We took the Antarctica 8 day excursion on the MV Marco Polo on January 31st of 2003. This is a bit of information on the Zodiac landings from the ship; it is written in an effort to help those who are on their first excursion and might have apprehensions about this adventure. There is an excellent review of the entire cruise included in this database by Chuck Traveler in the review section under Marco Polo, and it helped us tremendously when we took this cruise.
The Marco Polo can accommodate over 800 passengers but only takes around 425 for this trip. This is done to allow all passengers the maximum amount of time for the shore excursions. There are currently six Zodiacs that take the passengers, the naturalists, etc. to the landings. The Zodiacs have Yamaha, Honda, or Mercury engines and seat 14 people. You sit on the side pontoons of the boat and hold on to ropes on the side if you think that you need it. We felt completely safe at all times in and out of the Zodiac. Our pilots were knowledgeable and very competent.
The passengers are divided into five colors (around 75-80 in each color); each color group is divided into three cohorts (A,B,C). They give you a badge that you must wear which has your color and cohort. Colors and cohorts are assigned a time to disembark for the shore excursion. Colors and cohorts are alternated in time so that everyone gets to go at a different time for each excursion.
You need to get dressed in your cabin beforehand. Dress rehearse this at home so that you know what you are going to put on and how; it takes a bit of time. Because of the changeable nature of the climate and weather we dressed in the following: (avoid as much cotton as possible) regular underwear; a thin insulated sock; a woolen sock; long underwear—upper and lower; a flannel shirt and pants; optional sweater or turtleneck; a pair of nylon waterproof pants and top (top is often not necessary); 16"-18" wader boots—these are essential because of the water in which you will walk and the penguin guano you will get on your feet; your groovy red parka that they give you; a thin pair of under gloves (we eliminated these on some excursions because of our weather); a pair of warm gloves—not mittens—too difficult to take pictures—we took Gortex; a lined ski mask—really important; a stocking cap; and ski goggles—these we eliminated after the first excursion because of the hassle and the problem with moisture—some did wear them, however, and we were glad to have them. We packed a second set of socks (both thin and wool) and long underwear so that you can alternate for each excursion—you do sweat a great deal underneath. We also took an extra set of gloves in case the good ones got wet. You should take a daypack or regular back pack with whatever you need but with: sun block (if there is anything else showing on your body); your extra socks and gloves; extra film; a cloth or two to wipe your lenses, camera, binoculars, etc.; Ziploc bags to protect things. We did not put our camera in a bag, but some people did. Be sure that you bring extra batteries for your camera; the cold shortens the life of the battery. Be sure that you go to the bathroom however many times that you need to, because there are no toilets on the landings. However, in the Polo waiting lounge, you can go before you disembark. The excursions are only an hour, and you can hold it that long.
The group is asked to go to the Polo Lounge on Deck 8 and wait until the color and letter are called; you are asked to get there 10 minutes before your time. We were always there around 20 minutes before the time. (Sometimes the process gets ahead or behind times.) When the group's time is called, a crewmember escorts the group down to the gangway where each person has a life jacket put on them. It is necessary to keep your camera, binoculars, daypack, etc. off of your body until the life jacket is put on. It just holds up things if you have to take them off. You then stand in line until your Zodiac is ready to receive you.
When it is your time to disembark, you are led out to the gangway and down a set of steps. You step onto the pontoon of the Zodiac and onto the deck. There are adequate personnel there to assist you so that you feel confident in your boarding of the boat.
Once in the Zodiac you sit down with your other passengers, and you begin your trek. You cannot stand up to take photos without permission; it is important that you observe this because of balance. You can ask to permission to stand up, and your pilot will slow the Zodiac down. This was done several times and is a standard procedure—don't feel guilty doing this since you will want pictures from the Zodiac that cannot be taken sitting down.
You will have several types of excursions; these can change because of weather and ice conditions. This is what we did on our trip:
Deception Island -- this was done by the ship sailing through Neptune's Bellows into the caldera of the volcano. We sailed around the inside of the island; be sure that you get up early for this and go to the bow of the ship—it is worth it—cold because of the motion of the ship—wear some of your expedition gear and go out before breakfast. Some ships stop here so that the passengers can swim in the volcanic warmed water on the shore. The Marco Polo has eliminated this because passengers over the past years have considered the Zodiac excursion at Culverville Island more valuable.
