When is the best time to visit Antarctica?

Thank you River (age 4) for your great question! I’ve been fortunate enough to work on the Antarctic Peninsula between November and April, so I can give you a pretty good idea of what happens there throughout the Antarctic summer!

As visitors, we can only go to Antarctica during the summer, which is October to March. This is because during the winter Antarctica is surrounded by sea ice, making it very hard to get there. It’s also dark most of the time, and pretty quiet wildlife-wise, so the short answer to your question is: summer!

The best time to visit depends a bit on what you’re hoping to see. You can see snow, ice, penguins, seals and whales on any trip – a lot of it depends on chance and luck! But if you have your heart set on seeing something particular like penguin chicks, rowdy colonies or leopard seals on the hunt, you can time your trip to give yourself the best chance.

In this blog we’ll cover:

  • Summer in Antarctica
  • What you might see during different summer months in Antarctica
  • Winter in Antarctica
  • Tips from some Antarctic pros
  • FAQs

By the end of this you should have a much clearer idea of when you’d like to visit Antarctica!

Summer in Antarctica

During summer, Antarctica is the place to be. You’ll experience the longest days in the world, as well as the longest sunsets and longest sunrises. In Antarctica, long summer days merge into one another, and brilliant sunset colours streak across the sky for hours.

Fast facts

  • When is it?
    • Roughly October until the end of March
  • How cold is it?
    • Across most of Antarctica: around -20°C (-4°F).
    • On the coast: around 0°C (32°F)
    • On the Antarctic Peninsula (this is where most tourists visit): around 0°C (32°F) to 10°C (50°F)
  • Hottest summer temperature in Antarctica
  • Can I visit Antarctica?
    • Yes, tourists can visit Antarctica in the summer months.
  • What can I see in Antarctica during the summer?
    • Penguins
    • Seals
    • Whales
    • Icebergs, floes, bergy bits, growlers, brash – LOTS of ice!
    • Historic sites, including research stations, waterboats from the whaling era, and historic shipwrecks
    • Glaciers
    • and more!

Visiting Antarctica in Summer

Month by Month

Every day in Antarctica is unique. You could find yourself watching penguins, whales, seals and immense, calving glaciers on any day. Still, there are some broad trends through different parts of the season, and some thing you can see only at particular times in the summer. Here are some hints to help you pick your ideal trip dates.

November: early summer

Fresh snow makes Antarctica feel amazingly pristine, untouched and magical. When you land on the shore, there are rarely any human footprints. Penguins are beginning to return to Antarctica: it’s amazing to see rafts of penguins arriving en masse, leaping out of the water and returning to their colonies to build their nests for breeding season. Long, beautiful sunsets mean spectacular light for hours every day. In some parts of Antarctica, the ocean is still frozen and you may find yourself standing on the bow of the ship as you push through the pack ice like explorers of old! There tends to be less wildlife in November than later in the summer, but this makes the sightings that do occur all the more special. Sometimes deep snowdrifts and heavy snowfall (or even rainfall) can make it difficult to explore ashore, or even land in some places. The days are relatively short, compared to the height of summer.

December: early-mid summer

Two words: baby penguin chicks!!! Gentoo chicks, chinstrap chicks, Adélie chicks, oh my! If you want to see tiny, freshly-hatched, gorgeous downy little chicks, December is the time. Chicks hatch a bit earlier up north on the South Shetland Islands, and a little later down south. Of course there’s no guarantee – and there are so many other wondrous things to see in Antarctica, from whales and seals to spookily still iceberg sculpture gardens – but if your heart yearns for oodles of unspeakable baby bird adorableness, visiting in December (or early Jan) will give you your best shot.

January: high summer

January is the buzzing, teeming, thrilling height of summer in Antarctica. Chicks have hatched and are rapidly growing into rebellious teens. They may be chasing adults around in pursuit of food, or coming together in gangs called creches. In penguin colonies, hungry skuas hover overhead and snowy sheathbills poke around nests in search of a snack. Seals haul out to rest on pack ice, and sometimes on shore. Whales are plentiful. Beautiful long days and long, slow sunsets (although golden hour is waaaay past bed time!) Often quite stable, warm weather (often above freezing). This is one of the busiest times of year for Antarctic visits, and the Antarctic Peninsula can actually feel a little crowded! It’s quite common to see other ships, or arrive at a landing site to find lots of footprints, and sometimes even rubbish accidentally left behind by the visitors.

