You CAN go snorkeling in Antarctica! I know what you’re thinking. We’re crazy. Antarctica is the coldest place on the planet and the last thing that comes to mind is getting in the water during a visit.
Truth be told, from the moment we learned about it, we wanted to do it. It is the ultimate bucket list experience! Was it cold? Yes. Would we do it again? Absolutely!
As PADI Advanced Open Water SCUBA divers, we have been scuba diving and snorkeling all around the world. We love to be in the water. That said, most of our snorkel locations tend to be in the tropics and in warm water.
Although there was this one time, we snorkeled the Silfra Fissure in Iceland. That experience required a dry suit and was in cold water. Oh, and we may or may not have jumped out of our kayaks in Greenland for an icy swim, too.
Compared to those experiences, Antarctica was next level. The amount of gear needed, medical clearances, and ice water to the face is incomparable.
Be sure to check out our Ultimate Antarctica Travel Guide
Snorkeling in Antarctica – The Facts
Table of Contents
How Cold is the Water in Antarctica, Really?
Snorkeling in Antarctica presents a unique challenge due to its frigid waters, which often range from -1.9°C to 5°C (28.6°F to 41°F), influenced by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. The high salinity and extreme cold require specialized gear like dry suits and thermal layers to prevent hypothermia.
The marine ecosystem, including krill and other species, adapts to these cold waters, with krill thriving in temperatures of -1.5°C to 2°C (29.3°F to 35.6°F). Understanding that the Antarctic Bottom Water forms in regions with water temperatures around -1.9°C (28.6°F) highlights the complexities of the underwater environment.
In summary, it’s cold. Really cold! And that is something to prepare for. Both physically and mentally.
How to Book a Snorkel Trip in Antarctica
Snorkeling in Antarctica requires professional guidance. Reputable tour operators provide safety equipment, including dry suits, gloves, hoods, and snorkeling gear. They also ensure that participants adhere to strict guidelines to minimize environmental impact and protect the delicate ecosystem.
The Snorkeling Program was offered as an optional activity with Aurora Expeditions during our 21-Day Antarctica & South Georgia Expedition. Unlike we’re all used to with other destinations, you cannot book just one snorkeling trip in this situation. You were either in the whole program or you did not snorkel.
This meant all gear was fitted at the start of our trip and we were able to develop a deep bond with our small snorkel group during our 21-day trip. People were not coming and going, and we really valued this. We all had the same training and experiences, and we could trust each other when we were in the water.
The cost for this program is $835 for this long itinerary. It’s not cheap but it was worth every penny. We had the potential to snorkel every day in both Antarctica and South Georgia, oftentimes twice in one day.
Something worth noting, we were still able to participate in every landing and zodiac ride, in addition to being able to snorkel. It really was an exceptional way to experience Antarctica and South Georgia!
Aurora Expeditions is the only company currently offering a snorkeling program on their regular Antarctica departures. This puts them in a unique position to deliver an enhanced experience in the polar regions.
Our trip was booked and organized by the amazing team at Adventure Life. They work closely with many operators in the Antarctica space, including Aurora Expeditions, and are Expert Trip Planners who help streamline the trip planning process and save you hours of time researching the best options.
Snorkel Gear for Cold Water – What We Wore
The frigid waters of Antarctica demand specialized gear. A dry suit is essential to prevent hypothermia. It seals out the icy water while keeping you dry. Along with the drysuit, we wore thermal layers to provide extra insulation against the extreme cold.
Aurora Expeditions provided us with top-notch equipment. The dry suits were top-brand and in good condition. They also provided us with thick mm neoprene gloves, booties, and a hood.
This gear is specifically designed for the extreme cold, allowing us to stay comfortable and safe while exploring the icy underwater world. The snorkeling gear included heavy-duty fins, a mask, and a snorkel tube.
Underneath all of that, we were advised to wear our wool thermal layers, fleece or down pants, and multiple pairs of thick wool socks on our bottom half. On the top half, more wool thermal layers, a fleece layer, and a down layer. At the time it seemed like overkill, but we needed it!
What is There to See Underwater in Antarctica?
Antarctica’s marine ecosystem is surprisingly diverse and unveils a captivating array of cold-adapted marine species. We encountered curious Antarctic Fur seals, agile penguins, and intricate underwater plant life.
The underwater world is rich with foundational krill swarms, sustaining the entire food web, and I literally squealed with delight when I was able to see them in the water during our first snorkel! Delicate sea anemones, cold-water sponges, and soft corals added splashes of color and texture.
While not as diverse as tropical waters, species like the Antarctic toothfish, various fish species, and resilient jellyfish thrive in this unique environment.
Observing these cold-loving creatures, along with invertebrates like starfish and sea spiders, offered us a rare glimpse into the remarkable adaptations that allow life to flourish in the icy waters of Antarctica.
We did not enter the water with any whales, but we did enjoy several amazing zodiac encounters! And no, we didn’t worry about encountering orcas or sharks.
Of course, every interaction was passive. We were instructed to always maintain a safe distance to avoid disturbing the wildlife. If you couldn’t abide by those rules, you weren’t allowed to snorkel.
Lastly, we enjoyed some amazing ice snorkels. This included brash ice and icebergs. It was crazy to see them under the water, as they are very vibrant and large. We had so much fun climbing on the ice and splashing back into the water!
The Leopard Seal Law
Ok, it’s not a real law but you might have noticed that we didn’t add Leopard seals to our outline of the many things you can see while snorkeling in Antarctica. This isn’t because it isn’t possible. Rather, it’s due to what we like to call the Leopard Seal Law.
Seeing as this sea-loving mammal is an apex predator in Antarctica – this means the top of the food chain – most snorkeling programs will avoid them. Our experience with Aurora Expeditions was that if a Leopard seal was spotted during any scouts or zodiac cruises, we were unable to snorkel in that location.
