Best Time To Visit Antarctica: Wildlife & Weather By Month
For a good chunk of the year—the roughly six months of the austral winter—Antarctica is utterly frigid, storm-wracked, and dark. Some hardy scientists tough out this most unforgiving global manifestation of wintertime, but this is (understandably) not the time of year for general-purpose sightseeing in the coldest place on Earth.
Though Antarctica is most crudely classified as a two-season climate, swinging between winter and summer, brief transitional periods in between give the White Continent something of a version of spring and fall. Variations in weather, ice cover, and wildlife activity enhance the seasonal rhythms across the prime tourist period here and its “shoulder seasons.”
Because travelers have their own interests and personal preferences, this means there’s not a single, clear-cut answer to “When is the best time to go to Antarctica?”. That said, given the relatively narrow window for tourism, Antarctica is something of a more straightforward travel destination when it comes to scheduling than most places.
Read on for an overview of the prime polar tourism season here, Antarctica average temperature by month, when which wildlife can be spotted, and other useful details to consider while planning your once-in-a-lifetime odyssey to the bottom of the world!
The short Antarctic cruise season typically runs from November to March during the austral summer, though some limited cruises kick off in late October and extend a little into April. This is the only feasible interval for cruising to the White Continent, as summer marks the breakup and retreat of the seasonal ice pack surrounding the remote landmass. Increasing daylength, warming temperatures, and pack-ice decline not only affords sightseeing access to the Antarctic mainland, but also sparks a magnificent flurry of wildlife activity here: from nesting penguins and pupping seals to an influx of hungry whales.
The most popular months for visiting this icy realm are December and January, when the weather is warmest (relatively speaking, of course) and day length extends the better part of 24 hours. But, as we’ll get into, there are definite perks to coming during the earlier and later parts of that tantalizing austral summer.
In the following breakdown of the Antarctic travel season, we’ll spell out basic conditions—including average temperatures for Esperanza Base on the Antarctic Peninsula (the top sightseeing area on the mainland and the mildest part of the White Continent)—as well as specific highlights of each month of the austral summer, including its peripheral spring and fall shoulder periods.
The early and middle parts of October aren’t in the tourism window for Antarctica, as the continent is still mostly in late-winter mode, with cold temperatures and short days. Toward the end of the month, however, some cruises get underway to provide hardy tourists with a taste for Antarctica at its most pristine.
Weather: October’s mean temperature at Esperanza Base is -4.3°C (24.3°F), with conditions getting (unsurprisingly) balmier toward the end of the month—though still plenty nippy!
Advantages/Scenic Highlights: Besides feeling a fuller dose of that prevailing Antarctic cold (and the chance to nab lower fares), an end-of-October voyage offers many enticements—not least magnificent and extensive sea ice, including numerous large ice floes and icebergs around the Antarctic Peninsula. Photographers relish the huge ice formations, the uncrowded channels and unsoiled snow-scapes—the latter also delighting skiers and snowshoers—and the dramatic sunset shows.
Wildlife: Spring mating rituals are in full swing on the packed beaches of South Georgia where nearly half a million elephant seals line its shores, and belligerent bulls engage in their bloody battles of bravado. Breeding activities among seabirds and penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula are showing signs of getting underway, and Weddell and crabeater seals are having their pups on the ice. There’s some possibility of seeking out remote colonies of emperor penguins.
November is when tourism to Antarctica really kicks off, as ever-expanding daylight hours and the retracting sea ice mark the Antarctic “spring” in full force.
Weather: Days continue to lengthen, with better than 15 hours of daylight. Average monthly temperature at Esperanza Base is -1.1°C (30°F).
Advantages/Scenic Highlights: Prime skiing and snowshoeing conditions continue, while kayaking possibilities expand. This is a fine time of year for trekking afoot on fast ice, the form of sea ice connected to shore. Speaking of, there’s still lots of dazzlingly beautiful ice to behold and photograph, including ornate icebergs. Prices tend to be lower here on the front-end of the season.
Wildlife: Pinniped, seabird, and penguin rookeries are busy on the sub-Antarctic islands—also abloom with spring wildflower—and on the Antarctic Peninsula, where gentoo, Adelie, macaroni, and chinstrap penguins breed.
View our November Antarctica cruises here.
Among the most popular months for visiting Antarctica—not least on account of holidays and school vacations—December includes the austral summer solstice, with maximal daylight shining down on some spectacular scenery and wildlife action.
Weather: Close to 24 hours of daylight give you a taste for the seduction of the Midnight Sun. Temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula commonly get above freezing, even into downright balmy territory. The mean December temperature at Esperanza Base is 0.8°C (33.4°F), with an average high of 3.8°C (38.8°F).
