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27 March 2017

Planning a Polar Expedition - Arctic or Antarctic?

The poles of our planet are truly awe-inspiring locations; draped in mystery, yet invaluable to science, and abundant in wondrous wildlife, they really are a joy to behold. People spend years planning their perfect trip or expedition to these fascinating regions, whilst others never manage to get past the point of deciding whether to head North or South. Often confused and in many ways similar, the Arctic and Antarctic still hold more differences than many may realise, and improper planning may leave you disappointed if you have your heart set on a particular facet of the polar experience only to end up on the wrong side of the world.

To help you get the most out of your own polar adventure, we’ve taken apart the experience, feature by feature, and put the Arctic and Antarctic head-to-head across four categories in an effort to see which comes out on top. So, let’s see how they stack up.

Landscape and Ice Formations

Arctic: When we think of the Polar Regions, we instinctively imagine towering icebergs and powerful glaciers, and nowhere in the Arctic does this better than Greenland. Home to the second-largest polar ice cap in the world, Antarctica being the largest, Greenland conjures up some fantastic views. While there make sure to visit the Jakobshavn Isbræ glacier; this vast glacier is the largest in the Northern Hemisphere, and is thought to be responsible for the creation of the iceberg that famously sank the Titanic.

Away from the ice cap of Greenland, the Arctic has the edge over its southern counterpart when it comes to diversity, as unlike Antarctica, large areas of the Arctic Circle remain unfrozen.

Antarctic: The frozen expanse of the 7th continent holds some extraordinary landscapes and features, with ice formations stretching for miles in the distance and reaching high into the sky. The iceberg graveyards that litter the coast are certainly impressive, with icebergs that tower over the Northern equivalents of the Arctic. As the ice calves and glaciers hit the sea, it also has a dramatic effect on the surrounding ocean. Huge waves crash into the ice and carve out beautiful and unique structures. The ‘wow factor’ is very much present in Antarctica.

Our Winner: It really comes down to what you’re looking for; the Arctic certainly has a more varied landscape overall, while the Antarctic provides more what we imagine when we think of a truly polar experience. We’re calling this round a tie.


Arctic: The Arctic is of course home to the iconic Polar Bear, poster-boy of the poles and something of an unofficial mascot for climate change campaigners. Aside from bears you can also lay eyes on various species of whales and seals, if you’re lucky. Unfortunately, as many of these creatures are still hunted for their meat by local indigenous populations, they are wary of humans and as such encounters with wildlife are rarer here than in the south. If you want to get up-close and personal with the Polar Bears, this is possible at a few locations, such as the Canadian town of Churchill.

Antarctic: If your desire is to be able to interact with the wildlife you encounter, then Antarctica is the place for you. The penguin population, undoubtedly a highlight for visitors to the continent, is famously receptive of humans, viewing us more with curiosity than fear. Whales will surface right alongside kayaks and seals bask on the coast mere metres from expedition camps. Nowhere on the planet do you feel more engrossed in nature.

Our Winner: Polar bears or penguins? This is ultimately the choice that will decide this category for many, although we have to give the prize here to Antarctica. The level of interaction you can achieve with the wildlife utterly outweighs the possibilities up north, and up-close encounters will always trump observations from afar. Just please be careful not to disrupt or harm the local wildlife during your ventures; don’t make them regret their lack of caution around humans.


Arctic: The Arctic Circle holds many heavily-populated areas, each with its own rich culture. The most famous of these are likely the Inuit, who still largely maintain their traditional way of life, or the various cultures of Siberia, such as the Naukan people pictured above. During your journeys in the Arctic you can visit not only Inuit settlements, but also various remote villages and Viking ruins. Observing the Inuit as they engage is centuries-old practices is genuinely fascinating; sadly, these populations are becoming increasingly westernised, so this experience may not be available for long.

Antarctic: Culture here is a little sparse, to say the least. The only settlements on the continent are scientific research stations and expedition bases, and many of these are entirely unpopulated for large chunks of the year, and as such the idea of Antarctic culture is non-existent.

Our Winner: The Arctic picks up an easy win on this one.

Adventure and Experience

Arctic: Both poles are undoubtedly an incredibly adventure, but the populated nature of the Arctic means you have a bit more freedom in your choices. Hiking in Greenland is a particular highlight, either setting out on a lone excursion, with proper planning of course, or opting for a guided tour. The tourism infrastructure in place in such regions makes the experience much simpler, and decidedly less dangerous.

Antarctic: As one of the last remaining true wildernesses on the planet, Antarctica provides an experience unlike any other. Sea kayaking on the Antarctic Ocean is a spectacular adventure, littered with wildlife and landscapes sure to awe and inspire. As icebergs calve into the sea and glaciers rush towards the coast, the pure power of the planet is put on display. The downside to Antarctica, largely due to the dangerous nature of explorations on the continent, is that you are required to stick to planned expeditions. Wandering off on your own is definitely foolish and potentially fatal for the improperly prepared; even those who intentionally opted for such a challenge were severely tested by the extremes of the icy wastes.

Our Winner: Both are different, and both hold their own joys. Once again this category will be decided by personal preference; for me, Antarctica edges it slightly due to the abundance of wildlife, but for the purposes of this article I must, in fairness, call it a tie.

Our Verdict

Tallying up the results leaves us with a tie, with one win for each and draws in two categories. Ultimately it all boils down to what you’re looking for; its polar bears versus penguins, human culture versus wondrous wildlife, and independently-dictated travel versus structured expeditions.

Personally, if I must pick one over the other, I would opt for Antarctica.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.