Photo: Eben Diskin

What It’s Like to Sail to Antarctica on a Cruise Ship’s Maiden Voyage

Antarctica Cruises Adventure Travel
by Eben Diskin Feb 9, 2023

The only way to reach Antarctica from South America is by crossing the Drake Passage. It’s where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Oceans converge, and where you’ll regularly find waves as high as 40 feet.

I’ve lived by the ocean my entire life, but not until I stared out the window at the 15-foot swells of the Drake Passage was I actually afraid of a wave. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that it wasn’t really the waves that unnerved me. It was the sense of disconnectedness from the rest of the world. Sailing to Antarctica means detaching yourself from the tether of solid ground and civilization and floating into a gray wilderness.

Antarctica is unpredictable. It’s a rogue wave shrouded in fog on a distant shore, waiting to crush you under the weight of its elements or buoy you higher than you’ve ever been before. That’s the continent’s great allure and its great risk, which, as it drifted closer, I realized are the same thing.

Taking on the Drake Passage

I traveled to Antarctica with the Australian cruise line Aurora Expeditions on the first voyage of its new ship, Sylvia Earle, in December 2022. Signing up for a ship’s maiden voyage to Antarctica might sound either epic or like a questionable decision, depending on who you talk to and that person’s fear of what happens to new ships when they sail near icebergs.

During our two-day crossing of the Drake Passage, waves tossed the ship so furiously it was impossible for me to sleep. Every 20 minutes I’d wake from a troubled dream with the feeling of being jettisoned out of bed. It was like sleeping on a giant medicine ball that never stopped moving. In the daytime, seasickness caused many passengers to retreat to their rooms mid-meal or mid-conversation.

I’ve been prone to seasickness on much calmer waters, so I considered a bout of nausea during the Drake Passage pretty much inevitable. I turned out to be wrong, thanks to a prescription for the Scopolamine Transdermal Patch, a small band aid-like patch you wear behind your ear to prevent seasickness before it sets in. It can be left on for up to three days, and for me, it worked wonders.

@matadornetwork Travelers departing from Ushuaia to get to #Antarctica dread crossing the #DrakePassage, and for good reason. This stretch of ocean between Argentina and the #AntarcticPeninsula is well-known to have the roughest seas in the world. Due to its unique geography, currents at this latitude are able to circumnavigate the globe without interference, leading to monstrous swells and powerful winds; 50-foot waves and 100-knot wind gusts are not rare. On occasion, you might get lucky and experience an unusually calm passage — known as the “Drake Lake” — but more than likely, your voyage will be a rocky one 🌊 Would you dare travel through the Drake Passage to travel to Antarctica? 🎥 @courtneyhana29 📍Drake Passage #antarcticaunlocked #antarcticatok #crashingwaves ♬ original sound – Matador Network

Apart from the patch, a few other strategies seemed to ward off seasickness. One of these was staring at the horizon. Since all rooms aboard my ship had windows or balconies, finding the horizon is always pretty easy. It might sound counterintuitive to battle seasickness by watching waves bounce up and down, but focusing on a steady horizon helps balance your internal equilibrium and stabilizes your brain by giving it a firm reference point. Seeking out distractions also worked well for me. Rather than laying in bed with your eyes closed thinking about every single swell, head downstairs to the lecture room. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the migratory patterns of seabirds, listening to something educational will distract your mind from the rocking boat. And on an Aurora Expeditions cruise, the lecture room is always stocked with saltine crackers to settle upset stomachs.

The point is – don’t let the fear of seasickness and rough waters stop you from going to Antarctica. It’s colloquially called the Drake “rite of” Passage for a reason. While many places that were once hard-to-reach have been made easily accessible by modern transportation, Antarctica still feels like an adventure. And that’s how it should be.

What to pack on a cruise to Antarctica

Photo: Eben Diskin

Before enduring a seemingly interminable flight to South America and a two-day crossing of the world’s roughest seas on the way to one of the most inhospitable climates on Earth, you have to pack. People imagine Antarctica to be a frozen wasteland where you’ll catch instant frostbite if you’re not bundled in six Canada Goose jackets. The good news is, Antarctica isn’t as cold as you think. Cruises only go there in the Antarctic summer (November through March) and stick to the coasts, which are far warmer than the interior. If you’re coming from the United States, that means there’s a chance you’ll be warmer in Antarctica than you were back home. I left behind 18-degree temps in Boston to be greeted with a balmy 35 degrees Antarctica.

Layers are the name of the game. Make sure to bring at least two pairs of thermal base layers (shirt and pants, wool socks, and a warm hat). After that, you can get creative. The cruise line you take will likely provide an outer shell windbreaker jacket and hefty expedition boots, which saves you valuable packing space. So it’s really just a matter of filling in the gaps between your innermost and outermost layers. I wore my base layer, a T-shirt, warm flannel, sweatshirt, and an insulated liner during our shore landings, and usually found myself overheating.

Photo: Eben Diskin

What to wear when walking around the ship, however, is an entirely different story. You’ll spend most of your free time in your room catching up on sleep, in the lecture room watching a presentation, or on deck taking photos of icebergs. You don’t need anything more than a sweatshirt and jeans for walking around indoors, though you’ll want to add a windbreaker layer for going out on deck. Since your cruise line-provided outer layer will likely live in the mud room (a room with lockers where you dress for landings), it’s worth buying your own outer shell to keep handy in your room. I used Houdini’s D Jacket, which has a surprising amount of weather protection given how light and flexible it is.

