Life on a Cruise to Antarctica
My two trips had some similarities and some differences. The trip across the Drake Passage was on a larger expedition ship called the G Expedition. The trip from New Zealand across the Ross Sea, a much longer trip, was on a smaller, basic expedition ship called Spirit of Enderby. There’s inherent similarities between the two trips (life on the sea on the way to Antarctica is pretty distinct, so of course there would be!). But the difference in the nature of the ships led to some particular differences as well.
Since my father and I were novice cruisers (however my father did in fact cruise from Seattle to New Zealand and back on a freighter ship), we both didn’t really know what to expect from the G Expedition. But pretty quickly we fell into a comfortable routine and surprisingly kept busier than we ever imagined or expected.
Here are some answers to common questions about life on an expedition cruise whether you are going on a larger or smaller ship.
What is included in the cost of the cruise?
It’s probably easier to say what wasn’t included – alcohol, soda, expedition coats (sometimes they are now included depending on the company), optional camping activities, optional kayaking activities, and tips.
Can you pay in US Dollars?
Yes – you can pay in US Dollars and you can pay by credit card for any extra expenses. When you get on the boat each passenger is given a swipe card with the name on it, their cabin number, and mud room ‘space’ number. This card can be connected to a credit card if you’d like. All charges are simply added to your account with the swipe card and at the end you can settle the bill via a credit card or cash. You can even add your tip to the swipe card at the end. It was a very convenient process!
What did you do to keep busy all day?
There is normally 1 to 2 zodiac landings a day. It is your choice to go on them or not (and of course you are going to go!). After the landings for the day were complete, there was a debriefing for the current day’s landings as well as the next day’s planned landings.
On the G Expedition each night after dinner there was a movie option to watch in the Discovery Lounge or typically there was a music and socializing in the Polar Bear Lounge/bar that went into the very early morning hours! And on the Spirit of Enderby there were also movies or presentations.
For the days when we were completely at sea, there were always lectures on various topics ranging from Antarctica history, to wildlife, to geology.
Trust me when I say there was ALWAYS something to do. In fact, some days I was simply exhausted from all of the activity!
What Gear Was Provided?
Both of the ships provided a winter parka and boots for each passenger. This helps cut down on your packing incredibly!
What did you do at night?
Most nights a movie was offered. The movies were normally Antarctica themed in some way. Or if you wanted to be a bit more social you could go to the Lounge and listen to music, and socialize with other passengers.
Or you could simply go out and sit outside and marvel at the white nights. Since the sun never really set while we were in Antarctica we had some spectacular sunsets at about midnight! It never really did get entirely dark out during our cruise making it even harder to sleep when there is so much to see! In addition, I actually was lucky enough to see the Southern Lights while we cruised through the Southern Ocean one night!
Is there internet?
Yes – but you must pay to play. The ship had a satellite connection that was pretty decent most days. However, satellite costs are hefty – you could buy an ‘access code’ based on megabytes downloaded as opposed to time spent online. The G Expeditions ship had wifi in various common areas such as the reception area, Discovery Lounge, and Polar Bear Lounge. There were also 2 computers available to use that had hard connections. The Spirit of Enderby recently added a wifi option as well as shared computers too for guests.
You would need to be careful to shut off your phone push settings as you can eat up megabytes pretty quickly with a smartphone. However, my best advice is that unless you are working there onboard like me – just unplug and enjoy the peace and quiet of Antarctica and leave the email and photos until you get back home.
What kind of animals did you see and could you get close to them?
We saw Penguins (Gentoo, Macaroni, Chinstrap, Adele), Seals (Leopard, Crabeater, Elephant, Weddell), Whales ( Minke, Orca, Fin), and a variety of seabirds. In the Ross sea, we were also able to see King Penguins. We saw some pretty spectacular sights when it came to the animals – about 100 Orca whales hunting/harassing Minke whales, a leopard seal and a pup nursing, and rookeries including 60,000 penguins!
Yes – you were able to get very, very close to the animals in certain situations. In fact – the Fin whales actually were about 3 meters in front of our boat! And I had penguins come right up to me and peck on my GoPro camera a few times!
The expedition staff and crew were wonderful at pointing out the animals and providing you loads of information on them. In addition, the Captain was thoroughly skilled at maneuvering our large ship very close to the wildlife but not so close that it scared them.
