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Antarctica 101: 15 Things You Need to Know Before You Go ‘On the Ice’

PHOTO: robert mcgillivray / Shutterstock

From what to expect to what to bring and what to leave home, here are the things every passenger should know before leaving on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

I was admittedly naïve about most things Antarctic before boarding the boat that would bring me to the White Continent for the first time; I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce Ushuaia, the city from which we’d be embarking (it’s pronounced “oo-swy-ah,” by the way). Not only was I the youngest but I was obviously the least prepared on the ship, a fact made painfully evident in the pre-trip meeting when I far-too-excitedly exclaimed, “I just can’t wait to see penguins!” with childlike glee when asked what we were looking forward to most about the journey (note: all answers that followed my uninhibited response were strikingly more intelligent, either historical or scientific in nature … an unfortunate disadvantage of a having to answer first in an alphabetically ordered Q&A session). Thankfully, like most passengers, I gained a lifetime of knowledge while I was in Antarctica, but not before learning that there are a few things every passenger should know before leaving on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

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Book with a small ship.

Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty, which protects and preserves the continent as a natural reserve. The rules of the treaty include an environmental protocol that limits the amount of passengers on shore during landings to just 100 people. Book with a smaller ship, like the Hebridean Sky through Adventure Life that has a maximum passenger capacity of 118, to avoid spending your vacation waiting for boats to return so you can have a turn on shore.

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Bring seasickness medication even if you don’t think you’ll need it.

To get to Antarctica by boat requires sailing through the Drake Passage, the body of water between South America and the South Shetland Islands. It’s notoriously the roughest body of water in the world, earning its nickname the “Drake Shake” for obvious reasons. Many passengers use a prescribed motion-sickness patch or over-the-counter motion-sickness pills or wristbands, swapping alcohol with ginger tea during the passage crossing days.

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Stop using products with micro-plastics.

Antarctica is a continent void of permanent human settlements, and, as such, it has historically escaped internal pollution issues; which is why it’s so surprising that scientists are finding toxic microplastics in the waters surrounding the continent. These tiny beads are often found in exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs, and they have somehow made their way from the wastewaters of the other six continents and into this pristine ecosystem. Whether or not you ever plan to visit Antarctica, you can do your part to protect it by avoiding any products containing microplastics.

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Listen to your guide.

There is little room for error in the extreme environments found in Antarctica, and it’s one of the few places in the world where a guide will flat-out use the dreaded “d” word in a briefing (as in, “Avoid veering off the path; you could die if you do”). Hiking and exploration paths on shore are carefully chosen each day by professional adventure guides to avoid deadly crevasses and steer clear of disturbing the penguin highways—the well-worn paths that penguins use to traverse to and from the sea and their nests.

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You can be an honorary scientist.

Science ain’t cheap. Sending one scientist to Antarctica can cost upwards of $40,000, a number not typically in the budget for many research institutes. You can help save scientific institutions millions of dollars by participating in Citizen Science initiatives. Some are as simple as taking mapping cloud patterns for NASA’s Globe Observer or sending your whales photos in to Happy Whale to help track the migratory and feeding patterns of whales around the world, while others are more hands-on and include adventuring out on an inflatable zodiac to collect phytoplankton samples for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

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You don’t need to bring a parka.

Unless you’ll be exploring around Patagonia before the ship sails, save your suitcase space and leave your overcoat at home. Many ships provide a custom expedition jacket complimentary for guests, like the signature red Helly Hansen jacket monogrammed for each passenger onboard any Polar Latitudes vessel. Not only does the jacket come in handy in the frigid temperatures of Antarctica, but it acts as a sort of “members only” souvenir for the handful of the world’s population that have traveled that far south.

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And you don’t need to bring boots.

Save space in your suitcase and just plan to borrow boots on board. Many ships provide thermal expedition-grade boots for use during the voyage. Most are comfortable enough for days spent hiking up rocky terrain or sitting for hours in an inflatable zodiac boat. The Antarctic Treaty requires all passengers leaving the ship to step into a decontamination solution before and after any offshore excursions, so there’s no worrying about harming your own pair if you borrow a pair from the ship. Call in advance or talk to your travel guide to ensure your size will be available.

Book a Hotel

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You don’t need to go alone.

Although many Antarctic cruise ship passengers travel as couples, more and more solo travelers are heading onboard, with some ships reporting upwards of 80 percent single occupancy rates. Solo travelers can even save a decent amount of money by opting for a shared double, triple, or even quadruple cabin, where there is no charge if a cabin mate can’t be found.

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Book early.

Many of the add-on adventures like kayaking, camping, and paddle boarding are only available for a small number of the ship’s passengers, and each one books up fast. If you have any desire to spend a night on the continent or paddle through icebergs while in the region, book at least a year in advance to ensure yourself a spot on one of these highly coveted lists.

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PHOTO: Ratushniak / Shutterstock
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Do the Polar Plunge. No questions. Just do it.

Many Antarctic cruises offer at least one chance for passengers to plunge into the icy waters surrounding the continent. Sometimes the plunge involves jumping off an inflatable zodiac boat, and other times it means sprinting in a swimsuit along a pebbled beach into the shallow shores. Aside from being an “Antarctic rite of passage,” taking part in the polar plunge in Antarctica is one of the most exhilarating experiences of a lifetime, and it’s worth every bit of cold feet you’ll have before and after hitting that water.

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Bring sunscreen.

Not many people think about getting a sunburn in Antarctica, but since the continent is tilted toward the sun during peak travel months, sunny days can last upwards of 24 hours in some parts. Even on gray days, some sort of face protection is wise to combat windburn or even protect from the UV rays that make it through the clouds or reflect off the snow and ice.

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PHOTO: Aleksei Romanov / Shutterstock
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You’ll never get tired of seeing penguins.

No matter if you take a six-, eight-, or twelve-day expedition cruise to the continent, there’s zero chance you’ll be yawning on the last day when a Gentoo or chinstrap penguin waddles its way toward you or shimmies off the water after returning from a lunch in the water. There are few better ways to spend an afternoon than planting yourself in the snow and watching the drama that unfolds as these birds interact with each other in their colonies, stealing pebbles, calling for their mates, and protecting their nests in a slow-paced yet wildly entertaining display.

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Read the book 'South: The Endurance Expedition' before you leave.

In 1914 Sir Ernest Shackleton led an expedition with 27 men onboard the Endurance, intending to be the first to cross Antarctica on foot. What followed was what has been called the greatest survival story ever told. Chances are everyone else on board the cruise you take will have read this book or at least seen the PBS documentary “Chasing Shackleton,” so do yourself a favor and grab a copy of either before you leave so, at the very least, you’ll have more to talk about around the dinner table.

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Bring a good camera.

Regardless of your photography skills, if you have a good camera at home, bring it. Many ships have a dedicated photographer onboard to document the journey and provide guests with a photographic keepsake at the end of the trip. When the photographer isn’t behind the lens, he or she is also there to help any guests figure out the ins-and-outs of their equipment. Simply ask the ship’s photographer for a quick tutorial, and you’ll likely come home with some frame-worthy shots from your trip.

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You won’t come back the same.

Every person traveling to Antarctica is required to watch a pre-trip briefing that explains the rules of traveling to the continent, and many ships require a signed agreement from each passenger. Part of the agreement states that passengers will go down as tourists and come back as Antarctica ambassadors. Because Antarctica has no native population, the continent needs people to advocate on its behalf. Along with adorable photos of penguins, most tourists return with a deep sense of attachment to their newly explored territory.