First Time to Antarctica? Here’s What You Should Know

Imagine a place where the summer sun never sets, where endless ice surrounds you, and snow-covered peaks reach high into a cobalt blue sky. Where jagged glaciers plunge into the ocean, and huge tabular icebergs form wall-like corridors through which ships sail.

Picture thousands of penguins clattering and calling for as far as the eye can see, with their fluffy chicks feeding, learning to walk and fledging. Imagine looking into the big, mahogany-brown eyes of a weddell seal as it lies on a floating piece of ice, or admiring the majesty of a humpback whale as it raises its tail flukes before diving to the depths of the Southern Ocean.

This is Antarctica—one of the wildest and most stunning regions in the world. “Nothing can prepare you for the first time you encounter a penguin colony of 60,000 birds on a beach,” says Conrad Combrink, Silversea Cruises’ Senior Vice President Strategic Development Expeditions and Experiences. “Or when you [first] witness a towering iceberg, floating alone in the water.” For many reasons, the first trip to Antarctica is a life-defining moment.

Icebergs spotted on first time to Antarctica
A tabular iceberg, spotted from Silver Explorer while cruising in Antarctic Sound/Denis Elterman

Meeting Antarctica’s Incredible Wildlife

Antarctica is home to some of the largest marine mammals and most fascinating birds for much of the year. However, it’s during the summer months—from November to February—that the region visibly teems with wildlife.

The most accessible part of the continent, the Antarctic Peninsula, is home to several species of penguins, such as the Gentoo, Adelie and Chinstrap. Weddell and crabeater seals are commonplace along the Peninsula coastlines, and the elusive leopard seal is also spotted here. On the nearby Subantarctic island of South Georgia, King Penguins rule the beaches by the thousands, with Antarctic fur seals and elephant seals living side-by-side around them.

Fortuna Bay, South Georgia, Antarctica
A vast colony of King Penguins, Fortuna Bay, South Georgia/Denis Elterman

“You can never be near penguins without having a massive smile on your face,” reveals repeat Silversea Expeditions guest Mick Toller. “Whether they’re waddling along in a line, battling their way up a hill, sliding down on their bellies or getting up the courage to dive off a rock, they are a constant source of amusement everywhere you look.”

The southern summer is also when humpback whales arrive from the tropics to feed; at this time of year, calves will usually accompany their mothers. It’s not uncommon to see them as they rest or play at the surface of the water, before diving—up to 600 feet (200 meters)—to feed on krill, crustaceans and small fish.

“Simply being on a Zodiac and right next to a humpback whale—there is something very humbling about that,” beams Combrink. “A humpback whale coming right up to your Zodiac and spyhopping—It’s what most people dream of.”

Humpback whales in Danco Island, Antarctica
Two inquisitive humpback whales approach a Zodiac near Danco Island, Antarctica/Denis Elterman

Thanks to its remote location, the majority of visitors to Antarctica come by cruise ship, usually aboard an ice-class vessel. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) oversees tourism to the region. As part of its policy, anyone traveling to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands must adhere to strict biosecurity and animal welfare guidelines. It prevents the spread of non-native species, pests and pathogens and also protects wildlife.

The measures include a full inspection of all clothing and gear to be used by both passengers and guides before arrival, as well as a decontamination procedure after every landing, so boots, bags, walking poles and other equipment are regularly cleaned. No food, including nuts, seeds or sweets, or drink, other than potable water, is to be taken ashore. Any waste must be brought back to the ship. The guidelines also stipulate a safe distance limit for observing animals, but still close enough to be able to get a great photo with the right equipment. “Seeing how a concerted effort has been able to keep Antarctica pristine is incredibly important,” reveals Toller. “It makes you more aware of how much we have to do to clean up the planet.”

Silversea guests exploring Neko Harbor, Antarctica
Silversea guests explore Neko Harbour from Silver Cloud/Lucia Griggi

The Best Time of Year for an Antarctic Expedition

Most expedition ships begin their season in mid- to late-November and operate until early March. “Animals congregate in masses between December and the end of February,” Combrink explains. When you visit can be decided by determining what you want to see most.

November and December offer the best chance to witness female seals nurturing their adorable pups or penguins laying and protecting their eggs. As January and February arrive, the penguin chicks hatch and begin fledging. Whales are also more commonly seen towards the end of the season.

Gentoo penguins, Esperanza Station, Antarctica
A Gentoo Penguin feeds its chicks, Esperanza Station, Antarctica/Lucia Griggi

What to Pack for Antarctica?

The key to a comfortable excursion in Antarctica is layered clothing and durable boots. Layers allow you to regulate your body temperature according to the weather conditions and activity, while pull-on boots with sturdy soles will keep you dry during “wet” Zodiac landings in shallow, icy water.

Regarding clothing for your first trip to Antarctica, remember to pack a base, insulating and outer layer. At least two sets of each are recommended. Base layers should be lightweight, quick-drying, breathable and thermal, while the insulating layer should be warm and flexible. Finally, the outer layer should be windproof, waterproof and large enough to fit over all other layers. Waterproof pants should have a wide enough base to fit over boots that are at least mid-calf length.

Woolen hats that cover your ears are highly recommended, as are sunglasses to protect against the glare from the ice. Neck gaiters provide an easy-to-manage alternative to scarves. Windproof and waterproof gloves are a must—bring spare pairs in case they get wet.

Handy accessories might include a waterproof backpack or sealable waterproof sack to ensure possessions stay dry. Collapsible trekking poles help with walking in the snow, and foot and hand warmers add warmth on particularly cold days. Lip balm with UV protection is also recommended. And Toller has one last piece of advice for first-time visitors: “Buy good binoculars. They are a great investment.”

While traveling to Antarctica for the first time is the ultimate adventure, it’s still a trip that can be enjoyed by everyone. “You don’t have to be in top physical shape to go to Antarctica,” explains Combrink. “[Even] going by Zodiac to the landing site is a unique experience. Just sitting at the landing site, there is already so much to see. Or just enjoy the view from your suite—you will never ever be bored.”

Silversea guests explore Antarctica
Silversea guests explore the landscapes of Antarctica/Silversea Guest