Life on the G Expedition Ship through the Drake Passage
How big was the ship?
The G Expedition was built in 1972 and refurbished in 2009. It was staffed with 52 crew and about 10 Expedition Staff. There were approximately 130 passengers on board the ship for our cruise. It had a reception area, 3 main living/cabin levels, a mudroom, a sauna, a large lounge that held all passengers, a dining room, an exercise room, a library, a computer room, a gift shop, and a bar/lounge.
How did the Zodiac Landings work?
All passengers were assigned to one of 4 groups. Two groups would be called down to the mudroom (the loading/unloading area) at once. Once in the mudroom, you would get into all of your gear which normally consisted of a warm coat, waterproof pants & coat, waterproof boots(provided by the boat), mittens, cap, sunglasses, lifejacket, and backpack/camera. Then you would queue to get on a zodiac boat.
You were ‘checked’ out of the ship via a swipe card, you stepped in a solution to disinfect your boots (ensuring no foreign critters/bacteria made it to Antarctica) and got on a zodiac. The zodiac would take you to land and upon landing an Expedition Leader would greet you and explain the layout of the island – where various penguins or seals were located, what trails you could walk on and what was off-limits. They would also tell you when the last zodiac would be going back to the ship so that you knew how much time you had.
After the briefing, you were on your own to explore and take photos! You typically had about 1 to 1 ½ hours to walk around on your own. Once you went back to the ship you were checked back in via your swipe card and went through the disinfecting process again.
What were the cabins and facilities like?
We had a class 3 cabin which consisted of two twin beds, a desk & chair, another reading chair, bathroom with shower, and a decent sized window. Some of the cabins slept 3 or 4 people and had bunk beds. There was a cleaning service daily and a nighttime turn down service.
More information on the variety of cabins and facilities on the G Expedition.
There were plenty of places to lounge around the ship and read or just look out the windows. Plus you could go outside on the deck or go up to the bridge and visit the captain and crew.
Were there options to Kayak?
Yes, I signed up for the optional kayaking program when I booked my trip on the G Expeditions Ship. This proved to be the best thing for getting exercise and keep me from going a bit stir crazy. Every time there was a landing – we had an opportunity to kayak if the weather conditions permitted and most days the weather was kind to us and we were able to go out. We would paddle for about 2 ½ to 3 hours covering around 5 to 7 miles. Overall on our cruise kayak was offered 8 times (thanks to great weather) and it covered 33 nautical miles. Normally I would do one zodiac landing with my father and one kayaking excursion a day. Typically the kayaking excursions would last about 2 ½ to 3 hours.
What did you eat?
There was a huge variety of food for every meal. Breakfast and Lunch were always buffet-style eating while dinner was a sit down 4-course dinner with menu choices. Special diet options were always available.
It was communal dining so most days you just chose a table and ate with new people – which made the whole process very social! The food was always good and the waiters/servers were amazing to watch as they carried large trays stacked full as the ship rocked and rolled. You could also purchase a bottle of wine, and if you didn’t want to finish it the staff would put your cabin number on it and keep it for you for the next day.
One evening the crew held a BBQ dinner out on the back deck. They transformed the deck into a dining room with some of the best food of the whole trip. We were blessed with perfect weather and one of the most amazing views I’ve ever had while eating – the Lemaire Channel.
Did you go stir crazy without exercise?
The zodiac landings normally provided a good chance for you to get out and stretch your legs a bit and walk around islands and explore. In addition, there was an exercise room on the ship too.
Life on the Spirit of Enderby through the Southern Ocean
How big was the ship?
The Spirit of Enderby (Professor Khromov) is a fully ice-strengthened expedition vessel, built in 1984 for polar and oceanographic research and is perfect for Expedition Travel. It can transport a max of 50 guests.
It has one dining room, one lounge, a presentation room, and a sauna. There aren’t a lot of frills on this ship – it’s basic and that was fine with me! There was also a small library of books in the lounge.
There are suites and cabins with ensuite bathrooms as well as simple twin shares with shared bathrooms. I actually loved the option of a lower cost cabin where you shared a bathroom and shower. Each cabin did have a sink and vanity though.
How did the Zodiac Landings work?
