Antarctica, the frozen frontier at the bottom of the world, is a realm of stark beauty and captivating biodiversity. While it remains a pristine wilderness, its appeal to the adventurous world travellers continues to grow. Among the various months, December emerges as a prime contender for those who wish to explore this remote continent. In this article, we’ll delve into the unique aspects of Antarctica in December, exploring the weather, wildlife, and remarkable opportunities this month offers for adventurers and photographers alike.
Benefits of travelling to Antarctica in December
Before we travelled to Antarctica in December of 2022, we had done extensive research to ensure this time of year aligns with the ultimate goals of this trip of a lifetime. Rightly so, travelling to the Antarctic Peninsula can be extremely expensive, and we wanted to make sure we had the most incredible experience. All in all, we can confirm that December in Antarctica is the sweet spot, where you get the best of the icy Antarctic landscapes, abundant wildlife, and weather conditions that allow you to do the best activities on the white continent!
- Enjoy Abundant Daylight Hours!
- Observe Thriving Wildlife.
- You May Get Lucky to Witness Penguin Chicks Hatching.
- Humpback Whale Sightings at their best!
- Easier Access and Wider Exploration!
Whilst Antarctic cruises start their expeditions in late October and finish in late March, the mentioned benefits make December the best month to travel to Antarctica! And if you need a little more convincing, we have 21 reasons why you should go to Antarctica!
Weather in December in Antarctica
Whilst the Northern Hemisphere prepares for Christmas, December marks a significant shift in weather conditions in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly in Antarctica. As one of the continent’s warmest months, it offers a noticeable reprieve from the frigid conditions of the austral winter. In December, average temperatures in some parts of Antarctica, especially along the Antarctic Peninsula, can range from -2°C to 8°C (28°F to 46°F). This warmer weather brings a sense of milder comfort, making it an appealing time for travellers looking to avoid extremely cold temperatures.
However, it’s essential to remember that even in December, Antarctica can be unpredictable, with temperatures subject to fluctuations and local variations. Moreover, while the average temperatures may seem relatively mild, the high season in December can also bring increased wind speed, making the weather feel more capricious.
What wildlife can I expect to see in Antarctica in December?
December stands out as the perfect time for wildlife enthusiasts and wildlife photographers to embark on an Antarctic expedition, as it ushers in the start of the Austral summer, a period brimming with astonishing opportunities to witness and capture the continent’s diverse and thriving wildlife.
If you are travelling to the Antarctic Peninsula, you are likely to see three different species of penguin: Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. But if you are visiting South Georgia Island on the way, you will probably get a chance to observe King Penguins too (fuzzy brown King Penguin chicks are hatching and growing in December)!
- Adélie penguins: Adélie penguins, among the smaller penguin species, typically measure between 46 to 71 centimetres in height. These charming birds are commonly spotted in ice-free rocky habitats near the coastline and stand out with their unmistakable features: a black head, a white eye ring, and a broad white chest. Renowned for their endearing waddling gait and their habit of leaping from the water onto ice floes, Adélie penguins capture the hearts of all who encounter them.
- Gentoo penguins: Gentoo penguins, the largest of the three predominant penguin species on the Antarctic Peninsula, are easily recognizable by their unique features: a triangular white patch above their eyes and vibrant red/orange beaks. What sets Gentoo penguins apart is their audacious and inquisitive disposition, frequently engaging with humans and displaying a keen interest in exploring camera equipment, a delightful trait that endears them to many Antarctic visitors. We saw the largest Gentoo penguin colonies around Danco Island and Jougla Point.
- Chinstrap penguins: Chinstrap penguins, slightly larger than their Adélie counterparts, typically measure between 71 to 76 centimetres in height. These penguins derive their name from the distinct narrow black band encircling their chin. They are commonly spotted in habitats along rocky beaches or perched on steep cliffs near the ocean. Chinstrap penguins possess a smart and streamlined appearance, making them adept swimmers and divers, and their striking features distinguish them in the Antarctic landscape. If you are stopping over at Orne Harbour, you are sure to see plenty of Chinstraps!
