Arctic or Antarctica - where should you go?

Ice fills the Lemaire Channel | Richard I'Anson
Ice fills the Lemaire Channel | Richard I'Anson

While the Arctic and Antarctic regions have many similarities, these icy landscapes could be considered "polar opposites" in many regards. Both remote areas exhibit some of the most extreme environments known to man. If you're yearning to experience the beauty of mother-nature at her very best, a polar expedition will over deliver on expectations.

Do you head north, exploring the Arctic’s tundra and glacier walking, fjords and wildlife? Or do you venture south to experience Antarctica’s vast continent with its enormous icebergs and diverse marine wildlife? Choose the expedition that's right for you with our Polar Expeditions Guide.

Zodiac cruising in the Antarctic Peninsula |  <i>Peter Walton</i>

Arctic Ice versus Antarctic Topography

In the simplest of terms, Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ocean, whereas the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents.

The landmass evidently impacts the natural features in both destinations. For example, in Antarctica the icebergs are carved directly from glaciers and transform the sea into an iceberg graveyard, with enormous chunks of ice sitting on the bottom of the bays while waves create unique and mesmerising sculptures. These towering icebergs can be measured in excess of 25 cubic miles, and can create huge tidal waves as they split from the glaciers and shelf ice.

In comparison, the icebergs of the Arctic are seasonal and are carved from glaciers. Greenland houses the Jakobshavn Isbræ Glacier - the largest polar ice cap next to Antarctica, as well as the largest glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. As a result, the glacier carves icebergs so large that they drift from Greenland to the USA! And here’s some trivial information: It’s believed that the iceberg that sunk the Titanic came from here. Of course with our modern technologies on board voyages navigating such obstacles is now taken care of!

The sheer scale of the Antarctic ice cliffs |  <i>Peter Walton</i> Huge tabular ice bergs in Antarctica |  <i>Kyle Super</i> Breathtaking views in Svalbard |  <i>Tessa Chan</i>

Arctic Wildlife Vs Antarctic Marine and Birdlife

Though both are incredible wildlife destinations, there are some key differences between the types of animals you’ll encounter in the Arctic versus Antarctica.

Given that the word “arktikos” literally translates to “bear” in Greek, it should come as no surprise that with the North Pole comes the majestic Polar Bear. These typically solitary animals have bodies built for the icy marine climate. They can be seen roaming the Arctic ice sheets and swimming in the region's coastal waters.

The Arctic is also is home to large land animals such as reindeer, musk ox, lemmings, arctic hares, arctic terns, snowy owls, squirrels and the arctic fox. These animals migrate south in the winter and return to the north in the summer. Seasonality is an important consideration  if you want to maximise your wildlife viewing opportunities. Aside from land animals, the Arctic is blessed with marine life such as walrus, porpoises, puffins, narwhal and the bearded, harp, ringed, spotted and hooded seals.

Find your Spitsbergen cruise

While Antarctica’s purely terrestial largest animal is an insect, a wingless midge less than 1.3cm long, Antarctica is home to an enormous array of animals that feed in the sea yet come onto the land for part or most of their lives. These include large numbers of king, emperor, rockhopper, adelie, chinstrap, gentoo and macaroni penguins, as well as elephant, fur, leopard, Weddell and crabeater seals, not to mention the assortment of whales such as the Right, Blue, Sei, Humpback, Minke, Fin, Sperm and Killer whales. The bonus here is that in Antarctica there is a better opportunity to view wildlife, and as man isn’t a natural predator in Antarctica, the animals aren’t afraid of seeing humans.

Arctic Culture Vs Antarctic Explorer History

If you are seeking a cultural polar expedition, the Arctic is undoubtedly the region you should visit. The rich culture of the Inuit people has survived for centuries, braving the harsh conditions of the Arctic Peninsula. Many Inuit tribes still live here, dog sledding across glaciers in search of caribou. They hunt whale in dugout kayaks and bury puffin, shark and whale meat to get them through the long winters. Experience the small remote villages of Greenland, home to one of the last truly intact cultures on earth.

Sail Into the Northwest Passage for a journey of discovery, history and culture along the famed Northwest Passage. 

Antarctica hardly compares to the Arctic for a genuine cultural experience. It is an uninhabited continent, bar some research stations and scientists. However, this in itself is an insight into how explorers settled this immense land of ice in 1898 and how researchers live there today.  Furthermore, with no shops selling tea or souvenirs, there are no distractions from the pristine, natural scenic beauty of Antarctica.

Arctic Activities Vs Antarctic Adventure

There are plenty of adventurous activities in both regions. Undertaking an active Polar expedition will leave you revelling in the beauty, magic and natural splendour of the region.

Cruises in the Arctic region provide wonderful opportunities for tundra and glacier walking, kayaking, diving, fjord exploration plus dramatic landscapes, and wildlife viewing. Experienced dry-suit divers can explore the underwater world for a close-up view of icecaps and glaciers.

If you prefer an above-the-water experience, enjoy the freedom and solitude of kayaking amongst the backdrop of stunning arctic scenery. Or trek through the tundra, gaining an incredible perspective of towering mountains, huge glaciers and vast icy plateaus.

Kayaking the tranquil waters in Antarctica |  <i>Justin Walker</i> Shore excursions from the zodiacs |  <i>Peter Walton</i> Hiking in Greenland |  <i>Rachel Imber</i>

With a bit of planning, you may get a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis as they dance across the sky. Created by collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun entering the earth's atmosphere, the Northern Lights are a magical sight for many.

Though Antarctica doesn’t have the infrastructure for tourism as the Arctic region does, adventures are plentiful and unique.

With specialised trips for kayakers, divers, climbers and photographers, there is no limit to the exploration of this continent. From the water you can expect to see whales breaching, penguins leaping and leopard seals dozing on ice floes. You’ll paddle through brash ice and witness the massive carving of glaciers from a safe distance.

Photographers can snap the krill-rich water teeming with life, attracting whales and seals that forage along the ice floe edge. Another fantastic photo opportunity is capturing the colonies of penguins that dwell in almost uncountable numbers.

Aurora Borealis over Northern Norway |  <i>Jurriaan Hodzelmans</i>

So, the Arctic or Antarctica - which one is for you?

Whether you are into polar bears or penguins, culture or remote wilderness, you won’t be disappointed. One thing common to all our voyages is interactivity with the environments. These are not just cruises, they are opportunities to get off the boat to get truly amongst it all.

For more information, take a look at the guide on Choosing your Antarctic Expedition, or Antarctic Cruise – When Should You Go?.  Get a firsthand account from traveller Dale Jacobsen who cruised the 32 day Ross Sea Explorer with Australian mountaineer and Polar expert, Greg Mortimer.

Arctic, Antarctic

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