We have answers, beginning with why you’d want to travel to Antarctica, including whether it’s difficult to travel there, what the dress code is and more. Read on for answers to those questions.

Thinking about a cruise to Antarctica? Start here


Why Antarctica?

Whether you’re drawn to a deeper education about Antarctica’s importance or its sheer isolation, you will find nothing like the planet’s most remote place, never mind seeing it with your own eyes.

Antarctica also is the closest most people will ever get to visiting another planet (unless you’ve already booked your ticket on the next SpaceX shuttle). The horizon stretches toward infinity; alien shapes protrude from towers of ice; a vacuum of sound and color and yet bright pops of glacial blue appear before the sudden incursion of a leopard seal to remind interlopers that yes, there is life here.

Antarctica swallows you whole into its alternate reality. This is why most visitors describe the continent as “otherworldly”: It’s hard to believe that this space is occurring on the same planet at the same time as Manhattan.     

Read more about Conrad Combrink’s experience in Antarctica.

Traveling to Antarctica? You can go by ship or by plane

A trip to Antarctica is like no other. It's life changing and jaw-dropping and not to be missed.
Guests can skip the Drake Passage and fly to Antarctica on the Antarctica Bridge program./Silversea

Silversea is an ultra-luxury line so the trip is easy, especially when you learn of the history of such early explorers as Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, who were in a race in 1911 to get to the South Pole. (Amundsen arrived first.)

Generally what stands between the ship passenger and Antarctica is the Drake Passage. It can be rocky sailing, even for the most experienced passenger, but it also can be as smooth as any ship trip. Veterans says it’s the “Drake Lake,” a relatively placid experience, or the “Drake Shake,” which means it can be a bumpy ride. The crossing also takes 48 hours each way, thus adding four days onto the trip.

For those who want to avoid the sometimes-rough Drake Passage, which takes about 48 hours each way, give or take, or for those who have limited time to spend, Silversea also offers a fly-cruise program called Antarctica Bridge, in which passengers are flown to the White Continent from South America.

If you’re trying to decide which is the better option for you, check out these pieces by Jamie Watts on crossing the Drake Passage, a member of Silversea’s Expedition team and an unabashed fan of crossing the Drake, and Barbara Muckermann, a fan of the Antarctica Bridge trip. Lots of valuable information that will help you decide.

Will Antarctica be crowded?

No, it will not be crowded, although between 2019 and 2020, more visitors than ever — 56,000 — touched down in Antarctica.

Still, when you consider the size of this continent — 5.28 million square miles, about the size of Canada and India combined — if all 56,000 visited at once, that would be about .001 of a person per square mile . By comparison, the 42-square-mile Disney World in Orlando, Fla., receives an average of 58 million visitors annually. That makes an average of 158,904 people per day (which, of course, will vary) and if it’s an average day, that’s 3,783 people per square mile.

Getting to know Silversea ships that sail to Antarctica

Silversea Cruises’ Silver Endeavour, classified as a PC6 ice-class vessel. It is the latest addition to the Silversea fleet./Silversea

They are, in every sense of the word, “ultra-luxury” cruise ships that also are expedition ships, a category that didn’t exist until Silversea introduced it.

The ships Silversea sails to Antarctica are classified as expedition vessels. Silver Wind carries 274 guests and 239 crew members. Silver Cloud holds 254 passengers and carries 212 crew members. Both ships have been redesigned with ice-strengthened hulls to withstand sailing in polar regions. Silver Endeavour, the latest ship to join Silversea fleet, carries 200 guests and 200 crew and was purpose built for sailing in the polar regions.

Expedition-style ships are equipped with physical attributes that allow the vessels to navigate the waters of Antarctica with less resistance and more stabilization. The Silver Endeavour has a PC6 ice-class rating, which means the Endeavour is rated for “summer and autumn operation in medium first-year ice.”

What is a Zodiac and why is it important?

Zodiac Cruising in Antarctica
Zodiacs help guests get closer to the amazing sights in Antarctica./Matthew Scott/Silversea

Zodiacs are inflatable, portable boats, often with a rigid hull. From them, passengers can get an up-close view of their surroundings, which is especially important in polar regions that have abundant wildlife and fascinating ice formations. Glaciers, for instance, move and change over the years. And when chunks of ice fall off a glacier, called calving, that’s quite a sight to see.

