I stepped on board the Spirit of Enderby, a Russian arctic expedition cruise ship holding a maximum of 50 passengers and 25 crew, it had an industrial feel to it. No poolside bars, welcome drinks, or elegant entryways; instead there were loading cranes and zodiac rafts stacked up on top of each other on the deck barely giving us room to move around. An expedition ship is a working ship.
When we normally think of cruising we think of lavish giant ships, thousands of people, gourmet dinners, pools, theater shows, poolside bars, and a social director. And the thought of an expedition ship conjures up thoughts of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria; long journeys, gruel for food, steerage quarters, scurvy, and potential pirates. The two concepts couldn’t be further apart.
Of course, this is exactly what made me so excited about this expedition cruise to the Arctic Circle with Heritage Expeditions – it would really be like neither world, and instead be a softer version of both. I love adventure, hands-on experiences, learning new things, and small groups – and this is exactly what the Heritage Expeditions Cruise across the top of the world was about.
Many cruises call themselves expedition cruises, but there are varying levels. The first cruise to Antarctica I went on 3 years prior was smaller than most cruise ships with 120 passengers, but it was still more cruise than expedition when it came to facilities.
Many of the Alaska cruises call themselves expedition cruises, but once again they are ships that still lean to the luxury side. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect on this expedition ship.
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Expedition Cruise to Wrangel Island Russia
To give you an idea of what an expedition cruise is like, I’m going to use my trip to Wrangel Island Russia as an example.
The most common question I heard when I told people I was going to Wrangel Island was “Where is Wrangel Island?”
This expedition cruise would take me to somewhere just as remote as Antarctica but in an entirely different direction. I was cruising across the top of the world, through the Bering Strait, around the Russian Far East, well above the Arctic Circle to where few people have ever gone before – Wrangel Island.
Actually, fewer people make it to Wrangel Island each year than Antarctica. From Anadyr Russia, it would be a 2 week trip total taking us about 5 days to get to Wrangel Island, 4 days around the island, and 4 days to get back.
I looked around at the small ship and wondered if I would feel claustrophobic. Even though it was small, I easily got settled into life on the Spirit of Enderby and expedition cruising.
Learn the where, what, & why of Wrangel Island!
Want to know more about Wrangel Island and its unique position in history and its landscape for wildlife? Check out my Wrangel Island Page and learn why it’s called the Polar Bear Maternity Ward.
Frequently Asked Questions about Expedition Cruising
I also quickly gained answers to these common questions about expedition cruising I had floating in my mind prior to departure.
How Big is an Expedition Cruise Ship?
Of course, this varies from ship to ship. I went to Wrangel Island on the Spirit of Enderby, a polar expedition research ship, that has been used for cruising expeditions for the last few years. It houses 50 passengers total and half have en suite toilets.
However, every expedition vessel normally has a presentation room, a library/bar that is open for certain hours, and a dining area. There are a number of outdoor decks – but they are rugged, working decks so don’t expect lounge seating, and be prepared to climb over ropes, wires, anchor chains, etc.
Explore things to do in Antarctica
The indoor spaces all have windows or portholes, but just keep in mind that the layout is more about functionality than luxury. After all, the real focus and emphasis of every expedition is getting you ashore as often as possible for as long as possible – it’s not about spending time and activities on the ship.
I stayed in a little twin cabin and shared a bathroom/shower with other people on my level. Don’t be wary about shared facilities as I found that this was a super way to meet other passengers. I got to know the people around me and it made me much more social as it made me get out of my cabin regularly!
What do you do all day on an Arctic Expedition Cruise?
Unlike regular cruises where the social director dictates the day’s activities, the expedition leader mainly determines the day. A typical day consisted of early breakfast, an hour lecture on a wildlife, history, or botany topic (all super fascinating), a zodiac landing/cruise for 2 to 3 hours, lunch on board, another lecture, a 2nd zodiac landing/cruise for 2 o 3 hours, bar opens, dinner, after dinner birding meetings (I never attended these!), and bed. Repeat the next day!
There is a lot of time spent on shore or in the zodiacs doing wildlife viewing, bird watching, and hiking/exploring. On our way to Wrangel Island, we stopped at various islands and villages in the Chukotka Region. Most of it was all quite desolate and picturesque and we made only one stop in a village where there were local people. The region is sparsely populated, so there aren’t many villages to stop at.
Plus we had a couple of days where we were simply at sea all day and did no landings so make sure you have a good book with you!
What are Zodiac Landings and What do you do Ashore?
A zodiac landing is simply a way to get ashore and explore. This is where the real heart of an expedition cruise lies. The zodiac rafts are powerful, rugged inflatable boats powered by an outboard motor. They are tough machines. The ship would anchor offshore in deeper water, then the expedition staff would each man a zodiac, and the passengers would bundle up for the weather conditions and go through the process of checking off the ship and getting on board the sometimes very wobbly zodiac bobbing in the waves. In bad weather, it can be quite a daunting task
We then either rode ashore or simply did a zodiac cruise (never getting off the zodiac) to view bird cliffs, whales, and other wildlife. When we rode ashore, the expedition staff ‘parked’ the boats and we all went hiking to view wildlife or to visit abandoned research buildings and sometimes meet rangers at ranger stations.
