To many, Antarctica may as well be the end of the world. Roughly the size of the United States and Mexico combined, the 5.5 million square-mile continent doubles in size in the winter when the coastal waters freeze. Save for the occasional research station carved into the ice, it is entirely devoid of humans. It is the driest place on Earth, the coldest place on Earth, and winds here can race up to almost 200 miles per hour, stronger than a category 5 hurricane.
And yet, it is the true destination for modern adventurers, for those who still yearn to discover. Thanks to numerous cruise lines with Antarctica itineraries, from rugged expeditions to luxurious small-ships, you can set foot on the frozen shores of the unknown. Those who do make this journey obtain much more than bragging rights over their friends. They are often lost for words, struggling to describe the unearthly landscapes, the fearless wildlife. They become emotional, passionate about the details, because this is an experience that has changed them forever. As it will do you. Here are a few highlights that await you at the end of the world.
Even though only a handful of humans call Antarctica home, it is very hospitable to dozens of other species. The Southern Ocean is stocked with krill, making these waters an everlasting smorgasbord for humpback, minke, blue and orca whales, many of which will occasionally and quite suddenly emerge from the icy depths a dozen feet from your ship. Sunbathing elephant seals lounge on rocky outcrops as if posing for the many photos you’ll surely snap, while Antarctic fur seals, once thought extinct, slip in and out of the frigid water with ease, their barks echoing across the ice.
Birds are in dizzying abundance here. The skies are filled with the perpetual motion of albatrosses, sheathbills and shearwaters, while the land is teeming with their flightless cousins. Some say there are more than 12 million penguins that call the Antarctic Peninsula home, including Adélie, king, rockhopper and emperor. Gentoo penguins prefer rocky outcroppings, though you’ll be able to spot them easily from a distance thanks to their orange beaks and bright, peach-hued feet. Keep your eyes sharp for when they leap into water, for these creatures move more like torpedoes than birds, clocking speeds of 22 miles per hour underwater.
With 90% of the world’s fresh water frozen within the Antarctic ice sheet, icebergs become an everyday sight on your voyage. These are not your common, everyday variety of icebergs, or at least not the ones you picture in your mind. Many are kilometers long, surpassing 100,000 tons. Imagine the most massive skyscrapers you’ve ever seen, but frozen and floating. Sailing next to these behemoths will give you goosebumps big enough to feel even through your heavy expedition jacket.
Due to weather conditions and ever-shifting ice mazes, expedition cruises will often change course from the itinerary and improvise on the fly. However, they still find a path to take you to many of the must-see sights, such as Cierva Cove, a cathedral of ice created by wide arches and glistening icebergs, located on the west coast of Graham Land.
Other highlights include Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage surrounded by soaring, ice-plastered mountains that shelter the waterway, creating a calm and reflective sea that is ideal for taking pictures. On ring-shaped Deception Island, an exposed caldera of an active volcano that last erupted in 1970, the historic battle between fire and ice has created a mesmerizing landscape complete with a steaming black volcanic shoreline, the sand warm to your touch due to underground geothermal activity.
One of the most compelling sights on Elephant Island is actually manmade. Here you’ll find a 10-foot-tall bronze bust of Captain Luis Pardo, who, along with Earnest Shackleton, helped rescue the crew of the Endurance in 1916 in what is considered one of the most amazing stories of human survival ever recorded. Watch your step around the bust — it’s often surrounded by hundreds of penguins or one of the thousands of elephant seals that give the island its name.