Antarctic Kayaking in the Southern Ocean

Icebergs have mesmerizing shapes and colors. Antarctic Kayaking
Mesmerizing iceberg shapes

Objective: Antarctic Kayaking in the Southern Ocean
Distance: 26.7 miles (round-trip)
Trip Length: 11 days
Terrain: Ocean, channel, sea, glacier, mountain, volcano
Best time to visit: November to March
Caution: Cold, rough seas, sea sickness

Ahoy, matey! For a modern Captain Nemo intent on unraveling nautical mysteries, setting sail on the high seas, and Antarctic kayaking may be the life for you. From Tierra del Fuego’s southernmost city of the world, Ushuaia is the jumping off point for the expedition ship, which is escorted by a pilot boat required to navigate through the narrow Beagle Channel to the ocean. Be brave, and endure for a couple days, as the vessel is hammered by the blustering winds and tempestuous seventeen-foot waves of the Drake Passage. During the night, the porthole in our cabin is bolted shut, as we watch the water submerge our window. The cold waters of the Southern Ocean meet the warm northern waters at the Antarctic Convergence, and the climate is noticeably more frigid.

Land ho! Land is spotted along the South Shetland Islands. To reach the ends of the earth, sturdy inflatable Zodiac boats ferry us from the ship to the coasts of the scattered Antarctic islands, where we emerge at the primeval polar continent and unlock its mysteries, one frosty layer at a time. We are greeted by penguin colonies, lounging seals, and the remnants of whaling ships and explorers from bygone eras.

Sea kayaking is the ultimate way to reveal Antarctica’s treasures. At water level, the craft is inviting to colossal whales and curious seals alike. The pace ensures that you see each facet of the kaleidoscopic terrain and crystal contours, and hear each piece of ice beneath.

Penguin Island (in the South Shetland Islands chain) is dotted with giant whale skeletons left by whalers from long ago. There are large colonies of chinstrap and gentoo penguins. Antarctic Kayaking
Giant whale skeletons and penguin colonies

Penguin Island: Welcome to Antarctica

Coordinates: 62.05.54’S, 057.54.84’W
Distance: 5.26 miles

From the north of Penguin Island, the team circumnavigates the perimeter of the isle in a clockwise manner. The five kayaks pass a mega-iceberg and marvel at its deep blue bands. The low-slung perch of the kayak offers a unique perspective of the giant elephant seals resting on the rocky promontories. Off in the distance, a forceful gushing sound is detected. The colossal exhalations become louder and more distinct. Then, within 20 feet from our bow, an endangered Southern Right Whale approaches the group and shoots a V-shaped spray from its blowhole.

Endangered southern right whale, 30 ft away, with large brown collosities that look like giant barnacles on its head. Antarctic Kayaking
Sighting of a southern right whale

Penguin Island is our first chance to set foot on the continent of Antarctica. On shore, you notice giant whale skeletons left by whalers long ago. There are large colonies of chinstap and gentoo penguins. Many of them are marching up the penguin highway. You don’t expect that there would be so many colors (reds, greens, grays, blues), textures (rocks, water, mountains), and smells (mainly penguin guano). It’s much more than the vanilla visions of flat white expanses. At the top is the large red cinder cone of Deacon Peak that takes half an hour to walk up.

Deacon Peak is a cinder cone with volcanic red rock remnants. Antarctic Kayaking
Red volcanic rock on Deacon Peak
Group photo of the Antarctic kayak team Antarctic Kayaking
Antarctic beach landing

Paradise Harbor: Mainland of Antarctica

Coordinates: 64.53.42.’S, 062.51.85’W
Distance: 4.56 miles

We paddle past the gray stone coast of Argentina’s Base Almirante Brown, now inhabited by Gentoo penguins, Antarctic shags, and Antarctic fur seals. Before Skontorp Cove is a moraine spit deposited by a glacier. We turn directly toward the rocky beach and land our kayak. And then, drum roll please, we set foot on the mainland of Antarctica! We take scores of photos brandishing our paddles and jumping on the rocks.

