Hiking in a steady snow to the summit of Danco Island off Antarctica, I felt like I had stepped out of an extreme adventure film and straight into a Disney movie.
After days of sailing through the infamously rough Drake Passage, then in and around storms with winds as high as 100 knots, a welcome calm had set in, allowing one final landing among hundreds of adorable, waddling tuxedo-vested penguins.
Seemingly oblivious to our presence, many broke away from their colony to climb, parallel to us, up the peak. A few stopped to squabble with each other. Others were more polite and took a bow.
The encounter highlighted the answer to one of the most obvious questions that inevitably arises as travelers increasingly board a new generation of expedition ships to sail to the ends of the Earth: What’s the difference between Arctic and Antarctic cruises?
Penguins versus polar bears, of course, and how up close and personal you can get with the flightless birds as opposed to the much more elusive majestic white ursine mammal.
While getting a glimpse of some of the estimated 20 million penguins that inhabit the coastal areas of Antarctica is almost guaranteed, exploring the Arctic is more like heading out on safari. There are many more species to see in the Arctic; they are just harder to find. But that’s part of the adventure.
There are many other differences between cruising in Antarctica and the Arctic, each with its own subjective pros and cons, including how to get there, the weather, onshore experiences, and the differences in their respective majestic and very dramatic landscapes. So how do you decide which and if one is right for you? Here’s a breakdown of the main difference between cruises in Antarctica and the Arctic, so that you can better choose.
Less than 24 hours into my Antarctica sailing last month for the maiden voyage of Atlas Ocean Voyages’ newest yacht, World Voyager, the other very obvious difference between Antarctica and the Arctic, where I sailed in July on Aurora Expeditions’ new 132-passenger Sylvia Earle expedition vessel, became clear: the process of getting there.
Only a few hours into the infamous two-day crossing of the Drake Passage from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the Seventh Continent, passengers were scurrying from the lecture hall for sickness bags. That night at dinner, dishes seemed to be crashing all around us as we navigated what the captain said were 30-plus-foot waves.
We definitely spent much of the initial crossing experiencing the “Drake shake” versus the “Drake lake,” though we did get more of the Drake lake on the way back. But experiencing the roughness of the Drake Passage could be a pro or a con, depending on whether you get seasick. For those of us with strong stomachs, it’s a big part of the adventure.
For those without the stomach for rough seas, one other option, offered by numerous cruise lines and tour operators, is to fly, at least one way, to King George Island, the largest of the Shetland Islands off the coast of the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula. Of course, the flights are still at the whims of the weather gods, and nowhere are said gods more fickle than in Antarctica.
In the Arctic, you can start your cruise from any number of cities, including Longyearbyen in Svalbard, which is already deep in the Arctic Circle and is the world’s northernmost settlement with a population of more than 1,000. Longyearbyen is about a four-hour flight north of Oslo, but once you get there, you are just a few hours of sailing away from the nine main islands of the archipelago. The only full sea day on my 14-day Arctic cruise this past summer was the last one, when we sailed across the Denmark Strait to end the cruise in Reykjavík, Iceland. And while we had a few windy days, we never experienced anything nearly as rough as in Antarctica.
“That looks kind of scary,” one friend said as I shared some of my photos of my Antarctica trip over cocktails after returning home.
“It looks cold. I’m not sure that’s going on my bucket list,” said another.
Indeed, polar cruises are not for everyone. Yes, it’s cold. And Antarctica is especially severe, with conditions like katabatic winds that can change from zero to 60 mph in a matter of seconds.
After our rough sailing through the Drake Passage, we awoke our first morning in the South Shetland Islands to a calm and mostly sunny day, where we hiked and saw our first penguins on Deception Island. But that weather didn’t hold.
The next morning, just as we finished boarding our Zodiac for a morning cruise, the captain’s voice came over the radio to halt operations. As the day wore on, conditions intensified, and despite the crew’s best efforts to find a calm in the storm, we ended up in 100-knot winds with snow around us literally blowing in every direction. Again, the captain—whose announcements came to be dubbed jokingly by one passenger as “the voice of doom”—came on the PA system to let us know we wouldn’t be able to make any afternoon outings.
Tucked safely on our comfortable luxury yacht, however, no one seemed to really mind. In fact, cheers went up when the champagne came out because you’re not supposed to partake in Atlas’s unlimited alcoholic beverages policy on expedition days until the off-ship activities are over.
Arctic cruises, too, are unpredictable, though Antarctica is wilder in part because of its dramatic wind shifts. And while there is less ice in the north, it can still have a big impact. In July, for instance, we were almost unable to make any landings in eastern Greenland due to ice buildup along the shore.
