During my years in the world of Polar travel, I’ve been fortunate enough to have many extraordinary experiences. I’ve been part of more than 130 Antarctic expeditions, spent almost a year of my life sailing the Drake Passage, and worked as a zodiac driver, guide and assistant expedition leader.
Of these amazing encounters, there is one that I can’t help but keep coming back to – kayaking in Antarctica. I have both kayaked and supported kayaking excursions countless times and I believe it’s truly one of the most enriching and unforgettable adventures you can have at the end of the Earth. As I reflect on times paddling through the ice, I hope to help you discover if kayaking in Antarctica is an activity you should be considering.
What makes kayaking in Antarctica special?
Antarctica is beautiful no matter how you experience it, but being in a kayak floating atop a glassy world of mirror reflections, brash ice and blue bergs is an experience of standalone quality. I can still remember gazing down into the clear water, watching penguins porpoising alongside me and the blow from a whale shooting high into the air before drifting down in a thousand sparkling droplets.
Your interaction with the scenery is more intimate. You’re at sea level, with a new perspective, and it’s peaceful; no zodiac engines, no chatter, just the sound of paddles dipping in and out of the water, a cascade of ripples surrounding them. You feel more connected to the wildlife, and if you’re very lucky, you might see a whale or a seal glide beneath you, or even stop to eyeball you curiously from beneath the surface.
How do landings work?
If you choose to try kayaking in Antarctica, you do still get to go ashore – it’s not an either-or situation – you may disembark the kayaks on the shore at a time when many people have returned to the ship.
This, for me, is another part of what makes the experience special. Your time exploring on land tends to be much quieter because you get to enjoy your own small group experience. However, depending on the location, you may have a shorter amount of time on land than the main group.
You always have the option to opt-out of paddle outings if you are feeling tired or want to prioritise time ashore, although you might then miss out on something on the water! That said, from our experience most kayakers get out as often as they can, as you never know when the weather might change and prevent a paddle from going ahead.
One of my favourite memories was from the Errera Channel, between Antarctica’s mainland and Ronge Island. While everyone else had landed on the island, we were circumnavigating it in our kayaks. On the western side, we came across a humpback whale, which seemed curious about our presence. Time stopped, it was just the whale and us, surrounded by breathtaking scenery. Every time the whale submerged the excitement grew as it came back to the surface closer to our kayaks.
It’s hard to remember how long we spent with that whale, or how long it spent with us, but the focus on the animal was so strong that everything else vanished. A true connection. Everytime I have these kinds of whale encounters, the feelings are extraordinary, as if my chest expands and a complete peace takes over my body and spirit.
Who is kayaking in Antarctica suited to?
Let’s start with the basics. Each voyage offers a different selection of activities and kayaking isn’t always available, so if kayaking is important to you, we will need to focus our search on trips where it is both offered and has spaces currently available. It is essential to book activities as soon as you can to secure your spot, because kayaking spots generally sell out far in advance.
If you’ve never kayaked and could be accurately described as a total novice, I’m afraid to say this experience is not for you. Antarctica isn’t the place to learn to paddle, you’re better off doing that back at home in a safer environment suited to beginners. Apart from anything, you won’t enjoy it if you’re trying to figure out how not to go in circles!
If you have some paddling experience and would class yourself as intermediate level then you can absolutely try kayaking in Antarctica. It’s important to feel confident and comfortable with the basics; how to hold a paddle, move forwards and backwards, and turn left or right. If it has been a while since you last kayaked, I recommend getting in some paddles before you head out to Antarctica. This is a great refresher in a less challenging environment and also helps to rebuild those muscles.
If you are a regular or even keen kayaker back at home, then the kayaking on offer in Antarctica may not be as technically challenging as you are used to due to the range of abilities and complicated logistics, but it can be hard work kayaking through brash ice. However, the experience of kayaking in Antarctica is utterly unique and awesome in the original sense! Enjoy your hobby in this incredible environment, you won’t regret it.
Kayaking in Antarctica is for travellers with at least a drop of adventurous attitude. The changing weather conditions sometimes require you to lean on that attitude a little. As an extreme, I’ll always treasure the memory of a time when a kayak team who, in the Antarctic Sound, had to bring the kayaks up onto the pack ice, as the ice around them was closing in and creating too much pressure for the kayaks. Despite the tension of the moment, their spirit never dropped. The stories in the bar that evening, which told of their feelings while on the ice waiting to be rescued, were excellent lessons about positivity.
