What happens on an Antarctic expedition cruise?
Travelling to Antarctica is unlike any other trip you’ll ever take - it's like stepping into another world. We all know what to expect on a typical holiday, but understanding what you’ll get up to on an Antarctic expeditionary cruise is a different matter.
We specialise in small ship Antarctic expedition cruises which are active by their very nature - the antithesis of a traditional cruise - and focused on delivering a ‘fully immersive’ experience. You’ll regularly get off the ship to explore Antarctica on foot and by zodiac, adventure activities will more than likely be available and the voyage will have a strong educational focus.
What will I do on an adventure cruise?
The small rubber zodiac boats, which comfortably accommodate approx. 8 - 12 people, are Antarctica’s modus operandi. They are used daily, for getting you on to land and cruising around on safari, searching for both wildlife and spectacular photo opportunities. Being flat bottomed, zodiacs are very stable and practical, as well as huge amounts of fun.
Whether slaloming between icebergs, sitting quietly watching whales at close quarters or skimming through a glittering bay, zodiac safaris are exhilarating and always harbour that frisson of discovery.
Having a strong educational element is one of the key characteristics of an expeditionary cruise. The expeditionary team is composed of Polar specialists who between them offer a broad range of expertise - incorporating geology, zoology, history and ice. They share this through a series of structured lectures and more informal talks and one-to-one conversations while in the field.
Many have been travelling in the Polar Regions for many years and often are leading lights in their particular field. Not only is it a real privilege to travel with them, but most have got some great stories to regale you with.
At the initial booking stage your imagination may have been captured by the thrill of future zodiac safaris, kayaking through brash ice or joining the brave in undertaking a Polar Plunge. These are the more obvious potential highlights, however what’s less obvious is that simply watching the magnificent icescapes slide past from the warm of the lounge or spotting wildlife from the ship’s bridge can be just as rewarding.
It's always well worth keeping a sharp eye out as the Antarctic wildlife is full of surprises and the long hours of daylight help to maximise your chances.
For many it’s the actual planned daily landings on Antarctica which hold the greatest allure, and rightly so. These landings - both on the actual continent and outlying islands - are a central pillar of daily life in Antarctica. They provide not only the chance to land on the 7th Continent - a long held ambition for many polar visitors - but also to spend time ‘in Antarctica’.
Landings are typically focused on visiting penguin rookeries, research stations or places of historic interest and can vary from spending time sitting amongst clownish chinstraps to sending a postcard home from the Port Lockroy Post Office. Once on land the visit is largely unstructured and you’re free to do your own thing within the delineated area.
The majority of Antarctic ships offer a selection of mouth-watering optional activities which don’t typically require specialist prior knowledge and should definitely be considered as they are a great way to further enhance your trip.
Kayaking and camping are the most common activities and very popular, along with snow shoeing when snow conditions allow. Diving, mountaineering, cross country skiing and paddle boarding are also offered on select departures.
Each activity normally carries an additional charge and has limited a limited number of places, so it's important to book these at the same time you secure your cabin.
The Polar Plunge
Guaranteed to raise admiring looks when you get back home, the Polar Plunge is a long standing polar tradition and is normally offered just once on all voyages. It’s very much optional, but most people who have done it agree that the short term ‘pain’ is well worth the experience and tot of rum afterwards!
The plunge itself take two forms: either from the beach at Whaler’s Bay in Deception Island, which features on most ship’s itineraries, or a full plunge off the ship into deep water, when you would be attached to a safety harness. In our experience it’s an integral part of the whole trip and definitely shouldn’t be missed.
Watch John from Swoop doing the Polar Plunge
What our customers think
Take every opportunity to go up to the bridge and even on the days through the Drake passage, go outside if possible to take in the whole experience.
Gill & Richard Starling United Kingdom December 2018
The zodiac excursions and shore landings are what makes Antarctica special. This is what brings you to nature. You get to see the rawness of icebergs up and wildlife up close.
Terrie Mandina United States Of America December 2018
I really enjoyed the amount of time I spent walking around amongst the penguins, seals and birds. There were times where I would just sit on a rock (or in the snow!), close my eyes, and absorb everything. I'll never forget the feeling of the first time I stepped on land and saw the penguins.
