Life on board an Antarctic cruise

Booking your expedition to Antarctica is a thrilling but daunting prospect. Journeys to this remote region require a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of planning. To make things even more nerve-wracking, Antarctic expedition itineraries are intentionally vague. Daily activities depend on the weather, the movement and melting of ice, the appearance of wildlife, and the turbulent seas. As one of our tour leaders explained, “Some of our expedition leaders stand up at the start of the trip in front of the guests and tear up their itineraries!”

So – how do you plan your days if there is no schedule? Are you assigned seats at mealtimes? How will you know if there is a whale outside?

We put all these questions – and more – to Sarah Ahern, Antarctic specialist at our leading Antarctica partner Exodus Travels. Sarah has travelled on several expeditions to Antarctica, and has shared her insights into what really happens day to day on board an Antarctic cruise.

What time do you get up?

It varies depending on where you are and what the plan for the day is, but generally breakfast will be around 7.30am or 8am. On sea days this might be a bit later to give you a bit of a lie in and on some mornings it may be much earlier if there is an early morning landing planned.

Do you spend a lot of time on board, and how do you pass the time?

It does take a long time to cruise between places in Antarctica: crossing the Drake Passage (two days); travelling between the Falklands and South Georgia (around two days); or South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula (around three days).

But you’re never bored. They’re very good at scheduling lectures or films – a whole variety of stuff – so you never feel like you’re killing time. When you’re on the ship you’re usually on deck looking at whatever’s going by or the whales off the bow – they call you all outside when that happens. So you’re not cooped up in the cabin unless you have bad seas, and then you don’t really want to do anything except lie in your cabin!
If there’s a strong wind it can be very, very cold on deck, but there are usually areas where you can stand on the bridge to watch everything, and then duck outside if you want to take a picture. You don’t actually have to stand outside to get a good view. A lot of people like to stand on the bridge and watch the ship crashing through the waves if they’re feeling well enough.

There are also libraries and lots of other spaces you can be. You don’t have to spend any time in your cabin if you don’t want to.

If there's no itinerary, how do you know what you're doing?

Every evening they will post the plans for the next day – you’ll see what time breakfast is, what they’re hoping to do, all of that kind of stuff. But if they wake up the next day and a fog has come in or there’s an amazing whale sighting, they will change that schedule, so it’s just an idea of what they’re planning.

The usual plan is breakfast, a morning landing for a few hours, come back and have lunch, afternoon landing, and then dinner. Often they will do a little summary of the day either at dinner or just before – what we saw, where we went, what our plan is for tomorrow. After dinner you can see a film or a lecture.

They have to be flexible. If you’re super rigid and you want to stick to a schedule, you won’t be happy on one of these trips. They try to stick to schedule but they’re not going to bypass a whale to make a landing; they try to pick the best option for you to have the best experience.

There are long daylight hours in Antarctica. If it’s light out and something happens, even if it’s the middle of the night, they’ll wake you up and give you the option of coming out to see it. It’s up to you.

When are the lectures?

There is no set schedule; they are organised around the free time on the ship. On sea days, there will generally be several lectures throughout the day on various topics like history, geology, marine wildlife and photography. You can choose to go to as many or as few as you like. In addition, in the evenings there are usually ‘bar talks’ which include games, trivia nights, storytelling, films, etc.

Is it easy to keep active on an Antarctic expedition?

When you’re doing the landings you’re in the cold and wearing all that gear and walking in the snow, so that’s actually quite a good workout. There’s also a gym on most of the ships. It varies from ship to ship, but it’s usually very small, with only a couple of rowing or running machines. It’s never too full, though; the people that want to use it are able to. Some of the ships offer yoga as well – that can be challenging in the waves!

Can you disembark every day? How do you get off the ship?

