To many of us, the North and South Poles are similar – massive areas of snow and ice, with uncompromising conditions and barren landscapes. In our mind’s eye, perhaps there’s a polar bear or penguin involved, too.
However, take a closer look and you’ll find myriad differences between an Arctic cruise and an Antarctic cruise, from geography and climate to wildlife and activities.
Read on to learn what makes the two ends of the world – nearly 12,500 miles apart – different from each other and what natural splendors and adventurous activities await the intrepid traveler on either an Arctic or Antarctic cruise.
Geography & Access
Generally speaking, the Arctic is sea surrounded by land, whereas Antarctica is land surrounded by sea.
It can be a bit confusing to define where the Arctic is, exactly, given that it’s an ocean, with various islands and landmasses included in its girth. The most widely held definition is that the Arctic contains everything above the Arctic Circle, which sits at a latitude of 66.5 degrees north. That encompasses parts of eight countries, including the US (Alaska), Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. All told, the Arctic measures approximately 5.5 million square miles – that’s about one-and-a-half times the size of the United States.
Arctic cruises typically depart from Reykjavik, Iceland or Longyearbyen, Norway. For the Northwest Passage, ships depart Toronto or Calgary, Canada.
Antarctica, on the other hand, is more easily defined. It’s a large continent (5.4 million square miles) that sits over the south pole, with nothing but sea around it. The vast region is 98 percent covered by an ice cap up to 2.8 miles thick at some points. The rugged landscape is punctuated by towering ice cliffs, glaciers, and mountains that top out at just over 16,000 feet high (Mount Vinson was one of the most recently discovered massifs on the continent and is 16,050 feet high). As for what countries lay claim to Antarctica, while many set up scientific research stations here, the continent does not belong to any country.
To reach Antarctica, cruises typically depart from Ushuaia, Argentina for traditional voyages, or Punta Arenas, Chile, for air-cruise itineraries that fly over the Drake Passage in one or both directions.
One of the simplest ways to think about the difference between the Arctic and Antarctica’s climate is to look at whether traditional human settlements have managed to survive there. The Arctic has long been home to native people, including the Inuits of North America, the Sami of Northern Europe, and the Yukuts, who resided on the edge of Siberia. Despite harsh, unforgiving conditions, the Arctic landscape and climate is still home to approximately 40 ethnic groups who live there year-round.
It’s cold in the Arctic, to be sure, but not quite as cold as it is in Antarctica. This north polar region experiences long, dark winters, and longer periods of daylight, or Midnight Sun, in the summer. There’s a big swing in temperature throughout the year, reaching -22 degrees F during the coldest part of the winter and 32 degrees F in the summer.
In contrast, Antarctica didn’t see human presence until 1821. Even today, there are no permanent residents in this austere landscape, just the researchers, scientists, and adventurous travelers who rotate through. That’s no surprise, given this is the coldest place on Earth. Temperatures plunge to around -76 degrees F in the winter, only rising to about -4 degrees F in the summer. Similar to the Arctic, there are 24 hours of daylight in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter.
Despite the frigid temperatures on much of the Antarctic continent, the coastal areas are generally much warmer than the mountainous interior. Most cruises here arrive between December and March, the austral summer, when daytime temperatures are around 30 degrees F by the ocean.
Both the Arctic and Antarctica are home to bountiful wildlife – on land, at sea and in the air. What creatures a visitor sees will vary, but most hope for a glimpse of one of the two best-known cold-weather animals: polar bears or penguins.
Polar bears are the kings of the Arctic (which comes from the Greek word “arktos” for “bear”). It’s an apt moniker for the home of one of the largest land predators on Earth. Beyond this iconic species, the North Pole shelters Arctic foxes, Arctic hares, reindeer, snowy owls, muskoxen, narwhals, beluga whales, walrus, and more.
Down south, Antarctica is the home of the penguin, including Gentoo, Adelie, rockhopper, emperor penguin, King, chinstrap, Magellanic…the list goes on. Expedition cruises typically stop at Deception Island and Danco Island so travelers get to have close-up encounters with these waddlers, who aren’t very shy at all.
The South Pole also harbors a plethora of marine life, from seals to whales to around 40 species of seabirds. The leopard seal and albatross are unique to the South Pole.
