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 A​ntarctic ​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?

Zodiac Safaris

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.

What To Expect On An Antarctic Expedition Cruise


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.

What To Expect On An Antarctic Expedition Cruise


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.

What To Expect On An Antarctic Expedition Cruise


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.

What To Expect On An Antarctic Expedition Cruise

Adventure Activities

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.

What To Expect On An Antarctic Expedition Cruise

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.

What To Expect On An Antarctic Expedition Cruise

Watch John from Swoop doing the Polar Plunge

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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.

Expeditionary Cruise

  • 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
What To Expect On An Antarctic Expedition Cruise

Traditional Cruise

  • 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 To Expect On An Antarctic Expedition Cruise

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen science

Citizen Science i​​s a way to harness the power of thousands of trave​l​lers 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, guest​s​ 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: ​

  • Collect​ing 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 v​ersu​s 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

Extraordinary wildlife, majestic scenery, peaceful surroundings and huge ice

Things to do in Antarctica: FAQs

  • How close will I get to wildlife?

    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.

  • How fit do I need to be for an Antarctic expedition cruise?

    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).

  • Do I need to bring any specialist equipment with me?

    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.

  • How easy is it getting in and out of the zodiacs?

    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.

  • Can the planned excursions be affected by weather?

    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.

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