Antarctic Kayaking in the Southern Ocean

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

Distance: 26.7 miles (round-trip)
Trip Length: 11 days
Best time to visit: November to March
Caution: Extreme cold, sea sickness, rough seas

Ahoy, matey! For a modern Captain Nemo seeking nautical mysteries, sailing the seas around Antarctica may be just the thing for you. While you are at the southern continent, Antarctic kayaking is a unique way to experience this austere environment.

Getting to Antarctica

Ushuaia is located in Argentina’s portion of Tierra del Fuego. As the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia is the starting point for the expedition ship as it navigates the Beagle Channel. Be brave and endure for two days, while 17-foot waves smack the vessel as it crosses the treacherous Drake Passage. During the first night, crew members bolt the porthole in our cabin shut, as we watch the water level rise. At the Antarctic Convergence, cold Southern Ocean waters mix with warm northern waters, causing the frigid and turbulent conditions.

Land ho! We have spotted land along the South Shetland Islands. The Antarctic Peninsula is a combination of islands on the western side and the continental mainland.

Antarctic Kayaking

To explore Antarctica, there are excursions in the morning and the afternoon, either by motorized Zodiac boat or by kayak. Before we disembark, we head to the mudroom and put on our dry suit, kayaking booties, kayak skirt, and PFD. There is a door leading to the side of the ship where we haul our kayaks outside. There are also sturdy inflatable Zodiac boats ready to ferry us to the primeval polar continent. We see 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 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, we hear a forceful gushing sound. The colossal exhalations become louder and more distinct. Then, 20 feet from our bow, an endangered Southern Right Whale sends 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 chinstrap and gentoo penguins. Many of them are marching up the penguin highway. There are so many colors (reds, greens, grays, blues), textures (rocks, water, mountains), and smells (mainly penguin guano). It is 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 research base, Almirante Brown. The shore is full of Gentoo penguins, Antarctic shags, and Antarctic fur seals. Before Skontorp Cove, a glacier has deposited a moraine with sediment jutting into the water. 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 is dark and choppy. Brash ice makes a loud scraping sound as it pushes past the sides of the boat and rudder. Harsh waves roll at us from all directions. As we face an incoming swell, the bow of the kayak turns up to the sky. We 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 iceberg seesaws violently and repeatedly. We trace a swirling 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 around 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, lug around kit, haul kayaks off the ship, paddle for hours, and tend to blisters. Enjoying the otherworldly scenery makes it all worth it.

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. Christmas colored algae covers this shoreline.

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 are not 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 sulfur. 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 follow our boats 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 frosty Antarctic water. After the polar plunge, in the mudroom, we warm up with shots of aquavit.

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

Plan Your Antarctic Kayaking Adventure

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.
Excursions: There are two excursions per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. You can select Antarctic kayaking or hiking for either of the excursions.
Lodging: The expedition ship has cabins for two to three people.
Food: Delicious meals are provided in the dining room of the expedition ship.
Vendor: G Adventures

If you would like to kayak in a warmer climate, how about the South of France?

Video Tour of Antarctic Kayaking