Planning & Tips

Crossing the polar circle to experience the true south

In our busy and fast-paced world, it often feels as though there are no parts of our planet that remain truly wild and untouched. Antarctica is one of the few havens on Earth that has escaped the modern touch of humans. The wildlife, instead of fleeing for cover, are actually curious and will often approach at their own will.

For these reasons, cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula have become popular over the years as they allow travellers to escape the throng of typical tourist destinations. Antarctica is so much more than just the Peninsula, and for adventurers wanting to add an extra injection of excitement and exploration, cruises that cross the Polar Circle may just be the ticket.

What’s so special about a Polar Circle voyage?

A vast iceberg floats under an expansive sky

Of the five major circles of latitude found on our Earth’s maps, the Antarctic Circle is the most southerly and least visited. Every year only a handful of people actually experience crossing it. As such, it has a mystique about it that is hard to put into words. If I had to describe it I would say it feels bold and adventurous, the sense of going one step further than the rest. Although the Polar Circle is an intangible line, it still gave me a real buzz to know that I’d managed to cross it.

Of course, the best thing for me about taking a Polar Circle voyage was getting more time exploring the 7th continent. Most standard peninsula cruises spend roughly five or six days in Antarctica. Cruises that traverse the Polar Circle, however, generally get an extra three days on the peninsula. It may not sound like much, but when you’re in such a mesmerizing environment and you’ve travelled a long way to get there, three extra days is definitely worth the extra cost.

What will I see on a Polar Circle voyage?

There is a misconception surrounding the Polar Circle that the wildlife sightings become more abundant the further south you sail from the Antarctic Peninsula, but this is not the case. I remember on my first Polar Circle voyage asking our onboard bird expert, Marco, excitedly about what wildlife we would see further south. He gave me a bemused smile and replied “maybe a penguin or two”. I laughed thinking he was being sarcastic. He wasn’t.

The further south you sail, the sparser the wildlife becomes. Penguin rookeries thin out and whale sightings grind to a halt. The landscape also changes, becoming wilder. One guide described the Gerlache Strait region of the Antarctic Peninsula as feeling ‘intimate’. By this, she meant that there are hundreds of small islands, narrow channels, small bays, and wildlife around every corner. The closer you get to the Polar Circle, however, this feeling of intimacy disappears. The channels become larger, the landscapes starker and a feeling of expansive openness creeps in.

Navigating through open channels packed with ice

Seeing the ice formations and landscape change is something that many of the passengers found quite interesting. It certainly hit home to me just how stark much of Antarctica must be. Even though the lack of abundant wildlife was disappointing, the bleak landscape did heighten the feeling of adventure and remoteness. We did spot several Weddell seals and the guides said there was also a chance of spotting some emperor penguins. Sadly we never did, but the open landscape gave us all a sense that anything could happen.

Crossing the Antarctic Polar Circle

The actual time your ship crosses the Polar Circle varies considerably depending on the ice conditions and weather. Our ship glided towards the official circle late at night when most guests had gone to bed, including me. At 2:30am an announcement came over the tannoy from the expedition leader asking guests to join the team on the deck as we made our final approach.

Bleary-eyed I dressed quickly in many layers and headed up to the deck to find most of the passengers already there. Champagne was being prepared as our expedition leader gave a short speech. At 3am we officially crossed the Antarctic Polar Circle to a chorus of clinking glasses and whoops of excitement.

Passengers on board a ship in Antarctica celebrating crossing the Antarctic Polar Circle
Out on deck celebrating crossing the circle in the early hours of the morning

As I noted above, there is no tangible line you actually cross. For me, the feeling of satisfaction came from being immersed in a wild and rugged landscape that few people are ever lucky enough to witness. The actual latitude on the radar, although awesome to see, was secondary in my eyes.

So, why cross the Polar Circle?

For people wanting to push themselves beyond the norm and experience a true sense of remote adventure, I can’t recommend a Polar Circle voyage enough. Even though the wildlife is sparser and you have more time at sea, there is a certain intangible romanticism in the exploration, which is completely exhilarating.

A couple in red jackets staring out at icebergs from an Antarctic cruise ship
Sailing south towards the Antarctic Circle

Standing on deck and looking out over a landscape that few people have ever witnessed was more important to me than crossing the circle itself. Knowing that each day we were at the mercy of the ice and the weather was exciting and gave the journey a feeling of suspense.

You get some pretty epic bragging rights from a trip like this, so if you want to experience Antarctica beyond the normal tourist itinerary, go for it.

Alex Mudd

Head of Swoop Antarctica

Alex returned from his first Antarctica trip ten years ago firmly bitten by 'polar fever' and obsessed with icebergs. Since then, in between further forays to the polar regions, he's been evangelising about the joys of expeditionary cruising and doing all he can to return to The White Continent.

An inveterate traveller never happier than when beyond mobile reception. Some of his more memorable adventures have included dog sledding in Spitsbergen, hanging out with Huli Wigmen in PNG, piranha fishing in The Amazon and chasing the Northern Lights in Greenland.