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Chris Gray Faust taking the polar plunge in Greenland on Scenic Eclipse II (Photo/Ted Sickler)
Chris Gray Faust taking the polar plunge in Greenland on Scenic Eclipse II (Photo/Ted Sickler)

The Polar Plunge: Should You Jump Into Arctic or Antarctica Waters?

Chris Gray Faust taking the polar plunge in Greenland on Scenic Eclipse II (Photo/Ted Sickler)
Chris Gray Faust taking the polar plunge in Greenland on Scenic Eclipse II (Photo/Ted Sickler)
Executive Editor, U.S.
Chris Gray Faust

Last updated
Aug 9, 2023

Read time
7 min read

Think you have the guts and sheer ability to handle a bucket-list jump into near-freezing seas? Then you're a perfect candidate for a polar plunge on your expedition cruise.

Polar plunges take place on Antarctica cruises or Arctic cruises (and sometimes on Alaska cruise itineraries). While the experience may be considered foolhardy by some, others find that it's the highlight of their trip (and gives them once-in-a-lifetime bragging rights). For those who choose not to jump, polar plunges are still a fun spectator sport on their cruises.

Whether you're intrigued about a polar plunge because you want to do it yourself or you're just curious as to why anyone in their right mind would willingly do one, read on to find out where and how you can do a polar plunge yourself on your next cruise. For help picking the right polar cruise for you, check out our tips and guidance on Arctic and Antarctica cruises.

What is a Polar Plunge?

People in their bathrobes on Scenic Eclipse II waiting for the polar plunge in Greenland (Photo/Chris Gray Faust)
People in their bathrobes on Scenic Eclipse II waiting for the polar plunge in Greenland (Photo/Chris Gray Faust)

The polar plunge was originally called a polar bear plunge. They were -- and still are -- not limited to cruises. You'll find polar bear plunges held during the winter in cities like Seattle and Boston, often on New Year's Day. Participants generally run screaming into the cold ocean after a whistle goes off. Some participants even remain in the water to see how long they can stand the bracing temperatures.

In the Arctic, Scandinavian countries have long had a tradition of finishing a thermal circuit (hot tubs, saunas and steam rooms) with an ice water bath, so polar bear plunges were a natural fit. Researchers in Antarctica also adopted the practice during the December winter solstice, dropping "bear" from the title (you won't see those giant white apex predators in the Southern Hemisphere).

Eventually, polar plunges arrived expedition cruise ships. Not all cruise lines offer a polar plunge, though -- we'll outline some that do and don't below. For those that do, the ritual marks a hilarious point in the voyage that is often a highlight for all involved.

There's also a growing movement of people who do the equivalent of polar plunges in their homes, at gyms and spas, or elsewhere -- also known as cold plunging, cold water therapy or cold water immersion (just look up the #coldplunge hashtag on Tik Tok). Advocates espouse numerous health benefits, including enhanced immune function and reduced inflammation. Cold plunges are even being touted as ways to reduce depression and relieve anxiety.

Who Should and Should Not Do a Polar Plunge on Their Cruise?

Scenic Eclipse II in Greenland (Photo/Chris Gray Faust)
Scenic Eclipse II in Greenland (Photo/Chris Gray Faust)

Not everyone should do a polar plunge, and the risks associated are one reason why some cruise lines refuse to offer them. The most obvious polar plunge risk is hypothermia if you stay in the water too long; serious effects can start after just three minutes in freezing sea temperatures.

If you have a history of cardiovascular or pulmonary issues, you should not do a polar plunge. When the body suddenly hits water temperatures of less than 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, it can enter a state of shock, potentially spiking your blood pressure and heart rate to risky levels. Your muscle reflexes and cognitive decision-making also slow down, so it's important to never do a polar plunge on your own.

The biggest tip we can give you is to know yourself and your medical history before you sign on for a polar plunge. Remember, the poles are far away from hospitals and other main cities, and while most cruise ships have a doctor or medical officer onboard, they are not equipped to handle severe emergencies. Plunge at your own risk.