Antarctica and the Arctic call to those with a deep sense of adventure and curiosity and both regions have immersive activities to offer. While historically Antarctica cruises have provided more in-depth excursions, those sailing the Arctic region are quickly catching up.
The Arctic is the place to visit with Indigenous people where they live and work (for example, an Inuit community in Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic), go whale watching for humpbacks and belugas, glimpse a walrus, witness reindeer, see polar bears in the wild, and perhaps sleep under the northern lights. More ships are offering excursions for Zodiac boating, sea kayaking, hiking, snowshoeing, polar diving, and birdwatching.
In Antarctica, the only other people you’ll meet have also come from elsewhere, either as a cruiser or from their home country for their stint at a polar research station. There are no traditional settlements to visit, but you’ll have plenty of time to commune with the other local dwellers – the wildlife.
Most Antarctic ships and certain itineraries also offer Zodiac boating, camping, sea kayaking, hiking, snowshoeing, polar diving, mountaineering, and helicopter tours. History buffs also love the chance to visit the huts of courageous explorers Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott.
Stops vary by cruise line and itinerary, but these are among the most popular calls a ship will make in the Arctic and Antarctica. The Arctic and Northwest Passage offer a variety of routes, with options for varying interests, whether you’re searching for polar bears, following in the wake of Northwest Passage explorers or chasing the northern lights. As for Antarctica, classic routes typically explore the South Shetland Islands and the White Continent (with some taking you across the Polar Circle), as well as the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Patagonia.
- Svalbard Archipelago, Norway: One of the world’s northernmost inhabited places and a great place to try dogsledding.
- Lofoten Islands, Norway: Ample hiking, fishing, diving and ocean rafting opportunities, as well as photo ops of gorgeous landscapes, including those iconic red-painted buildings in tiny, oceanside fishing villages.
- Jan Mayen, Norway: Home to the world’s northernmost active volcano, the 7,500-foot Beerenberg Volcano, as well as colonies of northern fulma, little auk, thick-billed guillemot and black guillemot.
- Scoresby Sund, Greenland: Known for its distinctive icebergs and the wildlife-rich Ittoqqortoormitt Greenlandic settlement.
- Nuuk, Greenland: Part of an extensive fjord system acclaimed for its wildlife, waterfalls, hiking on Sermitsiaq Mountain, excellent natural history and art museums, and nearby Ilulissat Ice Fjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Deception Island: An active volcano caldera in the South Shetland archipelago, and site of a few research stations and an abandoned whaling station.
- Gerlache Strait: Home to penguin colonies, abundant wildlife and the photogenic Lemaire Channel, defined by its towering ice cliffs and otherworldly landscape.
- Neko Harbour: A common spot to glimpse Gentoo penguins, both fur and Weddell seals, humpback whales and Skua birds.
- Deception Bay: A historic whaling spot, and home to a colony of chinstrap penguins; as a volcano caldera, it’s also the area “hot springs,” inspiring some to take a dip here.
- Hope Bay: Affectionately known as Iceberg Alley and a place to pay homage to the explorers that came before us at the historical expedition huts of the Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1903.
The Arctic cruise season runs from May through September, and the best time to see the aurora borealis (northern lights) is late August/early September.
The Antarctica cruise season runs from November through March. The best time to see penguin chicks is February and March is ideal for whale watching.
Read More About the Arctic and Antarctica
The Best Places to Visit on an Antarctic Cruise
10 Cool Facts About The Penguins Of Antarctica
8 Cool Facts About The Seals Of Antarctica
The Bonanza Of Wildlife In Antarctica
A Brief History Of Antarctic Exploration
Following In The Footsteps Of Antarctica Explorer Ernest Shackleton
Antarctic Treaty General Guidelines
Antarctica Travel Guide
Top Antarctica Cruise Destinations
Antarctica Cruise Ships
Top Antarctica Wildlife
Adélie Penguin / Chinstrap Penguin / Emperor Penguin / Gentoo Penguin / Macaroni Penguin / Crabeater Seal / Elephant Seal / Fur Seal / Leopard Seal / Ross Seal / Weddell Seal / Blue Whale / Fin Whale / Humpback Whale / Killer Whale / Minke Whale / Right Whale / Sei Whale / Sperm Whale