Brash ice

Petermann Island: Monumental Brutal Ice

Coordinates: 65.11.7’S, 064.08.23’W
Distance: 4.44 miles
From Port Circumcision, we attempt a circumnavigation around Petermann Island and head to the southern tip. The sea this morning is dark and choppy and full of brash ice, which makes a loud scraping sound as it pushes past the sides of the boat and the rudder. Choppy waves roll at us from all directions. As we face an incoming swell, the bow of the kayak turns up toward the sky and we even catch some air, followed by the hollow thud of the hull. The surreal forms and silhouettes of the ice sculptures wobble and shake on the undulating water. A megalithic seesawing iceberg is dunked violently and repeatedly. By the craggy coast, we trace a hummingbird path around a frosty menagerie of tabular icebergs, bergy bits, and growler ice. My mind drifts to visions of sugarplums, molars, frozen waves, and giant bluish-white Cheetos dancing in my head.

Even the water around Port Lockroy is full of lots of bits of ice.
Crunchy water and snowy isles

Port Lockroy

Coordinates: 64.49.58’S, 63.30.09’W
Distance: 3.25 miles

We paddle into Port Lockroy’s bay and round the rocky corners by the shallow water near Jougla Point and Goudier Island. Then, we head south into Peltier Channel and float at the base of Mt. Luigi and the Fief Range. The tranquil water in Peltier Channel is magnificently calm and gentle. Port Lockroy is also home to the Penguin Post Office, where you can send a postcard home from Antarctica.

Antarctic kayaking is demanding. You wake up early, wolf down meals, lug around more kit (dry suit, boots, kayak skirt, and PFD) than the standard expedition gear, transport the kayaks out of the mudroom and over the Zodiacs, paddle for hours and deal with cold water and blisters. Yet these are the very qualities that make kayaking such a magical adventure in Antarctica!

Two penguins sharing a beak to beak kiss. Penguins are clumsy on land and graceful in water.
Tender penguin moments

Damoy Point: Savage Wildlife Encounter

Coordinates: 64.48.81’S, 63.31.22’W
Distance: 5.33 miles

We follow the penguin colony spread across the bands of rock and snow banks along the coastline of Damoy Point. The red and green ground is not penguin guano; it is Christmas colored algae.

The shores of Antarctica can be red, green, black, and gray, not the typical white you would expect.
Colorful algae-covered shores of Antarctica

After turning to Dorian Bay, we spot a leopard seal with a freshly caught penguin. The penguin is still alive and flopping around. But the seal viciously slams against the water and tosses its prey in the air. At some point, the guts spill out. This late in the season, the seals have already fattened up and are at maximum body mass. They aren’t really hungry, which is why they are merely playing with their food.

A leopard seal tosses a penguin in the air before eating it. Even wildlife in Antarctica must be savage to survive harsh conditions.
Leopard seal toying with a penguin
There is a rocky formation named the Needle next to the entrance to the atoll, Deception Island, in the seas surrounding Antarctica. Antarctic Kayaking
Kayakers threading the Needle by Deception Island’s entrance

Deception Island: A Hidden Atoll Playground

Coordinates: 62.58.88’S, 60.93.79’W
Distance: 3.87 miles

Starting from Whaler’s Bay, we paddle through calm and glassy water below the shelter of the inner wall. As we are in the middle of a large volcanic caldera, the area smells like sulphur. We shoot a bit of white water under an arch named the Needle by Deception Island’s hidden entrance, Neptune’s Bellows. Then, we hug the coast along the high jagged outer wall of the atoll until Neptune’s Window and turn around. On the way back to Whaler’s Bay, a couple seals play with us while following and plunging during our last round of Antarctic kayaking.

We line up for some pictures then we dash across the black volcanic rock beach. The toes feel the chill first, a few more steps, and then I dive headfirst into the frigid Antarctic water. It’s icy cold, not the coldest water I’ve ever jumped in, but cold enough that I want to leave immediately. After the polar plunge, we are handed towels and we congregate to bask in our collective glory. Back in the mudroom, we are handed shots of aquavit.

A humpback whale breaches as we depart Antarctica.
Breaching humpback whale

Plan Your Visit

Transportation: Catch a flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Fly to Ushuaia. Embark for Antarctica on an expedition ship. At Antarctica, there are motorized zodiak boats and kayaks, in addition to the expedition ship.
Lodging: The expedition ship has cabins for two to three people.
Food: Enjoy meals in the dining room of the expedition ship.

Video Tour of Antarctica