The most accessible, varied and popular destination in Antarctica, the majestic peninsula is the one place you simply can’t miss!
The northernmost finger of icy land jutting out of the Antarctic continent, the Antarctic Peninsula is the main destination on expedition cruises to the far south. This is the first portion of the Antarctic mainland you’ll see after you cross the Drake Passage from South America and the closest point to Ushuaia, only 1,000km away.
Although several nations have made sovereign claims on this slice of Antarctic treasure, no one country owns it. Instead, the peninsula hosts a large concentration of scientific research stations (more than any other region in the continent) due primarily to the proximity to South America and its relatively milder climate, compared with Antarctica proper.
On this comprehensive travel guide to the Antarctica Peninsula, you’ll learn all there is to know about this exceptional destination and everything you can expect to see and do here on your Antarctic expedition cruise.
Best way to visit the Antarctic Peninsula
Expedition cruises and fly+cruise adventures are the only ways for tourists to visit the peninsula. You can either depart aboard an ice-strengthened vessel from Ushuaia (the southernmost city in South America) or fly to King George Island (where Antarctica’s only commercial air-strip is found) and join a cruise from there. This latter option is primarily aimed at those who don’t want to sail the Drake Passage (the infamous passage is renowned for being the roughest in the world) or those who are short on time. A fly-over + cruise expedition can easily cut off 3 or 4 days from a classic cruise itinerary.
Antarctic Peninsula Highlights
The peninsula’s milder climate, calmer waters and an infinite array of protected coves attract an impressive range of migrating Antarctic marine life during the summer cruising season. Most expedition itineraries, therefore, will dedicate a great many days to exploring its coastline. Coupled with an array of both abandoned and functioning scientific research bases, and an abundance of exceptional landing sites, it makes the Antarctic Peninsula the one place you don’t want to miss visiting when heading south.
Here are some of the stunning highlights you can experience when you visit the Antarctic Peninsula:
The nutrient-rich waters around the peninsula create the best feeding region in the south. The wildlife-spotting in this area is absolutely outstanding, the most popular sightings being of crabeater, Weddell and southern elephant seals, as well as minke, killer, humpback and, if you’re super lucky, southern right and blue whale as well.
If whale-spotting is high on your must-do list, consider visiting the Antarctic Peninsula in February, widely considered the best whale-watching month of the cruising season.
Penguins are undoubtedly the most common (and coveted) wildlife you’ll encounter on the Antarctic Peninsula, as they love to set up enormous rookeries on the northernmost coves, where ice melt is greatest in summer. Here, you’ll see chinstrap, Adélie and gentoo penguins. Emperor and King penguins are harder (but not impossible) to spot if you only visit the peninsula because they mostly set-up home either on the eastern side of the continent (Emperor) and on the island of South Georgia (King). The odd sighting of the two largest penguin species is always a possibility but it isn’t something you should expect when cruising along the peninsula.
Here are just 10 reasons to include South Georgia on your Antarctic expedition itinerary.
The Antarctic Peninsula is also a thriving mecca for sea birds, among them the impressive petrel, skua, tern, king cormorants and gull.
On Antarctic Peninsula expeditions, you’ll make landfall on inflatable Zodiacs and will have plenty of time to explore landing sites, waddle with penguins and soak up the sun rays with lazy seals. The wildlife in Antarctica are unafraid of humans, so close encounters are common. This is, by far, the most exhilarating highlight on peninsula expeditions.
Here’s a quick snapshot of the kind of wildlife you’ll see on your Antarctic Peninsula expedition.
Although there is extensive ice-melt on the northernmost region every summer (enough for lichen and moss to grow), the Antarctic Peninsula remains mostly ice-packed throughout the year. The glistening horizons are enhanced by a spectacular spine of high mountains, many of them between 2,000 and 3,000 metres in altitude. The dramatic horizons and the many rocky islets and ice-shelves that dot the seas around the coast make the peninsula a visual spectacle like no other. The high peaks of this region are technically a continuation of the Andes Mountains of South America, joined by a ridge that is found below sea-level.
The South Shetland Islands
The peninsula may be the first mainland region you’ll see after the Drake Passage yet the South Shetland Islands will be your very first land sighting after two full days at sea. This maze of wildlife-brimming isles is the first to have been explored by whalers in the 1800s and nowadays attract large colonies of breeding penguins, among them the beautiful Macaronis. The archipelago is home to the King George Airport (the one that offers fly + cruise options) as well as more than a dozen research stations.
Some of the South Shetland Islands often visited by expedition cruises are Deception Island (its sunken volcanic cove now one Antarctica’s safest harbour), Penguin Island (offering perhaps the easiest walk to an elevated viewpoint for startling views), Elephant Island (where Shackleton and his expedition team were stranded in 1915 after their ship, Endurance, was crushed by sea ice) and several more islets that host breeding penguins and wonderfully calm coves.
The most spectacular channel around the peninsula, and often sublimely calm, the Lemaire Channel separates Booth Island from the peninsula’s western coastline. Aptly named the Kodak Gap due to it being immensely photogenic. Barely 1.5km wide and just over 10km wide, the channel is flanked by sky-reaching ice-capped mountains on one side and often littered with floating icebergs. Narrow and overwhelmed by ice and land, the passage is usually only visible once a traverse has already started. Being able to cruise and experience the Lemaire Channel is the single-biggest argument for mid and late-season expeditions, as at times the channel is impassable for early-season cruises.
Zodiac outings may be exhilarating enough for some but nothing compares to cruising the peninsula’s calm coves on your own kayak. This is, by far, one of the most unforgettable experiences you could have in Antarctica. Cosy up to ginormous icebergs, peruse coves and inlets your ship can’t get to and, if you’re exceptionally lucky, have a frolic with a whale. You can’t kayak anywhere in Antarctica due to high winds and strong currents but you can on the most protected bays around the peninsula. As you can imagine, this activity is restricted in numbers and highly coveted so we suggest you book your spot when you book your cruise.
The Weddell Sea
The lesser-visited and much wilder eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula is lapped by the Weddell Sea, home to the remote South Sandwich Islands and the most accessible (yet still very elusive) Emperor Penguin rookery in the world. Other than here, the only place to see a colony of Emperors is around the South Pole so do note that ‘most accessible’ is still a very relative term. Only a few hardy expedition ships make the trek to the Weddell Sea every year, all aiming to reach the rare penguin colony on Snow Hill Island by helicopter.
This rates as one of the hardest challenges in Antarctica as given the remoteness and isolation, flying conditions have to be absolutely perfect. If you manage to bag this bad boy, however, you can consider your Antarctica dream more than realised.
This is the magic of Antarctica.
At Chimu Adventures, we love nothing more than showcasing this most magical icy kingdom with adventurous souls in search of a meaningful, immersive and rewarding nature-based experience. Sound like you? See our extensive Antarctica Travel Guide or contact one of our polar specialists to know more.