Best Antarctica Shore Excursions

December 7, 2016
Cruise ship Marco Polo and Chinstrap penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica) at Half Moon Island, Bransfield Strait, Antarctica

For a long time, when you traveled to the ends of the Earth, there wasn't much variety in what you'd do. Cruisers reaching Antarctica might go for quick hikes ashore, stare at a few thousand penguins and cruise on inflatable rubber Zodiacs around icebergs or wildlife. After all, there was no infrastructure to speak of, no ancient culture to discover (which is still true) and no opportunities for shopping. Simply safely reaching and returning from the White Continent was enough excitement.

No longer! As the expedition industry has developed and matured, creativity has upped the ante for shoreside activities. Of course, the standard model of hikes and Zodiac trips led by experienced naturalists still forms the backbone of every expedition cruise. These staples are always included in the price of your cruise. But nowadays, more adventurous activities aimed at younger, thrill-seeking passengers are available, with new ideas seemingly coming every year.

Check out the activities that many companies are now offering. We've also thrown in a few of our own favorite extraordinary Antarctic activities available to everyone. (And for more on Antarctica cruising, check out Antarctica Cruise Basics and Antarctica Wildlife).

Overnight Kayaking

Kayaking was introduced to the Antarctic region by Lindblad Expeditions, which still offers passengers a fleet of kayaks at no additional charge. Many lines have followed suit and also added paddling excursions; some include it in the cruise fare. One Ocean Expeditions has taken the concept a step further with a two-night kayaking and camping excursion. Taking between four and six passengers at a time, the group sets out and paddles for a few hours before camping two nights on the continent. Rest assured that Antarctic safety guidelines ensure the ship isn't too far away in case of emergency or inclement weather.

Who Should Go: Experienced paddlers who are happy to give up the comforts of the ship.

Why It's Extraordinary: Being in Antarctica already gives a sense of isolation and privilege. To spend two nights on the continent with a small group brings "getting away from it all" to a whole new level.

Sunrise over Antarctica


Looking to channel your inner explorer? Try packing down the snow to create a "bivy" where you'll sleep overnight -- no tent, just you, a warm sleeping bag, the snow and amazing scenery and soft light. Camping is a relatively new option for Antarctic expeditions. Check with your cruise line to see whether it's offered; some lines charge several hundred dollars for the experience, while others include it.

Who Should Go: Anyone who wants to experience as much of Antarctica as humanly possible.

Why It's Extraordinary: Many miss out on the unearthly colors and light during the early Antarctic morning. By camping out, you'll be surrounded by possibly the most gorgeous sunrise you've ever seen.

Standup Paddleboarding

Water sports probably aren't the first things you think of when you say Antarctica. But Quark Expeditions offers standup paddleboards on its newest ship, the Ocean Endeavour. And why not? On a clear, sun-filled day in Antarctica, the scenery certainly is on par with any California beach, and if you are lucky, you might find penguins popping up all around you as they return to their colonies. You'll head out with a guide and up to nine other passengers, and Quark promises no experience is necessary (although it would help). You'll have a dry seat and wear a lifejacket ... just in case you lose your balance and fall.

Who Should Go: Athletic and agile passengers who don't mind if they fall (briefly) into freezing water.

Why It's Extraordinary: Pure novelty. Who will ever believe you got to do this?

Hiking in Antarctica


Grab an ice ax, put on your crampons and helmet and start climbing. Antarctic peaks are impossibly beautiful, and for many, the urge to climb in the virgin snow and feel that you are the first to summit the mountain is compelling. You'll be led with by an expert mountain guide, often in a line holding onto a rope, and spend either a half or full day ascending. At the top, your reward is likely to be a panoramic scene of raw nature you'll remember the rest of your life.

Who Should Go: Physically fit travelers craving a good workout; cruise lines often require previous experience.

Why It's Extraordinary: A fantastic combination of exercise and scenery.

Scuba Diving

Always fancied a swim with a penguin? Strap on your fins, grab a weight belt and lots and lots of layers, and jump into the frigid Antarctica for some extreme diving! Beneath the surface, Antarctica's seas are a surprisingly abundant tapestry of life. Depending on your dive site, you may find tiny but colorful nudibranchs, sea stars, tentacled sea spiders, isopods and kelp. Heavy-footed penguins take on a new grace below the surface, acrobatically zipping by you underwater with an occasional flap of their wings. Offered by a very limited number of companies, this is an opportunity to see a part of Antarctica most cruisers miss.

