8 amazing activities in Antarctica

You won’t be confined to your expedition ship while on holiday in Antarctica. Your floating hotel is merely a means of getting you up close to the wildlife, far-flung archipelagos, and through ice-lined fjords to discover this mysterious continent for yourself. Your schedule is dictated by the weather and the ocean, so you’ll disembark as often as conditions allow; cruises tend to include one or two Zodiac trips a day.

The aim here is to spend plenty of time zipping around in Zodiac boats (also known as RIBs or rigid-hilled inflatable boats) to get you up closer to the action, walking across the islands to see penguins and seals as well as the old whaling huts, chatting to scientists in the research bases, kayaking around icebergs and perhaps even scuba diving. With 20 hours of daylight to fill each day, you’ll most likely have the chance to try more than one.

Keep reading to discover our favourite activities in Antarctica.
The power of Antarctica is never clearer than to those venturing out in a tiny inflatable Zodiac boat, surrounded by whales and towering icebergs.

1. Wildlife watching

Extreme conditions make for extreme wildlife – and for many travellers, discovering the creatures that thrive here is the highlight of their Antarctic expedition. Whales frolic in the rough seas, enormous elephant seals bark and scrap, and vicious, shark-mouthed leopard seals dive into icy waters to hunt penguins. Much like the Galapagos Islands, the wildlife in Antarctica is not afraid of humans – you may find yourself stepping over penguins. On the subantarctic islands of New Zealand, otherworldly forests of oversized megaherbs flourish across the windswept land, creating fantasy scenes of giant leaves dotted with seals and seabirds.

2. Explore deserted islands with a difference

An Antarctic cruise is not just about the giant ice sheet; the southern islands are some of the most fascinating and isolated places in the world. The Falkland Islands are a strange slice of British life – red phone boxes and chip shops surrounded by crashing waves and penguin colonies.

Sir Ernest Shackleton is buried on remote South Georgia – the island he sailed to in a tiny lifeboat following his disastrous Antarctic expedition. Here, king penguins waddle in front of a backdrop of glaciers and 3,000m-high mountains, and a little museum reveals the secrets of this windswept isle.

On the way to the Ross Sea, the only scraps of land for thousands of miles are dry oases for elephant seals and rockhopper penguins. Astonishingly, more seabirds nest on the brutal cliffs of the tiny Snares Island than in the whole of the British Isles.

Antarctic research bases have been established on some of the islands – and here you can learn from the resident scientists about their research into the wildlife, climate, geology and flora. Working in these remote, chilly outposts for months at a time, they are usually relieved to have company, so don’t be surprised if they invite you in for a cup of tea and ask you to tell them what’s happening in the outside world.

Read more about the Antarctic islands.

3. Hiking & mountaineering

The Antarctic Peninsula is dominated by soaring mountains – an extension of the mighty Andes, which duck below the ocean for some 1,000km before resurfacing in Antarctica to form the peninsula’s jagged spine. A select number of expeditions allow small groups of around six people to climb these mountains, and – conditions permitting – you may even be able to camp out on the peninsula overnight.

Options for hiking in Antarctica are just as diverse as anywhere else in the world, meaning everyone will have the chance to explore the frozen continent without stepping too far outside their comfort zone. Several routes stay on flatter ground along the shoreline, or you can take on a trail on one of the islands, including climbing up the hill on tiny Goudier Island for panoramic views across the archipelago.

4. Sea kayaking

Sea kayaking is often one of the most tranquil outdoor activities – but you’d be forgiven for not feeling relaxed as you climb from the Zodiac into your sea kayak and begin to paddle off through shards of ice. In fact, you’re far more likely to have a pounding heart and not want to breathe – let alone paddle – for fear of rolling your kayak in the icy Southern Ocean.