Christine & Rollence Patugan United States Of America December 2017
What I enjoyed most about the landings was walking around the animals. There was one morning on Danco Island where the snow was fresh, so I laid in it for a long time while watching the penguins waddle around.
Christine & Rollence California December 2017
Excursions were the highlights of the trip. I can't point a finger to any of them saying that one was the best. They were all fantastic!
Zoltan & Stephen Nemeth Florida January 2018
Hubby even went for the Polar Plunge and when I put it on Facebook had rave comments about his daring & courage...very appreciated when you are 75 years old!
Lucien & Marie-Eve South Africa January 2018
Zodiac cruises and landings were great. The ability to land and spend a decent amount of time ashore among the wildlife and scenery was fantastic and provided time to absorb the experience.
Erika Australia March 2017
I cannot say enough about the abundance of amazing wildlife and the phenomenal encounters we had. The icebergs were breathtaking and awe inspiring.
Karen Pennsylvania February 2017
I thoroughly enjoyed the landings and the zodiac rides. We landed safely every time thanks to the experience of the expedition leader and guides.
Patricia Canada February 2017
The lectures and talks we had from the expedition staff, were great - and a wonderful way to pass the time on the long sailing days across the Drake Passage.
Declan UK December 2016
The whales took our breath away. We all froze when one went under our Zodiac.
Nancy Texas January 2017
It's hard to say which excursions were my favorite, but our Top 3 zodiac experiences were to Paulet Island, Cuverville Island and our last day on Spert Island. Our best landings were on Brown Bluff and Cuverville Island.
Ryan Massachusetts November 2016
I traveled alone, so I didn't have a group as others did; however, I met very nice people from the US, Hong Kong, UK, Australia and New Zealand.
Dennis Roy United States Of America February 2019
The excursions were terrific being so close to the birds, seals and penguins and the landscape simply breath taking. As George Carlin says, 'Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away' - Antarctic certainly took my breath away.
Gary USA January 2017
Zodiac excursions were the best of the trip.
An & Houmin Xiao (Luo) United States Of America December 2017
Landing on ice floe we saw a elephant seal and could hear him breathing. The icebergs were surreal. A bird hovered over our zodiac, loved it! Each time out was a unique experience like no other.
Mary and John New York January 2017
I learnt a lot more about polar history than I thought I ever would thanks to Katie, the onboard historian. The wildlife experts, Dick, Jacque and Bruce are very knowledgeable and were always on hand to point out and explain about the animals sighted.
Chow Singapore February 2017
When we did not have excursion or landing, we still had a lot to do on board. The lectures taught us a lot about everything in Antarctica.
Feng Zheng China January 2017
Even when it was time to go back to the boat, when magical moments happened (which was often), the expedition team stopped the zodiac - we were never rushed through experiences, and in fact, we were encouraged to experience as much as possible.
Colette California January 2017
We saw both humpback and minki whales from the zodiacs. It was truly amazing. I especially liked cruising through the ice floes and seeing all the lounging seals.
Nicole Illinois January 2017
There was bad weather, it was a bit cold but that’s what you get for going to the bottom of the earth! The cruise itinerary did change and we got to go to the Falkland Islands as well, what a lovely surprise.
Raquel & David Shulman Canada December 2018
The scenery, wildlife, the ship crew, the adventure guides and most of the guests on board. Magical was when the zodiacs were zig zaging through the loose ice floes.
Annuar Faisal Malaysia January 2019
Expedition cruises versus traditional cruises
While it's widely acknowledged that a ship still offers the best means of access to Antarctica, this doesn’t automatically mean that you’re going ‘cruising’, a word which for many instantaneously conjures up (with a shudder) thoughts of deck quoits, cocktail parties, evening floor shows and sharing your holiday with hundreds of others.
The traditional world of cruising - in the Mediterranean, Caribbean or on The Nile - couldn’t be a more different beast from an expeditionary voyage to Antarctica. In fact the two are hardly related - more like second cousins, twice removed.
