Antarctica owes its name to the Greek word ‘Antarktikos’, which means opposite to the Arctic. That’s why it’s also known as ‘the land of no bears.’ But don’t be deceived. Although it lacks the striking, white-furred terrestrial mammals of its Arctic counterpart, the Earth’s southernmost and driest continent is by no means devoid of life.
Take any Antarctica cruise from either Punta Arenas or Ushuaia to witness the most amazing variety of birds and marine wildlife, including six species of seals and 14 species of whales. You will be awed by the number of animals adapted to living in this extreme environment.
These are also great places to admire the aurora australis. Less famous than their northern counterparts in the Arctic, but not less spectacular, the southern lights decorate the sky with green and purple hues that create an out-of-world experience, especially during the winter, when nights are longer.
With 99.82% of its territory covered by an ice sheet, Antarctica is an overwhelming expanse of white that extends for thousands of miles. Since its discovery, in 1820, Antarctica has captured the imagination of scientists and explorers throughout the world. Although this is the only continent without permanent human presence, while visiting you will likely meet people who spend part of the year in one of the 80 research stations established here to uncover its secrets.
Read on for our pick of the best places to visit on an Antarctic cruise.
This northward extension of Antarctica bends toward the southern tip of South America, located only 600 miles (970 km) away, and it’s the most populated area of the white continent, with 43 research stations versus 37 distributed throughout the remaining territory. Because of its expansive ice sheet, wildlife in Antarctica is restricted to the sea and shores, which host over 200 nesting sites for 32 bird species, including eight of the world’s 18 penguin species. This is a great place to observe macaroni, gentoo, and chinstrap penguins.
Comprised of 11 islands and named after the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, this archipelago is a popular stop along Antarctic cruise routes and with good reason. It’s not only the scenery of many significant moments in the history of Antarctic exploration, but also provides great sites for viewing birds and marine mammals such as the southern elephant seal. King George Island, the largest one in the archipelago and considered the unofficial capital of Antarctica, is the second largest population center in the continent.
Largely covered by ice shelves, or ice sheets floating on the sea, the Weddell Sea is a key spot along the Antarctic cruise route and a place of many tales of bold and intrepid voyages. It’s named after British captain James Weddell, who explored the area in 1823 during his third expedition to the Southern Ocean. While sailing, be alert in case you get to see the awe-inspiring emperor penguins or the Weddell seals, the most southerly breeding terrestrial mammal in the world.
Circling back to South America, after a U-turn through the Weddell Sea, this island was a famous base among whalers and scientific expeditions during the 19th century. With three fourths of its area covered by snow and the rest by tundra vegetation, this almost barren island might seem an unlikely place to live. But at least four penguin species call this place home, and in St. Andrews Bay you’ll find the largest colony of king penguins.
Finally, before returning to firm-ground, you will find the Falkland Islands, an archipelago that is officially a British territory, although it has been historically disputed by Argentina due to its proximity to its shores. Their rocky and windy terrains harbor one of the largest colonies of the Southern rockhopper penguin, the smallest penguin species of Antarctica. The abundance of wildlife in these islands attracts killer whales, one of the apex predators of the Antarctic ecosystem.
Recommended Antarctica Cruises
Antarctica Travel Guide
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