Category Archives: Antarctica

Penguins of Antarctica

Although there are 18 species of penguin in the world, only 7 live in the Antarctica region. These adorable looking birds vary in size and markings although they all have the ‘tuxedo’ black and white feathers. With this colouring, when swimming through the water from below they look like the light surface of the water, while from the sky, they blend with the darker colour of the sea.

Bentours offers a number of packages that will take you on an expedition cruise to incredible Antarctica and the surrounding islands, where you can discover these seabirds for yourself.

Adélie Penguin

Adélies live in Antarctica all year round although the best time to see them is from spring to autumn, as in the winter they mostly spend their time in the water. Adélies were named by French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville after his wife Adélie. They are the smallest Antarctic species and the male and female are impossible to tell apart in either appearance or behaviour – they both take equal share of the care-giving of chicks. Like many penguins, Adélies build their nests from stones stolen from the nests of rival pairs and can be quite territorial.

Emperor Penguin

Emperors are the largest and probably most recognisable penguin, with yellow or orange plumage on their heads. They are usually about 115cm tall (that’s about the size of a six year old!) and weigh around 23kg. Like Adélies, they stay in Antarctica year round although they rarely actually set foot on land in their lifetimes, instead breeding on the sea ice. Emperors can dive to depths of 500m and hold their breath for 22 minutes at a time!

Emperors do not build nests but rather, once the female has laid the egg, the male will look after it for up to two months on its feet. During this time it regulates the egg’s temperature with its collection of excess feathers that form a brood pouch.

Gentoo Penguin

Gentoos are the speediest penguin underwater, travelling at up to 35km/h. They are the third largest penguin and weigh in at about 5kg. Gentoos make nests from molted feathers, stones and vegetation (when breeding on islands around Antarctica). Probably most interesting about Gentoos is their ability to slow down their heartbeat on deep dives from 80-100 bpm to 20 bpm!

Chinstrap Penguins

As their name suggests, Chinstraps have black markings that make them appear to be wearing a helmet, with a strap under the chin. There are at least 8 million in the world making them one of the most common. Male chinstraps will race to claim the best nest in the breeding grounds and then wait for five days for his mate to arrive. If the female does not arrive in that time, the male may take a new mate. Watch out though if the original female finds her mate with ‘another woman’ – fighting ensues to win the affection of the male. Males who are unable to find a nest, may force other couples out of theirs.

Macaroni Penguin

Macaronis mostly live on islands surrounding Antarctica such as South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. They are very territorial and aggressive and fights between males are very common. They have bright spiky orange eyebrows (called crests) and lay two eggs, although usually only one develops.

Rockhopper Penguin

As their name suggests, Rockhoppers move very distinctively, jumping from stone to stone on the rockier north Antarctic islands. They make their nests between the crevices of rocks in rough terrain to deter predators. Rockhoppers have bright yellow or orange eyebrows that extend all the way to the crown of their heads and are known for having a rather erratic temperament. Like all penguins, they can rest on their bellies but they additionally cover their face with their flippers when they find a comfortable rock to snooze on.

King Penguin

Kings are the second largest penguin and, like the Emperor, do not create nests but use the same brood pouches to protect their eggs during incubation. King penguins have more a dark grey than black back and live in large colonies. During the winter time, they will often leave their chicks for weeks unattended, while during the summer they migrate to the South. When the chicks are fully grown but unfledged they appear bigger than the adult Kings – so much so, in fact, that originally they were mistaken as an entirely different species of ‘woolly penguins’.

Are you ready for the adventure of a lifetime? See these penguins in their natural environment on a Bentours expedition cruise – contact us today!

Voyage to Antarctica: Part II

The adventure of a lifetime

Juliet Symes had the time of her life on her sea voyage over ten days to Antarctica. If you missed her talking about her very close encounter with a humpback whale and crossing the Drake passage, make sure to check it out. Otherwise, continue reading to learn about penguins, camping and glacier calvings.

BT: What was the most magical sight you saw?

JS: There’s too many! A couple, both completely different from each other…

First of all, Neko Harbour is renowned for its regular glacier calvings. And we saw a fair few! You hear this deep rolling sound like thunder then suddenly a giant chunk of ice breaks off and falls into the ocean, sometimes causing a mini tsunami. It was incredible to see. And hear!