Explore these zodiac tours in Antarctica.

What are some of the public spaces on an expedition ship?

Public spaces on these trips include a dedicated mud room, which allows passengers to gear up or re-acclimate upon reboarding the ship without lugging their heavy gear — and muck — through the ship and back to their suite. Those mudrooms also are important for decontamination, which ensures that guests have not brought back, inadvertently, any seeds or bacteria that might be harmful to wildlife or the environment they might encounter on a future excursion.

What are the accommodations like?

Take a look at some of the amenities on Silver Endeavour, which serves Antarctica./Siilversea

The accommodations in expedition vessels of yore were sparse, but today, Silversea ships sailing to Antarctica feature spacious, plush suites, each with a butler; a full-service spa and fitness center; and, on the Silver Endeavour, an enclosed pool and deck. Silversea has invested heavily in ensuring that guests travel deeply, safely and luxuriously.

Pro tips on packing and preparing for the weather

Antarctica is a triple threat of weather conditions: It is the coldest, windiest and driest continent on Earth. These harsh elements contribute to what makes the continent largely uninhabitable by humans, but it’s safe to visit with the appropriate apparel.

Penguins survive chilly water, thanks to a layer of fat and densely packed feathers that have a woolly under layer./Shutterstock

The average annual temperature off the coast is 14 degrees Fahrenheit but can reach temperatures of more than 50 degrees F. Your expedition generally will be timed between November and March, or austral summer, so that you’ll encounter milder temperatures and conditions that allow your ship to maneuver without encountering giant chunks of ice.

What should my packing list include?

Photography pack list for antarctica
Warm hats and gloves are important, but no need to lug a parka with you; Silversea will provide one to use and to take home./Lucia Griggi/Silversea

A cruise to Antarctica is more focused on the destination than anywhere you might have been before, so you can leave your dressy things at home. The expectation for daytime apparel onboard is casual and depending on the activity that day, passengers will be dressed for function over fashion. 

The dress code onboard your expedition ship will be more relaxed than on other Silversea sailings. Pack for comfort, meaning practical items such as wool socks, a warm hat and gloves, and layers from long underwear to fleece pullovers. Check with outdoor stores that can advise you on Antarctic clothing and which fabrics will serve you well as you layer.

At night, most guests transition to an elegant casual look after 6 p.m. for a meal in one of the restaurants or a drink at the bar. Formal gowns and suits are not required; guests opt for khakis and a button-up shirt; dressier blouses and pants; or a simple dress. 

Guests will be provided with some of bulky outwear items that are not only tough to pack but are specifically designed to withstand the sun, wind and other elements of Antarctica. Mud boots are sized and provided to each guest for use ashore, as well as a custom parka, which is a gift to take home as a memento. Don’t forget gloves and a warm hat. Plus some binoculars for extra-close viewing.

Remember the sun shines nearly 24 hours a day in the Antarctic summer, so sunscreen and polarized glasses are necessary./Shutterstock

Sun protection is key in the reflective White Continent, so a high-SPF sunscreen, lip balm and polarized sunglasses are essential. And maybe a sleep mask because you’ll be there in austral summer, when the sun barely sets. Passengers will receive a packing list from Silversea before departure.

One thing you may not think of is: The sun barely or never sets during Antarctica’s summer days, and that could affect your sleep. Check these tips for Arctic sleep, which include an eye mask, for making sure you get the rest you need.

Don’t forget to bring the best photography equipment for Antarctica.

Are there medical restrictions for guests?

It’s primarily up to the guests to determine whether their medical condition will prevent them from participating in an expedition cruise like Antarctica. It is not recommended for pregnant women beyond their 24th week of pregnancy to travel aboard a cruise ship. 

For safety reasons, all guests traveling to Antarctica with Silversea (and nearly any company) are required to complete a medical questionnaire before boarding. This ensures that the ship and its staff can accommodate any special needs.

