I stepped on board the Spirit of Enderby, an 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.
The idea of an Expedition Cruise is hard to get your head around. It’s an oxymoron with the likes of deafening silence, harmonious discord, an open secret, and the living dead. 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, 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 word, 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 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 small ships that still lean to the luxury side. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect on this expedition ship that was half the size of the Antarctica cruise I took and way more rugged looking.
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 it’s unique position in history and it’s landscape for wildlife? Check out my Wrangel Island Page and learn why it’s the called the Polar Bear Maternity Ward!
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. The Spirit of Enderby is a polar expedition research ship and has been used for cruising expeditions for the last few years. It houses 50 passengers total and half have en suite toilets. There’s a basic presentation room on the lowest level, 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. The indoor spaces all have windows or portholes (except for the presentation room on the low deck), 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 strangely 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 on the Spirit of Enderby. 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 or bird watching. 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 was when we went on a long hike at Pitchy Bazzar. 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 Arctic Cruise Cabin Like?
My cabin 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.
What’s included in the cost of an Arctic Expedition Cruise?
Cruises like this are essentially all inclusive. All basic food and lodging is included as well as non-alcholic 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 on board account and could pay by credit card the last day of the cruise. Crew tips were also not included and normally expected. You also had to get your self to the starting point in Anadyr Russia so you were responsible for your own airfare.
What was the Arctic Circle Weather Like?
I cruised in August and it was in the 40’s most of the time however wind was a big factor on the sea which made things seem much cooler at times. I dressed in layers and made sure I had rain gear as many days it was wet or damp. We ran into one bad storm the day we entered the Actic Ocean while making our way to Wrangel Island that 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 video of any of it! Despite the sea sickness – I would do this cruise again in a heartbeat!
What do you pack for an Arctic Cruise?
Cold Weather Gear
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. Here’s what I recommend:
Waterproof boots: 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 Spirit of Enderby furnished these for passengers.
Sock: Layers of wool socks are best for drying quickly and keeping you warm. Our Wellies were not insulated and the wool socks were my main insulation.
Waterproof pants: necessary for getting in and out of the zodiac in deeper water. In addition, if you are in a zodiac when it starts to rain or snow you’ll be happy you have them!
Comfortable clothes: 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. Smart Phone Gloves – If you plan on taking your smart phone 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 a fingertips made for touch screens. You don’t want to take off your gloves to take photos!
Sunglasses: 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.
Non-Cloud Backup: Take some way to backup 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
Rent a lens: don’t have a zoom lens for those polar bear and whale close ups? Then rent one before you go! I borrowed a Sigma 50 -500mm lens – perfect for wildlife photography. Places like BorrowLenses.com rent by the week.
What do you eat?
This was the one are of the cruise where it was more luxury than expedition. We had amazing meals every day put together by a talented cook staff. 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 lunch time). 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!
What Arctic Circle wildlife did you see?
Much more to come on the animals in the arctic and wildlife viewing, but suffice it to say – we saw a lot.
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 expedition cruise is a wildlife photographer’s dream. I was learning to use a new zoom 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
Is there Internet?
No – and there is no cell connection either. Be prepared to be off the grid. However I did get by that issue by taking a Delorme Satellite device with me to test out. It always had a connection and I was able to send texts, tweets and facebook updates via the device. It was rudimentary, but it was also great for me since it was important that I stay connected somewhat. 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.
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. Just remember, expedition cruises are not about taking you to a destination to tick off the boxes and it’s not about social activities on the ship, it’s about the whole soul touching experience of getting there.