Antarctica, Experiences, Travel Advice

How Cruising to Antarctica Works

36 Comments 03 January 2013

Cruising to Antarctica

Cruising to Antarctica via the MS Expedition

I have said repeatedly that I have no interest on being on a cruise. The confinement and mode of travel just don’t fit my personality and desires. However there have always been a few exceptions to this statement – Antarctica is one of them. Cruising on an expedition style ship is really the only main way to get to Antarctica, so I was willing to make an exception to my rule and tackle the world of cruising.

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 MS Expedition. But pretty quickly we fell into a very comfortable routine and surprisingly kept busier than we ever imagined or expected.

The most frequently asked question I have received is “What exactly do you do on the ship all day?” After spending 10 busy activity-filled days on the ship I can now answer that question and more for those of you interested in cruising to the bottom of the world. And if you aren’t interested in it – then you should be – as it was one of the most spectacular regions I’ve ever experienced on this globe.

How big was the ship?

The MS Expedition was built in 1972 and refurbished in 2009. It was 345 feet long and 61 feet wide. 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 mud room, a sauna, a large lounge that held all passengers, a dining room, an exercise room, library, computer room, gift shop, and a bar/lounge.

What did you do to keep busy all day?

Once in the Antarctic region/peninsula each day there were two zodiac landings – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It was your choice to go on them or not. After the landings of the day were complete, there was a debriefing in the Discovery Lounge for the current day’s landings as well as the next day’s planned landings. 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!

I also kept very busy each day as the kayaking group would meet and go out during the landings too. 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.

When we were cruising through the Drake Passage to get to/from the Peninsula there were 2 morning lectures and 2 afternoon lectures offered on various topics ranging from Antarctica history, to wildlife, to geology.
Trust me when I saw there was ALWAYS something to do. In fact some days I was simply exhausted from all of the activity!

Getting ready to go out for a landing

Getting ready to go out for a landing

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.

The Mudroom

The mudroom – everyone was assigned a space of their own.

getting on a zodiac

Getting on one of the zodiacs

zodiac boat heading for a landing

A full zodiac boat headed for a landing

Julio our expedition leader waits on shore to give instructions

Julio our expedition leader waits on shore to give instructions

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 MS 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 deck or go up to the bridge and visit the captain and crew.

Our cabin

My dad sitting on his bed in our cabin

cabin toilet

Our little cabin bathroom

window view

Our view from our cabin – not bad!

What is include in the cost of the cruise?

It’s probably easier to say what wasn’t included – alcohol, soda, expedition coats (they were included for the highest cabin class), optional camping activities, optional kayaking activities, and tips.
Note that on the MS Expedition boots were included for all passengers.

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!

Is it really cold?

Not really. The typical temperature when we went in December were around 30 to 40 degrees. However the weather changes very fast and a sunny, warm day can turn chilly and snowy very quickly. Some days I did get cold on the Zodiac landings – but that was mainly because of the wind which can also pack a serious punch. My Canada Goose Expedition jacket provided by G Adventures was perfect as it was plenty warm. Most days I just wore a long sleeved shirt, my jacket, a pair of long underwear, outer pants layer, and a waterproof pants layer and was completely fine.

A snow day on the MS Expedition

A snow day on the MS Expedition

Dad in his Canada Goose Expedition Coat

Dad in his Canada Goose expedition coat

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.

salad bar

The buffet salad bar

BBQ on deck of the MS Expedition

BBQ on deck of the MS Expedition

Did you go stir crazy without exercise?

Luckily I signed up for the optional kayaking program when I booked my trip. 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. That’s a lot of calories burned!

The zodiac landings also 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.

kayak antarctica

Kayaking got your heart pumping each day!

Photo by Braden

Photo By Braden

What did you do at night?

Dinner generally ended around 9PM and every night a movie was offered in the Discovery Lounge. The movies were normally Antarctica themed in some way. Or if you wanted to be a bit more social you could go to the Polar Bear Lounge and listen to the ship musician, Parker Ainsworth, who entertained with covers and his own music. My preference was to go listen to Parker who’s talent was immense!