Before sailing, Silversea requests written notification of a special medical condition, such as an oxygen machine. The form can be e-mailed or sent to your physical address. Guests must bring their own wheelchairs; it’s important to note that limited mobility hampers the ability to participate in shore excursions on an expedition cruise.

Guests are also asked to bring a sufficient supply of any prescription medication. A few extra days’ worth of meds is never a bad idea in case of an unforeseen delay.

You can read more about medical considerations.

What happens in case of a medical emergency?

Silversea expedition crew is trained to handle medical situations, but if there is a medical emergency for which a passenger needs treatment beyond the ship’s doctor, that person likely would be airlifted to a hospital in South America. Anyone thinking about booking a cruise in Antarctica should buy travel insurance that covers cost of a medical evacuation.

All about wildlife spotting

Elephant seal in Antarctica. The male can grow up to 21 feet long and can weigh more than 7,000 pounds./Shutterstock

The inhabitants of Antarctica are surprisingly abundant for such an otherwise quiet continent, and guests to the destination can expect to spot wildlife on land and at sea.  At least seven species of whale have been detected surrounding the White Continent, including orcas (aka killer whales), humpbacks, and minke. You may or may not see them, depending on when you go.

Killer whales, or orcas. spyhopping–positioning vertically so they can check out their surroundings./Shutterstock

In the waters around your ship, you can also spot various species of seals, including the facially endowed elephant seals that can weigh up to 5 tons. When guests land near a seal colony, it’s said the sight — and the smell — are equally unforgettable.

You also may spot leopard seals, whose coats gave birth to their name. Their main food is penguins; despite their fierce reputation, they generally are not a threat to humans.

Penguins you are likely to see in Antarctica: Magellanic penguin (top left); the Emperor Penguin (lower left); and the King penguin./Shutterstock

Penguins, meanwhile, are a reliable welcome party for visitors, including the royally dubbed King and Emperor penguins; rockhoppers; chinstrap penguins; macaroni; Gentoo; and Adelie.

King penguins are the easiest to spot. They have orange and yellow feathers hues around their head and neck and long bills. Perhaps the best-known penguins (you may recall them from the documentary “March of the Penguins,”) are Emperor penguins, the largest species of penguin on Earth. They can weigh up to 100 pounds and look like tottering tuxedo-clad waiters.

Magellanic penguins are found in Antarctica as well as the Falkland Islands, which some itineraries also visit. These penguins sleep in burrows, showcasing just one of the many differences in how penguin species live, mate and even care for their eggs. King penguins, by contrast, generally don’t have a nest, instead carrying their unborn chick egg on their feet.

Among the bird life you’ll see in Antarctica are petrels./Shutterstock

You’re likely to see albatrosses of several kinds, including the southern royal and the light-mantled, all able to glide for long stretches thanks to their narrow long wings; petrels (above), which have prominent beaks; and the South Polar skua.

Read more about the animals of Antarctica

Is there plant life in Antarctica?

This is one of two blooming plants on Antarctica, hair grass survives tough conditions to bloom in the frigid, dark continent./Shutterstock

Although there is plant life in Antarctica, said to be about 800 species, nearly half that is made up of lichens. (Think algae, moss and fungus.) Antarctica isn’t the most welcoming environment for plant life because it is dry, cold and in the winter months, little to no natural light.

The Antarctic hair moss (above) and the Antarctic pearlwort are said to be the only blooming plants. There are no trees or shrubs.

Besides wildlife, what are some of the other sights I’ll see in Antarctica?

You’re likely to see the sun for more hours a day than you will during the corresponding season in the Northern Hemisphere. Because the seasons are reversed and because many journeys are in what would ordinarily be shorter days in the Northern Hemisphere, sunlight should be abundant, absent bad weather. You and your body clock may need to have a discussion about sleeping.

You may see a glacier calve, the process of ice breaking off, as a sense of unity with nature and the environment around them. The calving produces a loud and unusual sound, which against the stark backdrop of the scenic inlet makes for a special Antarctic memory.

Calving in Neko Harbor, Antarctica./Shutterstock

You might see the circle of life in action. Leopard seals feed on penguins, plentiful food for the earless seals, and some other warm-blooded mammals.