February: mid-late summer

Rowdy creches of penguin chicks blast around the colony making a real ruckus. It’s quite common to see adults being chased around in circles and down the hill by a group of ravenous chicks desperate for food. But they’re probably saving any food they have for their own chick! It can lead to quite a hilarious spectacle for visitors to the colony! Seals are hauled out on ice floes and rocky shores, and whales forage around bays, feeding en masse. Beautiful long days and long, slow sunsets. Often quite stable, warm weather. Penguins are not necessarily at their most photogenic! Adults are moulting and a bit grumpy, scruffy and unkempt looking. Many penguins are grubby and mud-covered in their increasingly muddy colonies.

March: late summer

March madness! Penguin colonies have dispersed, most adult penguins have gone to sea and the beaches are now ruled by young, inquisitive penguin chicks, learning to swim in the shallows. You may see leopard seals skulking around penguin colonies, in search of a snack. Melting snow and ice reveals a bright palette of red, pink and green snow algae, like swathes of paint spread across the hillsides. This is an amazing time for whale-watching, as a critical mass of humpbacks congregate around Antarctica to make the most of the late-summer feeding before migrating north to breed.  In calm weather, the first hints of sea ice are beginning to form like a glossy coat on the still ocean. There are fewer ships around in March, so there’s more of an adventurous feel to the Peninsula. Days are noticeably shorter, and you might catch some true ‘Antarctic’ weather, with cold temps and strong winds.

Bring a little piece of Antarctica into your daily life

Protect Antarctica Pillow
Ice Paradise Tote Bag
Mist on the Glacier Poster

Winter in Antarctica

This is when Antarctica earns its reputation as the coldest, windiest place on earth. Only a very select group of humans will ever experience Antarctica at its most private, wintry and wild. At the end of summer the sun sets for the first time in months. Most Antarctic whales, penguins and seals migrate north, the ocean freezes over behind them and Antarctica is, mostly, left alone.

Fast facts

  • When is it?
    • Roughly April until early October
  • How cold is it?
    • At the South Pole: around -60°C (-76°F).
    • On the coast: between −15 and −20 °C (-5 and −4 °F)
  • Coldest winter temperature in Antarctica
  • Can I visit Antarctica in the winter?
    • Most people can’t – the only way to see Antarctica in winter is to get a job on an Antarctic base. Usually this means working there for a year or more.
  • What can I see in Antarctica in winter?
    • Aurora Australis (Southern Lights)
    • Sea ice
    • Emperor penguins and chicks
    • Weddell seals

Sea ice forms on the surface of the ocean when the ocean freezes. Image: Nina Gallo

Antarctic winter sea ice

This Antarctic sea ice is no small thing. At the end of summer you can feel the seasons changing as the sea is transformed into a semi-frozen slushy of half-finished sea ice. By the end of the winter, Antarctica is surrounded by a massive moat of frozen ocean that covers almost the same area as Antarctica itself.

This sea ice is constantly shifting with the tides and currents, rifting apart and rafting together in a chaotic jumble of plates knocked askew and colliding blocks. Sea ice also makes it impossible for humans to reach the continent by sea during winter. The only way to access Antarctica in winter is by air, but even this isn’t easy. Imagine trying to land a plane in temperatures way below zero, your landing gear freezing shut, and trying to make out a landing on a (hopefully smooth) ice runway in the pitch dark! It’s no wonder this only happens in a real emergency.

Going to Antarctica during winter is a tricky affair. You can read about some winter rescue missions here. Image: Dr Kenneth V. Iserson

Migrations and year-round locals

As the ocean freezes, most whales and penguins migrate north in search of food and warmer waters. There are a few Antarctic locals who tough it out through the winter, including emperor penguins, Weddell seals and hundreds of microscopic insects (invertebrates) that live in tiny forests of moss under the ice. Pretty much everyone else winters somewhere warmer!

Weddell seals are among the few Antarctic animals that stay in Antarctica through the winter. Image: Nina Gallo

Endless nights

Although the sun sets over Antarctica and doesn’t reappear for months, this doesn’t mean it’s completely dark all the time. The moon casts a cool glow over the ice, and in some places, the sun sits just below the horizon, throwing a surreal, dreamlike light over the icy landscape.