Occasionally there would also be other presentations going on. On our particular cruise there was a small technical group/conference who also met and did presentations on various topics and anyone was welcome to attend. They even asked me to come and present my experiences in the Mongol Rally one night.

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!

Parker entertaining us with his original songs in the Polar Bear Lounge

Parker entertaining us with his original songs in the Polar Bear Lounge

The sun just dips below the horizon and stays there, never allowing the sky to get fully dark

The sun just dips below the horizon and stays there, never allowing the sky to get fully dark and providing spectacular colors!

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. It cost $120 US for 100 megabytes. The ship had wifi in various common areas such as the reception area, Discovery Lounge, and Poloar Bear Lounge. There were also 2 computers available to use that had hard connections.

You would need to be careful to shut off your phone push settings as you can eat up megabytes pretty quickly with a smart phone. However my best advice is that unless you are working there on board 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. 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 so many penguins it was just a blur of black and white.

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!

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.

A leopard seal nurses a new baby pup

A leopard seal nurses a new baby pup

Orca whales harass a Minke whale

Orca whales harass a Minke whale

The captain pulling up close for a look at seals

The captain pulling up close for a look at seals

A fin whale comes up right in front of the ship!

A Fin whale comes up right in front of the ship!

More Questions?

This hopefully gets some of your questions answered – however feel free to leave any questions you have in the comments and I’m happy to answer them to the best of my ability! Also – you may want to check out the Expedition Trips website for more information on cruising to Antarctica or simply call their hotline and talk to an expert!

You can follow in Sherry’s footsteps all the way to Antarctica. Plan your trip of a lifetime to Antarctica with ExpeditionTrips and save 5% on your voyage rate – exclusively for OttsWorld followers

Disclosure: ExpeditionTrips and G Adventures hosted my Antarctic Peninsula Cruise. However, all of the opinions expressed here are my own – as you know how I love to speak my mind!

Your Comments

36 Comments so far

  1. I always thought Antartica was suuuper complicated to get to. But now that I know how it makes me want to go even more!

  2. Flip says:

    Great article! I really want to go now. Quick question: Can you maybe do an article on your Dad’s experience aboard the freighter? That sounds like an adventure… travel the old way. Is it less expensive than flying? How did he find it? Ok, that is more than a quick question, but you should know by now that when someone says ‘quick question’, they only mean that it is a quick one to ask.

    • Sherry says:

      Goodness – that’s a good suggestion – however that may take a little time to pull something like that together as I wasn’t involved in that trip – but I can see if my dad is interested in being interviewed about it! It was quite a few years ago though – so some things may have changed a bit. Will put it on my editorial calendar for future writing!

  3. Carmel says:

    Wow. That looks like an incredible experience. I’m not inclined toward cruises either, but I might have to make an exception one day.

    Was it at all scary being in the middle of that dark ocean? I guess that kind of exhilarates and freaks me out.

  4. All really useful stuff for anyone planning this kind of cruise – I think the kayaking looks amazing – I assume no-one ever falls in?

    • Sherry says:

      The kayaking was the highlight for me – and I’m working on a pretty detailed post all about it as well as some amazing video footage that I’m editing! You are able to get so close to the animals that way. Capsizing is a very real possibility and that is why it’s not for beginners. We did actually have one couple do their polar plunge out of their kayak…brrr!

  5. April says:

    Thank you so much for writing this, Sherry! My husband and I are leaving for Argentina/Antarctica next week. In 2011, G Adventures had a Christmas sale and we took advantage of the 25% off the Spirit if Shackleton trip. To cut down on cost, I am staying in a quad and he is staying in a triple. He has had so many questions since I booked this trip and many more as the trip is getting closer. You have answered so many questions! I normally don’t get excited about a trip until I arrive, but your blog posts have gotten me overwhelmingly excited! I can’t stop smiling because I know I am one step closer to the most pristine place in the world (and my 7th continent)! Thanks again!

    • Sherry says:

      April – you will have a spectacular time! I’m so excited for you. The MS Expedition is really a special ship and the crew is great. Let me know if there is anything else I can answer. I will be writing about Antarctica for most of January – so there’s much more to come!

