There are plenty of ways to explore Antarctica by cruise ship. Taking a zodiac cruise through its bays to pull up at a landing site to step foot on the continent – maybe taking in a penguin colony or two – will always remain the essential experience. But today’s expedition cruise ships offer plenty of other activities as well. Some people want to grab their paddles and go kayaking, while others want a night under southern stars camping in the snow. For my big Antarctic trip however, I wanted to try something completely different. I wanted to go snorkeling among the ice.
Only a handful of ships currently offer snorkeling, so if you want to do the same you’ll want to pick your vessel with care. I sailed on the Greg Mortimer on Swoop’s Antarctic Fly & Sail Combination, which allowed me to squeeze the most out of my time in Antarctica.
Snorkeling is an added extra you’ll need to book in advance, but I quickly saw the advantage of this as the ten of us who snapped up the available spots gelled into a group almost as soon as we were on board. Our snorkeling guides Pete and Liz gave us thorough safety briefings as to what we could expect when we hit the waters as well as drilling us through the kit we would be wearing. As someone who has dived a number of times in tropical waters, this was to be something entirely new.
Before travelling we’d been provided with a kit list of items to bring. To a casual observer none of it seemed immediately connected to snorkeling, but it all proved essential. I packed thermals, salopettes, a fleece and a puffer jacket, all of which provided a snug fit under the dry suit I was given. It felt very cosy getting dressed in the ship, but we advised it would all feel rather different in the water.
After this it was all about climbing into the dry suit. My ensemble was completed by slipping on a pair of the neoprene boots that were provided, neoprene hood, 7mm neoprene 3-fingered gloves, and finally fins, mask and snorkel. There were two different sizes of masks available, though we were told that some snorkelers like to bring their own if they have one with a particular fit.
All dressed, we were ready to get in the sea!
Into the water
We were offered the chance to snorkel on every landing. Pete and Liz said that the average time for a snorkel is between 10-45 minutes, so we would do a landing with the rest of the passengers (albeit in our cosy dry suits) and then leave at a suitable moment to take to the water. One point was important: as we were just a small group the ship would go to the best landings for all the passengers, after which our guides would then go out in a zodiac to find the best spot for the snorkelers.
Getting ready for our first dive, we had a refresher briefing in the ‘garage’ at the stern of the ship through the mudroom going through our kit checks before getting into a zodiac. Pete and Liz had scoped out a flat and stable iceberg for us to snorkel near and we were all nervously excited as we approached. We put on our neoprene hoods and let Liz check our gloves and masks – it’s amazing how much dexterity you lose when you’re masked wearing neoprene mittens.
There were two options to get in the water, backwards roll or just swing your leg over – and suddenly you were in the Southern Ocean! The air in my dry suit acted as a buoyancy aid and it was a funny feeling to be floating in the water wearing salopettes and a jacket. I put my face in the water and the tiny amount of uncovered skin on my face was suddenly raging with pins and needles from the cold. We’d been advised that if we waited it would quickly go numb and it would be fine. Thankfully, it was.
Life below the surface
There were 11 of us in the water in total and we were absolutely floundering about at first – very excited but inexperienced. After a few minutes under the watchful eye of our guides (and the safety zodiac close as hand), we were able to orient ourselves properly and begin to immerse ourselves in what we’d come so far to see.
Looking below the surface I could immediately see life. The sea was full of salps, strange gel-like creatures that moved through the water by a particularly squishy sort of jet propulsion.
They were beautiful and fragile, but we all had the same unspoken wish for a proper ‘David Attenborough’ encounter. After bobbing around for ten minutes our prayers were answered in the most magical way possible.
A young Antarctic fur seal suddenly swooshed into the group. Just when I was getting used to the way I could move in the water, it darted and weaved in and out of us with the most astonishing grace, checking each of us out in turn. It hung in the water with true elegance, then rolled and ribboned about, as if to remind us that we were only temporary visitors in its kingdom. And then with a flick of its fins it darted off leaving us in awe.
Fur seal encounter
It’s hard to smile when you’re wearing a snorkel and mask in water that’s just a fraction of a degree above freezing, but we were all amazed by the encounter. It felt like a magic gift.
When the seal disappeared and our celebratory whoops subsided, we swam out to some brash ice and hugged some tiny icebergs. After floating in the water it was nice to stretch our legs and swim and get the blood flowing again.
Finally, after about 25 minutes, the cold began to pinch. My hands in particular were like ice blocks. If there was one thing I would recommend packing, it’s an extra pair of neoprene gloves as a base layer to wear under the mittens. In contrast, my feet were still toasty warm.
Hauling ourselves onto the zodiacs with icy hands was an interesting (you might say ungainly) affair. The instructors had cleverly put those most likely to stay out longest into the water first, so that everyone came out together and we didn’t have to wait shivering on the zodiac. We were cold of course, but our spirits were super high. We had snorkeled in Antarctica and met a fur seal!
Back on the ship, it was time for a deliciously hot shower. After dinner that evening, all the ‘Snorks’ got drinks together. The experience really bonded us together as a group. One person’s GoPro had suffered a flat battery in the cold water, but several others had been filming and there were plenty of offers to share footage and photos.
I snorkeled a few more times on the voyage. Others kept a hopeful eye out for whales, and the guides had some terrific anecdotes about swimming with penguins as they torpedoed towards the shore, but for me it was the fur seal that had made it all worthwhile. It’s an Antarctic experience I’ll never forget.
Want to add a little extra to your Antarctic experience? Swoop Antarctica can offer expert insights on all the available adventure activities on a polar cruise.