Cruising in the Ross Sea means that there are fewer vessels you have to share it with. That meant that our landings were very spontaneous; we didn’t have to keep to a strict schedule and we were very free to roam based on weather conditions. That also meant that we could hang out longer at a location waiting for the weather to clear for a zodiac landing.
In addition, since we only had 40 passengers on the ship, that meant that everyone on the ship could go on a landing at the same time. In an attempt to prevent damage to the region’s unique ecosystem, only 100 visitors are to be allowed onshore at any given time. Since we didn’t have to separate into multiple groups for a landing, that meant we had more time onshore – sometimes as much as 4 hours!
The Spirit of Enderby does not have an electronic check-in/off the boat system, but it was very easy to do. There is also a disinfection process much like the G Expeditions process.
What were the cabins and facilities like?
The ship was originally a research vessel and therefore it wasn’t built or designed like a typical cruise ship. But I wasn’t looking for glitzy lounges or big, fancy, suites; I just wanted to be in Antarctica!
The cabins I stayed in with a roommate had two single beds, 2 closets, a desk and chair and a sink with a mirror. The dining room had long tables with chairs that were bolted to the floor – which was great when the seas were rough!
Were there options to kayak?
No. But there were some options for citizen science on the Spirit of Enderby!
What did you eat?
Even though the ship was very functional, the food was luxurious. The Spirit of Enderby regularly has professional chefs from New Zealand and Australia on board and it shows.
I was expecting basic meat and potatoes food, instead, I got Indian curries, seafood, Asian hot pot and dumplings, chowders, rack of lamb, steak, decadent desserts, and every kind of fish you can imagine.
Breakfast is served buffet-style, but lunch and dinner are full 3-course meals. For dinner, you were always able to choose from 2 different choices.
It was always communal eating at each of the meals.
Was there an exercise room?
No, this ship didn’t have an exercise room.
How to Travel to Antarctica Like the Old Explorers
In 1841, Sir James Clark Ross was the first to enter what is now known as the Ross Sea and discovered Ross Island as well as the Ross Ice Shelf, Mount Erebus and Mount Terror (both named after his ships).
If you want to get a feel for the explorers of old and what they went through, then East Antarctica is where you want to be. The history on this part of the continent is plentiful.
If you are going to travel to Antarctica via the Ross Sea, it’s a long journey. And like most things in life, the longer it takes, the more meaningful the reward – right?
I wanted to go this long route as it takes me below the Antarctic Circle to a whole different part of the continent very few people get to see and experience.
Nothing makes me happier than feeling like I’m really exploring and blazing a trail. After all, travel to me is about exploration, just like the voyagers of old. It’s not about selfies or bucket lists, but about truly discovering a place and yourself.
The good news is that Heritage Expeditions breaks up this long journey by stopping at the Subantarctic islands in the South Pacific Ocean. They are collectively designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At these islands, I saw a massive variety of wildlife including four species of penguin, King, Royal, Rockhopper and Gentoo. And when I say ‘massive’, I mean millions of penguins!
Then we continued through the famed Southern Ocean and eventually get to the continent and the Ross Sea where stops are dependent on weather and ice conditions.
The Heritage Expedition Ship
The Spirit of Enderby is a bit more serious, grittier, non-flashy, much smaller boat.
I expect the passengers on this trip to be heartier, and probably really well off, as this isn’t a cheap journey. But it’s one that I believe is worth every penny.
I haven’t even taken the trip yet and I know that to be true already because Antarctica is Just. That. Amazing. It’s a special place where animals and the environment are in charge, and humans are simply alien visitors.
I’d actually been on this ship before when I went to Wrangel Island in Russia. It’s small and functional and built for the rough seas. There will be 48 passengers on the boat approximately 30 crew.
What is Expedition Cruising?
What is expedition cruising and why you should take one.
What to Expect when Expedition Cruising to Antarctica
Most people want to know everything they can before they take a trip like this; they want to be prepared. And once you’ve finished the preparation and planning phase, you might still feel unprepared!
And even though the expedition to Antarctica is completely unpredictable due to weather, there are a few things that are predictable about this type of expedition cruise.
Based on my experiences, here are a few things you can expect to experience while cruising to Antarctica. Some of these are true of both routes (peninsula and Ross Sea), and some are particular to the Ross Sea route.