Also at Neko Harbour, watching penguin chicks catch snowflakes was wonderful. Neko Harbour is essentially a ‘penguin creche’, and when it snows the penguin chicks all try to catch snowflakes with their mouths, supposedly to help keep them cool (it was about 0ºC that day). It was adorable, I could have watched them all day!

BT: Speaking of penguins, what was it like to see them in the wild? What other wildlife did you see?

JS: Well, almost everyday there was a penguin colony visit involved in our excursions. I went in mid February so there were plenty of penguin chicks around!  We saw three species of them – Gentoo, Adelie and Chinstrap. They’re completely unfazed by people, and although you’re not allowed to get within five metres of them and the ‘penguin highways’, penguins themselves often break this rule and will walk right by your feet.

I always thought penguins were cute but oh my goodness, in real life they exceeded all my cuteness expectations! They chat, they hop, they waddle around with their ‘wings’ behind them as if they’re moving really fast. They enter the ocean by dipping their head in first then splash about a bit before zipping off at surprising speed. Then when they come back ashore, they make a quick and almost dramatic entrance onto dry land.


We also saw many sea birds, several species of albatross and petrel. We saw a lot of crabeater seals, lying around on icebergs snoozing, drooling and scratching their bellies. Fur seals and leopard seals too but less often. Plus, of course, whales! We witnessed humpback whales bubble net feeding and some minke whales too. You can usually see killer whales but we didn’t this time.

There’s a rule allowing only 100 people per vessel ashore on Antarctica at a time, so being on a smaller vessel like the Ioffe allows all the passengers to disembark together giving us twice the excursion opportunities (and twice the penguin colony visits!)

BT: Is there one story from your Antarctic expedition that you think you will be repeating for years to come? What is it?

JS: Besides my whale encounter?! Probably camping on the ice. Camping is an optional excursion and weather-dependent. About 40 of us left the ship after dinner one night, put on ALL our warm layers and headed back to Dorian Bay where we had visited a penguin colony earlier that afternoon. We were given a mat, sleeping bag and bivvy bag. We headed up the hill to find a good spot with a penguin view and dug a shallow ditch in the snow to lie our bivvy bag in. We were surrounded by towering, snow-covered mountains and just the purest of landscapes. I found it drew my thoughts away from all worldly things, away from the thousand mechanical details of my life back home. I was so struck with awe that it was impossible to worry about anything or even give a moment’s attention to anything outside of what I was seeing.

Yes, it was cold. Yes, there was a private portable ‘toilet’ (we left NOTHING behind). And yes, I held on until I got back to the ship. But no, there was no beautiful, serene silence one would expect out there… penguins are noisy! They do not shut up. But it was absolutely magical.

BT: And finally, how cold was it?

JS: Antarctic cruises only run in the summer (Nov-Mar) so the coldest it got for us was -4ºC and the warmest maybe 1ºC, so a little brisk but you are provided with warm outer gear to leave the ship.

If Juliet’s story has inspired you to pursue your own adventurous dreams on the great southern continent, make sure to check out our many Antarctic sea voyages on offer.

Voyage to Antarctica: Part I

The adventure of a lifetime

When Juliet booked in her Antarctic adventure through Bentours, she’d already spent a fair amount of time living in cold parts of the world. She’d read all the books, she’d done all the research, she’d bought all the gear – but nothing would prepare her for the amazing experience she was to have. From seeing eye to eye with a whale to toasting to adventure with fellow guests on board, Juliet’s ten day voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula onboard the Akademik Ioffe was the once-in-a-lifetime experience she had been dreaming of. We chatted with her about her most memorable experiences and asked any advice she might have for future travellers to the Great Frozen Continent.

BT: Why Antarctica? Has this been somewhere you have wanted to go for a while?

JS: Visiting Antarctica has been on my bucket list for a good 20 years – but in brackets, meaning it would be ideal to check it off but no shame should it not be possible. I used to think that the continent, historically, was pretty much a testing ground for men with frozen beards to see how easily they could kill themselves, so I was desperate to figure out the lure of Antarctica myself. Plus, I’ve always been drawn to cold remote places off the beaten track.