Apart from clothes, snacks should occupy the most space in your luggage. You’ll never starve on the ship, but set mealtimes and packed schedules means you might not always make it to the restaurant. That’s especially true during Drake Passage crossings, when it feels like you’re wearing drunk goggles just trying to walk down the hallway. Not to mention the flights to and from Argentina. No need to get fancy. Protein bars, trail mix, and peanuts will give you the boost you need without taking up too much room in your bag. I brought a variety pack of BoBo’s Oat Bars, which proved to be a lifesaver on days I missed breakfast, or when I needed something in my stomach as the undulating waves dashed to pieces my appetite for the restaurant’s steak and mashed potatoes.

Cruising with Aurora Expeditions

Photo: Eben Diskin

Though you may consider yourself a seasoned traveler who balks at the idea of organized tours or cruises, you can’t get to Antarctica on your own. Aruba? Sure, book a direct flight, browse the hotel options, and wing it. Even going to the Arctic can be done solo, and with a degree of flexibility. Antarctica is different. There are no airports on the Antarctic mainland (even small ones), no roads, no hotels, and no restaurants. Unless you also happen to be a glaciologist qualified for a research expedition, the only way for the average traveler in the Western Hemisphere to get there is via cruise ship from the southern tip of South America.

But these aren’t your typical cruise ships with waterslides, climbing walls, and hundreds of little kids darting around the deck. These ships – usually categorized as “expedition ships” – typically accommodate between 100 and 200 passengers, and are built specifically for navigating rough seas and icy Antarctic waters. Several cruise lines offer voyages to Antarctica, each with a range of trip types, focuses, and lengths. Aurora Expeditions currently has two ships in its fleet: the Greg Mortimer and Sylvia Earle. With Aurora, there’s a focus on education. Onboard lectures on topics ranging from the White Continent’s geological composition to the history of Antarctic exploration were regularly held throughout my 10-day trip. A Citizen Science Program that’s offered allows passengers to collect scientific data during shore landings and participate in collaborative research projects.

Photo: Eben Diskin

Boarding the ship for the first time felt like checking into an Airbnb in the remote wilderness for 10 days. Disconnected physically and (nearly) technologically from the rest of the planet, the boat wasn’t just a floating hotel for my stay – it was close to my entire world. Luckily, the ship was incredibly easy to navigate.

You won’t find many frills on most Antarctic expedition ships, but you’ll find everything you need for a comfortable stay. There’s a lecture theater, Citizen Science education room, library with books and board games, a gym and sauna, an observation lounge with panoramic ocean views, multiple exterior observation decks, outdoor pool and hot tubs, a mud room to keep your expedition gear, and two restaurants. The latter are among the most important parts of the trip along with, you know, seeing penguins.

Photo: Eben Diskin

Just like a typical cruise ship, both restaurants are all-you-can-eat. You’ll spend most of your time in the Gentoo restaurant eating buffet-style meals, while the Rockhopper is available by reservation only, and serves its meals a la carte. And you won’t get bored of the selection, as entrees, appetizers, and desserts rotate each day. Just make sure to exercise more self-control than I did, as unlimited food has its consequences when the ship is tackling 20-foot waves.

Arriving in Antarctica

Photo: Eben Diskin

Unlike a typical cruise, which outlines day-to-day specifics at the start of your trip, Antarctic cruises won’t necessarily tell you what you’re doing until you wake up that morning. There’s an element of excitement to this, but it does make answering any questions along the lines of “what are you even gonna do in Antarctica?” tougher to answer.

Antarctic cruises need to wing it to some degree, because the entire trip is governed by the weather and sea conditions. Since there are no docks in Antarctica, your cruise ship will usually anchor in a bay or protected cove, load passengers onto inflatable Zodiac boats, and ferry them to shore. Depending on wind, snow, rain, waves, and visibility, these excursions can be either magical or dangerous, so the ship’s expert crew will often select landing sites last-minute to give passengers the best experience.

The Sylvia Earle made two landings per day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Each landing was signaled by an announcement over the intercom (there are speakers in each room), describing where you’ll be landing and what you can expect to see there. Then, you’ll head down to the mud room, where you’ll don your muck boots (the heavy-duty boots Aurora provides you), life jacket, and any other cold-weather gear you’ll need for exploring the continent. Before boarding the Zodiac, you’ll be asked to dip your boots in a special disinfectant solution to prevent passengers from introducing foreign bacteria to Antarctica. You’ll do the same thing when you return to the ship after your excursion.

Photo: Eben Diskin

If you’re looking to double down on the adventure, you can pay a little extra to be in one of Aurora’s “activity” groups. These groups spend their landings either kayaking, snorkeling, or snowshoeing, allowing you to see a side of the White Continent other passengers don’t get to see. You’ll be expected to participate in your chosen activity for most landings, however, so before you sign up for kayaking, make sure you really like kayaking. For the truly intrepid, there’s also camping – a one-off experience that gives you the opportunity to spend the night under the midnight sun. You probably won’t sleep, but you won’t really want to, either.

For the typical passenger foregoing the extra activities, each landing looks a little different. You might find yourself hiking up snowy ridgelines for panoramic views of the iceberg-filled waters, or getting an up-close look at penguin rookeries to watch chinstrap and gentoo penguins waddling around their icy habitat. You might explore old, abandoned expedition or research outposts, learning about the history of polar science and exploration. You might stroll a black sand beach alongside massive weddell seals, as they flop around the shore trying to find a mate, or spend an entire afternoon cruising between icebergs on a Zodiac.

Photo: Eben Diskin

Each day in Antarctica is different and unpredictable. Each day is a rogue wave knocking you off your feet, testing you and rewarding you, and reminding you how lucky you are to be in unfamiliar waters.

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