You will likely get seasick
Whether it’s the Drake Passage or the Southern Ocean – it’s inevitable you’ll be seasick. I’ve got some handy tips for you that I learned the hard way in the section below.
But whatever you do, don’t let the seasickness deter you. I was seasick on both trips I took to Antarctica!
However, most everyone ‘finds their sea legs’ after a few days. Plus, not every day is rough. You’ll have calm times, and once you actually reach Antarctica everything calms down significantly.
You will struggle getting on/off the zodiac
The way you do landings and get ashore on an expedition cruise is by zodiac raft. You will board the raft from a gangway on the ship and then get off onshore.
Sure, it sounds easy – but it isn’t.
Sometimes it’s completely flat and easy, but the majority of the time the swells are moving both the ship and the zodiac furiously. You have to step off the ship and onto the zodiac trying not to fall in the boat or in the water. It does take some balance and athleticism. There are sailors and expedition staff to assist you, but realize this isn’t a cakewalk.
In addition, getting on and off zodiacs at the landings isn’t necessarily easy either.
Most of our landings were wet, which means you are greeted by crashing waves and rough waters as you swing your legs over the raft and walk to shore. Once again, there will be people there to help you, but realize that this isn’t as simple as just stepping off a boat and onto the shore.
People fall and get wet occasionally.
You will get great food
The Spirit of Enderby, the ship I took with Heritage Expeditions across the Ross Sea, is not a luxury expedition ship – it’s functional, and no-frills.
However, the one thing that was luxury on the cruise was the food.
Chef Ed and Chef Max fed us 3 meals a day for 28 days and never repeated any lunch or dinner menu item.
The Chefs took so much pride in putting out a beautifully plated meal in some of the roughest waters on earth. It was impressive to watch and even better to eat.
I was so impressed that I created a video on their cooking in rough seas.!
You won’t make it to everywhere on the itinerary
The Antarctic is unpredictable, and so are the itineraries. This is probably the biggest reset of expectations you have to do if you go on this trip.
You will likely not see everything that is mentioned on the itinerary, but that’s okay. It’s about the journey. This is especially true of the Ross Sea route.
I talked to Rodney, the founder/owner of Heritage Expeditions, and he confirmed that managing people’s itinerary expectations is one of the biggest challenges.
“People see what we see on past expeditions on our website and trip logs, etc – but we can’t repeat that, and so then we have to manage those expectations. If it was repeatable and predictable then I wouldn’t be here…and everyone else would be here.“ —Rodney
I agree with him 100%. I don’t want a reproducible vacation, I want an expedition – a journey to the unknown. If you are looking for a reproducible vacation then head to the Antarctic Peninsula or Mexico.
On my trip through the Ross Sea, we actually didn’t make it to one of the big itinerary draws – the McMurdo Sound. There were miles of ice that made it impossible to get into the sound and see the historic huts.
Sure, it was disappointing, however, we were able to see many other places that weren’t expected like Coulman Island, the Balleny Islands, and we were able to spend more time on Inexpressible Island.
It’s a tradeoff, and either way, you get to experience an Antarctica that few people see.
You will get tired of being social and struggle to find alone time
The beauty of the Ross Sea trip was that it is a small ship with under 50 passengers. However, you are with those same people for an entire month for every waking moment.
Every meal is a social experience. You are expected to go eat in the dining room and eat with everyone. This means there is a social pressure to chat with people during that time.
I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal – but some mornings I woke up and just desperately wanted to eat without having to chitchat. I simply wanted to be alone.
I’m a very social person, but there were few moments of alone time on a ship of that size. You can find some solace in your cabin, in the library, or out on deck if it isn’t stormy.
Luckily I had a SUPER roommate who I got along with wonderfully so we made sure that we had time alone in the room and quite frankly we didn’t mind being together in the room either. She is a painter and I am a writer, our cabin was our little creative ‘home’ and we complemented each other. However, you don’t always get that lucky at the roommate roulette. Some struggle with roommate relationships which can make the social aspect of the expedition even more challenging.
I personally think you just have to go into it being realistic. It’s going to be challenging to be on a small boat with people that you like and don’t like. But just keep in mind that this is not life or death – it’s simply 28 days…and the prize is that you get to go to Antarctica!