What's It Like? My Polar Plunge on Scenic Eclipse II in Arctic Greenland

Chris Gray Faust getting ready for her polar plunge in Greenland with Scenic Eclipse II (Photo/Ted Sickler)
Chris Gray Faust getting ready for her polar plunge in Greenland with Scenic Eclipse II (Photo/Ted Sickler)

I'm a veteran of several polar expedition sailings, but had escaped the polar plunge. That's mostly because my previous cruises in polar regions -- Viking Polaris in Antarctica and Ponant's Le Boreal in Svalbard -- didn't offer it. On an Alaska cruise with UnCruise Adventures, I stood by sheepishly as my husband dared to dive without me. I vowed to do better -- someday.

But when that day actually came during my August 2023 Greenland cruise on Scenic Eclipse II, I felt little but trepidation. In general, I'd call myself a reluctant daredevil, the type of person who does a lot of hemming and hawing before doing any kind of crazy event.

And that’s exactly what I did leading up to my polar plunge, until the moment I put on my bathing suit. I looked at my heart rate (59 bpm). I reread the last report from my cardiologist on my phone (all clear). I even took an EKG using my Apple watch (fine). In other words, there were no easy outs to be found.

The Greenland setting provided impossible-to-ignore inspiration. The ship had pulled up right in front of a glacier and the sun was out in full force. We were told that the water was a balmy mid-40s, while the air around us was maybe 10 degrees warmer.

In my bathing suit, I joined the 60 other passengers in bathrobes who were also making the plunge. Jumpers were divided into groups of 10 to go down to the ship's marina, where a platform had been set up. From the deck above, the rest of ship yelled and cheered as the first group went.

As part of the second group, I had a chance to see 10 people go before me, each plunging two by two. Scenic took proper precautions: safety Zodiacs were circling the water and jumpers were put in harnesses, just in case numbness set in before they could get to the ladder.

Suddenly, my group was called and the moment of truth arrived. "Just remember there are 17 kinds of whales," said my friend Ted, who had begged off plunging allegedly so he could take pictures of me doing it. "Unhelpful," I replied before heading downstairs.

At the marina, an atmosphere of festivity propelled us forward. House of Pain's party anthem "Jump Around" blasted over the loudspeaker as we stepped up to the platform's edge. "C'mon baby, let's do this!" my platform partner Elliot said. Laughing, I looked straight ahead and leaped into the water.

The sheer force of the temperature change hit me fast, but I wasn't breathless. The cold water felt bracing but not in a bad way. Part of my brain told me that I could stay out there swimming but the survival function overrode such nonsense and sent me scrambling over to the platform ladder.

As I scrambled up, I laughed hysterically, as I always do when confronted with extreme speeds or sports. My body buzzed with tiny pricks that seemed almost electric, but my mind was preternaturally calm. Suddenly the purported health benefits of cold plunging made sense.

A crew member steered me toward the Polar Plunge Bar, a table set up by the crew with shot glasses and a wide choice of liquor. What kind did I want? Vodka, iced, of course. I clinked the shot with Elliot. The alcohol coursed through my system. It was exhilarating.

After the jump, I spent some time in the ship's sauna and then made my way to the hot tub on the top deck, where many other plungers had taken refuge. A round of Champagne came from the bar and we all toasted our success. That night, I found a certificate from Scenic celebrating my achievement in the cabin.

Was the polar plunge worth the pre-jump stress? Yes, absolutely. Would I do it again? Yes, absolutely.

Cruise Lines and Destinations That Offer a Polar Plunge

The following destinations are found on itineraries that might offer a polar plunge on your cruise: Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Svalbard, Antarctica, Canada's Northwest Passage, Alaska's Inside Passage.

In general, polar plunges are only offered by expedition cruise lines. These cruises take place on smaller ships with under 200 people, and are geared toward adventure. Some lines do a version of a polar plunge in the onboard swimming pool, while others do them off the ship in a Zodiac. Again, you should jump at your own risk (and check ahead to make sure a polar plunge is offered on your cruise if it's on your bucket list). You can also check out our guide to expedition cruises and our breakdowns of expedition ship features like Zodiac boats.

The following lines offer polar plunges (note that the list is not exhaustive and will be updated by Cruise Critic over time): Atlas Ocean Voyages, Chimu Adventures, Hurtigruten, Lindblad Expeditions, Oceanwide Expeditions, Quark, Scenic, Seabourn, Silversea, UnCruise Adventures.

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