  6. Pretraveller says:

    Thanks for a very detailed article about visiting Antarctica. It is definitely on my list of places I woudl like to visit one day, and I now have a btter understanding of the rhythm of the trip.

  7. How many days was your cruise?
    And no mention of how rough it ever got? ;)

    Love the look of kayaking through that environment – but like Heather said – They must be super stable?

    • Sherry says:

      Stay tuned for more detail on the Drake Passage and what that was like. But the quick answer is that we were lucky on the passage – it wasn’t as bad as it could have been – however I was still sick! Our cruise was 13 days – 13 blissful days!
      And yes the kayaks are very stable. But it is serious kayaking in a very serious environment. I will have lots more to come on kayaking too!

  8. The thought of a traditional cruiseship with fancy dinners and awful on-board entertainment does not appeal to me at all. But like you said this cruise looks completely different and I would looooove to do it. The kayaking looks awesome, albeit scary. I’d probably poop myself. :-)

  9. Jeff says:

    Excellent information, and great series overall. I can also count myself among the fortunate few to make a trip to Antarctica and it was one of my best travel experiences ever. I wrote a post with my tips for planning an excursion as well as some of my personal experiences that may be of interest to whoever is reading your series. Find it at: http://www.lengthytravel.com/travel-tips-antarctica-antrtidatravel-guide/ (I have also linked to your posts in the comments of that article).

  10. Thank you for this post! I followed your adventure on Facebook–through your photos–as an Antarctica trip has been on my must-do list for a while now. You make it seem far less complicated than I initially imagined. I will have to share this with my (rather skeptical) husband.

    One question–how challenging was the kayaking? It looks AMAZING, but do you have to be experienced? Because I’m not. And I can’t imagine that tipping over in that water would be a good thing. Also–did you take your CAMERA kayaking with you? It appears so, from your photos. Now THAT is brave!

  11. Sandra Powers says:

    Loved your article, it brought back memories of Brad’s and my trip in the early ’90s, after the collapse of the USSR, aboard the “Academik Boris xxxx”, a Russian ship looking for work after spending a year as a scrap metal carrier across the Black Sea, working for Jacques Cousteau while Calypso was in dry dock for maintenance and before that as a “Research Vessel”. We had more crew than passengers but only four of the crew spoke english.. the captain (who wore cowboy boots, jeans and a cowboy belt, played the guitar and looked like Mick Jagger), the first mate (who was as sick as the rest of us on Drake’s passage), a Canadian “chef” and the “information officer” (who’s cabin was lux, better than the Captain’s and much better than ours). I think we went in 1992 just after the USSR collapsed and all the Russian’s were on their own to find work and feed themselves.
    It was a unique and memorable trip with a 30 very eclectic passengers from all over the world (including a real rocket scientist) and 60 crew members. Many academics, a wedding in the Lemaire Channel with the waters as still as a lake, magical. The best man was a NY attorney with the most interesting electronic device, a hand held GPS, It was the size of the original cell phones!
    I thank you for bringing back a rush of memories.. The Ushuia rolling houses, the Beagle Channel, the confluence of the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Ocean, the huge waves crashing over the entire ship, the nausea, and finally the incredible beauty, light, whites and blues of the Antartic. Not to mention those cute penguins, guano etc.!
    Went on a real cruise last year, this bears no resemblance whatsoever! Much preferred Antartica.

    • Sherry says:

      Why what a huge surprise to have a comment from one of my favorite people on this globe! So lovely to hear from you…and hear your fascinating story. That sounds like quite a trip – such a crazy fun experience I’m sure. I always say that the more stuff that goes wrong on a trip the better it is to write about. But it does sound like you were able to experience it all at a very unique time. I hope all is well with you and Brad! Tell him hi and hope to see you next time I’m in NYC!

  12. Sherry, your Antarctic Peninsula Cruise with Expedition Trips and G Adventures sounds and looks amazing. I love your gorgeous pictures.

    I would love to travel to Antarctica one day via the MS Expedition. What a trip.

