Epic Adventures

Exploring Antarctica by submarine

Antarctica is a beautiful place no matter how you explore it, but every expedition cruise offers a variety of different ways to experience the continent. You can walk near penguin rookeries on a remote landing, cruise past spectacular icebergs in a zodiac or kayak and even spend the night camping out on your own private snow hole. 

I joined Swoop’s Elegant Antarctic Peninsula trip, one of our luxury cruises onboard the Seabourn Pursuit. Together with its sister ship Seabourn Venture, it comes equipped with a pair of mini-submarines that offer passengers a truly unique perspective on Antarctica. 

Seabourn Pursuit on the Antarctic Peninsula

Inspecting our craft

I signed up for the submarine excursion – an optional extra – almost the moment our ship pulled away from the dock at Ushuaia, but like a lot of people on board I didn’t really have much of an idea of what a mini-submarine actually looked like. I was hoping for something a bit smaller and more stylish than a big black metal tube at least: something that Captain Nemo might use for a weekend break perhaps.

One of the two submarines on deck

But what if you really wanted to take a deep dive into Antarctica? Two cruise ships now give you the chance to take a trip below the surface in a mini-submarine. On my most recent trip, I was keen to sign up to find out more. 

Before we arrived in Antarctica, the submarine pilots offered everyone the chance to go below deck to inspect the craft. It was the size of a large van, with a big glass dome at the front to maximise visibility, an insect-like landing frame and a wide platform covering the top with the entry hatch. 

Getting ready to board the submarine

After signing up, I found myself struck with a sudden attack of the nerves about the excursion. Getting a tour on the deck from the pilots who talked us step by step through how a submarine trip would actually work was very reassuring. By the day of our excursion, and knowing what to anticipate, I was like a child on Christmas morning. 

Beneath the waves

The two submarines operated in tandem while other passengers took part in zodiac cruises and landings. However, because we required much deeper water, the submarines stayed some way out from the ship, meaning that the excursion started with a 15 minute zodiac taxi ride. Before our deck tour, a few of us had imagined getting in the submarine and lowered by crane over the side of the ship! 

Sharon gets on board

As we approached, all we could see was a crew member standing on the submarine platform. After tying up, he helped us on board one by one. I climbed down the hatch and suddenly was transported to another world. Zodiacs are one thing, but this felt more like a spaceship. 

There were three passenger seats on either side of the pilots positions, and every surface that wasn’t the fabulous glass dome seemed to be covered in high-tech equipment, arrays of switches and screens with sonar scanners. When we were all aboard, the clear hatch above us was tightened shut. I could see the sky for a moment, and then the waters poured over us as we began our descent. 

Waters closing over the top hatch

As the submarine got lower and lower, the light began to change. What really struck me was that it didn’t just get darker immediately, but that the light above us seemed to glow in the strangest manner before flattening out and disappearing completely as we crossed the threshold to another world. 

All the while, our pilot kept in constant radio contact with the surface, advising them of our depth and instrument readings, as if he was talking to ground control. As he did this, he narrated to us what he was doing and the progress we were making as if we were part of the crew. Our faces were lit up by the instruments; outside there was nothing but an inky gloom. No one said a word. 

On the seafloor

And then the external lights came on. We could see the seabed, lit up like a football stadium under floodlights. Ever so gently, the submarine made contact and then settled into position. It might sound silly, but it felt like landing on the moon. Earlier in the week I’d made my first footsteps on the Antarctic continent, and now I was one of only a tiny number of people who could say they’d been to its sea floor. 

Our pilot talks through our descent

I should say right now that if you dive to the bottom of the sea in Antarctica, you mustn’t expect a wildlife spectacle like the Great Barrier Reef. There are no endless coral reefs here. The phytoplankton that supports the teeming Southern Ocean were high above us: during our time on the seabed we saw an octopus, a sponge and a jellyfish. But for us submariners they were as glamorous as any penguin, and a window into a hidden world that few people have ever seen. 

On the Antarctic sea floor

The atmosphere was electric. No one dared speak above an excited whisper so as not to spoil the moment. The pilot – who was also a trained biologist – talked us through what we were seeing, but otherwise let us soak it all in. There was the low hum and the quiet crackle of the radio, but otherwise we were lost in our own world. When the zodiac high above us advised that it had started snowing on the surface, they might as well have been talking about another planet, it seemed so far away. 

A glitterball of krill

We had descended in darkness, but when we finally had to return, we ascended in light, with all our floodlights on. There was always the chance that Antarctica might put on a show for us. As we rose higher, the lights picked out one silver fleck in the water and then another and another. In a moment, we were passing through an enormous swarm of krill. I could only think that we were passing through the centre of a giant disco glitterball. 

Illuminated view from the dome

These tiniest of creatures turned out to be one of the greatest spectacles I’ve ever seen travelling. We were all wide-eyed with amazements as the lights picked out endless bright sparkles, like the whole sea was under a magic spell. I knew that whales gorge themselves on krill, but it was always hard to comprehend how such microscopic creatures could feed something so massive. Now, in the centre of this silver cloud, I understood. It was truly extraordinary and it felt like an enormous privilege to have witnessed it. 

Eventually, the floodlights of the submarine were replaced by sunlight filtering down from above. Back on the surface, the pilot ran through his final checks as the zodiac tied up alongside us and we heard the footsteps of one of the crew stepping on board. 

The glitterball of krill

The hatch was opened and cold fresh air flooded in to bring us back to our senses – as if we had been holding our breath for the entire dive. The trip had lasted for an hour, but I was absolutely exhausted in the best way possible. Any nerves I’d had before the dive seemed a lifetime away. 

When I got back on the ship, I saw that the sign-up sheet for the remaining dives was completely full and it was easy to understand why. A trip to another world and a glitterball of krill? Sign me up for my next cruise!


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Sharon Taylor

Swoop Sales Director

Sharon is Sales Director at Swoop. Her perfect Antarctic day involved watching humpback whales from the balcony of her ship and being slowly 'chased' by a waddling gentoo penguin, but it was the the gorgeous glowing blues of the polar ice that truly captured her heart.