All your questions about polar cruises in the Arctic and Antarctica, answered.
As a responsible traveller, should I go on a polar cruise at all?
You might think that, being so remote, the polar regions would be immune to overtourism, yet the number of visitors to the Arctic and Antarctica is on the rise. This is both a bad and a good thing. Of course, the greenhouse gases created by flying to your point of departure and by the ship itself are among the very things threatening the world’s ice sheets, as it is with all flights and all long-haul journeys, wherever you go in the world.
The counter argument, made by many polar scientists, is that Antarctica and the Arctic present unique opportunities to educate people about the environment. They are often the first thing that comes to mind when we think about the climate crisis, and experiencing them firsthand is a life-changing experience for many travellers, often leading them to change their lifestyles when they return home. We hope that people will come away from their voyage as an ambassador, inspired to fight for the beautiful places in the world that we’re losing.
How do you limit the environmental impact of your trips?
In the polar regions, responsible travel isn’t just advised – it’s compulsory. Tourism in the Arctic and Antarctica is overseen by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) and the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) respectively. These organisations have strict environmental standards; for example, in Antarctica, no more than 100 people can land on the ice at any one time. There are only around 60 vessels currently registered to bring tourists to Antarctica.
For our polar expeditions, we only use operators which are registered with these organisations.
What can I do to limit my impact while I’m there?
Your leaders will go through all the rules for safe and responsible travel at the start of your trip, but here’s a few things to keep in mind.
Try to stay at least five metres away from any wildlife, keeping noise levels down and making sure that as a group you don’t surround the animals or cut off their access to the sea. Touching or feeding the wildlife is strictly prohibited.
Don’t use flash photography when around animals – but otherwise, feel free to take as many pictures as you like.
Leave nothing behind - that means absolutely no rubbish, and don’t mark or engrave anything on the landscape - and take nothing away as a souvenir – no rocks, no fossils, nothing man-made. The only exceptions are footprints and photographs.
Feeling unwell? We’re sorry, but the best thing you can do is stay on the boat. Viruses and pathogens can be devastating to penguins and other wildlife. If you’re not sure if you’re healthy enough for an excursion, speak to the on-board medical officer.
Similarly, you’ll be provided with special decontaminated boots for every excursion, ensuring that no foreign seeds, plants, soil or bacteria are brought into the ecosystem. You won’t be allowed on the ice without them.
Most importantly, make sure you only travel with members of either the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) or the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO). These organisations have strict international guidelines which its members much adhere to in order to ensure minimal impact to the polar regions.
When's the best time to go on a polar cruise?
European summer is the perfect time to visit the Arctic and Spitsbergen, with most departures between June and August. If you’re hoping to see the Northern Lights, aim for August to September.
In Antarctica, it depends on what you want to see. During the Antarctic summer, from November to December, you’ll see vast numbers of migrating animals and huge amounts of ice and pristine snow.
Full summer, from mid-December to January, is the warmest time of year and the days are longer, and at this point you’ll see the first penguin chicks start to hatch.
Late summer, from February to March, is perfect for whale-watching and you’ll also spot adult penguins feeding their young. At this time the ice also allows for exploration further south along the peninsula.
What wildlife will I see?
What wildlife do you want to see? At its most basic, the choice is between polar bears in the Arctic and penguins in Antarctica. But there’s plenty of other wildlife to consider as well.
In the oceans of the Arctic, you’ll find walruses, many species of seal and different kinds of whales, such as belugas, orcas and narwhals. On land keep your eyes peeled for Arctic foxes and hares, reindeer, and loads of birdlife including puffins.
In Antarctica, you’ll find many species of penguin, including Adélie, chinstrap, Gentoo, king, macaroni and the elusive emperor penguin. You’re also likely to see humpback whales, albatross, storm petrels, and all species of seal (fur, elephant, Weddell, leopard and crabeater) as well.
What activities can I do?
In the Arctic, apart from exploring the wonderful scenery, you can try sea kayaking, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, hiking, and husky sledding, to name a few.
In Antarctica, sea kayaking is also very popular, as is scuba diving, snowshoeing, hiking, and ice camping.
If you’re feeling brave, you might also take the “polar plunge” – jumping straight into the freezing water!
How cold will it be?
Your journey will take place during the Arctic or Antarctic summers, and compared to the inhospitable winters it’ll be toasty... but temperatures can still drop as low as minus twenty degrees Celsius, with highs of around ten degrees Celsius. But as the British fell walker Alfred Wainwright wrote, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” As long as you remember your layers, you’ll be fine.
Inside the ship, you’ll be warm and comfortable in everyday clothing.
What can I do in between excursions?
You don’t need to worry about being bored on the ship. In between excursions, you might photograph whales from the deck, get to know your crew and fellow passengers in the restaurant or at the bar, read books from the on-board library, or attend one of the many lectures about the region from the polar experts accompanying you on the trip.
Can I stay in touch with people back home?
As you might expect from travelling to such remote locations, phone coverage and internet connectivity can be seriously limited in the polar regions – but this presents a good opportunity to disconnect from social media and the news cycle for a while. The ship’s satellite phone can place and receive emergency calls, so don’t worry – anything urgent can be communicated.
What should I pack for a polar expedition?
First things first: the absolute essentials.
Layers: you’ll need a combination of short- and long-sleeved tops, some thermal, some not, which you can easily take off when going inside the ship and put back on when heading out on deck. We recommend a thermal base layer (wool or wool-blend), poly-blend or fleece mid layers which don’t fit too snugly (so you can fit more layers underneath), and insulated, waterproof trousers and a 100% waterproof outer layer. Depending on which ship you’re travelling on, you’ll be provided with a jacket either to keep or to borrow.
You’ll also need a tight-fitting beanie that covers your ears (in fact, pack two), a neck buff (which you can also pull up over your face), warm gloves, a waterproof pair of gloves to go over them, socks, more socks, sunglasses, sun protection, and moisturiser (due to the dry and windy conditions).
Remember to bring any medications you might need, including anti-nausea medication if you’re prone to seasickness.
Other things you might need include:
Camera, spare batteries, and SD cards
A good book or an ereader
A phone or music player with all your favourite albums and podcasts downloaded
A notebook and pen for journaling
A reusable water bottle
Wet bags and waterproof cases to protect your equipment on excursions
Heavy duty garbage bags for separating wet clothing
Zip lock bags for stashing rubbish on excursions
Ear plugs for light sleepers
Okay! Where do I sign up?
Start browsing Imaginative Traveller’s fantastic range of polar expeditions, or contact us on +44 (0) 1728 862230 / firstname.lastname@example.org