  13. Jeff says:

    You wrote that your ship had 130 passengers. I believe the rule is that only 100 people can go ashore at any time. So, my question is how your cruise handled that restriction? When I went there were less than 100 of us so it wasn’t an issue, but I do wonder how it is normally addressed.

    • Sherry says:

      You are absolutely right about that restriction – no more than 100 on land at once. Our ship simply split us into 4 groups and only 2 groups were allowed on a landing at one time. So 2 groups (aprox. 70 people) would go for a span of 1 1/2 hours and then the next 2 groups would go for 1 1/2 hours. It worked really well. We all were able to do 2 landings a day.

  14. Mike says:

    Great post! Love the pics! Antarctica is on our bucket list. Thanks for the informative post. It is like we were right there with you.

  15. Vera says:

    Wow, I actually didn’t know that you could “just book a cruise” to go to Antarctica – this sounds and looks so amazing; I would love to do that!! Great pictures, especially love the seal nursing.

  16. Simply incredible…I have been on many cruises, and Antarctica is obviously on my list. To experience cruising with only 130 passengers though would probably ruin me of them for life:)

  17. Monica Suma says:

    Wow, this looks incredibly exciting! I’ve never thought of it as a coveted destination, but it’s definitely worth trying at least once in a lifetime … Thanks for all the details!

  18. pollycharlie says:

    Hi Sherry, I am so glad to have found your post. I am going on the same trip in 16 days!!!!! I am scared and excited. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about the Drake Passage experience. I have enough seasick pills to knock down a whole country, so I think I will be fine. But I recently saw (unfortunately) Life of Pi (the movie), plus the 2007 sinking, I am really scared! Also, did you fly into EZE and then flew from AEP to USH? I have to switch airports, and have heard that grabbing a taxi is the easiest way. Do you have any comment on that?

    Thanks again for the great post. It helps me greatly.

    • Sherry says:

      YOu’ll have a wonderful time – despite the Drake Passage. I had sea sickness meds – but was still pretty uncomfortable for those days through the Passage. I have another article coming out about it in a week or so. However – the ship doctor also has meds – and quite frankly it’s unique to each person and you just have to accept it and know that as soon as you settles down you will feel better and it will all be worth it. Yes – I flew into EZE and then down to Ushuaia. Yes – the best way between airports is just grabbing a taxi. They say it will take about an hour. I have to do that in a month on my way back to NYC from Patagonia. Good luck and let me know how it all went!

  19. Fida says:

    What an amazing experience, and all that with your father, which, I am sure, made it even more special. As others stated, I am not a cruise person either, but doing the Antarctica looks like a cruise I could enjoy. I love the fact that one can go kayaking, and that is something I would love to do very much. As always, you brought exceptional stunning photos… the first shot is simply breathtaking! And those leopard seals look so cozy and comfortable :) What a wonderful part of our world!

  20. pollycharlie says:

    Hi Sherry, one stupid question. I have never been on a cruise / doesn’t like them either. Are bath towels provided on board? How about sunblocks? Thanks so much for your help!

    • Sherry says:

      Towels are def. provided. Sunblock I brought myself. but there is also a ship doctor with supplies and a little tiny giftshop with stuff like that available.

  21. Mike says:

    you got a good one here. I honestly haven’t tried cruising in my entire life..maybe I still don’t have much courage to do it..but you just described the thing quite clear that I can imagine myself in there.

  22. Dmitri Ivanov says:

    AMAZING article! Thank you so much for sharing!

  23. What a great piece! I’m so glad that you were on AFAR’s list of unorthodox trips for families, this one is high on my list, and hopefully this will help me sell the Mrs on the trip!

    • Sherry says:

      Thanks Jude! I do hope you get to Antarctica – it was one of the best places I have ever traveled to (along with Mongolia). And if you go – do the kayaking – it’s amazing!

  24. Dr yatin says:

    Wonderful article,helped mr to plan nov 14 antartic in depth voyage
    Wondering how would be weather in nov,I am nature lover,have seen already penguins and whales in Alaska and South Australian shore and newzyland

  25. Amazing photos and story! I love penguins so much, and this is very high on my list of things to do in my life. I’ve saved this in my evernote Antarctica planning folder and hope to make the journey in 2016!


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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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