People will get injured
The ship is continuously moving, bobbing, and swaying, and inevitably, there are accidents. On the Ross Sea journey, we had to have one person emergency evacuated off the ship, and another broke his ribs (he was able to stay on the ship though and still do the landings on Antarctica!).
It takes a while to get used to the movement, and until you do you have to hold on at all times. Sometimes the seas were so rough I nearly was rolled right out of bed. Chairs fell over, drinks spilled, and my roommate about took a header into a wall once.
You are required to have emergency evacuation insurance for good reason. Plus, there is a doctor on board who can assist and advise in emergencies, as well as provide seasickness meds.
There is likely some sort of injury every trip. Just try your best to make sure it’s not you!
You won’t gain weight
You would think that with 3 glorious meals a day and 2 deserts a day you may gain weight. The good news is the chef's plate all of the food into very reasonable portion sizes, and you eat what you are given. There are no extras or seconds.
So in a way, the portion control is what saved me. And if you want snacks, there’s always a piece of fruit available, but really no junk food at all.
Plus – since the ship is always rocking, you actually do use your core muscles more than normal in everything you do. Simply standing is work on a ship in the Southern Ocean.
There are also opportunities to do hikes every time you do a landing. Take all the opportunities you can to move and work some of the delicious desserts off!
You will get wet
Bring rainproof everything. You will absolutely without a doubt get wet and so will all of your stuff.
You will be cold
It’s Antarctica, folks, so yes, it’s cold. However, it’s probably not as cold as you think it will be since it is the austral summer.
Our coldest morning temperature was 28F. That’s not too bad, and most of the time I didn’t even wear gloves.
The zodiac rides are really the coldest part, typically.
However, once the wind starts to blow, it’s cold. Weather changes fast and the days where we had storms or big wind it was quite cold. But even onshore you can normally find some respite from the wind.
Your camera/video gear will be pushed to the limit
You are traveling to one of the harshest environments known to man, so you better be sure your camera gear can handle this tough environment.
Dry sacks, LensCoat Raincoats, straps for securing your equipment (I nearly lost my phone and camera to the wind a number of times), cloths to wipe them off, and extra batteries (I brought 5) are all good to have.
Bring two cameras if you can as a ‘just-in-case’ backup. Various people on our ship had their equipment fail at different times.
This is exactly the kind of equipment you want with you in this environment; tough, damage-resistant, durable, and beautiful. After all, you have lots of penguin photos and videos to capture! If it could survive polar bears on the tundra, then it should be able to take on penguins in the Antarctic!
You will be at the mercy of the expedition leader
Any time you travel with a group, you give up control. And when you’re on a ship traveling to a remote part of the world, you give up even more. So be prepared to be flexible and have faith.
Your expedition leader works together with the captain of the ship who calls the shots on where, when, and how the stops are made based on their expertise.
On my trip with Heritage Expeditions, our expedition leader, Rodney, had been coming to Eastern Antarctica for 25 years; he knows it better than anyone (truly anyone). You have to put your trust in him to make the right decisions for landings and safety.
You will forget something that you wish you had
Whenever I travel anywhere, there’s always something I wish I’d thought to pack. It’s just inevitable! I had a number of those moments of, “Damn, I wish I would have thought of that…” on the ship.
Learn from my mistakes and use my Antarctica packing list.
Here are a few of the things I wished I’d brought with me:
- Clothes line and clothes pins or pin-less clothes line
- Plug adapter (the Heritage Expedition ship has New Zealand and UK style plugs)
- Travel coffee mug – it would have been great to have around the ship for tea.
- Ski goggles for those really windy and bright days.
- Dishwashing/cleaning gloves – the sturdy plastic ones can be used as waterproof protection over your glove liners. They are a perfect cheap solution for the zodiac rides where you often end up wet due to sea spray and waves.
You will have a once in a lifetime experience
Some of these things I mentioned may seem a bit daunting, but I can’t stress enough that the reward far outweighs any inconveniences.
It’s really just that magical.
And besides, if everything goes smoothly then it’s not really an adventure is it?
I love this type of travel. It’s what makes me the happiest, and I know I’m not alone.
Today people want to feel like they really are going someplace unique and having a one of a kind experience, and that’s exactly what an expedition cruise to Antarctica is, especially Eastern Antarctica. After all, only 500 people a year go there, and where else on earth is that the case?
Continue reading this ultimate guide with Part 3
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