Planning & Tips

Antarctica: Will I definitely step foot on the 7th continent?

Even since I can remember I wanted to step foot on Antarctica. My grandfather had worked on the White Continent for some years during the 50s for the Australian Antarctic Division as a marine biologist and his stories always left me in awe.

To a child, these tales always sounded like incredible adventures and I grew up knowing that one day I would travel to this magical land and experience it for myself. Needless to say, when I got the opportunity to take a cruise to Antarctica, I dived at it. No, I wouldn’t be there long, nor would I have the freedom to go anywhere I wanted, but I would be able to experience the place I’d dreamed about and finally bag my 7th continent.

Setting sail

A ship setting sail into the Beagle Channel under stormy skies
Setting sail into the Beagle Channel under stormy skies

A storm was closing in as we sailed out of Ushuaia and the port was closed just two minutes after our departure. The ship was far larger than anything my grandfather sailed on, but I still couldn’t help feeling a jolt of nervous excitement as we headed out into the infamous waters of the Drake Passage.

Over the next two days, as we made our crossing, I struck up numerous conversations with fellow passengers. Antarctica, it seemed, would be the final continent for more people than just me. In fact, it seemed as though half the ship were bagging their 7th continent on this voyage. This surprised me somewhat, but it’s understandable given Antarctica is, without doubt, the toughest continent on Earth to reach.

One of the most popular topics at dinner on the first few evenings was the question of whether we would actually step foot on the continental landmass. For some passengers this was a big deal, for others like myself, it made very little difference. However, after being in Antarctica for several days in which only island landings were made, the topic became so hot that the expedition team leader decided to address it during one of the evening presentations.

“Firstly, I just want to make it very clear that whether or not we make a continental landing, you have all now stepped foot on Antarctica. The small islands surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula are geographically and officially part of the 7th continent”.

I personally couldn’t have agreed with him more. It’s like saying that someone who visits the UK has not been to Europe, or someone who visits Tasmania has not been to Australia. Despite this, there were still plenty of people who thought this wasn’t good enough for them and desperately wanted to make a landing on the continental landmass itself.

Towering mountains and sweeping glaciers in Antarctica draped in snow
Towering mountains and sweeping glaciers draped in snow

The expedition leader could sense this and decided to put it to a vote. The vote was swift and one-sided. The passengers had spoken and we would be landing at Orne Harbour the following day to step foot on the Continental landmass of Antarctica. Looking back, I realised that this ‘vote’ is something the expedition team probably did on every voyage, but the theatrical moment was certainly entertaining.

Stepping foot on the Continental Landmass

The atmosphere onboard as we approached Orne Harbour the next morning was one of heightened anticipation. There was even a couple who had printed off matching t-shirts for the occasion that read ‘The 7th continent, here we come’. Passengers lined the decks, including myself, eager to get ashore.

Orne Harbour was steep and the expedition team had cut out a zig-zagging path all the way to the top of the snow-capped bay. By the time I reached the top, I was breathing heavily and sweating under my thick coat. The view and sense of achievement I felt as I looked for miles across the magical Antarctic landscape was more than worth it.

Snow-draped Orne Harbour, Antarctica, under blue skies and sunshine
Breathtaking views out over a sunlit Orne Harbour

Whilst passengers were jumping around in the snow, taking pictures, waving flags and celebrating with their loved ones, I decided to talk to one of the expedition guides named Roger. He’d been back and forth to Antarctica more times than he could count and I found his perspective on the continental landmass discussion quite interesting.

“We always try to make a landing on the mainland itself, but it doesn’t always happen if the weather isn’t playing ball. There are only a small handful of locations you can make a continental landing and it’s often out of our hands.”

I asked him what happens if they can’t land and if the passengers get upset.

“Some people are disappointed even though we try to make the point that the islands still very much count as Antarctica and it all becomes one landmass in winter anyway. What most people don’t realise is that along the Antarctic Peninsula, most of the wildlife and historic locations are found on the islands, not the mainland, so it makes sense to spend as much time exploring the islands.”

Roger also informed me that passengers sailing aboard larger 500 passenger ships don’t step foot on the Antarctica mainland at all. Only the smaller vessels can reach the shallower bays where these landings are possible. It’s also worth noting that express voyages to the South Shetlands do not make any landings on mainland Antarctica.

Final thoughts

A woman in a yellow jacket in Antarctica surrounded by snow and ice
Stepping foot on the 7th continent

For people wanting to know if they will definitely step foot on the continental mainland during their Antarctic Peninsula cruise, the truth is that it can’t be guaranteed. It’s more than likely that you will have the opportunity, however, as weather rarely stops smaller ships from making at least one mainland landing.

Another option for more adventurous souls is to fly to Union Glacier where you can trek to the South Pole. This is an expensive option, however, and flights cost a small fortune. For me, personally, the cruise experience was incredible enough and stepping foot on the mainland was just the icing on an already impressive cake.      

Burnham Arlidge

Burnham Arlidge

Swoop videographer

Swoop’s videographer and an Antarctica specialist, Burnham has explored Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, as well as northern latitudes in the Arctic. Having written extensively about the White Continent, Burnham is always keen to share his stories and photos.