Penguins or polar bears? Are you interested in traveling to the most remote destination of the Northern Hemisphere or the southernmost part of the Southern Hemisphere? Do you wish to book a polar voyage where you'll meet people who live in the Polar Region you're visiting? Or do you think you're more drawn to a remote Polar Region where no one lives at all? These are some of the questions that automatically arise for any traveler grappling with the question: “Arctic or Antarctic cruise?”
Guests on an Arctic expedition are treated to the sight of two polar bears playing along the shore
in Jan Mayen in the Norwegian Arctic. Photo: Julie Chandelier
The opportunity to observe penguins in their natural habitat lures travelers to
the Antarctic. Photo:Courtesy of Quark Expeditions
The two most remote and—comparatively speaking—least explored regions on the planet appeal to visitors for many different reasons. First-time polar visitors who have yet to visit either the Arctic or the Antarctic will learn a lot about the two respective Polar Regions when they dive into the Arctic vs. Antarctic cruise debate.
To kickstart your Arctic vs. Antarctic cruise decision-making process—and what an incredibly exciting decision it is to make—we suggest you read Nick Engelmann's blog How to choose between the Arctic and Antarctic for your polar voyage.
Why go on an Arctic cruise?
A Quark Expeditions guest is mesmerized at the sight of a blue iceberg in Svalbard, in the heart of
Arctic Norway. Photo: Julie Chandelier
The reasons you choose any travel destination over another are entirely subjective. Five people trying to decide between an Arctic vs. Antarctic cruise could easily come up with five excellent—though perhaps very different—reasons for their ultimate choice between the Arctic vs. the Antarctic. This becomes clear when you read the summary by our colleague Paul Shuster, who has visited both Polar Regions multiple times, in his top 10 reasons to visit the Arctic.
The wildlife of the Arctic differs from the Antarctic—though there are a few species that inhabit both Polar Regions. However, the Arctic is home to specific species that are among the “must-see wildlife sightings” for legions of travelers, namely, the iconic polar bear, which doesn't exist in Antarctica. But there are also muskoxen, deer, and Arctic foxes, among other species common to the Arctic, such as the Arctic tern, and numerous whale species.
One of the reasons many travelers choose an Arctic vs. Antarctic cruise is because of the choice of destinations within the region. The Arctic extends across northern Canada, Arctic Norway (namely, the Svalbard archipelago), Greenland, Russia, and the northernmost part of Iceland. And there are communities of people living in the Arctic—unlike Antarctica which is not “owned” by any one nation and there are no traditional human settlements (though there are in the sub-Antarctic regions such as the Falkland Islands). In the Arctic, visitors can explore Inuit communities in Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic and Indigenous Greenland communities. The richness of Inuit culture draws travelers from around the globe. This global interest in Indigenous culture led to the creation of this hugely popular offering from Quark Expeditions, Tundra to Table: Inuit Culinary Experience. Such culturally-rich communities, however, do not exist in Antarctica itself.
Plus, in the Arctic, you get to witness the incredible Northern Lights. The lure to witness the Aurora borealis is the reason many plan a Northern Lights cruise in the Arctic.
What to expect from an Arctic cruise
As Miranda Miller wrote in her Traveler's Guide to the Arctic: Where to go and what you'll see, the chance to visit Greenland, Spitsbergen, Baffin Island, and the North Pole are among the reasons people choose an Arctic vs. Antarctic cruise.
The types of Arctic wildlife – and their habits—mean you can expect a different wildlife viewing experience in contrast to the Antarctic. In the Arctic, you get to experience what's considered a true expedition, where the captain of the ship and the Expedition Leader jointly consider all prevailing factors (climate, ice, precipitation, and wildlife) in their quest to see wildlife. It's a journey, a voyage of discovery, not unlike early polar explorers. That's why there are such itineraries as Spitsbergen Photography: In Search of Polar Bears.
Therein lies the true spirit of expedition travel whereby you don't completely know where you're going or what you'll see around the next glacier, iceberg, or fjord—except that it will be stunning and potentially life-changing.
For Arctic cruises, you can expect to go between May and late September / early October. The focus of your Arctic cruise can depend on the season and which part of the Arctic you wish to explore. For instance, you could book Northwest Passage: In the Footsteps of Franklin, which would take you from Greenland to the remote Canadian High Arctic where you'd follow the 19th-century journey of explorer Sir John Franklin and his ill-fated expedition. You could also choose an Arctic cruise with a Northern Lights (Aurora borealis) theme that takes you to Iceland and East Greenland, or an Arctic cruise that's designed to fulfill your dream of photographing polar bears.
Why go on an Antarctic cruise?
A seasoned polar traveler recently said, “The Antarctic is like the Disney of wildlife. Everywhere you look are thousands and thousands of penguins, seals, and whales.
Quark Expeditions ensures guests get off the ship as often as possible during a polar expedition, as evident in this photograph of a Zodiac cruise in the Lemaire Channel, Antarctica. Photo: Acacia Johnson
And one of the mainstays of wildlife experiences in the Antarctic is the penguins—all species of them: Gentoo, Adelie, rockhopper, emperor penguin, King, chinstrap, Magellanic…. The potential to observe the unique habits of these species is covered in how to see penguins in Antarctica. For many others, the main reason to choose an Antarctic cruise is to fulfill the dream of crossing the Antarctic Circle on voyages such as Antarctic Express: Crossing the Circle.
What to expect from an Antarctic cruise
Timing is often the overriding factor when choosing between an Arctic vs. Antarctic cruise. The destinations which you can visit on polar expeditions
In the Antarctic are not “owned” by any one country. Visitors will of course find some people: largely researchers and polar scientists.
A large rookery of penguins in Gold Harbor, South Georgia, a wildlife-rich island in sub-Antarctica. Photo: David Merron
So, what can you expect from an Antarctic cruise? The list of sites and experiences in Antarctica is almost limitless and very different from the sights you'll take in on a cruise to the Arctic. You could cross the legendary 800-km wide Drake Passage that separates the tip of South America from Antarctica. There's wildlife-rich South Georgia—which is often called the Galapagos of the South Seas—and historic sub-Antarctic Falkland Islands (one of the only places included in an Antarctic polar voyage where you will find people). And the landscapes of the Antarctic Peninsula are without equal. So too is Snow Hill Island in the remote Weddell Sea where you can immerse yourself in one of the rarest wildlife experiences on the planet: the 10,000-strong emperor penguin colony at Snow Hill, Antarctica.
And, of course, the marine and ocean-dwelling wildlife of Antarctica is without equal, as is evident when you read The Best Time to See Whales in Antarctica.
Arctic vs. Antarctic cruise
Ultimately, both polar destinations are incredible.
For travelers who wish to see thousand-folk rookeries of penguins, cross the Antarctic Circle, tackle the Drake Passage, see incredibly large populations of wildlife, and explore a domain where there are no human settlements and where no one country or nation is in charge, then an Antarctic cruise will more than satisfy.
Visiting remote communities, such as this one along the Northwest Passage, is a highlight of many Arctic voyages
with Quark Expeditions. Photo: Hugo Perrin
If, on the other hand, you absolutely must see polar bears in the wilds, visit Inuit settlements in the Canadian High Arctic and Greenland, perhaps witness the Northern Lights (the Aurora borealis), see reindeer, muskoxen, arctic hare, and Arctic foxes.
If you choose either an Arctic or Antarctic cruise, especially with Quark Expeditions, you'll have the expedition of a lifetime. Not only will you travel off the beaten path, but you'll travel where there are no paths at all.