Antarctica has many faces, says Caroline Maber, making it a beautiful destination throughout the tourism season

The only time it is possible to visit Antarctica is during the summer, which falls between November and March. Why? At this time of year, the weather warms up, which results in less sea ice, allowing ships to pass through the freezing waters.

Visiting Antarctica in March

My first visit to Antarctica was in March several years back – the very last departure of the season, but wow! What a trip. Having seen many photos from friends and colleagues, I had some idea of what to expect, but nothing had prepared me for the beauty and remoteness of the White Continent.

As is typical of March, we had a real mix of weather: beautiful, sunny days with perfect reflections, a snowy day where we could not leave the ship (we relaxed with the lectures onboard and built a snowman instead), some storms and a few exceptionally smooth days.

As mentioned, they say there is less sea ice in March. However, I had nothing to compare this to and there were still plenty of curiously shaped icebergs floating through the water. There are fewer penguins at this time, but we still saw hundreds if not thousands of them – and three distinct species. Penguin chicks are already much larger at this stage of the year, just fluffy, moulting messes, all huddled up to preserve energy as they lose their fledgling fluff. I have heard from guides that at the end of the season, some landing spots can be a little smelly with penguin ‘guano’ – otherwise known as penguin poop – but a fresh fall of snow early in our voyage had kindly spared us from that.

The end of the season is the best time to visit Antarctica if you want to see whales – and plenty we saw. I had the most magical experience in Antarctica while out on a Zodiac cruise, with some 20 humpback whales (mothers and calves) frolicking next to us. They swam around the Zodiacs, disappearing under the surface now and then, while we waited impatiently for them to rise. When one of these huge, magnificent creatures swam straight towards us, I asked the guide whether we ought to hold on, as it seemed as if the humpback was about to torpedo the boat! Turned out she was only teasing, and at the last second, she dove under our vessel.

We also saw a pod of Orcas out hunting, trying to trap seals against an iceberg, while the prey tried frantically to scramble onto the slippery ice, and observed a leopard seal catch a penguin, then aggressively tear the tough skin off its flesh. It is fair to say we enjoyed wildlife encounters aplenty, amplified by spectacular scenery and views.

Visting Antarctica in November

In contrast, my most recent trip to Antarctica was in November, at the very beginning of the season. A much shorter trip, I was surprised just how mild it was for the first few days. In terms of weather, there was only one sunny day, and we had snow for much of the time instead; every trip to Antarctica needs a snowy day to really appreciate the setting. There was noticeably more sea ice and larger icebergs, and we had great fun riding the Zodiac through these obstacles. A colleague in the area only a week later enjoyed glorious sunshine, so it just goes to show how unpredictable the weather patterns can be.

Ashore there were penguins in their thousands, tottering along creating penguin highways. It’s always wonderful to see males engage in their cute mating ritual of hunting out a prize stone to present to their penguin partner. I witnessed several proposals, with rings swapped for stones, then watched as the penguins bowed to one another before getting down to business.

There were fur seals and elephant seals too, one solitary leopard seal, and despite being early in the season, I was delighted to be able to admire a beautiful humpback showing off its fluke (tail).

The thing about Antarctica is there really is no bad time within the season to visit – you will just see different sights. Head out early and the landscape remains pristine and not yet spoilt by the penguins – you will see thousands of them and get to witness their curious mating rituals. Fancy observing newborn, fluffy penguin chicks? Then the end of December to January is the time for you, while from February until the end of March you are almost guaranteed whale sightings.

The takeaway? The White Continent and its scenery remain stunning throughout the Antarctic season, and you will not be disappointed regardless of when you travel. Our team has a huge amount of experience in the region and will happily guide you on ascertaining the ideal month of the year for you.

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Adam Fry
Caroline Maber
Karen Chapman

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