Planning & Tips

Why flexibility is the key to Antarctic itineraries

Expect the unexpected. Go with the flow. These are the types of things you’ll hear over and over again when it comes to Antarctic voyages. In the coldest, windiest and driest continent on Earth, it hardly comes as a surprise to learn that itineraries do not always go to plan.

I can’t seem to tell clients enough just how unpredictable Antarctica can be. To get the most out of your trip you’ll need to be adaptable, optimistic and go with a good sense of humour. You could get sunshine all week, but alternatively, you could get mist, blizzards and total whiteouts. But that’s all part of the fun, right?

To help you understand why flexibility is key to a successful Antarctic voyage, I’ve written this guide on what to expect, or not to expect… as the case may be!

Itineraries are not set in stone

First up is the itinerary itself. Prior to booking, you may be reading the day by day itinerary and loving the sound of all the glorious locations and wildlife you’ll be seeing. However, it’s a guide only and almost all Antarctic voyages will not stick to the pre-voyage itinerary. Most expeditions will move from Plan A through to B, C and sometimes even D.

On my last voyage, we managed to leave the port in Ushuaia two minutes before it was closed due to an incoming storm. Several ships didn’t make it out in time and had to delay their departure overnight. 

In Antarctica, the captain and expedition team have to react to changing weather conditions and make the most of what they can for the passengers. This means that landing sites will change frequently and guests will have to go with the flow. I always advise not to get your hopes up about visiting a particular site as there is absolutely no guarantee you’ll be landing there.

The expedition team will make every effort to visit popular sites like Port Lockroy and Deception Island, but the weather can scupper these plans at any moment. I’ve travelled multiple times to the White Continent and only visited Port Lockroy once, for example. It’s also worth being aware that whilst some sites are most famous for having appeared on various documentaries, there are a whole wealth of spectacular landing sites in Antarctica. There honestly isn’t a single duff site, so trust in the process, so to speak, and know that wherever you end up will be glorious.

Changing weather conditions

The major culprit for itinerary changes during your voyage will be the weather. As mentioned above, Antarctica is a harsh environment that is constantly changing. Strong katabatic winds can race off glaciers and pick up speed within minutes. If this happens, zodiac operations can be rendered unsafe if the swell becomes too large for shore landings. This is one reason why you need to be wearing a fully waterproof outfit because if the wind picks up, you can find yourself getting a very soggy ride back to the ship. Antarctica is unpredictable and potentially dangerous, so it’s always better to have a cautious expedition team taking care of you than to be rushed into a situation that could turn ugly.

On my first voyage to Antarctica, we were the first ship of the season to make it through the Lemaire Channel, a stunning area of natural beauty with rising sea cliffs that frame the narrow stretch of water. It’s so picturesque that it was nicknamed ‘Kodak Gap’ for the number of pictures taken here. The ships that had ventured to the channel the week before were disappointed to find it still choked in ice, proving that you can never tell what you’ll find. One cold night can choke up entire bays, or winds and currents can move entire icebergs which can block your passage. 

A ship navigating through the Lemaire Channel at sunset with people watching from the bow
Navigating through the Lemaire Channel at sunset

This is not to say it’s all doom and gloom. On our last day in Antarctica, we experienced appalling weather and our final shore landing was cancelled. Everyone on board, myself included, was devastated to be missing our last chance to step foot on Antarctica. As the ship turned around and made its way back towards the Drake Passage we encountered a young humpback whale that swam from one side of the ship to the other and spy hopped for a good hour. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life and had the final landing gone ahead as planned, this magical encounter would never have happened.

A barnacle-covered humpback whale spy hopping above the surface

During another previous voyage, I headed to the remote island of South Georgia. Upon arrival, it was clear that the weather conditions were less than ideal with stormy clouds and large swells. Our ship had a group of climbers on board who were hoping to recreate Shackleton’s iconic mountain crossing as part of a centenary trip. Unfortunately, the weather was against them and the climb had to be abandoned. As so often happens with polar expeditions, changes of plan can lead to unexpected opportunities. Having made a dash from South Georgia to avoid the incoming storm, we were able to make an unscheduled stop at South Orkney, where many of the expedition team had never landed before. This region is very rarely visited by expedition ships and we felt like real pioneers.

Antarctica can look spectacular under different light conditions. Although bright, sunny days are wonderful, overcast days bring out a different atmosphere and make for some wonderfully dramatic photographs. It’s easier to spot different blues within the ice and take photos given you don’t have to deal with blinding white snow.

Flexible activities

Not only is the itinerary flexible, but so are the onboard activities. Unlike traditional cruises, the expedition team will give informational talks throughout your voyage on subjects like geology, wildlife, photography, biology and more. These talks are often in response to what has been seen during the day. For example, we saw several whale species in one day during our voyage and we then had an evening talk on cetaceans.

The crew were also flexible when it came to arranging an outdoor BBQ. On the first sunny evening we had, the team quickly got everything ready and the chefs cooked us up a gorgeous spread on the rear of the ship looking out over the spectacular landscapes of Antarctica.

Green tents pitched in the snow on the Antarctic Peninsula
A pitch with a view, camping on the Antarctic Peninsula

Activities such as kayaking and camping are also flexible and you should keep this in mind if you sign up, as nothing is guaranteed. A kayak master may be able to take a group out eight or nine times during a voyage, whilst other times they might only manage two or three outings. This can be slightly frustrating as the cost is the same, but the safety of the guests is absolutely paramount and any time you have on the water will be incredible.

Camping is rarely cancelled as it only takes one good night to go ahead, but you can’t rule it out. Disappointment is natural, but don’t let a cancelled excursion ruin your trip as there are so many other elements of your Antarctic voyage that will be mind-blowing.

It’s all about attitude

Female elephant seals lazing on an Antarctic Peninsula beach
Female elephant seals lazing on an Antarctic Peninsula beach

I always tell people to think of an Antarctic voyage like a proper expedition. You have no idea what weather or wildlife you will encounter, so always be prepared with your waterproofs and your camera, ready to soak up the dramatically different faces of Antarctica. Just because you miss one landing site doesn’t necessarily mean you have missed out as opportunities await elsewhere.

The expedition team and crew on board are highly experienced at dealing with the vagaries of Polar weather and ice conditions so they will ensure that, whatever the weather, you have a spectacular adventure.

Lizzie Williams, Swoop Polar Prodict & Partners manager

Lizzie Williams

Polar Product & Partnerships Manager

Lizzie is Product & Partnerships Manager at Swoop Antarctica. She first visited Antarctica in 2012, which was the beginning of an enduring love (and obsession!) with all things polar and the first of many expeditions, both north and south. She's happiest in her thermals and waterproofs, sitting out on deck with binoculars and a camera, watching the world go by.