Midwinter by moonlight at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Image: Jos Fenstermacher

Aurora Australis

The swirling, dancing lights of the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) flicker and flow across dark Antarctic skies during winter. I’ve never seen auroras in Antarctica, but the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) in northern Canada were out of this world. I never could have imagined the sky could swish and flow and dance like that. I was up until 3am, agape, and didn’t even notice the hours passing.

Aurora borealis in the Yukon Territory, Canada.
Image: Nina Gallo

Living on an Antarctic base

Human visitors to Antarctica are rare in winter. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible to see Antarctica in the winter unless you’re living and working there on a scientific research base. There are more than 60 scientific research stations in Antarctica, owned and run by 29 different countries. Each winter there are around 1,000 people living in Antarctica.

When should I go? We ask the experts

We spoke to some of the awesome folk who have seen Antarctica in summer and winter, to get their take on the different seasons of the south.

Dr Jos Fenstermacher | Expedition Guide / Station staff

1. How long have you spent in Antarctica? 

Five summers with expedition cruising [working as a guide], two summers and two winters with USAP [United States Antarctic Program] at McMurdo and South Pole Stations.

2. What is your favourite time of year in Antarctica?          

Well gosh, I really loved my winters.  It was so damn special to experience that environment.  But early summer with the ships… everything so white and fresh and so much ice… that was pretty special too.  Hard to compare, really. 

Aurora australis at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Image credit: Jos Fenstermacher, United States Antarctic Program.

3. What is it about this time that you love?        

I loved the darkness 🙂  But maybe it was the dynamic nature of it… because it wasn’t totally dark.  Starlight.  The moon came up for two weeks, then down for two weeks.  And the aurora… never knew what to expect.  Cross country skiing across sastrugi in the moonlight… camping at -100F with aurora overhead… hearing ice dust crystals tinkling by your face in a light breeze, hearing your breath freeze, having eyelashes freeze together as breath/radiant heat from my face condensed on them… so many things.

4. When do you think is the best time to visit?         

Totally depends on what you want (or don’t want) to see.  Mating elephant seals, wiener babies, wee wee penguin chicks, big fat waddler chicks, pristine white, mucky smelly quagmires, lots of whales, lots of sea ice, icebergs, stable weather, storms…  I have had special experiences all through the summer expedition season.  But early season is my favourite I think.  And the one week Christmas to new years always seems to have the most stable sunny weather…???!

You can follow Jos’s awesome adventures on her blog Wandering, not Lost.

Rachel Hawker | Station Doctor

1. How long have you spent in Antarctica? 

A year.

2. What is your favourite time of year in Antarctica? 

They are all amazing for different reasons, especially the wildlife in summer and the auroras and quietness in winter.  The vast whiteness, the sense of remoteness, solitude and peace down here is magical.

During winter, it can be so cold that water freezes before it reaches the ground. Image credit Katie Senekin: Australian Antarctic Division

3. When do you think is the best time to visit? 

It depends what you want to see! But practically speaking, summer is the only time you can visit because it is too hard to get there in winter. 

4. When do you think is the worst time? 

During a blizzard! 

You can read all about about Rachel’s year of (extremely cool) Antarctic adventures on her blog Eat, Sleep, Freeze, Repeat.

Katie Senekin | Meteorological Observer

Image credit CQU

1. How long have you spent in Antarctica?

One year.

2. What is your favourite time of year in Antarctica? 

When all the summerers [staff who were there for the summer] left and it was just our group of 27 winterers [staff who were there for the winter]. Also, Triple J’s hottest 100 countdown day! We had a summer games finals tournament & it was a great day off for everyone with yummy food, a swim in the bay, games and great music!!

A lost Emperor penguin, near Casey Station. Credit: Katie Senekin, Australian Antarctic Division

3. What is it about this time that you love?

When the last of the summerers were gone it was finally peaceful and it was time to get to know a smaller group of people better and become better friends. There is still daylight, there are still animals around. We still have energy to be there and aren’t missing fresh food and our families too much. Plus we haven’t quite had enough of each other’s bad habits yet so there aren’t any tensions building yet! Watching all the baby penguins lose their down feathers and leave the nest for a winter in the water was wonderful too!!

“At a time when it’s possible for thirty people to stand on the top of Everest in one day, Antarctica still remains a remote, lonely and desolate continent.

A place where it’s possible to see the splendors and immensities of the natural world at its most dramatic and, what’s more, witness them almost exactly as they were, long, long before human beings ever arrived on the surface of this planet.