Getting stuck in the ice is a rare occurence though, don’t worry!
How much does it cost?
Booking a kayaking add-on as part of your voyage can be expensive. With this in mind, you may be asking yourself, should I spend the extra money?
The truth is, there’s no definitive answer, and each traveller has their own priorities for what is most important to them on their trip, but what I’ve learned from many seasons working on and around the seventh continent is that experiences are what really count. They are what form the memories you take home, and which last for a lifetime.
If you’re really embracing everything Antarctica has to offer, you won’t be spending much time in your cabin. Most trips that offer a full kayaking programme typically run one or two outings per day, as long as weather and ice conditions allow. You get a lot of time out on the water and if there are more than a dozen participants there are usually at least two kayak guides with you, so it’s good value for money. That said, no there is no fixed minimum duration to any outing as safety always has to be the priority.
Is the kit provided?
In full kayaking programmes, all kayak-specific equipment is provided by the ship operator including the kayaks and paddles, wet or drysuits, spray covers, lifejackets, neoprene boots and a waterproof jacket.
However, it is important to wear appropriate clothing when kayaking in Antarctica, so make sure you pack accordingly. Your comfort is important, so try to avoid any fabrics that don’t perform well in sweaty or damp conditions such as denim trousers or cotton t-shirts.
For warmth, you’ll want to layer thick socks, full-body thermals and a fleece jacket under your wet or drysuit. You will also need insulated ski or snowboard gloves with grip, or neoprene water sport gloves, as well as a fleece hat and a neck warmer. If you plan on bringing a camera, you’ll need to bring a waterproof bag to store them in – some camera cases come with a dry bag so do check – and also a strap to avoid your camera falling into the water.
Finally, don’t forget your sunglasses and suncream – this may be Antarctica, but you’re likely to burn on a sunny day, especially with reflections bouncing off the water or snow.
The group dynamic
When it comes to time off the ship, the kayaking group is separate from the majority of passengers on board. It does vary from ship to ship, but the group will always be between 10 and 30 people. During my time as a guide, I loved watching the evolution of this group. Day one is all about familiarisation, by day two everyone is gaining confidence and by day three the group are like fish in the water!
From the initial briefing, chatting about equipment and clothing, to shared silliness and concerns over capsizing, or humbling wildlife encounters, these special experiences bond people together. I would absolutely argue that it’s one of the selling points, even if it’s not something you are looking for at the time of booking the trip.
After some really good paddling outings, I love hearing how the expression ‘it can’t get any better’ is frequently repeated – and on the following day, it does get even better!
My top tips
When you’re there, in the environment, stop paddling for a moment and let the water become still. Observe the wildlife. Breathe. Don’t let the activity itself stop you from being present in Antarctica.
If you want to take a camera with you when you head out on the water, make sure it’s in a zip-locked waterproof bag that floats if you lower your hand to the water, or have it on a strap attached to the kayak so it doesn’t get lost. A GoPro can be a good option, but be sure to secure it with a strap because ice can knock them off the sides of kayaks and they sink, lost forever in the Southern Ocean.
I remember once, when kayaking through ‘bergy’ bits in the icy waters of the Weddell Sea, that a GoPro on a pole got detached when it hit the ice and sank from sight. The worst part was that it belonged to a Spanish TV producer who was hoping to include the images and footage in his documentary. Thankfully lots of other good shooting opportunities came in the following days, but it’s still an important lesson!
Always follow the instructions of your leader. They have your safety in mind and they know the best spots to lead you to. The weather can turn quickly in Antarctica, so it’s important you keep close to your guide so they can act quickly and get the group out of any potential trouble.
Finally, take some extra layers and some water for the shore landing in case you get thirsty or cold. Once you stop paddling, you can cool down very quickly, especially if there is a wind chill, and that will stop you from enjoying your time exploring on foot. Extra layers can be packed into a bag that will stay on the zodiac. After one or two outings, you will work out what is best for you.
My parting thoughts
If you enjoy paddling when you are at home, then you will absolutely love it in Antarctica. It is a truly unique and thrilling experience.
Weigh up the cost against your budget and be sure to check availability before getting your hopes up, but don’t be ruled solely by logic. When you are out on the water in Antarctica, breathing in that cool air and marvelling at the 360 degrees of beauty around you, you won’t be worrying about your trip costing you slightly more than you planned. You’ll be scooping your jaw back up, or pinching yourself – or both!