As concern for the fates of both the Arctic and the Antarctic increases and reports emerge about the speed of change at both poles, there’s a sense among some travellers that there’s no time to waste in seeing these white wildernesses.
So, if an expedition cruise to either region is on your bucket list, how do you choose which one?
I’ve been very privileged to have visited both the Arctic and the Antarctic by ship just a few months apart so here are my observations:
* On board Poseidon Expeditions’ Sea Spirit: An epic expedition cruise through Antarctica
* Rare access: Expedition cruises get you closer to wildlife
* Ice with that? Critical need for sustainable Arctic travel
* Canada to Greenland arctic cruise: An eye-opening journey into Inuit country
Do I go, or should I stay?
The first question to debate is that by going to these regions by aircraft and ship, am I actually just adding to the climate change crisis?
As someone working in the travel world, I’m increasingly wrestling with this issue so I’m in no position to preach.
Other factors to take into account
Cost: The very nature of an Arctic or Antarctic expedition is going to mean this could be one of the more expensive trips you will do in a lifetime. But if it’s on your bucket list, it’s worth saving up for. No-one I’ve met in either region last season regretted making their trip.
From New Zealand, the Antarctic is going to be less expensive than an Arctic expedition, simply because it’s closer – whether you travel entirely by ship from New Zealand, or fly to a South American port such as Ushuaia in Argentina, from where many Antarctic cruises depart. Leaving from New Zealand means fewer carbon omissions too.
If you want to cruise an Arctic area such as Svalbard (A Norwegian Arctic archipelago), or Franz Josef Land (a Russian archipelago), you need to fly long haul to Europe.
Sea-sickness: If you really, really want to see the Arctic or the Antarctic, but are prone to sea sickness, you might want to minimise the time in open waters. This is why some people choose to visit Antarctica from Ushuaia. Usually it takes only about two nights to cross from the tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula, where during the season, the seas are usually exceptionally calm.
When I did this cruise, we crossed the Drake Passage that separates the two landmasses, in huge seas – only about 10 or us (about 10 per cent of passengers aboard) made it to breakfast the first morning out of port. By the next day, almost everyone was up and about. What amazed me was that many of these people knew they would be “sick as dogs” (or seriously medicated), but had resigned themselves to four days of misery (there and back) because of their determination to see Antarctica. Occasionally, if you are lucky, this passage can be calm, but it’s not common.
So, it can be a choice of either four days in some of the most tumultuous seas on the planet, or a longer time sailing in potentially less choppy seas from New Zealand.
The sea crossing from Svalbard to Franz Josef Land and the Arctic was relatively calm and, according to the permanent crew who are on board for both Antarctic and Arctic cruises, never gets as rough during the summer season as the Drake Passage.
Ship size: There are strict conditions in the Antarctic limiting the number of people who can land at any one time. If you want the chance to step foot on an Arctic island or the Antarctic, check your chosen ship’s passenger numbers and exactly what kind of excursions they offer.
Timing and temperatures: Antarctic cruises operate in our summer, Arctic cruises in our winter. I found outside weather temperatures similar, but summer fogs might be more common around the Arctic archipelagos.
Polar bears versus penguins
Wildlife viewing is a prime reason people visit polar regions. In the Arctic, there are polar bears, walruses, beluga and other whale species.
Head south and you will see colonies containing thousands of penguins (of several different species), sea birds including albatross – and whales.
So, it really depends what floats your boat. In Antarctica, we walked (under strict rules and guidance) close to hundreds of penguins who often waddled right past our feet. We also marvelled at dozens of feeding humpback whales one evening and watched wheeling, swooping albatross around our ship and saw seals at close quarters.
In the Arctic, we encountered 15 polar bears, from our ship or Zodiac (in some cases the polar bears swam up to the ship), but unlike finding penguin colonies, polar bear sightings are much more unpredictable. We also had no difficulty seeing walruses from our boats, but whales proved somewhat more elusive, apart from beluga and bowhead which we couldn’t see close up.
The very real threat of polar bear attack means that landings in places such as Svalbard or Franz Josef Land are very closely controlled by rangers and expeditions guides posted around an area in which passengers are able to wander.
In the Antarctic, with no such threats, there are often more opportunities to wander further, climb to vantage points for views and simply sit and contemplate the beauty around one. Some cruises also offer a sleep-over on ice – something that is not possible on an Arctic cruise
Smaller expedition cruises often carry kayaks. In the Arctic, because of the risk of polar bears and walrus, kayak group sizes are smaller because more kayak leaders and support crew are needed.
I can only comment on the Arctic scenery of Svalbard and Franz Josef Land versus the landscapes of South Shetland and the Antarctic Peninsula. In my opinion, the mountains, glaciers, ice fields, inlets and bays of the latter are the more spectacular. However, there were times when the sight of icebergs floating past Svalbard’s vast ice sheets also took my breath away.
In the Arctic, we also saw reindeer and arctic fox, plus a fascinating array of tundra plants, adding more diversity to our daily landings.
Visiting Antarctica brings to life stories of the polar explorers we’ve known about since school days. We sailed in waters close to where the epic survival story of Shackleton and the Endurance took place.
However, in the Arctic, we heard stories of explorers I knew nothing about, but who were no less brave and, at times, foolhardy and who had tackled the equally unforgiving wilderness around the North Pole.
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