Generally, yes. We aim to offer twice daily ‘off-ship’ activities – both morning and afternoon. These might be going ashore, Zodiac cruises or a combination of the two. If you're visiting other islands on the way to Antarctica, you'll also have a couple of days of landings in the Falklands, and three or so days of landings in South Georgia on standard itineraries, to break up the longer days at sea.
Excursions off the ship are done on Zodiacs (rigid inflatable boats). At the appointed time, you get into all your gear and head to the mudroom. There, you will put on your life jackets and rubber boots, and then join the queue (generally on deck but it does depend on the ship) to board the Zodiacs. This will be closely monitored to ensure it is done safely – you will come forward when asked, go down the gangway and be assisted onto the Zodiac by both a member of the ship’s crew and the Zodiac driver. Once on the Zodiac, you will be seated on one side or the other, as directed by the driver, and slide towards the back of the Zodiac.

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How many passengers can a zodiac carry?

We would take a maximum of 12 passengers on a Zodiac if it were just a shuttle to shore for a landing. For a Zodiac cruise we would take fewer passengers so everyone has a bit more room (8-10 passengers would be the norm).

What happens in poor weather?

The captain and expedition leader will do the best they can to rearrange the landings in the case of bad weather. However, sometimes that is not possible and in that case, they will try to schedule a lecture or two while the ship maneuvers to its next position.

Can you step on the land & islands?

Yes. On every departure the aim will be to get you ashore whenever possible – on both islands, and weather permitting, on the continent itself at least once. Shore excursions are generally 2-3 hours in duration, but there will always be staff available with the Zodiacs to take you to the ship any time you are ready to go back.

How do you avoid bringing any contamination into Antarctica?

Prior to your first landing, everyone will need to properly clean all of their gear in order to prevent bringing anything unwanted to Antarctica. This will involve using a Hoover – paying close attention to the Velcro fasteners as this is a place where things can accumulate. The expedition staff will be on hand to check that your gear is all ready for the landings.

After every landing, you will need to clean your rubber boots thoroughly to prevent the transfer of things from one landing site to the next. There are stations set up where you can wade into water and scrub your boots (and the bottom of your waterproof trousers if these have also gotten dirty) using brushes provided.

What are meals like?

It varies from ship to ship, but in general breakfast is buffet style – unlimited tea and coffee, a selection of fruit juices, hot options including bacon and eggs or omelettes, French toast or pancakes. Plus a selection of bread and toast and jam, honey or marmalade, fruit and cereal.

Lunch can be a three course set meal, with a choice of mains including at least one vegetarian option. It could also be a buffet, and there’s the occasional barbecue. Dinner consists of three or four courses with a starter of soup and/or salad, a choice of mains with at least one vegetarian option and a dessert, with tea and coffee.

Are you assigned seats at dinner?

There are no reserved seats at mealtimes. You sit where you want, groups do mingle, and you have a chance to chat with different people and expedition members to find out what led them there, which is very cool. And all the expedition people are great – they obviously really love what they do or they wouldn’t keep doing it, so it’s great to have them on board as well. They sit with different people at dinner and always move around, so you’ll have a chance to chat to all of them.

Is Antarctica a good trip for solo travellers?

Every time I’ve been on a polar trip, a good chunk of the people are travelling on their own. People are in Antarctica because they really want to be, so it’s very easy to meet people and mingle. If you’re in a Zodiac with only 10 other people and you see something, you’ve already got that bond; you never feel left out.

What are the challenges of life on board an Antarctic cruise?

Most of the ships will give you an email so you can email back home, but there is no instant way of finding out any information or of talking to people for three weeks. If you’re on a longer trip it can be daunting. There is communication if you need it, but you can’t use things like your own email. I personally love it, but I know some people don’t like the idea of being out of touch for that long. You are just with those people, on that ship, experiencing it – you become quite a group that way. You can’t share it with anyone else in the same way; you can’t send a photo home and say, “Look what I did today!”

And it’s a silly thing... but choosing what you have for dinner. The food is great, but it is what it is – you can’t say “I’m having a burger today” if they’re not doing burgers today. The food is really good and it’s a great experience, but when I got home I was happy to eat what I felt like!
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Torsten Dederichs] [Intro: Ben Stephenson] [Do you spend a lot of time on board, and how do you pass the time?: Ben Stephenson] [When are the lectures?: Ben Stephenson] [Can you disembark every day? How do you get off the ship?: 66 north] [Can you step on the land & islands?: henrique setim] [Are you assigned seats at dinner?: Christopher Michel]