The Antarctic ‘tourist season’ falls during the southern hemisphere summer each year, beginning in late October or early November and running to through late March or early April. Each summer season offers myriad highlights for expeditioners, and each trip is unique. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) have put together this useful guide detailing what you can expect to see throughout the season.
Late October and November: The early part of the season showcases a number of highlights. Sea ice is prevalent, especially on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Late October to early November sees Adélie, chinstrap and gentoo adult penguins and Antarctic-breeding seabirds starting to come ashore to their breeding sites where they commence courtship rituals and nest building. Shortly thereafter eggs are laid and incubated. Landing sites are at their most pristine. The possibility of seeing sea ice is present early on, before it breaks up later on in the season. Emperor penguins can be seen on the frozen Weddell Sea (visited occasionally by icebreakers or ice-strengthened expedition ships on special itineraries).
Spring flowers begin blooming in the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) and elephant seals are actively courting in South Georgia. South Georgia's female king penguins lay their eggs in November and the parents can be seen "carrying" eggs on their feet so that the parent can shuffle around the colony while the other adult goes out to sea to feed. "Oakum Boys" — king penguin chicks from the previous season — can also be seen in the rookeries. Fur seals liter the beaches in South Georgia with the males aggressive and ready to mate.
December and January: The increased number of daylight hours brings exceptional opportunities for photographers and non-photographers alike. Research activity in the Peninsula at the scientific bases is at its peak. Penguin chicks begin hatching in the Falklands (Islas Malvinas); followed by hatchings in mid- to late-December at sites in the Antarctic Peninsula. Some 30 days after hatching, penguin chicks can be found in "crèches," resembling a nursery of sorts, which leaves both adults free to replenish their food supply. An exciting time of this part of the season is when the parent returns with food and the hungry chicks are persistent in being fed, running after the parent (or any adult penguin with food) in a "feeding chase."
Whale sightings of baleen and toothed whales escalate in the Peninsula area. Seal pups can be seen on the beaches in South Georgia. In the Ross Sea, the sea ice is beginning to break up starting to allow access to the rarely visited sites of the East Antarctic and the historic huts of Shackleton and Scott. On the continent, expeditions make the most of the summer weather and continuous hours of daylight.
February and March: Sightings of whales are at their peak in the Peninsula. An increasing number of fur seals can be found along the Peninsula and offshore islands; young fur seals are also quite playful in South Georgia. Penguin colonies are very active. The penguin chicks begin their molt, losing their fuzzy down and developing their adult plumage. By now, the parents have abandoned their chicks, and have gone out to sea to feed and fatten up for their own molting stage. Most colonies (Adélie, chinstrap and gentoo) are nearly vacated by the end of February to early March. Blooming snow algae is prevalent. Receding pack ice allows for easier exploration.
This guide, along with much more useful information and tips can be discovered on IAATO's website.