Who Should Go: Divers with extensive dry-suit and cold-water experience only.

Why It's Extraordinary: Seeing life below the waves will give you a far greater understanding about the ecosystem and a newfound appreciation for what lies unseen by all but a lucky few.

Zodiac boats in Lemaire Channel

Lemaire Channel by Small Boat

Lemaire Channel is often considered the most scenic passage in Antarctica; it's all hands on deck as your ship weaves around ice floes amid towering peaks on other side of this 7 mile long, less than half a mile wide passage. Hurtigruten, however, takes the passage a step further and offers passengers the opportunity (for an added fee) to disembark into their small Polarcirkel boats for an open-air, small boat tour through the passage. You'll escape the crowds on deck and get a humbling perspective as you watch your ship suddenly appear diminutive amid the surrounding scenery. Along the way, search for leopard seals catching a snooze on ice.

Who Should Go: Suitable for anyone, but for keen photographers, the opportunity to capture your ship in the perfect setting is irresistible.

Why It's Extraordinary: Scenery on overload, a new perspective on your ship and the unsurpassable majesty of Antarctica.

Flying to Antarctica for the Day

Does the prospect of crossing the infamously rough Drake Passage scare you away from taking an expedition cruise to Antarctica? Then go by airplane. Several cruise lines offer one-day tours leaving from South America. Tours usually fly from Chile on a chartered aircraft to King George Island in the South Shetland Islands. You only get about four hours onshore, and it is an offshore island rather than the actual continental mainland. You'll still get to see penguins on snow and seals lazily occupying a beach, visit a Chilean research base and take in a snowy and often windswept environment. All too soon it is time to head back on your return flight -- but with great memories and unbeatable stories to tell when your dinner tablemates ask, "What did you do today?"

Who Should Go: Those wanting to reach all seven continents and those who can afford it -- this excursion costs several thousand dollars. Crystal Cruises has an option in which you can stay overnight at the base for an eye-popping $13,965.

Why It's Extraordinary: Only a few hours after braving Antarctic winds and stepping through snowy landscapes, you'll be surrounded by the comforts of room service and a spa on your ship. The wonders of modern life.

And finally, here are two extraordinary excursions that are almost always included in your cruise fare:

Sunrise in Leith Harbor, South Georgia Island,

Sunrise Landing in South Georgia

In the wildlife haven of South Georgia, there are few moments more dramatic than sunrise. Hanging glaciers start to take on a pink glow, and the light of the sun slowly starts working its way down to the teeming penguin and elephant seal colonies below. Soon, tens of thousands of animals are bathed in a golden light while the beach comes to clamorous life. You might wake up at 4 a.m. to be ashore before the sun pops up over the horizon, but you'll experience an intimacy onshore that the harsher bright daylight seems to wash away.

Who Should Go: Photographers looking for that cover shot and nature lovers who can't get enough quality time with penguins.

Why It's Extraordinary: The "golden hour" of sunlight is sought after by photographers; you'll come back with images that will convince your friends you've got a new career as a National Geographic photographer.

A Polar Plunge on Deception Island

You might not join the thrill-seekers who go scuba diving in Antarctica, but you can be just as adventurous, perhaps a bit foolhardy, too. Most expedition ships offer the opportunity for a polar plunge -- a quick dunk (and we mean very quick) into the ice-cold waters. The preferred location? Deception Island, in the South Shetland Islands. Deception is actually a flooded and active volcanic caldera and has a trickle of hot water bubbling up from the interior. The effect is otherworldly. An abandoned whaling station contrasts with steam rising from the water at the shore, while an occasional bemused penguin observes. But don't be expect too much welcoming warmth; the warm water lasts a few inches, if that, before turning polar very quickly.

Who Should Go: Everyone who can rustle up the nerve.

Why It's Extraordinary: Deception is one of the very few sandy beaches you'll find, making the entry (and even quicker exit) from the water possible for almost everyone.

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