BT: What was the most exciting experience of your voyage?

JS: Without a doubt, coming face to face with a humpback whale. Down in the Antarctic Peninsula, you’ll often see humpback, minke and killer whales. The plan was to sail to Wilhelmina Bay, an area where you will easily spot a lot of whales (or as I like to call it – Whalemina Bay!) However, on our way through the Gerlache Strait we came across a couple of humpbacks just snoozing so we grabbed our cameras, got suited and booted and boarded the Zodiacs to get a closer look.

The expedition team on the Ioffe are always cautious never to interfere with the wildlife, watching each whale for a maximum of 30 minutes before moving on and never following them – humpbacks are more likely to follow us anyway!

This day though, instead of us whale-watching, the whale decided to people-watch and investigate us! We quietly approached the big guy, careful not to surround him. He gently came up to each boat, sticking his head out of the water to check us out and blew bubbles at us. He swam between the boats, underneath them and rolled over onto his back with his white pectoral fins extended out.

Then he moved onto the next boat and did the same. Before I know it, with my GoPro dangling in the water, his face appears out of the water a foot away from my face, getting a good look at me. He was so curious and playful and my heart melted into the sea! The staff said they had rarely experienced this behaviour before so they were just as excited as the rest of us.

BT: Is there one thing that stood out as making this holiday different to any other? (Apart from curious whales!)

JS: It’s really a once in a lifetime trip. Antarctica is a destination very few people have experienced and that made it even more special. With no culture or people, the attraction and experiences are purely based on the environment itself which is quite rare. It’s a world stripped of clutter, people and culture. What made it for me though was how much I learnt along the way. Everyday there are talks onboard about Antarctic wildlife, polar history, photography tips and tricks amongst other topics. I learnt so much!

The expedition guides came ashore with us and taught us about the wildlife and nature we saw around us. We even had whale researchers hitching a ride with us, so we got to see first hand how they tag and track whales. Guests and expedition leaders would all sit together at meals and talk about the day’s sightings. I had done a lot of reading up about the continent before the trip so it was great to pick the brains of experts and get that intimate knowledge. I felt like I was learning something new everyday and came away from the trip with a whole new appreciation for the planet and the incredible continent.

BT: The Drake Passage is known the world over for being a very rough body of water to cross – how did you find it? Do you have any advice for the crossing?

JS: Let’s just say there’s a reason they call it the ‘Drake Lake’ or the ‘Drake Shake’. With the often-violent convergence of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and inherent unpredictability, it can be your worst nightmare or sometimes, if you’re lucky, it can be eerily calm. The vessel I was on, the Akademik Loffe and her sister ship the Akadmik Vavilov, were built for polar waters and are some of the most stable ships to be on for the Drake crossing so we were in safe hands. I’m not good on the water at all so I certainly anticipated some trouble with the Drake. But we got lucky – there and back again!

When we boarded the ship, the staff told us that they had just come through a horrendous storm the previous night with 30ft waves in the Drake. This made me feel apprehensive to say the least, but in reality it meant that we were treated to a calm crossing.

I took some prescribed Ondansetron but that didn’t seem to work for me. So the next 24 hours were spent lying down. I found as long as I maintained a horizontal position everything was ok. I got dressed lying down, brushed my teeth lying down and ate marmite toast lying down. When the staff noticed I wasn’t at meals they kindly brought crackers and ginger ale to the pity party I was throwing in my cabin. There’s a doctor onboard who I decided to pay a visit to. He gave me a patch and an injection and it worked a treat! Don’t let that put you off – I get seasick, airsick and carsick,  and coupled with my fear of being out on the open ocean, I battled the war on sickness.

A calm Drake Passage (L); the Akademik Ioffe has an open bridge policy so you’re allowed up there any time of the day or night (R)

There is no happier person than one who has been through seasickness hell and come back from the brink. My advice? Get seasickness medication prescribed by your doctor and take it BEFORE you hit the Drake. And travel on a ship built for these kinds of crossings with stablisers.

Click through to read the rest of Juliet’s interview.


