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Pictures From an Antarctica Cruise

By Bob Jenkins
Cruise Critic Contributor
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    Antarctica is full of superlatives and extremes. And because you can reach the continent only via a ship, getting there is almost like taking a regular cruise vacation.

    Almost ... because this place is unique on the planet, and your adventure at sea will be unlike any other you've had.

    Before you even get to the continent, you'll spend more than 24 hours grabbing for handrails or the top of the mattress as your ship crosses the Drake Passage, perhaps the world's roughest body of water. Instead of sailing a mega-ship featuring a casino, multiple dining choices and professional entertainment, you'll wend through icy waters on a vessel more like Hurtigruten's Fram: 318 passengers, compact cabins and an emphasis on lecture space and observation areas.

    In the summer -- tourism's high season -- the temperature along the favored landing spots is usually around freezing, but the wind chill can easily hit 60 degrees below freezing.

    The continent is sizable: if you placed the United States atop Antarctica, there would be about 1.5 million square miles not covered. But, while more than 311 million people live in the U.S., no one lives on Antarctica permanently. Its only residents are scientists and support staff staying temporarily at tiny outposts. That means you won't be going ashore to enjoy any cultural heritage, regional foods, traditional handicrafts or quaint villages. (Though your ship might drop you off at the ruins of old whaling stations.)

    Antarctica does not have any significant vegetation because most of the land is covered by ice as much as two miles thick. Nor does the continent have indigenous wildlife. Rather, it has only marine animals like seals, penguins and other seabirds that come ashore to breed.

    However, once you're on shore, you'll be astonished by the endless panoramas of mountains and glaciers marching to the sea, and you'll be entranced by rookeries of penguins or the occasional seal sunning along the coast.

    Typical cruise? Not so much. But an Antarctica expedition is an experience to treasure.

    Photo: Hurtigruten

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    Drake Passage

    Reaching Antarctica from the southern tip of South America requires a voyage of more than 24 hours through the Drake Passage, considered one of the world's roughest bodies of water. On our trip, we went through 30-foot seas, both leaving and returning to South America. Common among passengers are scopolamine patches or pressure wristbands to combat seasickness. However, attendance in the dining room seemed low at some meals, and navigating the buffet amid the ship's motion was a challenge.

    Photo: Hurtigruten

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    The Expedition Team

    Our expedition team members were knowledgeable and accessible. They included specialists in polar conditions, exploration history, ornithology and biology, and some had PhD's in fields like geology and the natural sciences. Typically at least a half-dozen team members would go ashore on each landing to answer any passengers' questions or point them toward interesting sights. Plus, an expedition team member was always stationed at the reception desk during daytime hours. There, passengers chat with expedition team ornithologist John Chardine. After listening to Dr. Chardine's lectures on Antarctic seabirds (17 species of penguins and 314 other types of seabirds), several of us were inspired to start our first-ever birding lists.

    Photo: Hurtigruten

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    Shore Excursions

    Going ashore in Antarctica is a process, to be sure. Passengers, many wearing their souvenir Hurtigruten parkas, would don "muck boots" -- thick, rubber and knee-high -- to keep feet and legs dry and warm. The boot struggle was awkward but brief, and then, hindered by our layers of clothing, we would waddle to the loading bay. The expedition staff would depart first to mark trails to keep passengers safe and at least 15 feet from penguin rookeries. International rules state no more than 100 people can be ashore from a vessel at a time. So we divided into four groups of roughly 30 each, meaning that one group was always going to have to kill at least an hour on the ship until 30 onshore passengers had returned.

    Photo: Hurtigruten

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    Hurtigruten Cabins

    Our snug four-bed inside cabin wasn't without creature comforts. Like all 128 cabins onboard, it had a mini-fridge, safe, TV and vanity. Larger cabins have writing desks. All cabins have the same bathroom layout -- so cozy that sitting on the toilet meant one of your knees was against the trash can. Fram's bathroom presented a first for us: the shower has a curved Plexiglass door that, because of the ship's motion, is held open by a plastic hook on one end of a bungee cord. To keep the door closed once inside the stall, you slide forward a small bolt at the rear of the door.