December is a remarkable time to witness the joyful emergence of baby penguins in Antarctica, particularly along the Antarctic Peninsula (late December to early January) and the Falkland Islands (from early December). This is when the much-anticipated hatching of penguin chicks takes centre stage, breathing new life into the stark landscapes of the southern continent. Visitors to the region can delight in the heartwarming sights of penguin rookeries bustling with parental activity, as adult penguins diligently tend to their fluffy offspring, offering an incredible opportunity to witness the early stages of these resilient birds’ life cycles. The chance to observe and photograph these adorable penguin chicks is one of the many reasons December holds a special allure for wildlife enthusiasts and those seeking to immerse themselves in the captivating natural wonders of the Antarctic realm.
Whale watching opportunities are plentiful in December. From Minke Whales investigating the ship to Killer Whales popping up right next to your Zodiac boat, you are almost guaranteed to see a whale on your trip to Antarctica. What is more, December is a great time to witness Humpback Whale migration back to the Antarctic waters. Large numbers of humpback whales make their way from Columbia or even Mexico in December. On our Hurtigruten expedition cruise, we saw hundreds of humpbacks in the open sea crossing the Drake Passage alongside our ship, showing off their flukes, breaching and surprising us with fountains spilling out of their blow holes. You may also spot some large Fin Whales in the subantarctic waters.
Seals are abundant in Antarctica, especially in December:
- Leopard seals and Elephant Seals can often be spotted lounging on the ice floes. If you are lucky, you’ll see their pups too!
- If you are visiting South Georgia, don’t miss the seal pups basking in the sun on the beaches of South Georgia!
- November and the beginning of December are the mating season for fur seals, so you may be able to observe some rather aggressive mating and territory-claiming rituals.
Here are some notable seabirds we saw on our voyage in Antarctica in December:
- Snow Petrels: Small, white birds that are often seen flying in flocks over icy landscapes.
- Antarctic Petrels: Medium-sized seabirds with dark grey-brown plumage, a distinctive white belly, and a hooked bill that they use to catch fish and squid. They are known for their long migrations across the Southern Ocean, as well as their tendency to follow ships in search of food.
- Albatrosses: You can expect to see several species of albatrosses, including the Wandering Albatross, Southern Royal Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, and Grey-headed Albatross. The latter are some of the largest seabirds in the world, with wingspans that can reach up to 11 feet. Moreover, they are remarkable for their ability to fly great distances over the Southern Ocean without flapping their wings.
- Antarctic Terns: Medium-sized, black and white birds with distinctive red bills. They can often be seen diving into the water to catch small fish.
- Skuas: Brown birds with hooked bills that often scavenge for food or steal it from other birds.
- Antarctic Shags: Black and white birds that are great divers and can be seen swimming and diving to catch fish.
Long hours of daylight
December in Antarctica is a time of enchanting contrast in terms of daylight. After the long winter months, the southern hemisphere experiences a remarkable shift, granting travellers to this icy wonderland the extended hours of sunlight. It’s a fantastic time for exploration and photography, as the sun barely dips below the horizon (only for 2-3 hours a day), allowing for the magical experience of witnessing the continent bathed in a soft, continuous glow.
In our opinion, Antarctica cruises taken in December offer better value for money – you get more time to explore and enjoy the scenery!
Activities available in Antarctica in December
Due to December being one of the warmest months in the Antarctic Peninsula, sea ice isn’t as thick around the landing sites. As a result, you may be able to see more places and do more landings. Cruise ships anchor further away from the shoreline, and then travellers are taken ashore on zodiac boats. It is no surprise that these small boats cannot navigate their way through pack ice in the early season, as it is simply too thick. In December, however, it is less of a problem, as both the Antarctic waters and the air temperature increase.
What is more, many cruise lines do not have ice-breaker class ships, so you are more likely to go further South if you are travelling later in the season.
Many other activities become available in December in Antarctica. Many cruise lines offer camping overnight in Antarctica, which is only possible if there are no high winds, the possibility of fast ice blocking the shore and leaving the campers stranded or other extreme weather conditions. Snowshoeing is also more likely in December, as the snow cover isn’t as thick as earlier in the season. And you are far more likely to brave a polar plunge than you would in the colder temperatures in the previous months!