Long may it remain so.”

— David Attenborough

We get asked that a lot . . .

When’s the best time to see penguins in Antarctica?

The best times to see penguins in Antarctica are between December and February. This is when the penguin colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula are at their most lively. Penguin parents feed their chicks, chicks take their first steps into adulthood, skuas hover overhead and the whole rookery is atwitter with activity!

Gentoo penguin colony, South Shetland Islands
Image: Nina Gallo

Antarctic beaches are teeming with penguins busily coming and going between their nests and their feeding grounds in the ocean. They usually stick to networks of hardened snow paths, called penguin highways, which offer the easiest way back and forth. They travel back and forth using a mix of waddling, hopping and tobogganing (sliding on their bellies!).

Penguin highways are paths of hard-packed snow, which form when penguins waddle from their nests to the ocean (the penguin cafe!) and back.
Image: Nina Gallo

When can I see penguin chicks in Antarctica?

Penguin chicks hatch at slightly different times depending on their latitude. In the northern parts of the Antarctic Peninsula, it’s usually in late November and early December. As you go further south, the chicks hatch a little later.

When is the warmest time to visit Antarctica?

February is the warmest month in Antarctica. On February 9, 2020, temperatures rose to a record-breaking 20.75°C (69.3°F) – t-shirt weather! Three days earlier it was a balmy 18.3°C (64.9°F) – still pretty warm for Antarctica! Technically though, the warmest day in Antarctica was March 24, 2015, with a temperature of 17.5°C (63.5 °F). Record temperatures have to be formally verified by the World Meteorological Organization, and the 2020 records haven’t been verified yet.

When is the best time to see whales in Antarctica?

Whales generally start arriving in Antarctic waters around October or November, and by December the Bransfield Strait and Wilhelmina Bay are teeming with them. I’ve had incredible whale encounters all through the summer, but I think the best time for whale-watching is late February through March. You can imagine that early in the summer, they’re quite preoccupied with feeding after their long journey south, and might need some rest. We often see them logging (resting) on the surface, and they can be quite reserved. There are always exceptions, of course! Later in the season they’ve had many weeks of good eating and relaxing. It seems to be a good time to see them playing and generally revelling in their Antarctic paradise before heading back north for the winter.

When can I see the southern lights in Antarctica?

Winter is the only time you can see the southern lights (aurora borealis) in Antarctica. Unfortunately, tourists can’t visit Antarctica in the winter, so your best bet is to go to Tasmania in winter – sometimes you can see them from there!

When can I get that real wild ‘Antarctica’ feeling?

For me, Antarctica feels at its purest and wildest in November. The Peninsula is blanketed in soft, fresh snow and there’s almost no evidence of other human visitors. In some places, massive snow drifts have accumulated over the winter – one year I visited a base in November and the staff had carved an access corridor with walls of ice over two metres high! As the summer progresses, landing sites are initially tracked out and then, as the snow melts, they tend to become quite muddy and smelly (penguin poo!). Which is its own special Antarctic experience, of course! 😉

What is the coldest time to visit Antarctica?

Winter! While tourists can’t visit Antarctica in winter, researchers and station staff can. If you want to visit Antarctica in the winter, you’ll need to apply to work for a national Antarctic program like the Australian Antarctic Division, British Antarctic Survey or the United States Antarctic Program. There are 29 countries running research programs in Antarctica, and 70 stations across the continent, where people live and work.

There are lots of different jobs you can do on these stations, from scientific research and logistics to base support roles like communications, cooking and maintenance. I wanted to find out more about what it’s like living in Antarctica through the winter, so I asked a few mates for their opinions:

Thanks again for your question River! When would you like to visit Antarctica, now that you know a bit more about it? Let me know on Facebook or leave a reply below!

This post is part of my Antarctic Q&A series. If you have a question about Antarctica you can submit it here or send it to asktheantarcticshop@gmail.com, and I’ll write you a personalised response!

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This blog post was written by Nina, an Antarctic guide based in Australia. If you have an Antarctic question for Nina, you can submit it here or send it to asktheantarcticshop@gmail.com.

You can support Nina’s work by shopping below or at The Antarctic Shop.

Protect Antarctica Pillow
Ice Paradise Tote Bag
Mist on the Glacier Poster

Published by N.G

Antarctic guide and lover of our wonderful planet.

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