How Cruising to Antarctica Works

January 3, 2013 41 Comments »

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

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!

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!

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!

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