Travel Destination Comparison: Antarctica v Arctic

Zodiac Cruising - Neko Harbour, Antarctica

One of the things I love most about travel is its ability to eliminate the background and lifestyle differences that would normally prevent people’s paths from crossing.  Travellers are united by a common interest in the location they are visiting and a general sense of adventure.

I felt this stronger on my Antarctica adventure than any other.  And six months later I felt it again aboard the Sea Spirit in the Svalbard Arctic.  Almost everyone I spoke to had either been to Antarctica or was planning to head there next.

We had all been bitten by the polar travel bug.

Most people (like me) return from an Antarctic travel adventure and immediately book an expedition further north to the Arctic.  Others make the Arctic their first polar adventure and Antarctica their second.  And almost everyone who has experienced the magical of these locations dreams of returning there again one day.

The Polar Regions through the eyes of a tourist:  

Are they similar?   Are they different? 

Antarctica is land surrounded by sea whilst the Arctic is sea surrounded by land.

They are lands of extremities and contrast, both within themselves and with each other.  They share the icy landscape of blue and white hues, provide an unspoiled and natural habitat to unique wildlife and have a historical relationship with humans shrouded in both tragedy and triumph.

Travel beyond the polar circles in summer and you will experience 24 hour daylight.  Return six months later and the cold and darkness are unrelenting.  The polar bear and walrus rule the north whilst the south is home to the penguin and mighty albatross.

My observations below are based on my experience travelling with Quark Expeditions: aboard the Ocean Diamond for three weeks in the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula, and aboard the Sea Spirit for two weeks circumnavigating Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Arctic.

One of the highlights of my Arctic trip was the chance to reunite with some of the passengers, expedition team and ship crew I met on my Antarctica expedition.  And we all seemed to feel the same about the two regions – it’s difficult to compete with the overwhelming size and remoteness of Antarctica, but the Arctic cannot be underestimated and plays a great role as being second in command of the Polar Regions.

 

1. The Wildlife

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A solitary polar bear approaches our ship for a closer look in the Arctic

There is only one guarantee when it comes to polar wildlife:  you will not see polar bears and penguins in the same place.

Wildlife sightings were exciting in both regions, but for different reasons.  Although we spent more time at sea and travelled greater distances in the south, the wealth of wildlife was overwhelming.  I can’t recall a day at sea that I wasn’t out on deck photographing penguins, seals and whales in the water and albatross and cormorants in the air.  As for landings – well, if the weather conditions allow you to land on an island that is home to a penguin, seal or bird colony, you will see penguins, seals or birds!

Wildlife sightings in the Arctic were less common but no less exciting, with the search feeling more intense and a successful sighting more rewarding.  We learned to “expect the unexpected” and a solitary polar bear swimming within metres of our ship was just as exhilarating as looking out at more than 60,000 pairs of King Penguins in South Georgia.

The Arctic provided us with regular sightings of guillemots, kittiwakes and reindeer.  It also provided isolated but extra-special encounters with the mighty walrus, polar bear, puffins and a bearded seal.

Further south, we were overwhelmed with Gentoo, King, Chinstrap, Rockhopper and Adelie penguins and met one lost Macaroni penguin within a colony of Gentoos.  We saw Fur, Elephant, Weddell and Leopard seals although the Crab-eater eluded us on this particular trip.  Humpback whale sightings were common and we had occasional encounters with Minke and Fin whales.  As for the bird life – too many to speak of, with the albatross, shags, terns and skuas provided the most entertainment.

Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

More than 60,000 pairs of King Penguins live on Salisbury Plains, South Georgia

 

2. The Landscape

Sea Ice - heading north

Reaching the edge of the sea ice in north Spitzbergen – this was as far north that we could go, this ice stretches to the North Pole

Sailing through Antarctica and the Arctic both feel like being part of a landscape painting, created with a palette of blue and white hues.  The light is spectacular, the air is fresh and sea ice covers the water like shattered glass on a mirror.

But there are noticeable differences.  Whilst icebergs are present in both locations, the sheer size of them in places like Pleneau Bay in Antarctica are mind-blowing.  On the other hand, some of the glaciers we approached in the Arctic were larger than I ever thought possible.  Islands in the Falklands and South Georgia lacked the ice and snow of Antarctica but all had one thing in common – the absence of trees and vegetation.  Further north in the Arctic wildflowers created a splash of colour on the islands we visited.  Islands in Antarctica are covered with snow and ice, whilst our landings in the Arctic were on the soft and bouncy carpet of tundra.

Both regions have a distinctly recognisable Polar landscape yet are unique and individually identifiable in their own way.  The ice in Antarctica seems to stretch from the water, towards the sky.  In the north, we approached the sea ice that stretched across the water like carpet, reaching for the North Pole.

Pleneau Bay, Antarctica

Iceberg Graveyard in Pleneau Bay, Antarctica

 

3. Landings

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Enjoying a landing on Spitzbergen, Arctic

The approach to landings was one of the most noticeable differences between Antarctica and the Arctic.  The threat of the polar bear keeps Arctic landings more controlled than those of the south, where we were able to wander on our own and at our own pace.

Safety is always the guiding principle behind excursions and landings in both regions begin with the arrival of the expedition team.  The key danger in the north is the polar bear whilst in the south it is crevasses in the ice or aggressive seal colonies.

