When is the best time to visit Antarctica? That is a pertinent question, because one can rely upon conditions to change somewhat during the southern Austral Summer season. The answer depends upon what one’s expectations are or what one really wants to experience. Ask any of the Lindblad Expeditions naturalists when is his or her favorite time and you’ll get several different answers.
First of all, there really is no best time to travel to Antarctica. It is always exciting, adventurous, and awe-inspiring no matter what time of the Summer season we’re there. This is the biggest and most adventurous and most fulfilling voyage Lindblad Expeditions typically operates. Our expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula generally run from late November into early March, while our Antarctic explorations that include South Georgia can start a little earlier and end a little later because the island lies outside of the normal ice zone and the breeding season lasts longer there. Many of our guests want to return to Antarctica and we always suggest they plan their visit for a different time of the season, if possible, because ice conditions change, activity at penguin colonies changes, concentrations of whales change, as well as other more subtle changes.
Before deciding, perhaps one should prioritize one’s expectations. Ice conditions can vary tremendously throughout the season, as well as from season to season. There is no way to predict this much ahead of time, because winds and currents move pack ice around seemingly haphazardly. However, there are a few generalizations one can make. Early in the season is much better for finding fast ice, that is, sea ice that is still solid and connected directly to the shore. This creates very exciting opportunities to actually berth the vessel in the ice and get out and walk on it. This is usually only possible in the earliest voyages, because as the season progresses, temperatures rise and the ice thins, breaks up, and starts drifting about. Then, it’s definitely not safe to walk on.
We have found that earlier voyages sometimes present us with more giant ice bergs within the inshore waters, as they have been frozen in over the Winter and not yet started drifting away from the continent. There are few things more wondrous than cruising near these magnificent behemoths. The Antarctic Peninsula, particularly the western side, is usually more ice-free during the latter part of the Summer. With less sea ice blocking access to shorelines, we often are able to do more exploring and can sometimes find new and exciting landing sites.
Regarding the wildlife sites, earlier in the season, there tends to be more snow and more pristine conditions at the penguin colonies. The penguin eggs are just starting to hatch and the tiny, helpless chicks are incredibly appealing. It is always fun to watch the parents exchange duties at the nest site and feed their little, demanding chicks. As the Summer progresses, however, things become more energetic and frenetic as the chicks become larger, they’ve left their nests to form crèches, and are very active. By February, both parents can leave their chicks for longer periods of time and go to sea to procure food for them. The penguin chicks are at their peak now and are very inquisitive.
Whales start arriving in Antarctic waters earlier than we do, but the mothers with calves are a bit slower and tend to arrive a bit later, so that the latter part of the season generally produces somewhat better whale watching opportunities, particularly the humpback whales, which have grown fat from many weeks of continuous feeding and may become more ‘friendly’.