A brief look at Antarctic History

Antarctica was once the most treacherous continent on the world for humans. Just getting there was a feat in itself, let alone the 320km/h winds and freezing temperatures once you reached land!

Today, it is a lot easier to visit but let’s take a look back at the history of hardship in exploring the great southern continent.

As far back as the Ancient Greeks, there was speculation of a great southern land mass to balance out the northern continents. The Greeks called the north arktos, the word for bear after a constellation in the north. And so they presumed that there must be an anti-arktos in existence too.

In 2 CE, Terra Australis (as it was referred to) was named Antarctica by Marinus of Tyre – like the Greek name, meaning the opposite of the Arctic. However, the continent was not sighted until 1820 by a Russian expedition led by Fabian von Bellingshausen.

On his way to Australia in 1774 it is believed that English explorer Captain James Cook did not quite come within sighting distance, although he crossed into the polar waters. Recordings in his journal show his reluctance to go closer, concluding “the world will derive no benefit from it”.

“The risk one runs in exploring the coast in these unknown and Icy Seas, is so very great, that I can be bold to say, that no man will ever venture farther than I have done and that the lands which may lie to the South will never be explored.”

It’s just as well for us adventurous souls that Cook was wrong – only a year after the first sighting, it is believed that sealer Captain John Davis was the first person to set foot on the continent in 1821. The continent was little explored for the next fifty years, with ships struggling to handle the fast freezing ice.

The Heroic Age

The era between 1898 to 1916 marked the Heroic Age of Exploration of the Antarctic, with expeditions setting forth from Europe, the USA and Japan. Perhaps the most famous of these was the race to the South Pole between Roald Amundsen (Norwegian) and Captain Robert F Scott (English). Scott discovered the Polar Plateau on which the Pole was situated in the early 1900s however was beaten to the Pole in 1912 by Roald Amundsen by a month.

Originally Amundsen planned to be the first to reach the North Pole but he was beaten before he had even gotten passed his planning stage. Hearing of Frost’s plans to reach the South Pole, Amundsen set forth a month earlier than scheduled to the South and his hastiness paid off. Upon discovering that Amundsen had pipped them at the post, Frost and his crew turned back and during their return journey tragically perished in the extreme cold.

Another famed Antarctic story of exploration is that of Ernest Shackleton and his crew aboard the “Endurance” in 1915. The pack ice was too thick for the “Endurance” to reach the continent and they became trapped. Gradually over 10 months, the pressure of the ice built up so incredibly as to tear through the ship. Astonishingly, Shackleton and his crew proceeded to camp on the ice for a further 5 months before they managed to reach civilisation on a lifeboat on a 17 day journey.

Modern day exploration

Today exploring Antarctica is no where near as dangerous and can be done in comfort with state of the art safety features aboard all Expedition ships. For example, the MS Midnatsol  has a specifically designed hull to break through ice and onboard scientific testing facilities for samples collected during field trips.

On the Spirit of Shackleton tour aboard the MS Expedition, over 21 days explore the Falkland Islands, the remote South Georgia where Shackleton’s grave lies and the Antarctic Peninsula, retracing Shackleton’s route in reverse. And we have many other ready-made adventures for you to experience the thrill of a polar expedition. And, as relatively few people visit the continent today, you can still feel like a true explorer as you discover this incredible land of ice.

Contact Bentours today to follow in the footsteps of the pioneering explorers  and discover Antarctica for yourself!

Ten peculiar facts about Antarctica

Are you all geared up for the adventure of a lifetime to the icy southern continent? Or perhaps you are dreaming yourself onto a pioneering exploration of Antarctica, in the golden age of polar exploration?

Whether you’re planning to visit Antarctica or not, these facts below are sure to fascinate.

1. The average summer temperature in Antarctica is -30°C while in the winter it is -60°C. The lowest recorded temperature is – 89.6°C. Salt water usually freezes at -2°C however Deep Lake on the continent is so salty that it cannot freeze.

2. The Dry Valleys of Antarctica are so moisture free that despite the cold, no ice or snow can form. The dusty expanses of dirt are close to the environment of Mars and so NASA did testing there for their Viking mission.

