Updated: Aug 4, 2019
I have worked as a sea kayaking guide in Antarctica for several years and frequently get questions, from what we wear to how we manage the risks involved. Whether you are planning a trip to Antarctica or just curious, here are some answers to my most frequently asked questions.
Question #1: How cold is it?
I guide kayaking trips in Antarctica during the summer season, so some days are relatively warm. A normal summer day is around freezing, but if it's sunny it may be as warm as 50*F / 10*C (or even warmer, which is somewhat disconcerting). Most days are colder though, and the weather can change in an instant. Wearing the right gear makes a big difference, which brings us to Question #2!
Question #2: What do you wear?
We always wear drysuits to kayak in Antarctica. Our drysuits are made of heavy-weight waterproof fabric with seals at the neck and wrists, waterproof zippers, and attached booties. Unlike a wetsuit, drysuits aren't designed to add insulation; they have a looser fit that allows us to layer as much warm clothing as we need beneath the suit.
This is what I wear underneath my drysuit for a typical paddle in Antarctica:
Wool or synthetic long underwear
Mid-weight alpaca wool hiking socks
Heavy-weight alpaca wool mountaineering socks
Mid-weight paddling top with microfleece lining
I always wear a buff and an ear-warmer, hat, or balaclava.
We attach pogies to our paddles to keep our hands warm. Pogies are made of a warm fabric, often neoprene, that velcros over the shaft of a paddle. It's like a mitten attached to your paddle. Many people don't need to wear gloves under their pogies.
We also wear booties, life jackets, and spray skirts, which all provide additional insulation.
For your own comfort, don't wear a lot of zippers, pockets, or bulky items (like puffy jackets with hoods) tucked into your drysuit.
I find alpaca wool socks warmer than sheep's wool.
You can put hand warmers / toe warmers inside your booties (but don't to put them directly against your skin).
Bring along extra layers like hats, buffs, and gloves, in a dry bag.
Question #3: Where in the world do you kayak?
Many people don't know where Antarctica is, so if that's you, don't feel bad. Folks often think I am talking about the Arctic and ask me questions about polar bears... so I've included a map. The area shown is the Antarctic Peninsula.
It's not very surprising that so many folks don't know where Antarctica is, because it's actually missing from most maps that we see on a daily basis. Amusingly, the entire continent of Antarctica isn't even included in my Garmin GPS's "complete world map."
Question #4: You post a lot of photos of whales near kayaks... aren't you afraid of getting hurt?
The short answer is no, but we always keep a respectful distance! Wildlife in Antarctica is protected by strict regulations controlling how close we can get to animals, how we can approach them, and how long we stay near them.
These rules help keep wildlife and humans safe. We always monitor the animals' behavior, so if anything seems unusual or dangerous we move away. Generally, kayaking near whales is one of the most extraordinary, beautiful, breathtaking, and exhilarating experiences I have ever had!
Question #5: How do you avoid getting lost?
We pay close attention to our surroundings and carry a lot of safety equipment, like GPS devices, compasses, handheld VHF radios, emergency signals and/or locating beacons, and charts. A safety boat also follows along at all times.
Question #6: How do you paddle in ice?
It is possible-- and fun-- to kayak through small pieces of surface ice, like brash ice (an accumulation of small fragments of ice floating on the surface). Sometimes it's so cold that ice is actively forming on the water and we can break through it with our paddles and boats.
Kayaking around larger pieces of ice is incredible, but has to be done carefully. There are a lot of different types of ice, both on land and floating in the water, which demand different safety precautions. Ice is dangerous because it is unstable and can break, flip, calve, cave, slip, etc at any time.
The simple answer is... to stay safe, stay away. But staying far away from ice (A) isn't always possible and (B) isn't always fun, so we give clear instructions on how we will approach ice, how far away we will stay from certain areas or pieces, and how we will move through areas that are higher risk. Our rules are based off industry consensus, discussions with other guides, and the requirements of the company.
Question #6: What's the hardest part of your job?
Kayak guiding in Antarctica requires us to constantly manage perceived vs. real risks. People who are new to kayaking in cold waters with ice are often highly concerned about risks that they perceive to be real (like capsizing or getting struck by a whale) and are not necessarily aware of risks that are more likely to actually pose serious immediate danger-- like a massive glacial calving, a collapsing ice arch, or a rolling iceberg.
It means we are constantly making sure people feel comfortable with their perceived risks while also managing the real risks... and hopefully we're still having fun!
Question #7: How can I go?!
There are many different options! I guide ship-based expeditions, meaning we sail, eat meals, and sleep on a ship, and typically kayak on excursions for 2-4 hours at a time.
Many ships sail across the Drake Passage from Argentina, Chile, or the Falkland Islands, but you can also fly to King George Island and sail from there. Your options include small yachts that carry passengers, a three-masted historic tall ship that allows you to try your hand as 'crew,' or small to large cruise ships with varying degrees of luxury and adventure.
Kayaking in Antarctica is one of the greatest experiences of my life. I highly recommend it. I hope this has answered most of your questions... and maybe even inspires you to pick up a paddle of your own!