My big wildlife trip of 2015 will be to South Georgia Island and Antarctica. Antarctica has been on my bucket list for 10 years or more. Friends of mine who have visited have told me the best place to see wildlife is on S. Georgia Island, so that will be the focal point of our trip. Here is a cool video of some of the wildlife sights of S. Georgia:
The same person, Markus Eichenberger, made a lovely video of Antarctica as well, and I believe traveled with the same company I am going with.
ANTARCTICA from Markus Eichenberger Photography on Vimeo.
Some tips for researching a trip to Antarctica:
1. Travel to Antarctica is expensive. There are many reasons for this - but the reality is, it is probably the most expensive wildlife trip you can take. That said, it's tripled in price in the 10 years I've been watching it and it is unlikely to be cheaper! So go if there is any way you can, before it gets even MORE expensive. Demand is strong, with the Chinese starting to travel there more as well, believe it or not! If you want to try and find a "discount" fare, like the Facebook pages of travel companies you target and watch for "last minute" discounts of up to 50% off on cabins that did not sell out. (Most of these offers seem to start in October). If you have the flexibility to travel on short notice, don't care much about what kind of cabin you get, are flexible on the ship and size of the boat, and can arrange flights on short notice, you will definately save money - but it will just depend on what is available and you won't know far in advance.
2. Many companies resell the same trips. Once you get into researching trips, you will see that many companies are reselling the exact same trip on the same ship, same itinerary, for different costs. What I recommend is making a spreadsheet showing the trips you are interested in - note the dates, places visited, price, number of days, ships, and number of passenger. Then you will quickly see after some research that the very same trip can vary in price as much as $5,000.
3. Plan a year in advance. For best selection, you need to book a year in advance. Trips do sell out that far out! Not all, but many. So do your research and DO NOT wait to book unless you are really flexible and have to wait for a bargain to make the trip feasible at all. Obviously if you book a year in advance, you might want to consider "Cancel For Any Reason" option on your trip insurance, which means you need to buy the policy within 7-14 days of you initial deposit.
4. Choosing A Responsible Company. I recommend traveling only with a company that is a member of IAATO, International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. A list of members is available here. You want a company that is environmentally responsible - you can read up on IAATO on their website. Companies vary widely in their practices so take time to research the company well. When you are spending this kind of money, you need to know: does the company place comfort first, or maximum wildlife viewing? Are their guides respected in their fields, with something to offer you about the flora and fauna you will encounter? Or are they just people managing getting you on and off the ship? Typically you can narrow the field readily to 3 to 5 "top" companies you think offer the types of trips you want. Then make contact inquiries, see what you like/don't like. Always ask for a reference from someone from a past trip so you can ask them about their experience with the company. Do not rely on testimonials or anonymous website ratings! Interview past travelers! In doing so you will also learn useful things you may not have thought of about what to look for.
5. There Are Limited Ships: Pick a Size. You want an ice-breaking ship. There are some sailboats that travel to Antarctica - but this means the ship will be tossed about a lot in waves and subject to getting stuck in the ice. There are a lot of risks with small ships - research these carefully. About the smallest tourist ship that isn't sailing is around 50 passengers. Many of these are retired Russian research vessels. You will find a few ships with 50 passengers, some with 100, some with 125, 150, then 200. Be aware there are limits on how many people can go on land at once. So in a ship of 200, even though you may be docked somewhere for awhile, you may actually have very little time on land since you have to take turns going ashore. I ended up going with the smallest ship I felt was safe, a 50 passenger boat, as I did not want to sail. Once you start researching, you will see there are only so many ships - so for example you can search by ship name, like the Oretelius, and see what itineraries are offered on that ship. You may find some offered you can't find easily another way. While some ships are owned by a company that uses them exclusively, many are rented out to various companies over the course of the season.
6. Picking an Itinerary. Most people who visited Antarctica told me they underestimated the time at sea and the time on land was very, very limited. There are "short" week long cruises to Antarctica - you will have little time off the boat on these, but research so you know. There are longer cruises that hit various islands like the Falklands, the Sandwich Islands, S. Georgia, etc. The problem is, there is about a 4 hour window a ship can dock at these islands and weather is not always permitting so you may or may not stop - if you do you won't be there long - and there is a ton of time at sea between places. I was originally looking most strongly at 19-22 day trips to try and pack in as many islands as possible. After further research, we selected an in-depth trip to S. Georgia and a longer trip to Antarctica, so we have ample time for activities on both. Hiking, diving, camping, etc,. are options on longer trips which are often unavailable with shorter stops for logistical reasons. Most everyone I interviewed said do not skip S. Georgia! I really wanted to see Elephant Island. Oh well.
7. Picking a Time to Go. November through February is essentially the available time when it is "summer" and the ice is melted, with a slight overland into October and March. Each month offers a little bit different wildlife options. Supposedly sealife/marine mannals are best in February while penguin chicks are best to see in December. Wildlife on S. Georgia is supposed to peak in November. You can research seasons in Antarctica and read up on what you can expect for each month in terms of ice, weather, marine life, penguin life, size of colonies, breeding and mating seasons, etc.
8. Activities. Research to see what activities will be available. For example, I really wanted to camp in Antarctica, but many itineraries didn't offer than option. If you want to hike the Shackleton Trek across S. Georgia, very few companies offer that. A few companies offer polar diving. There are trips which offer special photography workshops. If you have a particular interest, be sure to know whether it is an option on the itineraries you are looking at. Kayaking is offered on some trips. Some itineraries include activities and some charge extra and have limited space available so if you want to do activities, research the additional cost and book early.
9. Insurance. You will need a policy with great medical evacuation coverage if you are traveling in this part of the world. Some companies require it, and it does add to the trip cost so don't forget to research insurance costs. If you book a year in advance, your flights may not be available yet. Talk with the insurer about this. I was able to add my flights later, and as they were less expensive than I estimated, the insurance company sent me a refund of part of my premium. They would have been happy to offer more coverage for an additional fee if it had worked out the other way. If you plan to do a glacier trek, be sure you have coverage for it - you may need a supplemental policy. The Travelex policy with the Adventure Pack is a good one for that. You can add this as your trip itinerary firms up.
10. Gear. You need to bring a lot of gear for a lot of wet, cold and windy conditions - as well as sun. Start reading up on recommended gear and seeing what you have and what you can borrow. We avoided buying down coats and things we likely won't use again, borrowing gear from many friends to filling gaps in our own gear. We had to buy some things, but by knowing many months out what we needed, we watched for sales and were able to get decent sale prices or used items so that the gear didn't become yet another huge cost of the trip. I had some struggles with what to get so when I return I will tell you what worked/didn't work and what I'd recommend. If you plan to take photos there, get going on what special stuff you'll need for that too. You must bring at least two camera bodies.
I checked out guidebooks on Antarctica from my local library, read online extensively, and interviewed about 12 people who had been to Antarctica before making a final selection. I also had conversations or email exchanges with my top 6 companies for additional information, and interviewed past clients before booking the companies I settled on. In the end we chose Cheeseman's Ecology Safaris for S. Georgia and Oceanwide for Antarctica, as these trips are offered back to back on the same ship, though with different companies. This way we will have extensive time in each location and comparatively little time at sea as opposed to an itinerary which attempts to explore more islands - and we won't even have to change cabins.
We will be going in fall of 2015, so I will of course post pictures and report on how reality matched up with research.