Read more about what landscapes and places you can see in Antarctica: 

Antarctica’s history includes bravery, intrigue and heroism

The Endurance keeling over, Antarctica, October 1915. Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1916 (Weddell Sea Party). (Photo by Frank Hurley/Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images)

What is Antarctica’s history?

An unusual history of research and human exploration precedes today’s pleasure cruises to Antarctica. Along with astounding examples of the perseverance of animal species, visitors might also witness monuments to the brave men who forged routes to the continent in previous centuries, including Ernest Shackleton.

Grytviken cemetery with Ernest Shackleton’s grave under snow, King Edward Cove, South Georgia, South Georgia /Shutterstock

Shackleton rescued all members of his expedition crew after their ship, Endurance, became trapped in the ice. He later died of natural causes and is buried on the island of South Georgia, visited on some itineraries.

What can I read before I go that will help me understand Antarctica?

There’s no shortage of expedition books to read. Among the tomes often recommended:

The Belgica
The Belgica left Antwerp, Belgium in 1897 bound for Antarctica. /Wikimedia Commons

“Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night,” by Julian Sancton, which the New York Times called “exquisitely researched and deeply engrossing.”

“Endurance,” by Alfred Lansing, which details Shackleton’s harrowing journey on the ship Endurance, which the crew miraculously survived. To know the meaning of perseverance, read about Shackleton and crew, who sailed as much as 800 miles in a whale boat to get help for the men who stayed behind. All were rescued and survived.

The bookend to that 1959 tome is the 2022 news coverage about the rediscovery of the Endurance 106 years later, including the New York Times coverage, complete with stirring photos and videos.

“The Worst Journey in the World,” by Apsley Cherry-Garrad, about the 1910-1913 expedition on the Terra Nova, led by Robert Falcon Scott. Some crew members survived. Scott, a naval captain, did not.

Robert Falcon Scott in his hut in 1911 at Cape Evans, Antarctica. The explorer died on this expedition./Public domain

“Terra Incognita,” by Sara Wheeler, who spent seven months in Antarctica. Publisher’s Weekly writes, “ Her wry, lucid account of that journey juxtaposes the epic exploits of heroic early Antarctic explorers.”

Silversea writers also have practical and absorbing pieces not to be missed: Pico Iyer’s  “Throw Out Every Expectation: Novelist Pico Iyer on the Marvels of a Cruise to Antarctica” and Veronica Stoddart’s tips for an Antarctica Bound. Also, see what Pico Iyer said about a cruise to Antarctica.

While you’re on your journey, don’t miss the evening briefings aboard ship. The Silversea expedition team is an invaluable resource for information and insight.

Protecting Antarctica

Seals play around junk left behind on Deception Island, Antarctica. The human footprint is difficult to erase./Wikimedia Commons

The biggest threat, most scientists agree, is global warming. The Antarctic ice sheet contains most of the world’s fresh water; some figures places this as high as 80%. Thus if melting occurs and the seas rise, as is happening now, the effects will be devasting. The alarm was sounded again recently in a publication of Nature Climate Change, which explained that such melting in the Arctic may increase ocean levels by as much as 10 inches by 2100, maybe evening earlier. Any place touched by water may feel the effects.

Other dangers consist of human encroachment on Antarctica and cross-contamination from outside species.

Is visitation to Antarctica restricted to help avoid damage?

The passenger ships that sail to Antarctica are closely monitored to ensure they minimize interference with the ecosystem. Larger cruise ships are allowed in the surrounding waters, but only ships carrying less than 500 passengers are cleared to make landings, meaning guests can step foot on land.

Who is protecting Antarctica?

Travel to this vulnerable region is protected by such organizations as the International Association of Antarctica tour Operators (IAATO), which, for more than 30 years, has monitored tourism for environmental safety and responsibility. Above all, sustainable methods of travel are vital to Antarctica’s ecosystem and its wild inhabitants, which are being affected by climate change. The sheet of ice that covers Earth’s fifth-largest land mass also accounts for 90 percent of its ice.

Ready to book an adventure of a lifetime? Learn these 7 tips for capturing the Antarctica landscape.