    Photo: Hurtigruten

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    Getting Ashore

    We quickly learned the going-ashore routine: eight at a time, passengers are handed down by shipboard crew into the Polarcirkels, motorized, hard-bottom rubber boats. We learned to face backward, not toward shore, during these rapid trips to avoid windburn on our faces. There are no fixed docks to facilitate disembarking, so as a boat reaches a landing site, passengers grab the forearms of expedition team members, who help them ashore. Often a two-step ladder was positioned at the prow, and passengers would either step into shallow water, wade through ice chunks or climb onto steps cut into the snow on the shoreline.

    Photo: Hurtigruten

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    Penguin Nesting

    In much of the world, the guy with the shiniest toys attracts the girl. With penguins, it's the guy with the most-attractive nest -- made of small rocks. So the males waddle down to the shoreline, pick up stones in their beaks and waddle back to their nest to add that special touch. One problem: Smarter males understand it's easier and quicker to swipe rocks from the nest of some other guy who's off searching for rocks. Penguins must build nests on masses of exposed rock; an egg laid in the snow would freeze. That rookery might be dozens of yards from the water, the source of food. How do we know so much? On our voyage, we had opportunities at every landing site to watch the penguins in action.

    Photo: Hurtigruten

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    Antarctic Preservation

    In order to maintain the pristine nature of Antarctica, an organization of tourism operators has ruled that a ship may not put ashore more than 100 people at a time. To provide everyone equal time at each site, passengers are informed when they step ashore how long they might be there. But they do not have to stay in groups; they can wander and observe penguin life from no closer than 15 feet from the seabirds. Because penguins have not been hunted, they do not fear humans and won't detour if their path should approach yours. Nor will they stop their chores to study you.

    Photo: Hurtigruten

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    Penguin Rookeries

    What those beautiful documentaries don't tell you: Penguin rookeries stink, like a combination of ammonia and rotting fish. The reason is that penguins only partially digest their prime food, a marine creature called krill. Krill contain enough fluoride to be toxic if the penguins fully digested the creatures, so penguins have adapted and now simply poop out the krill -- wherever the penguins happen to be, even in the rookery. Rookeries exist because, being seabirds, penguins must come ashore to mate, hatch their eggs and care for their chicks. They form rookeries for safety in numbers, to ease finding mates and the sharing of information about food sources. Which brings us back to the krill ... just breathe through your mouth.

    Photo: Hurtigruten

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    Overnight Camping

    Even with restrictions, about 26,500 tourists set foot on Antarctica annually... But only a fraction got to sleep on the icy continent. Fram offers this option, but only to 10 passengers. Interested cruisers enter a drawing and, if selected (we weren't), are outfitted in thermal survival suits. Taken ashore, they are shown by expedition team members how to pitch two-person tents -- and how to use the portable plastic toilet, placed in a hole in the snow. For the privilege of pitching a tent and spending 10 hours ashore, campers pay about $530 each.

    Photo: Hurtigruten

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    Whaling Stations

    Occasionally the landing site would be at a former research post or a whaling station, such as this one on Deception Island. Whales head to the Antarctic to feed on krill and give birth before migrating back north. For several decades in the latter half of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, whalers found easy hunting along Antarctica. About a century ago, whaling companies built the first of these rendering plants along the shoreline to reduce the huge creatures to their precious oil -- stored in tanks like the ones here. Because most nations have ceased whaling, and others utilize "factory ships" to process the whale carcasses, the stations became obsolete. Without maintenance, the buildings and equipment have deteriorated, with many hazardous to enter.

    Photo: Hurtigruten

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    Onshore Options

    The expedition team always gives passengers options onshore. It might be where to start a steep three-mile hike, directions to the observation point for a cluster of icebergs like Iceberg Alley or where to head to see a seal relaxing onshore. Or it might be an invitation to climb a foothill of a 3,625-foot-high mountain beyond one landing site. An expedition team member went first to chart a sliding path without hidden rocks, and passengers followed to view the magnificent panorama ... and then slide back downhill on their bottoms.

    Photo: Hurtigruten

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    Antarctic Icebergs

    Just like the snowflakes from which they were originally formed, no two icebergs are alike. Icebergs occur when a glacier breaks -- called calving -- with a thunderous crack and drops tons of compressed snow into the sea. Wave action and the occasional slight rise in temperatures cause icebergs to melt or develop large cracks or even tunnels. The constant variety of shapes and sizes makes for interesting viewing as the ship navigates among the icebergs on the way to the next landing site. In my cabin one afternoon, I was startled when I glanced out the window and saw an iceberg the size of a two-story house just a few yards away.

    Photo: Hurtigruten

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