Approximately 500 tourists come through the Southern Ocean to Eastern Antarctica each austral summer, while 40,000 take the route from South America through the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula.
Why do so few people take this route to Eastern Antarctica?
Because it’s hard, unpredictable, rough, riddled with ice, and the journey simply takes a much longer time. But the journey can also be exhilarating, and I’m the type of person who looks at those words and think “yeeessss..a real adventure!” I wanted to go to Eastern Antarctica because it was unique and I like going the hard way, where few people tread. More than anything, I like to really explore.
“I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.” —Ernest Shackleton
Even though, like Shackleton, I thrive on the unknown, I understand that I’m in the minority. Most people want to know everything they can before they take such a trip; they want to be prepared. Even though the expedition through the Southern Ocean to Eastern Antarctica is completely unpredictable due to weather, there are a few things that are predictable about this expedition cruise.
What to expect when Expedition Cruising to Eastern Antarctica
You will likely get seasick
This is some of the roughest seas in the world, and you will be navigating through them for 7 to 10 days before you reach Antarctica (3 to 4 times longer than the Drake Passage to the peninsula). Even if you aren’t prone to seasickness, bring something. In the roughest waters, probably half of our ship was not feeling well. I found myself lying in bed, pretty miserable for the first 3 to 4 days when we were in rough waters. And yes, I was taking various medications and nothing worked completely for me. However, the good news is that the term ‘get your sea legs’ isn’t a myth. I did get my sea legs and then was fine the rest of the time.
Bring more than one option for sea sickness as different things and combinations work for different people. I started off using the Scopolamine Patch (prescription necessary from the US), then switched to Stugeron/Cinnarizine (only found in the UK over the counter), and that seemed to do better for me. People also had motion sickness wristbands, ginger tablets, and Dramamine. And if you are really in a bad situation and nothing seems to work, then the onboard doctor can typically help with stronger medication.
Whatever you do though, don’t let the seasickness deter you. Most everyone ‘found their sealegs’ after a few days. Plus, every day isn’t rough, you have calm times and once you actually reach Antarctica everything calms down.
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 on shore. 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 cake walk.
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 shore. People fall, and get wet occasionally.
You will get great food
The Spirit of Enderby is not a luxury expedition ship – it’s functional, and no frills. I personally feel that it’s perfect this this kind of small ship expedition cruising. 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. 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. 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.
You won’t make it to everywhere on the itinerary
It’s about the journey, not every little destination 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. I talked to Rodney, our expedition leader and founder/owner of Heritage Expeditions, and he confirmed that managing people’s itinerary expectation 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. “
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 our trip 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 just 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 this trip is that it is a small ship with only 48 passengers. However, you are with those same 48 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 Southern Ocean is rough, the ship is continuously moving, bobbing, and swaying and inevitably there are accidents. We had to have one person emergency evacuated off the ship, and another did break ribs (he was able to stay on the ship though and still do the landings on Antarctica!). There is likely some sort of injury every trip. Just try your best to make sure it’s not you. You are required to have emergency evacuation insurance for good reason. Plus, there is a doctor on board who can assist and advice in emergencies, as well as provide sea sickness meds.
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 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 chefs 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 28, that’s not too bad, and most of the time I didn’t even wear gloves. 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. The zodiac rides are really the coldest part typically. Even on shore 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 environment known to man, 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.
You will be at the mercy of the expedition leader
You do give up control whenever you travel with a group. But you also give up control even more so when you are on a ship in a remote part of the world. So be prepared to be flexible and have faith. 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. Sure, it’s always up to you whether you want to go ashore or not on a particular landing, but it’s the expedition leader working together with the captain of the ship who calls the shots on where, when, and how the stops are made based on their expertise.
You will forget something that you wish you had
Yes, you can find great Antarctica packing lists, but there’s always something you wish you would have thought of! I had a number of those moments of, “Damn, I wish I would have thought of that…” on the ship. Here are a few of the things I wish I would have brought with me.
Clothes line and clothes pins or pin-less clothes line
Plug Adapter (the 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.
See my Ultimate Antarctica Packing List
Antarctica packing is much more than just ensuring you have warm clothes! Before you go, make sure you have all of these Antarctica items!
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 outweighs any inconveniences. It’s really just that magical. 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 some place unique and having a one of a kind experience, and that’s exactly what an expedition cruise to Eastern Antarctica is. After all, only 500 people a year go there, and where else on earth is that the case?
I was a guest of Heritage Expeditions on this trip, however all opinions are my own.