3. The ice sheet of Antarctica is up to 6km thick in places and holds 60% – 70% of the world’s fresh water. If it was to melt, sea levels would rise approximately 65m the world over.

4. Despite the ice sheet, Antarctica is home to many fresh water lakes, buried deep underground. Lake Vostok is buried 4km under frozen water, one of more than 200 bodies of water discovered beneath the ice.

5. Antarctica is also home to one of the world’s biggest mountain ranges, the Gamburtsev Mountains. Peaks here reach about 27,000m – that’s about a third the size of Everest.

6. The most southern volcano in the world Mount Erebus, is surrounded by lava lakes which have held liquid magma for thousands of years despite the freezing temperatures.

7. The largest land animal of the continent is an insect. The wingless midge is less than 13mm long and lives around penguin colonies. There are no flying insects on the continent – with winds up to 320km p/h they would not survive!

8. Antarctica is one of the best places to find meteorites. The dark meteorites show up clearly against the white ice and snow. In fact, ice floes often encourage meteorites to gather in one place.

9. The geographic South Pole hasn’t always been on Antarctica because of continental drift. Each year on New Year’s Day there is a ceremony where the geographic South Pole is repositioned to compensate for  the 10m shift per year of the polar ice sheet towards the Weddell Sea.

10. There are 30 countries that man 80 research stations on the continent and in the summer there are about 4,000 people living there while in winter there are 1,000 people. In January 1979, Emile Marco Palma was the first person born on the continent and only ten other people have been born there since.

Explore Antarctica with Bentours on one of our fascinating expedition cruises – contact us today!

World Mythology about the Aurorae

Aurorae have been seen the world over for millennia due to solar activity. Without an understanding of modern day science, how did early people interpret the aurorae?

As we discussed in our Arctic Legends behind the Northern Lights article, legends have not only come about because of Aurora Borealis, but also the less-viewed Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) that can be seen (sometimes) in southern Australia and New Zealand.

The Northern Lights – beyond Scandinavia

Ancient Greece

As hard as it is to believe, the Ancient Greeks recorded sightings of aurora borealis. Plutarch described the streams of light as fire in the sky, while there was a belief that Aurora (meaning sunrise) was the sister of Helios (the sun) and Seline (the moon) and that sometimes she needed to travel across the sky in a multicoloured chariot to alert her siblings of a new day.

Ancient Rome

Again the celestial activity must have been extreme for the Ancient Romans to have seen the aurora, but there is mention of Aurora as the goddess of dawn in her flaming chariot or alternatively, of flaming military spears being hurtled across the sky.

North America

Native American myths about the Lights tended to centre around death and destruction. One such example is the belief of the Wisconsin Fox Indians that they were their slain enemies, staring down at them and preparing for revenge. Another belief was that one should never wave, sing or whistle when the lights lit up the sky as it would attract the dead spirits – instead, one should clap to fend them off.


Although very rarely sighted in China, the lights were believed to be celestial battles between dragons that were good and evil. Some have suggested that this is where the idea of dragons originated. Can you make out dragons in the waving lines?


Even today, children conceived under the Northern Lights will be blessed by good looks, intellect and good fortune in Japanese culture.

Continental Europe

Again, the Lights are rarely seen this far from the poles, so there had to be huge solar activity for anything to show up in the sky. The result was extremely rare violent red streaks appearing across the sky. In France and Italy, these red streaks terrified communities and were thought to be harbingers of war, disease, famine, or anything else horrifying.

United Kingdom

In England, the same red streaks were seen as signs of destruction. Legend claims that a few weeks prior to the French Revolution, red light danced across the sky and was later interpreted as signalling the ruckus that was to start across the Channel. In Scotland, the Northern Lights were known as the ‘Merry Dancers’ who were engaged in a bloody battle.


There are a number of myths in Estonian culture but the two most prominent are that of a pod of whales playing games above, or that of a magnificent horse drawn carriage carrying celestial guests to a heavenly wedding.

The Southern Lights

The Southern Lights are the same phenomenon as the Northern Lights but happen squarely over the uninhabited continent of Antarctica. As such, only when there is strong solar activity can they be seen in the nearest inhabited lands of New Zealand and Australia.