So, whether you go north or south, the No. 1 rule is to be flexible when it comes to weather and sailing conditions.
Another major consideration when choosing between a cruise in Antarctica and sailing the Arctic is what animals you want to see, and how easy you want those viewings to be.
With so many penguins roaming the coasts of Antarctica during the Southern Hemisphere summer (which is winter in the Northern Hemisphere), you are guaranteed to see penguins in the wild—and lots of them—as well as whales and seals.
In the Arctic, you can spend days hiking and riding Zodiacs, hoping to get a glimpse of a polar bear, Arctic foxes, reindeer, walruses, seals, and whales. That often means days of disappointment, only to be followed by euphoria when you finally get a chance to see one of the elusive white giants in the wild, swimming, hunting, or simply resting on a rock. Or when a huddle of curious walruses bob alongside your Zodiac. Or you catch of a glimpse of an Arctic fox running along a river, a freshly caught bird in mouth.
But where the weather in the Antarctic dominates much of one’s activities, in the Arctic it’s all about the polar bears because they are very fast—and very dangerous. Often, sailings will need to change course to ensure the safety of the passengers and that of the polar bears.
Asked about the differences between Arctic and Antarctica cruises, our World Voyager captain said Antarctica is “much wilder.” And you truly are alone.
In the Arctic, many cruises start in Longyearbyen, where you can get a sense of what it’s like to actually live within the Arctic Circle. While most of the cruises are spent in the wild, hiking on islands and taking Zodiac cruises around massive glaciers, ice caps, and icebergs, they typically also make at least one stop on the remote shores of eastern Greenland to visit Indigenous communities—again offering some insight into life in the northernmost reaches of the world.
Antarctica, on the other hand, is as remote as you can get, with the only civilization revolving around a collection of research camps based there. And because of the many environmental protection rules that travel companies have agreed to follow, you may not be able get off the ship for more than an hour or two each day.
In the Arctic, I sailed with Aurora Expeditions on one of its small expedition ships with about the same number of passengers as World Voyager, yet we sometimes spent more than three hours off the ship twice a day, including a few challenging hikes.
In Antarctica, only ships carrying 500 passengers or fewer can let passengers off—whether on Zodiacs or kayaks or for actual landings. And no more than 100 passengers can be on land at a time, so you have to get off in shifts. That means ships with more than 200 passengers usually can’t let passengers off for more than about an hour or an hour and half a day.
We had just under 150 passengers on our sailing, and the most time we were able to spend off the boat was between 45 minutes and 90 minutes, twice a day.
Both also offer some extreme adventures, weather permitting. For instance, in Antarctica, I had signed up to camp overnight under the stars, tucked into just a sleeping bag partially buried in the snow. Unfortunately (or fortunately), severe weather canceled that along with plans for kayaking and paddleboarding.
But with the number of new ships now sailing the polar regions, it’s easy to find one that is a good fit for varying tastes in both on- and offboard activities. Some of the new luxury ships even offer helicopter and submersible experiences. And some operators offer more extreme adventures like scuba diving.
I’m partial to small ships like World Navigator, which provided intimate, casual luxury and spectacular views from nearly every cabin and lounge on board. You really get to know your fellow travelers, crew members, and expedition team members, which is a real bonus for solo travelers.
There is one indisputable con to both Arctic and Antarctic cruises: the impact on the environment. Indeed, reports about the record number of ships cruising into these fragile environments and the increasing speed of ice melt gave me pause.
The good news is that the newest class of expedition ships sailing to polar regions—vessels both big and small—have the latest in green technology. For instance, World Voyager is equipped with some of the most advanced sonar, stabilization, and engine technologies, including a hybrid electric-diesel engine and a hydro-jet propulsion system for smoother, safer, and more energy-efficient rides.
And I’ve never met a group of people more committed to protecting the wildlife and the environment than the expedition team members I have sailed with in the world’s polar regions. Whether it’s onboard lectures or conversations while hiking or riding a Zodiac, they really provide a nonstop education about these environments, the wildlife, and the dangers that humans and climate warming present.
The pro to the con? As one expedition leader told me, after sailing in the polar regions, most travelers go home hyper-aware of their environmental footprint and the real dangers we all pose to the majestic glaciers, ice caps, and wildlife in the fragile polar zones.
Indeed, as I sat in Word Navigator’s Dome Lounge watching a pod of whales playing off the bow as the light from the setting sun cast multiple colors across the stadium-size icebergs, mountains, water, and clouds, I realized what people mean when they call a trip to Antarctica life-changing—and one that no doubt has created many lifelong stewards of the environment.
At the top of the story, the left photo is of a Zodiac outing in Antarctica; the right photo is a Zodiac group exploring Greenland in the Arctic.