My favorite zodiac landing for Wrangel Island was when we went on a long hike at Pitchy Bazar. The day was dismal – but it felt so great to get exercise and track some muskoxen!
“The last zodiac leaves in 3 hours, so make sure you are back here by then,” Rodney our expedition leader barked out orders. I looked at my watch and was astonished – 3 hours – this is going to be great – I can hike all over! The best thing about this expedition cruise was that it was such a small passenger group that we could all be ashore at once and didn’t have to be constantly shuttling people back and forth. This basically meant that we had ample time ashore to explore, work on my telephoto photography, or take a nap on the tundra! This was very different than my Antarctica experience where we only had a short time on shore and I often felt rushed.
What was Your Expedition Cruise Cabin Like?
My cabin on the Spirit of Enderby had two little beds that had ‘rails’ on them in case the seas got rough you wouldn’t fall out while sleeping. And yes – there were a few days where I was happy I had the bed railing! I also had a sink, closet, and desk in my cabin. There were 4 toilets and showers on my level to use in a shared capacity and sharing them was never an issue. I loved my little cabin!
Other levels had plenty of cabins with ensuite bathrooms – so you can choose what you prefer.
Starting in 2022, Heritage Expeditions got a new ship, the Heritage Adventurer, that is a bit more modern and carries a few more people. She was purpose-built for adventure in 1991 at Finland’s Rauma shipyard and specifically designed for Polar exploration. All of the cabins have ensuite bathrooms now and it has a few more luxuries and space too (room for 140 passengers) – including a hot tub and pool! It’s quite a step up from their older 40-person research ship.
What’s included in the cost of an Arctic Expedition Cruise?
Cruises like this are essentially all-inclusive. All basic food and lodging are included as well as non-alcoholic drinks. You do have to pay for any drinks at the bar – but prices were reasonable and there was no cash exchanged. Instead, you simply had a little onboard account and could pay by credit card on the last day of the cruise.
Crew tips were also not included and normally expected.
You also have to get yourself to the starting point of the cruise so you are responsible for your own airfare. For my Wrangel Island cruise, you have to get to Nome Alaska. And for Antarctica, I had to go to Ushuaia and New Zealand in the past. Getting there can be a big part of the cost so keep that in mind.
Do You Get Seasick on an Expedition Cruise?
Of course, this depends on the person and the weather.
However, when you are on an expedition to a remote place, it’s typical to have pretty wild weather and seas. If it were easy – everyone would be going there and the island would likely be developed.
We ran into one bad storm the day we entered the Arctic Ocean while making our way to Wrangel Island which slowed us down by a day. The Arctic decided to throw a wild party for us with 35-naught winds.
Pitching and rolling kept me laid up the entire day in my cabin as we slowly made our way to Wrangel Island. This was quite a storm we had encountered, and we had no choice to but approach it head-on. Which meant that the ship was moving something awful.
Water splashed up on my porthole, you could hear the ship crashing down into the waves occasionally, and I was so ill that I couldn’t even get myself up to take a video of any of it!
Despite the sea sickness – I would do this cruise again in a heartbeat!
What do you pack for an Expedition Cruise?
Comfort and layers is king on an expedition ship. You will definitely need warm weather gear, but pack with layers in mind to take into account that half of the time you will be lounging around on the boat. The rest is spent out on the zodiacs or hiking around.
Typically expedition cruises go to cold places (Arctic and Antarctic). You can see my specific packing list for Antarctica here and most of it applies to the Arctic too. However – I have found that the Arctic is typically a little warmer than Antarctica – so take that into account.
Here’s what I recommend for expedition cruising:
The boots should be waterproof as often times when you are getting out of a zodiac raft and onto shore you will have to step in water that can be ankle deep.
The Heritage Expeditions furnished these for passengers (this is quite common), but you can also bring your own if you want.
Wool socks are best for drying quickly and keeping you warm; plus they don’t hold any odors. Our waterproof boots were not insulated and the wool socks were my main insulation. I love the Point 6 Merino wool socks.
The cozy merino wool cushioning next to the skin insulates the foot from hot spots. Now featuring 37.5 Technology to keep you dry in the office or on the mountain.
Waterproof Pants and Coat
Waterproof pants are necessary for getting in and out of the zodiac in deeper water. In addition, a waterproof jacket is a good idea – if you are in a zodiac when it starts to rain or snow you’ll be happy you have them! Plus this waterproof gear is also great for wind protection.
Great for a wind and rain barrier as a top layer for your adventures. EVODry Torreys Jacket offers the weather protection you need for unpredictable days and the lightweight breathability you want in a high-performance shell. I always have it with me in my pack.
Many ships will rent out or loan out winter parkas. But if yours doesn’t then consider taking a winter coat. It’s great for being out on the deck watching for whales or birds, on the zodiac, or exploring ashore. And it’s a must if you are going to the Antarctic.