- An adventurous experience
- Fewer than than 120 passengers per ship
- Flexible route / itinerary
- High level of activity
- Typically two land excursions per day
- Optional adventure activities: camping, kayaking etc
- Strong educational focus with onboard experts
- Very informal dress code
- A holiday rather than an expedition 500 - 4000 passengers per ship
- Fixed route / itinerary
- Passive level of activity
- Limited land excursions
- Adventure options not available
- Wide variety of activities & onboard entertainment
- Educational lectures on some ships, but not the main focus
- Comfortable dress code by day, cocktail dress for evenings
What is Citizen Science?
Citizen Science is a way to harness the power of thousands of travellers around the world to observe, record and report on natural phenomena. This is particularly helpful in remote and difficult destinations, like the Antarctic, where it is challenging to support year-round academic observation teams.
On certain more educationally focused Antarctic voyages, guests are encouraged to participate in a variety of activities that support important research projects in five major disciplines: Oceanography, Glaciology, Ornithology, Marine Biology and Meteorology. The data collected helps directly contribute to a better understanding of climate change and how it's affecting the Antarctic Continent.
Past research projects have included:
- Collecting phytoplankton samples for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography to better understand the health of the Antarctic Biosphere
- Penguin surveys for Stony Brook University, NY, studying the population dynamics of Adelie versus Gentoo penguins
- Cloud mapping for NASA's Globe Observer program, helping scientists track changes in clouds in support of climate research
- Analyzing ice shelves and glaciers for Durham University to track changes in support of climate research
- Photographing and identifying whales using the website happywhale.com to help track the migratory and feeding patterns of whales worldwide
- Collecting water samples for the Global Microplastics Initiative to help in compiling a comprehensive database of microplastic concentration.
Read more about Citizen Science here in an article written by Seb Coulthard, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and an expedition team member on one of the participating vessels.
Watch our film on a day in Antarctica
Things to do in Antarctica: FAQs
The extraordinary characteristic about the majority of Antarctica’s wildlife is that they show very little, if any, fear of people. The official IAATO guideline is that you should keep a minimum of 5 metres between you and wildlife, but this isn’t always easy to strictly adhere to as nobody seems to have told the wildlife! If you sit quietly in a rookery you may well have curious penguins pecking your wellington boot, while close interactions with whales is far from uncommon.
Not very is the short answer! The distances you’ll be walking during the landings tend to be quite short (under half a mile / 1 km) and even when longer walks are offered, there are always shorter alternative routes.
However, to get the most from your time in Antarctica it's definitely well worth making sure you’re in good physical shape and capable of walking across broken, icy ground (a walking pole is a useful third point of balance for anyone to pack).
Over and above your Antarctic clothing, you won’t need to bring any specialist equipment to take part in any of the activities and excursions, apart from diving. Where specialist equipment is required - for camping, kayaking, snowshoeing, paddle boarding, etc - all equipment will be provided for you by the boat.
On a calm day getting from the ship into a zodiac or vice versa isn’t challenging at all. To help assist, there are always 1-2 crew members on hand to lock arms with in a ‘sailor’s grip’ to help you.
Where it becomes more challenging is when the wind gets up and the zodiacs are being tossed around by the swell. When this happens the captain can re-position the ship so the gangway is on the protected lee side and the skill of the zodiac drivers is called upon. If there is any concern about passenger safety, the zodiacs simply won’t be launched and a more sheltered place sought.
With the weather and ice conditions being the two largest influences on an Antarctic cruise, the answer is Yes. Your expeditionary leader will be keeping a close eye on the weather in particular throughout your trip and will always have a Plan B up their sleeve. So while the weather might influence your trip, it's rare that it ever affects it to the point that landings are missed.
Antarctic Adventure Activities
Simply getting to Antarctica is a big enough adventure for many, but for those who really want to maximise their Antarctic experience there are some outstanding adventure activities to consider. Many of the Antarctic voyages we offer provide these as optional adventure add-ons.
More about Antarctica
More helpful insights when researching your perfect Antarctic adventure.
How to get to Antarctica
When travelling to the remotest continent on earth, it pays to do your research on how best to get there.
Antarctic travel costs explained
Month of travel, length of trip, whether you fly or sail, and the level of comfort will have an influence on the end price. Let Swoop's deep knowledge guide you.
We've teamed up with some of the best cruise operators so that you can choose from over 80 cruise itineraries based on your dates, budget and appetite for adventure.
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