Happily, this feeling soon dissipates as the wonder of your surroundings takes over. Deep turquoise bergs tower over you, while penguins leap out of the water in front of your boat and minke whales and orcas cast shadows beneath. Paddle right up to seals resting on ice floes – or nudge up to the shoreline and step off your kayak to begin a walk along an Antarctic beach, alive with squawking (and smelly) penguins.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Antarctica or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

5. Snowshoeing

Snowshoeing is offered on some Antarctic departures – often the only way to explore these frozen landscapes at certain times of the year. The earlier in the season is better, as the snow will be melting from mid- or late December. You’ll be taken out in small groups with an expedition leader to explore the shoreline, hills and mountains on hikes ranging from two-hour strolls to full-day challenging treks.

Snowshoeing isn’t difficult but it can be physically tiring, so bring lots of lighter layers that you can shed as you warm up. Your tour leader will let you know which routes are most suitable for your level of fitness and experience, and you’ll be provided with lightweight snowshoes that clip onto your boots.

6. Scuba diving & polar swimming

Polar diving is one of the most adventurous of all Antarctic activities – and you’ll need an impressive portfolio of diving qualifications before you’re allowed to roll off an ice floe into these waters, which require plenty of special gear and clothing to avoid the equipment – or you – freezing.

Once you’re in, though, the preparation is more than worth it. Trips are timed to coincide with the clearest waters, and you may get up close to a hunting leopard seal or diving penguins. Don’t forget: around 90 percent of an iceberg lies below water, so simply bubbling around these sculptural forms lets you observe sights few will ever see as the sunlight bounces off and through the blue ice.

You may be able to book onto a cruise with renowned underwater photographers, filmmakers or marine scientists who will reveal the secrets of the strange species that live beneath the floes – including 24-limbed starfish, giant isopods and “antifreeze”-filled fish.

If you’re not qualified to dive, there are often opportunities to strip off and go for a dip in Antarctica. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s certainly a story to tell when you get back home…

7. On-board lectures

When you sign up for an outdoor adventure in a wild landscape, a lecture programme may sound rather dull – but the ships’ biologists, geographers, photographers, historians and geologists share fascinating insights about the land and creatures around you. Lecture programmes during the two-day crossing of the Drake Passage also take your mind off the rolling ocean and prepare you for what is to come once you reach the Antarctic Peninsula.

You’ll learn to identify species, and a little knowledge means you will be even more amazed by the world passing you by on deck. You’ll hear about iceberg formations, the hardy wildlife and the early voyages that took place at the mercy of the shifting ice, mapping the continent too.

Photography lectures are popular and experts may be on hand to ensure you capture the iceberg bathed in just the right amount of light – and hold your camera steady enough to snap a sliding penguin. Some ships have facilities for processing your images in time for the daily photography competitions. Pit yourself against your shipmates as you review the day’s adventures and get inspired for another day behind the lens in the Antarctic.

Read useful tips and techniques for taking photographs in Antarctica in our Antarctica photography guide.

8. Fly across the Drake Passage

Sailing across the squally Drake Passage is seen by many travellers as a rite of passage; it’s all part of the adventure of visiting Antarctica. However, while it may earn you some serious traveller street cred, spending two days navigating these choppy waters just to reach your destination – and then two days back again – is not everyone’s idea of a holiday.

Anyone deterred from visiting the frozen continent by the thought of being confined to their cabin as 10m waves tip their ship will be delighted to know that flying to Antarctica is a possibility. Once you arrive at the Antarctic shores, the waters are tranquil – so you can make the most of your time taking photos from the deck, heading out in Zodiacs and kayaking around the icebergs if you choose.

Bearing in mind the round trip to the southern tip of South America tagged onto either end, flying is also a convenient way to travel for anyone who can’t add an extra four days onto an already lengthy trip. The flight across the Drake Passage takes just two hours each way, departing from the city of Punta Arenas in southern Chile and landing on King George Island – the largest of the South Shetland Islands. You’ll then have a short connection via rigid-hulled inflatable (RIB) to your expedition ship – your home for the next few days as you voyage around Antarctica.

For more flexibility – and to gain the best of both worlds – you can always fly one way and cruise the other.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ondrej Prosicky] [Intro: 23am.com] [1. Wildlife watching: Rod Long] [3. Hiking & mountaineering: Roderick Eime] [5. Snowshoeing: Pia Andrews]