Planning & Tips

What is the polar plunge?

The Polar Plunge is one of the most memorable and invigorating activities you can do on your Antarctic adventure. Anyone looking for a good dinner party story shouldn’t even hesitate. No, it’s not especially pleasant, and it’s certainly not something you need to do twice, but it’s definitely a lot of fun. Curiosity piqued?

The two types of Polar Plunge

So, what is the Polar Plunge? It’s an activity that’s become somewhat of a rite of passage in the Polar regions. Put simply, you leap off the side of your ship into the icy water. Don’t worry, you are attached to a safety rope and expedition staff are there to help you at all times. You’re only in the water for a handful of seconds and most people come out grinning from ear to ear, I know I certainly did.

Some operators do the Polar Plunge a little differently, however. Instead of jumping from the ship, they take passengers ashore and so they can run into the water at their own pace. I’ve been lucky enough – or unlucky, depending on how you look at it – to experience both forms of the Polar Plunge and my favourite is definitely the jump.

Taking the jump

Two travellers launch themselves from their ship into freezing Antarctic waters

The weather needs to be favourable to plunge as large swells make being in the water far too dangerous. I remember many nervous chats and sidelong glances whenever the plunge was mentioned. People were still debating whether they would actually do it as the announcement came rolling over the tannoy stating “the day has finally come, weather conditions are looking calm and we’re going to attempt the Polar Plunge! Please bring a towel and your sense of humour. Watch out for any leopard seals”.

I made my way nervously to my cabin and found my American roommate, John, staring back at me in his swimming shorts looking as nervous as I felt. I quickly changed and we both headed for the lower deck wrapped in our big white towels.

We could hear the excited crowd even before we came around the corner and saw the short queue ahead of us. We both joined the line and signed the disclaimer form held out to us by the ship’s cetacean expert, Tara, who added “nothing to worry about, just the odd heart attack or two” with a wink. John and I looked at each other slowly and then back at the platform at which the first passenger was getting ready to jump. She was a small woman of around 50. She jumped and all we heard was a scream, followed by a loud splash and then a lot of spluttering as she was pulled back up on deck. Once again, John and I looked at each other in silence.

10 minutes later, I was standing on the platform as one of the expedition members fastened a belt and rope around my waist. He smiled at me and asked “ready?” to which I nodded dumbly and he began to count down “3…2…1”. I jumped high in the air going for the water bomb technique before crashing into the icy water with, what I hope, was an impressive splash. I felt almost nothing whilst submerged, but when my head came above the water it felt like a thousand little knives on my body. I began breathing fast as I swam quickly back to the platform. I felt almost like a survivor as the expedition member on the platform helped me back up and gave me my towel which I quickly wrapped around me. Andy, the head of housekeeping, was on hand to offer me a shot of whiskey which I gladly downed.

Taking the run

Swoop’s Marketing Manager, Lauren, after completing her running Polar Plunge

My second Polar Plunge experience was completely different. Perhaps I was more used to it, but the build-up did not feel quite as exciting. We were told in the morning before going ashore that people wishing to do the Polar Plunge should bring their swimming gear with them on the zodiacs.

Several hours later, I was standing on a black sandy beach on Deception Island staring at the freezing water ahead of me. No rope or harness this time, just a lot of people all stood along the beach watching us with eager anticipation. As I ran into the shallow water I became acutely aware that this version of the Polar Plunge was far more torturous. The icy water splashed at my ankles, and then my thighs before I dived headfirst into the water with a half-hearted roar. Once again, the pain felt real. I quickly surfaced and laboured back to the safety of the shore as rapidly as my cold legs would take me.

This time I was greeted with a shot of vodka, which I thankfully accepted. I wrapped my towel around me and swiftly dried off, the sand between my toes not making the process particularly easy nor quick. This Polar Plunge felt much colder which is largely due to the fact that we had to wait onshore for the zodiacs to get ready before getting back to our warm cabins an hour later.

Top tips

Make a splash! A traveller films his jump into freezing Antarctic waters

My first tip is simple. Do it. The Polar Plunge is such an experience; it’s completely whacky, painful and downright fun. Be bold, and make sure you experience it, otherwise you’ll be regretting it straight away when everyone that night is talking about their Polar Plunge in the bar.

Secondly, if you’re taking a GoPro or underwater camera with you when you jump, make sure it is attached to your body somewhere. The water is so cold that the shock often makes people let go, and no one wants to lose their camera to Davy Jones’ Locker.

My third tip is to get in line as quickly as possible, this particularly pertains to the ship jump. If you arrive late, you’ll end up queuing for 20 or 30 minutes in your shorts and towel which can get pretty cold and might make you reconsider.

My fourth tip is to make an entrance. Don’t just limply jump in, make a splash! Some people wave to the camera, others do a bomb like I did, and one chap even did a 360 spin. Have some fun with it, you’re probably only going to do it once, plus it makes for awesome photos.

Lastly, I strongly suggest taking the alcoholic shot offered to you afterwards. It genuinely warms you from within and gives you something else to think about for a few seconds. In fact, a second shot wouldn’t go amiss…  

Don’t miss out

So, if you’re thinking about whether the Polar Plunge is right for you or not, I would always advise just having a go. It’s worth the temporary pain for the exhilaration, and you’ll have a memory that will last you a lifetime. Remember, this is, quite literally, the coolest thing you can do in Antarctica, so take the plunge.  

Burnham Arlidge

Burnham Arlidge

Swoop videographer

Swoop’s videographer and an Antarctica specialist, Burnham has explored Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, as well as northern latitudes in the Arctic. Having written extensively about the White Continent, Burnham is always keen to share his stories and photos.