Answering Your Questions About Cruising to the Arctic and Antarctic
An interview with Expeditions Online’s Owner and Director, Stewart Campbell
Here at Expeditions Online, one of the challenges we face as a specialist polar expedition cruise agency is answering everyone’s questions about the Arctic and Antarctica. There is a lot of mystery and confusion surrounding both of these locations and this can be one of the biggest barriers when people are planning their next big adventure. To answer as many of these questions as possible, the company’s owner and director, Stewart Campbell, has agreed to help us out. We have gathered together many of the most pressing questions from customers and potential customers and asked Stewart to offer his insights.
Let’s start with the Arctic. There is a lot of confusion about what exactly the Arctic is and how big it is. Why do you think this is?
Stewart: The largest tracts of the Arctic are actually located in the ocean, ice-covered and seldom-visited. As for landmasses, I think that while most of us realise that countries like Canada, Greenland, and Russia are pretty big, we only have a vague idea of their geography and how much of their vast northern landscapes are located in the Arctic. Since there are also a few different definitions of the Arctic — for example, geographic or climatic — this may also add to the confusion, although due to global warming concerns, there is more awareness nowadays than previously. But taking the simplest definition of the area north of the Arctic Circle (66° 33'N), the Arctic is truly enormous: it’s approximately 20 million km2 or roughly 4% of the Earth's surface. This is where, at least for some part of the year, the Sun never sets in summer and it never rises in winter. It is cold (notwithstanding global warming) and largely (but not entirely) pristine from human development. It is a place where nature still reigns supreme.
Why do you think people want to travel to the Arctic? What’s the appeal?
Stewart: The love of exploration and travel is built into all of us, I think. Given that the Arctic is still largely unknown, it has a constant appeal for people wanting to follow in the wake of earlier explorers and find out more about the area. But almost certainly the biggest drawc is the urge to see the wildlife — especially iconic Arctic creatures such as polar bears, walruses, and whales — not to forget the fantastic birdlife. People want to see glaciers and icebergs, and to escape their urban lives for somewhere pristine and beautiful.
There is often a lot of anxiety about clothes and equipment. What should people pack if they’re planning a trip to the Arctic or the Antarctic?
Stewart: Needless to say, there is some preparation and we do provide all our clients with more detailed information. However, mostly it is pretty straightforward or in many cases, partially provided for in the way of jackets and boots from the ship on which you travel. 99% of trips we do are during the polar summer months and the temperatures are not extreme and mostly above freezing point. You’ll wear all-weather jackets, waterproof pants, lightweight fleeces, gloves and a good hat. Then, of course, there are other things to consider like camera equipment and daypacks. You’ll want to take as many beautiful pictures as possible, so a good camera is an absolute essential!
Moving on to the Antarctic. Why do you think people should visit the Antarctic? It’s obviously an adventure, but what do you love most about it?
Stewart: I love everything about the Antarctic! Seriously, even all the ‘hard’ parts like the cold and the distance and the rough seas to get there. It’s all part of what makes Antarctica so special and pristine. For me, it is all about the experience of nature and beauty and wildlife – all things that Antarctica offers in abundance. One of the things that is especially fantastic about a trip to Antarctica is the ‘bubble effect’ that you get once you set sail. The rest of the world and its problems really get left behind, and you find yourself completely engrossed in the search for wildlife, the subtleties of an albatross in flight, a vast colony of penguins, your first iceberg... Catching up on stories of past Antarctic exploration by the lecturers, watching the ship’s officers navigate from the bridge – these are all aspects that make Antarctica the ultimate get-away-from-it-all holiday! Being served up three fantastic meals per day on the ship is not too bad either…
What are the biggest differences between the Antarctic and the Arctic? Why should someone planning the trip of a lifetime choose one adventure over the other?
Stewart: Antarctica is more isolated and colder than the Arctic, and both regions have incredibly different kinds of wildlife. Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ocean and the Arctic an ocean surrounded by continents — this creates quite a different experience for visitors! For one thing, there is more ‘sea time’ on a cruise to Antarctica, since you need to travel across the Southern Ocean to get there (unless you take an air-cruise with flights). There are fewer different kinds of animals in Antarctica – however, they are in far greater numbers and you can get up closer to them. Penguins breed in vast colonies, for example, whereas you may only see a handful of polar bears on an Arctic trip — and from a safe distance on the ship or a Zodiac! None of the above makes one destination ‘better’ than the other – they’re just different. If you are especially fascinated with polar bears or walruses, you should choose an Arctic cruise. Or if penguins are more your bag, head south! Either way, you will love the adventure!
Lots of people with smaller or medium-sized budgets can perhaps only go on one polar expedition/cruise. Can you recommend your favourite cheaper polar cruise or expedition?
Stewart: It is often thought that some of the larger ships have cheaper prices due to the economy of scale. However, this is not always the case. Two of the smallest Antarctic ships we offer, the Ocean Nova and MV Ushuaia, have the cheapest cabins — going for between just $5000 and $7000 for a 10-day expedition. These trips also offer the advantage of fewer passenger numbers — meaning that everyone can go ashore at the same time. Most other ships have prices starting between $7000 and $10000, so these two Antarctic cruises really do represent excellent value for money. Up in the North, trips like Spitsbergen with the M/V Plancius would be an ideal introduction to the High Arctic, with excellent chances to see polar bears and other wildlife within a week-long itinerary and prices starting from just over $4000. However, there are many other Spitsbergen cruises also at a similar price range and all of them offer the advantage of easy flight access from mainland Europe so that the minute you start your expedition cruise you are already in the icy Far North.
Lastly, what’s your favourite Antarctic or Arctic cruise and why? Perhaps it’s a tie between two different tours?
Stewart: My favourite itinerary is and has always been any Antarctic voyage combining South Georgia and the Falklands. Anyone who has been to South Georgia will tell you the same thing – it is simply amazing! Here, you can see several newly discovered species of penguins, including the regal king penguins. In addition, there are millions of fur seals, gigantic elephant seals, and nesting colonies of magnificent wandering albatross (Tip: choose a very early November trip or one in February/March to see albatross). The glaciated, mountainous scenery is remarkable and the extra time and money for these longer, typically 19-day, itineraries is definitely worth it!
If I had to pick a favourite itinerary up North it would probably be one of the longer Svalbard expeditions — preferably on a small ship like the 11-day Expedition Svalbard with the M/S Quest, or the 12-day Spitsbergen Explorer with the Vavilov. These sorts of voyages give you more time to explore the icy eastern parts of the archipelago and take better advantage of serendipitous wildlife encounters with whales and polar bears amongst the pack ice. A visit to Svalbard is always special since its pointy mountains and icy landscapes look spectacular. It’s also incredibly novel to be so far North that the sun shines all day long.
We hope it’s been interesting and informative to read Stewart’s answers to many of the most common questions about our Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. If you have any questions about this article or about our entire range of cruises and expeditions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
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