New Zealand

Some of the Maori of Aotearoa believed the Tahunui-a-rangi were the campfires of the ancestors who had rowed to the land of ice in the south. These lights reassured them that the ancestors would one day return to them.


Indigenous Australians have many celestial traditions, including about the Aurora Australis. For those tribes in Victoria and Tasmania, sighting the Lights was not that unusual whereas further up in Central and Northern Australia they were rather frightening as they were so irregular. Unlike the tradition in Scandinavian cultures were the lights were seen as a cause for celebration, in Australia, they usually indicated war and death. For example the Gunditjmara of western Victoria, described them as fire of Puae buae (“ashes”). While to the Gunai of eastern Victoria they indicated a coming catastrophe being raging bushfires in the spirit world.

Like many Aboriginal stories, the Lights were used to regulate communities to uphold the sacred law. For example, near Uluru, when hunters killed a sacred emu and broke Pitjantjatjara law, the aurora was seen as poisonous flames that signalled divine punishment.

To see the mystical Northern Lights this year, call Bentours to organise an experience of the incredible natural phenomenon.

For the lesser seen Southern Lights, have a look at our Hurtigruten Expedition Voyages to Antarctica – you never know what you might see!

Antarctic vs. Arctic: where should you go?

Both the Antarctic and the Arctic offer incredible adventures & once in a lifetime experiences that you won’t find any where else in the world. Despite often being categorised alongside each other, the Arctic and Antarctica are very different places to visit – so which is right for you?

The polar regions of the world have drawn the most daring among us for years and today they are more accessible than ever. Bentours runs Expedition Cruises to both of these destinations offering many incredible and varied excursions so guests can truly discover these sparsely populated lands. But what are the key differences?

Culture and History

Antarctica was entirely uninhabited by humans until the establishment of research stations in recent years.

SamiThe Arctic on the other hand has been inhabited for many years and interesting history has played its way across Arctic lands. The Sami indigenous people of the Arctic region, still occupy the area and in spite of hardships faced at the hands of various governments, continue to live in a semi-traditional way. Sami culture is rich with nuances and individuality thanks to the Arctic environment, such as the long practice of reindeer husbandry and the construction of lavvos, Sami huts. Hurtigruten offer shore excursions to learn about this unique culture.

The Arctic region is also famous as the land of the first polar exploration. The Vikings of Scandinavia colonised Iceland and Greenland in the Middle Ages while Russian monks set out an outpost monastery on the Kola Peninsula in the same period. Then of course the Golden Age of exploration in the 19th century saw many pioneering expeditions through the area. You can take a  guided walk in Tromsø to the Polar Museum to discover more about this history of exploration.

In contrast, Antarctica was not explored in ernest until the early 20th century, with many of the expeditions leading to death and injuries. Norway’s own Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole, ending a dramatic race with the British Robert Falcon Scott. His ship, the Fram, was inspiration for Hurtigruten’s modern expedition ship, MS Fram.

Landscape and Wildlife

Another key difference between the two polar regions of the world is the landscape. The Arctic is made up of many islands, including land of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States (Alaska), Canada, Denmark (Greenland) and Iceland.

Technically the Arctic is a large frozen sea surrounded by continents, while the Antarctic is a massive ice covered continent surrounded by oceans. Not as cold as Antarctica, there is a great variety in the environment of the Arctic, with fjords, mountains, glaciers and green areas in the tundra replete with trees and plant life. Due to the more temperate climate, there are many land animals that can be seen including reindeers, arctic foxes, elks and, the Kings of the Arctic, polar bears.

Penguins AntarcticIn comparison, the Antarctic land mass appears quite barren but there is something undeniably beautiful in this barrenness. The continent is the most remote in the world and is covered in ice, punctuated by towering ice mountains and rock. The wildlife here is all water based, with penguins, whales, seals and many other marine animals to see. Given the isolation of Antarctica, the excursions available tend to be more limited but no less exhilarating – just imagine yourself kayaking surrounded by incredibly shaped ice formations!

Where ever you decide is right for you, you are guaranteed to create life-long memories on an incredible trip in one of the polar regions of the world. And who knows… you might like the Arctic so much that you feel you have to visit the Antarctic to compare (or vice versa)!