Arguably the most exotic destination on Earth, Antarctica isn’t for everyone. For those captivated by the icy southern continent, though, newfound accessibility and growing concern about global warming have made it more of a tourist destination in recent years. Catering to adventurous types, travel to Antarctica typically entails voyagers taking a multi-day cruise through rough waters and ice passages, which make for some of the most dramatic landscapes available. Families of emperor penguins, massive glaciers, breaching whale pods and leopard seal pups basking on icebergs are just a few of the extraordinary sights characteristic of the Antarctic experience.
Weather in Antarctica
(All temperatures quoted are in Fahrenheit.)
There’s no hiding it. The weather in Antarctica is cold. Most people visiting, however, couldn’t care less. February through March constitutes late austral summer, with temperatures reaching highs of 30–40 degrees. It’s a great time of year for whale watching, but much of the other wildlife might not be visible.
Antarctica only has a six-month tourist season (late October through March), so it’s not possible to visit the continent from April through September.
While it’s possible to visit Antarctica starting in late October, tour operators sometimes discourage it if polar ice is still breaking up. Colder weather and undisturbed landscapes make this an ideal time for adventurous types to visit the continent, though. Whale sightings aren’t as common this time of year, but it’s mating season for penguins.
The warmest (and sunniest) time of year, December through early February is the most popular time to visit Antarctica. Penguin chicks begin to hatch, seal pups are lounging about, and temperatures average around 34 degrees. As the ice begins to open up, there are more opportunities to see historic landing sights as well.
Breeding Season (November–December)
In the beginning of tourist season, Adélie penguins are starting to nest, king penguins are starting to lay their eggs, and elephant seals can be seen courting on South Georgia Island. This is also a good time of year to witness the aggressive mating rituals of fur seals as they establish their breeding territories. Bring a camera to capture the breathtaking landscape and spring wildflowers starting to bloom in the Falkland Islands.
Hatching Season (December–February)
Starting in December, leopard and elephant seal pups become more common, and penguin chicks start to hatch in the Falkland Islands. Calmer seas make it easy to view hatching penguins, petrels and cormorants in late December. By January, chicks of all kinds are abundant, and whale sightings start to become more common.
Whale Season (February–March)
Orcas, minkes and humpbacks preparing for their long journeys north make this the prime time of year for whale watching. Molting penguin chicks and seal pups are still plentiful throughout the peninsula this time of year.
Backroads Pro Tip
Though it might seem as if the season isn’t a particularly important consideration in a place where it’s almost always freezing, each month in Antarctica offers a very different experience for visitors. If you’re planning your trip around wildlife (many people do), it’s important to consider what wildlife you’d like to see. Whale watchers, for example, should visit in February or March, while those looking to spot penguin chicks need to go earlier (December or January).
Given that nearly the entire population is made up of tourists and researchers who come and go, events in Antarctica are by no means traditional.
Midwinter (June 21)
Midwinter takes place around June 21, the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere. Though tourists can’t technically join in on the fun, the research stations throughout Antarctica celebrate with handmade gifts and extravagant feasts as the inhabitants await the sun’s return.
Christmas (December 25)
Though it takes place during austral summer, Christmas is still a relatively big deal in Antarctica. A number of cruise operators even offer special trips during this time. The continent’s festive nature is limited to its eternally white ecology as it’s completely devoid of the hectic shopping malls you’d experience back home. Travelers can look forward to Christmas carols and a holiday feast complemented by the shining midnight sun.
Antarctic 48-Hour Film Festival (August)
Each year in August, Antarctic expeditioners compete in a unique film festival. Each wintering station produces a film that must include five specific elements selected by other stations. The five-minute video must be recorded, edited and uploaded within a 48-hour period. Though the results aren’t particularly important, it’s an annual source of entertainment for everyone stationed on the continent.
Few people who travel to the southernmost continent are worried about crowds, but it’s worth noting nearly 40 to 50 thousand people visit Antarctica during its short tourist season. This means you’re actually likely to see a few faces along the way. Because you visit Antarctica by cruise, you’ll also be spending a multiday journey on a ship with hundreds of other travelers. If crowds are a legitimate concern or you’re looking to see the continent when it’s relatively undisturbed, consider traveling between February and March or in early November.
Backroads Pro Tip
For those averse to traditional cruises who prefer to avoid crowds altogether, a number of small ship cruises make way to Antarctica. These max out around 100 people. The continent’s interior can also be toured by plane—a route frequented by mountaineers and those who desire to see the most remote parts of the continent.
Walking and Snowshoeing
Aside from by boat, much of the Antarctic Peninsula must be experienced by foot. Whether you’re trekking across trail-free ice or traversing the coastal landscape on snowshoes, there’s a lot you can see on your own two feet. For a unique experience, hike to the caldera summit on Deception Island. You’ll find yourself at an abandoned whaling station located on an active volcano!
What better way to witness the looming glaciers and abundant wildlife than by paddling up close? Though you’ll be spending much of your time on a boat, kayaking can be a nice break from the Zodiacs and large cruise ships you’ll most often be frequenting.
For the truly adventurous, Antarctica offers remote, truly once-in-a-lifetime backcountry skiing opportunities. Despite what many think, the continent isn’t merely composed of flat ice sheets but is actually quite mountainous. Since no resorts (or chairlifts) exist on the continent, tour operators organize all skiing experiences, which always double as multiday camping trips.
The most extreme of all Antarctic adventures, mountaineering on this icy continent is not for the faint of heart. A number of tour services offer mountaineering options on select journeys early in the season. Climbing Vinson Massif, the continent’s highest peak, and ascending the icy alpine peaks along the coastline are two well-known treks.
Travel to Antarctica with Backroads
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Check out our full Antarctica Travel Guide!