Advantages/Scenic Highlights: Especially in the first part of the month, gorgeous ice floes and bergs remain plentiful. Even as the ice formations diminish with December’s progression, the opportunity to see (and hear) calving glaciers offers ample compensation. Alongside kayaking, camping, and other adventuring, the main diving season commences by the middle of the month or so. All of that summertime daylight provides many hours for recreation, wildlife-watching, and photography.
Wildlife: Penguin hatchlings and fuzzy chicks offer a delightful, crowd-pleasing spectacle in December, while seabird nesting and young-feeding are going full force. Seals and their growing pups are readily seen, and whales begin trickling into their Antarctic feeding grounds.
View our December Antarctica cruises here.
January is also absolutely prime time for Antarctic tourism, with optimal weather, long days, and increasingly extensive access to the mainland inshore and coastline.
Weather: Even as the days begin to contract following the solstice, there’s still an absolute surfeit of extended sunshine in January. This is also the warmest month on average, with temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula occasionally running up into the mid-teens°C (upper 50s°F). The mean monthly temperature at Esperanza Base is 1.4°C (34.5°F), with an average daily high of 4.3°C (39.7°F).
Advantages/Scenic Highlights: With the sea ice significantly receding, this month can often mean feasible voyages deeper into the wilds of the White Continent: If conditions allow, some cruise ships venture beyond the Antarctic Circle, while visiting the Ross Sea—where the remarkable huts of early-20th-century South Pole explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton await—may be possible.
Wildlife: Penguin-watching remains extraordinary, with cute-as-heck chicks on full display and parents burning the candle at both ends to feed them. Seabird rookeries are also raucous nurseries. And whales continue to increase in number around the Antarctic Peninsula.
View our January Antarctica cruises here.
February generally continues to offer fine weather and remains a popular time to come to Antarctica, though tourist levels are ebbing past the December/January peak.
Weather: Daylength continues to decrease, but temperatures remain invitingly mild by polar standards—Esperanza Base sees a monthly mean of 0.7°C (33.3°F) and an average daily high of 3.7°C (38.7°F)—and the weather typically calm.
Advantages/Scenic Highlights: As sea ice approaches its yearly minimum, opportunities for exploring south of the Antarctic Circle and into the Ross Sea are rich.
Wildlife: Even as penguin- and seabird-viewing diminishes somewhat, February offers peak whale-watching as humpbacks, minkes, and other baleen species feast on the seasonal smorgasbord of krill, and orcas prowl for seal pups and young penguins.
View our February Antarctica cruises here.
The tail-end of the austral summer means less-cluttered sightseeing waterways, a minimum of sea ice, and the chance to experience special delights of the “Antarctic fall.”
Weather: Daylength is decreasing at a steady clip (some 15 minutes per day), and temperatures are cooling off as winter approaches; Esperanza Base’s mean March temperature is -2.3°C (27.9°F).
Advantages/Scenic Highlights: As autumn falls on Antarctica, so do cruise prices; March is one of the cheapest times to visit Antarctica. Less ship traffic this time of year ups the delicious feel of Antarctic wildness. The water is clearer for diving and leopard seals start to hunt the ever braver penguin chicks. The sea ice is at its minimum extent, luring late cruises past the Antarctic Circle. The lowering sun enhances colors for landscape photography, and starry skies of dazzling purity—perhaps a show of the Aurora Australis, aka the Southern Lights—come with nightfall.
Wildlife: Whale activity remains outstanding in March, as the local leviathans fatten up ahead of their northbound migration.
View our March Antarctica cruises here.
As we hope the above has made clear, each stretch of the austral summer in Antarctica provides its own unique draw. For many people, not least first-time visitors, the best time of year to travel to Antarctica is December and January, when you’ve got optimal weather, oodles of daylight, a nice combination of scenic attractions, and rich wildlife-viewing. But folks with specific goals in mind may prefer other windows, especially if they are price sensitive or wish to partake in certain adventure activity options.
Skiers and snowshoers will find the best conditions in November and early December. Scuba divers typically do their thing mid-December through mid-February, when water temperatures off the Antarctic Peninsula typically range from the upper 20s to mid-30s (F); water clarity tends to be better earlier in the season, before the spike in plankton. Those wishing to go camping on the White Continent should note that this activity isn’t usually available after January due to campsite deterioration and unsuitable conditions underfoot.
On the wildlife front, the peak penguin show tends to be mid-December into January with the hatching and rearing of chicks. But whale-watchers will do better to aim for mid to late summer, especially February and early March. If you are an avid photographer who wants to capture shots of nesting wandering albatrosses on South Georgia’s Prion Island, you’ll need to time your visit outside of 20th November – 7th January (inclusive) as the island is closed during this time.
Expect the priciest itineraries during the peak season of December through mid-February, especially late December into January. Lower fares are generally available earlier and later in the season.
The best time to go to Antarctica is obviously the austral summer, but within that period you’re likely to be richly rewarded—and coming home awash with lifelong memories—whenever you can make the trip happen!
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