You may want to consider a heated parka from GobiHeat. Like the gloves, the small battery pack is charged up on board and then it connects to the coat in a pocket. You can even choose different heat settings!
You’ll spend a lot of time lounging around the boat so bring comfortable clothes and shoes. I packed yoga pants, long sleeve t-shirts, and fleece pullovers. On the boat I mainly used comfortable tennis shoes.
If you are looking for warm gloves – look no further – try these heated base layer gloves from Gobi Heat. A little rechargeable battery pack is in the glove and will keep your fingers toasty. Then wear a big mitten over the top for protection from the wind and to keep all of that warmth in.
If you plan on taking your smartphone with you for photos or videos on the Zodiac or simply outdoor pics from the ship then be sure you have the right gloves with fingertips made for touch screens. You don’t want to take off your gloves to take photos!
Finally – if you don’t want to invest a bunch of money on waterproof gloves for the Zodiac – simply get an XL pair of dishwashing gloves and use those as a top layer for riding in the Zodiac.
The combination of water, snow, and sun creates deadly glare so be sure to pack sunglasses and heavy-duty sunscreen!
For most, this may be the most important gear since you will be sharing your amazing experience when you return home. Make sure you have tested out all of your equipment before you go and know how to use it. And don’t forget extra batteries for all your gear, they will deplete quickly in the cold temps.
I use a Sony AIII and have been happy with it holding up in extreme conditions. It’s great for wildlife photography and capturing fast-flying birds too!
A telephoto lens is necessary if you want to capture the wildlife. I think you need at least a 400mm or a 300mm with an extender. I use a Sigma 150-500mm for trips like this.
However, when I went to Wrangel Island, I didn’t have a telephoto lens longer than 300mm so I rented one to try it out. This is a great option if you don’t do a lot of wildlife photography and don’t want to invest in one yourself. I borrowed a Sigma 50 -500mm lens – perfect for wildlife photography. Places like BorrowLenses.com rent by the week.
Take some way to back up your photos while you go (laptop), you don’t want to risk losing them!
Rain/snow gear for your camera
Just like you are waterproofing your clothes, you’ll want to protect your camera too. I use a simple DSLR raincoat from LensCoat.com which is great for this type of outdoor shooting when the weather quickly changes
Don't let the weather stop your photography! This innovative cover provides protection for your camera and lens from the elements like rain, snow, salt spray, dirt, sand and dust while allowing you easy access to the camera and lens controls.
What do you eat?
This was the one area of the cruise where it was more luxury than expedition. We had amazing meals every day put together by a talented cook staff in sometimes very rough waters.
Read and view a video on how Chefs manage to cook on rough seas!
Breakfast was buffet style, however, lunch and dinner were sit-down affairs. We always had a choice of 2 menus to choose from for dinner (we made our choices at lunchtime).
Since the Spirit of Enderby was stocked in New Zealand – we had plenty of New Zealand beef and lamb on the menu. Plus – plenty of fresh seafood too. And the desserts…my oh my!
Can You See Wildlife?
One of the main highlights of expedition cruising is wildlife viewing. Whales, sea birds, walruses, penguins (in the south), and polar bears (in the north).
This of course all depends on where you are traveling to, but normally you do see wildlife on an expedition cruise.
On my Wrangel Island cruise, we saw polar bears and cubs, snowy owls, snow geese, muskoxen, walruses, seals, whales, and so many different birds I couldn’t name them all. This polar bear expedition cruise is a wildlife photographer’s dream. I was learning how to use a new telephoto lens from Sigma and had a great time getting 500mm shots of the wildlife!
Specifically from our cruise our expedition team kept count:
103 Polar Bears
61 Different species of birds
12 Species of Marine Animals
5 Species of Terrestrial Animals
When in Antarctica we saw penguins, whales, seabirds, and seals. When I went to Greenland, we saw less wildlife, but we saw plenty of culture when we stopped at the small, remote towns.
Is there Internet on an Expedition?
No, not normally – and there is no cell connection either. Be prepared to be off the grid. However, I did get by that issue by taking a Garmin InReach Mini Satellite communicator with me to test out. It always had a connection and I was able to send texts, tweets, and Facebook updates via the device.
There is also an SOS feature in case you get in real serious trouble and need a rescue. This isn’t really necessary for an expedition cruise – but it is handing when hiking in remote places.
In addition, it helped me track my entire route and allowed me to set waypoints and share notes with people live on Facebook!
This is a great option for people who need/want to stay in some sort of communication while on an expedition cruise or for remote hiking.
Sometimes expedition ships do have internet for guests, but expect to pay a lot to have that kind of access.
What is the Expedition Staff Like?
The Expedition team is normally made up of scientists and specialists in the region/climate. This is my favorite part of expedition cruising – it’s about learning from experts. We had a bird specialist, biologists telling us about the flora, a Russian culture specialist, and even a polar bear specialist on our ship!
Plus the boat crew is also full of information. You can normally learn a lot about the navigating and region from them too!
Take an Expedition Cruise
If you are ready to do your first expedition cruise then hopefully this will prepare you a bit. It will be active, remote, educational, and probably one of the best trips you’ll ever take.