They can be very assertive and playful, which can pose a threat to someone that isn’t trained to be around them. They also have very sharp teeth and like to bite everything!
There were only 2 instances where this affected our snorkel outings, but we were happy to stay in the zodiac and take photos instead.
How to Prepare for Antarctica Snorkeling
Antarctic snorkeling demands mental resilience. The cold water can be physically and mentally taxing, so be prepared for the shock of the temperature. Focusing on the unique sights and experiences will help you overcome the initial discomfort.
The first time is the worst. This is what I have told everyone. You don’t really know what to expect, so it can be nerve-wracking. You also can’t really prepare for how cold the water will feel on your face! While the rest of your body is covered, your face is not and that takes some getting used to.
Given the extreme conditions, Aurora Expeditions requires you to consult a doctor and obtain medical clearance to participate in the Antarctica snorkeling program. Additionally, their team includes medical professionals who are ready to assist if needed during the trip.
How Safe is Snorkeling in Antarctica?
Safety is important to Aurora Expeditions, and they’ve implemented several rules that ensured our safety while participating in the snorkeling program.
Firstly, every outing was cleared by both the head Capitan of the ship and the Expedition Leader. If they didn’t sign off, nobody snorkeled. They assessed the weather, wind, and currents, then consulted with the snorkel guides before giving the green light.
Each landing or zodiac operation has a time limit, so the snorkel group was the first off the ship. We would put our dry suits on before leaving the ship and wear them for the entire duration of the outing.
The typical allotted time for snorkel operations was around 40 minutes. This included the time to gear up with hoods, gloves, and snorkel gear before getting in the water. This would leave roughly 20 – 30 minutes to snorkel.
This was plenty of time before getting cold. I would say our average snorkel was around 15 minutes and we never stayed longer than 30 minutes. This was the ship rule.
Snorkel Safety in the Water
Before getting in the water, our snorkel guides would radio the bridge with our location – always in view of the ship – and advise the number of snorkelers going in the water. The same would happen once everyone was securely back in the zodiac.
If any of us sprung a leak, and yes it happened, we were to notify the snorkel guide and immediately leave the water. Being wet in that kind of cold is dangerous and we all paid close attention to this.
The only time I had a leak was when I accidentally bunched up my wrist seal while putting on my gloves. I did not notice that my arm was wet while in the water because you can still feel the cold through the dry suit. It was a weird phenomenon.
Lastly, we had a no-judgment group rule. If someone was feeling cold, we would speak up, all get out of the water and return to the ship. We also had the option to just get back on the zodiac and wait.
Underwater Photography Pointers
Underwater photography in Antarctica is challenging due to low visibility and cold conditions. Camera batteries also drain really fast from cold water, so you need to take all of your photos as fast as possible.
We also had many issues with cameras freezing up or getting too fogged to use. The air temperature was considerably warmer than the water!
We used a GoPro and our iPhone 14 Pro Max for photos and video. Another snorkeler in our group had an underwater housing for his DSLR. We all suffered from the same challenges.
Working in those conditions was never consistent, despite all our underwater experience. We did manage to get some great photos and videos but missed a lot too.
My biggest piece of advice is to make sure you master your equipment before trying to use it underwater in Antarctica as that will provide the best opportunities when things work right.
Environmental Responsibility for Snorkelers
One of the hallmarks of Aurora Expeditions is their dedication to responsible tourism. They strictly adhere to guidelines that protect the delicate Antarctic ecosystem. You can trust that your adventure will have minimal impact on the environment.
That said, it was extremely important for all of us to adhere to the Leave No Trace principles: avoid touching or disturbing marine life, respect the guidelines set by your tour operator, and ensure that our presence left minimal impact.
You should also check out our guide on How to Visit Antarctica Responsibly.
Reasons to Consider an Antarctica Snorkeling Adventure
Snorkeling in Antarctica is certainly an extreme adventure, and we’ve met so many people that have said they would never try it. However, it can truly be a life-changing experience, for more than one reason.
Unique Marine Life: Antarctica’s underwater world is teeming with remarkable marine life that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. Snorkelers have the chance to encounter seals, penguins, krill, jellyfish, and a variety of fish species adapted to the extreme cold.
Pristine Environment: Antarctica remains one of the last untouched frontiers on Earth. The opportunity to explore its untouched underwater ecosystem allows you to witness nature in its purest form, unspoiled by human interference.
Immersive Adventure: Snorkeling in Antarctica is an immersive experience that enables you to be a part of this frozen realm, rather than merely observing from a boat.
Sense of Accomplishment: Overcoming the challenges of snorkeling in frigid waters and experiencing the Antarctic environment firsthand creates a sense of accomplishment and resilience that stays with you long after the journey ends.
Unconventional Exploration: Antarctica is often associated with icy landscapes, but its underwater wonders are less known.
Wildlife Interaction: Share the waters with curious seals, agile penguins, and other creatures adapted to the cold.
Bucket List Experience: Snorkeling in Antarctica is a true bucket list item that few people get to check off.
Environmental Consciousness: Experiencing the fragility of the Antarctic environment firsthand can foster a deeper understanding and appreciation for conservation efforts.
Personal Growth: The challenges of snorkeling in Antarctica – both physical and mental – push individuals out of their comfort zones, fostering personal growth, adaptability, and resilience.
Final Thoughts on Snorkeling in Antarctica
Snorkeling in Antarctica isn’t just an activity – it’s an extraordinary journey that will leave a permanent mark on your life.
Aurora Expeditions gave us a rare chance to explore a world hidden beneath the icy surface. With their expertise, commitment to responsible tourism, and dedication to our safety, we had the privilege to enjoy an experience that few get others ever will.
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