Best time to visit Antarctica for photography
December in Antarctica is a photographer’s paradise. Long daylight hours gave me enough time not only to do all the activities offered by the expedition team but also the much-needed time to take photos from the observation decks of the ship.
- Antarctica Landscapes are beautiful in December. Whilst the scenery is still white and snowy, the peaks of higher mountains poke through adding interest to the shorelines. The polar waters are still full of majestic icebergs and ice floes too! Head to our articles about Antarctic Landscape Photography and How To Capture the Beauty of Icerbergs in Antarctica to learn more!
- Penguins are at their best. Large penguin colonies, lonely penguins waddling down the hill, penguins trying to keep their neighbours from stealing stones from their nests, penguin eggs and a possibility to see hatching chicks! Read more about the Types of Penguins in Antarctica. We also have a bunch of tips in our Antarctic Penguin Photography article.
- Humpback whale migration is a sight to be seen. We saw hundreds of flukes surrounding the ship at one point. If you are interested in capturing these majestic creatures on camera, December is an excellent time to go!
- The skies are filled with seabirds. And don’t worry if you do not own an expensive lens – we have tips on how to take photos of Antarctic seabirds here!
For more information, head to Antarctica photography tips: a guide for stunning photos!
Expect the unexpected
While December undoubtedly brings a plethora of advantages for those venturing to Antarctica, it’s essential to remain prepared for the unexpected. During our mid-December expedition to this pristine realm, we encountered a surprising twist in nature’s timetable. Penguin chicks were not yet hatching, and the Antarctic landscape remained cloaked in a thick, pristine blanket of snow. This unseasonably thick snow cover posed challenges for adult penguins needing exposed rocks for nesting and even thwarted our plans for snowshoeing, reminding us that even in this seemingly timeless and remote wilderness, nature can still spring surprises and unforeseen challenges upon intrepid travellers.
Antarctic travel in December FAQs
In December, Antarctica experiences the Austral summer season, characterized by significantly warmer temperatures. During Antarctic summer, the continent undergoes a remarkable transformation, with milder conditions allowing for more comfortable exploration and wildlife observation, making it a prime period for travellers seeking to experience the wonders of the southernmost continent.
The sun never sets in the South Pole in December. But Antarctica cruises typically concentrate in the area around the Antarctic Peninsula, where you will still have longer days and will be able to experience the Midnight sun. In fact, you will get 21-22 hours of daylight in December. That means that the sun is only down for 2-3 hours per day!
Drake Passage is a treacherous and turbulent body of water that connects the South Atlantic Ocean with the Southern Ocean, serving as a critical route for ships travelling between South America and Antarctica. Whilst it is very unpredictable, December and January are statistically calmer in the passage.
Why not go to Antarctica in December?
Whilst we strongly believe that December is the best time to visit the seventh continent, there are a few things to note:
- Whilst there are plenty of icebergs in Antarctica in December, if huge icebergs are your ultimate goal, consider going earlier in the season.
- The landscape is less pristine compared to October and November, as penguins start being more active.
- You are unlikely to access the Ross Sea in December. Consider going to Antarctica in January or February instead.
- Crossing the Antarctic Circle may be a challenge, especially if you are travelling in early December.
- Prices hike up during the peak season in late December, especially if you are travelling over Christmas and New Year, making the voyage even more expensive.
Bottom line: is December a good time to go to Antarctica?
In conclusion, the allure of Antarctica in December is undeniably strong. This Austral summer month offers a plethora of captivating experiences, from the possibility of witnessing the hatching of penguin chicks to marvelling at the majestic Humpback Whales on their migration back to Antarctic waters. The extended hours of daylight in December open up ample opportunities for exploration and photography, ensuring you get the best deal for your adventure. While Antarctica in December might bring some surprises, like unexpected thick snow cover, these unanticipated moments only add to the adventure. So, if you’re seeking the perfect balance between optimal weather, incredible wildlife encounters, and breathtaking landscapes, December truly stands out as an exceptional time to embark on an Antarctic expedition.