Meet the Penguins in Antarctica

Lonely Planet Travel Editor Tom Hall is on a mission to discover 52 of the most awe-inspiring places to visit across the world. This week he writes on the dreamscape that is Antartica.


Antarctica rightly tops most travellers’ lists of must-see places. Only accessible via a long, often-turbulent sea journey (or the occasional flight) from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in South America, its exclusiveness is partly defined by the short season when visiting is possible. Few would-be visitors make it here – many are put off by the cost. Those that do mostly only come once.

For the lucky few, Antarctica more than lives up to the Great Southern Land of their dreams. Explorers’ cabins are eerily pristine. Scenery is unspoilt and indescribably, desolately beautiful. The icebergs are a brilliant white-and-blue bright. And wildlife is plentiful and easy to spot.

Which animals can I expect to see in Antarctica?

Whales and elephant seals appear next to zodiac launches. Cameras click at albatross and snow petrels wheeling overhead. And best of all, penguins are easy to find and fearlessly curious.

How much will a cruise cost?

Most Antarctic cruises take in South Shetland Island and South Georgia on their way to the Antarctic Peninsula. Cruises start at £2500 but generally cost far more.

Emperor Penguins

Where is the best place to see wild penguins?

The tiny islands around the northernmost spur of the continent are home to the best of the area’s wildlife, and this is where most penguin encounters take place. Sites include the 100,000 strong Adelie Penguin colonies on Paulet Island and Hope Bay, and large Gentoo colonies elsewhere.

Seeing Emperor Penguins, the largest of the birds, is a taller order and a visit to the bays and islands of the Weddel or Ross Sea is required for this. These lesser-visited areas are more expensive to get to and cruises are less frequent – they’re probably strictly for Antarctic connoisseurs.

It is difficult to describe a visit to a penguin colony as smell (bad) and sound (loud) are the most heavily-worked senses. Suffice to say most visitors spend the rest of their week grinning and treasure any photos taken.

When is the best time to visit Antarctica?

December is austral summer and comes complete with long days and twilights, and as clement weather as Antarctica offers. Penguin chicks hatch around this time but often don’t emerge from under their parents’ feet until the new year.

Planning your trip

70 South is a great source for ‘Antarcticles’ on all sorts of south-polar subjects. For tourism-specific information, try the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.

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