The irony in the Arctic is that our excitement at seeing a polar bear was often followed by the disappointment at an abandoned landing.  If polar bears get there first, we don’t land.

In the south, you need eyes in the back of your head to avoid getting too close to penguins, seals or nesting birds.  In the north, you want eyes in the back of your head to spot the elusive arctic fox or roaming reindeer.

Danco Island, Antarctica

Landing at Danco Island, Antarctica

4. In the Zodiac

Pleneau Bay, Antarctica

Zodiac cruising in Pleneau Bay, Antarctica

Exploring the regions by zodiac felt very similar in both Antarctica and the Arctic.  There is always the possibility that something that shares its time beneath and above the water will surprise you with a close up encounter – and let’s be honest, it’s what we secretly hope for!  This happened to us with whales in Antarctica and walrus in the Arctic and both were exhilarating experiences.

The zodiacs provide an exhilarating alternate view of the landscape and a unique opportunity to get up close and personal to it.  Sailing away from the ship creates an incredible sense of scale, as does watching other zodiacs creep closer to glaciers and icebergs.  The crackling of sea ice creates a polar symphony, the crescendo of which is the thunderous crash of a calving glacier.  Kittiwakes provide a photographic contrast against the ice in the Arctic whilst the crystal clear water of Antarctica allows you to follow the path of swimming penguins as they dive down for food.

The opportunity to explore your surroundings from a zodiac is a unique highlight in both regions.

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Getting up close and personal with a group of walrus on a zodiac cruise in the Arctic

5. At Sea

Half Moon Island

The morning after an overnight storm between South Georgia and Antarctica

On both polar adventures, my mobile base camp was the ship.  But there were very few days in the Arctic that we didn’t see land.  In complete contrast a third of our voyage to Antarctica was spent at sea, with no land in sight.

And two of these days was spent crossing the notorious Drake Passage.

Our sea days in Antarctica were relatively calm compared to other voyages but we didn’t escape completely unscathed.  The Drake certainly announced it’s presence and a storm between South Georgia and Antarctica encouraged a few passengers to spend more quality time in their cabins than the restaurant or bar.

Further north however, it was smooth sailing.

Both itineraries come with the disclaimer that things may change as a result of weather conditions and our course changed in both the Arctic and Antarctica due to sea ice.  But sometimes the best things in life happen when things don’t go to plan and the flexible approach to the itinerary was an exciting reminder that we were in a part of the world where nature plays by it’s own rules.

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It was smooth sailing in the Arctic

6. Other Passengers

Who you share your experience with is always a lottery, but it’s almost certain that your fellow passengers will be more interested in talking about the penguin colony you just visited than your job back in the ‘real world’.  The people I met in both Antarctica and the Arctic came from all walks of life, from many different countries and included solo travellers, couples, families and groups of friends.  The most common age group is the ‘more mature’ category but I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a large group of travellers my own age and younger in Antarctica, which is possibly due to the  last minute discounts available in Ushuaia, a town popular with backpackers and younger travellers.

Kellie-Netherwood-group-91(Passengers aboard the Ocean Diamond – Falkland Islands, South Georgia, Antarctica)

7. The Cost

The cost is what makes Antarctica a “once in a lifetime experience” for most travellers.  It’s not just the cost of the polar cruise itself to take into account, but the cost (and time) it takes to get there.  As I’m based in London and could also take advantage of Quark’s ‘returning customer discount’ my Arctic trip was significantly cheaper.  It is makes it a geographically closer and more affordable future trip for me.

 

The Verdict?

If polar cruises to Antarctica and the Arctic were offered at the same time of year and at the same cost, there would be no question – Antarctica wins hands down.  But the reality is that they aren’t and this makes Antarctica and the Arctic great travel destination partners.  My dream is to return to Antarctica one day but until I have the savings and opportunity to do this, the Arctic provides a more affordable and geographically closer form of therapy for my polar addiction.

Arctic

Have you been Antarctica and the Arctic?  What was your favourite?  What were the key differences and similarities of your experience?

 

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

Comments

  1. Kellie, thank you so much for these beautiful pictures and insights. They both sound spectacular!

  2. Outstanding job. I really love your photos and writing. I have both places on my list, just can’t make up my mind on which to visit first.

    • Thanks for visiting, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Deciding whether to head north or south first is tough – to be honest though, it is always going to be hard to beat Antarctica. As soon as you find the time and money to get there, book your ticket!!

      • Debbie park says:

        Hi im looking at booking for the antarctic, but cant make my mind up between arctic and antarctic. but after reading your blog, you helped my make my mind up. and i decided to stick with the antarctic. and arctic on the buket list lol. Debbie from nz

  3. So much inspiration in one post! I’ve been obsessing over going to Antarctica for ages now, but you may just have convinced me to give the Arctic a shot first, as I could do that a lot sooner and more easily. Maybe maybe!

    • The Arctic is definitely a great option if you can’t quite get to Antarctica yet – but be warned, it will only make you more addicted to the dream of reaching Antarctica! You will love it – do it, do it, do it!

  4. absolutely inspiring… both of these landscapes are my favorite but seems like watching documentaries would do as of now… 🙁

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Travel Inspiration: Antarctica & the Arctic