Culverville Island—this is the first time we were in the Zodiac. It was a ride only; there was no landing. The pilot and guide took us around the island to see the rookeries of Gentoo penguins, the leopard and elephant seals, the different species of birds, and the many icebergs, bergy bits, and growlers (smaller and smaller still ice floes). It is a great beginning in preparation to an actual landing and gets you used to the whole process. You will take many more pictures than you think you will—get used to changing film with gloves on.
Cruising the Lamaire Channel -- a great shipboard experience. Once again get up early before breakfast, get on your cold gear and go to the bow of the ship to watch the process through the Channel. This is a rather narrow channel between the Antarctic Peninsula and Booth Island. There is a formation that is called Una's Tits at the beginning of the Channel; if the weather cooperates (which it did for us), it is a marvelous view of two pointed mountains that were aptly named by the whalers of an earlier time. Through the Channel, you will encounter Minkey Whales, Humpback Whales, Weddell Seals, multiple birds (don't ignore the birds—there are many and are part of the fauna of the area), and much ice. The ship will send a helicopter out before you go through to make sure that the Channel is open for sailing—that in itself is a neat sight! You might also get to see or at least hear a calving of an iceberg. We heard two but never saw them. Once through the Channel, the Captain makes a circle and turns back for a return trip the other way. If you missed the whales the first time, chances are you might get to see them this time. Sometimes they are on the starboard side and sometimes the port side. It is neat to see the passengers run from one side to the other (doesn't tilt the boat, however).
Port Lockroy -- This was the first real Zodiac landing for us. We took our boat to this three-island British Antarctic Territory. Only a certain amount of people are allowed on land at a time and thus the time and personnel constraints placed on the ship's crew. The British naturalists on the island assign the ship to one island or another; we were assigned to the middle island and landed on a rocky incline that we had to climb up. Again, there are plenty of people there to assist. Age is really no consideration for these landings; we saw people from their 20s into their 80s do it, so don't worry. There are several areas of interest on this island: old whale bones that make great photographs, the Gentoo rookeries, the birds—especially the Petrels which are huge and swoop around the area. The ship's naturalists ask you to stay 15 feet away from the penguins, but the penguins don't know this; you will see them up close and personal. You will never forget the smell and the sounds of the Gentoos; both are very unique. It will be neat because you will be able to see the chicks attempting to feed; they chase the adults until the adult gives up and allows the chick to stick his beak down the adult's throat. Be sure that you watch for the ritual of the male penguin bringing stones to the nest; also, don't be surprised if you see a Skua attack a chick. We did not witness this but saw the aftermath of it. You will have so many pictures of penguins in motion that you will not remember that you took them.
Your hour on the island will be over very quickly, and you will have to return to the "pier" to board your Zodiac back to the ship. However, before you do, you must have your boots scrubbed and cleaned by the ship's crew. This is because of the penguin guano in which you will be walking. These noble crewmembers should get a medal for what they do in the interest of keeping the ship's floors clean. You then get into your Zodiac as you did before and are zoomed back to the ship. You climb out with much help and ascend the ladder to the gangway. Take off your extra things around your neck since the crew will take off your life preserver. You are then led to an area where other crewmembers take off your boots and put them in a plastic bag. Keep them in the bag; no matter how much the shore crew scrubs, they won't get all the penguin guano off the boots. You are also offered tea or hot chocolate on your arrival.
The British naturalists come on board the ship to take a hot shower and have a really good meal (Marco Polo provides this to them). They also set up a post office at the Shore Excursion desk where passengers can buy British Antarctic Territory stamps and have postcards franked and sent from the compound. We did this and sent one to ourselves to see how long it would take. It is supposed to take around a month. The cards are eventually sent via some ship to the Falkland Islands, to England, and then wherever. The naturalists also sell several first issue stamps. They give a short talk that evening to the passengers on their life at Port Lockroy; you get a chance to ask questions.
Paradise Harbor and Waterboat Point -- This is a landing that you will step out onto the actual Antarctic Continent and Peninsula. There is a Chilean station here that has constructed an actual small dock and concrete walkways. See the Waterboat here; we didn't get to see it. It was snowing a great deal when we were here; this added to the aesthetic of the moment. There are as many Gentoos here as there are on Port Lockroy —maybe more; there is also a glorious huge glacier towards the east. The penguins and skuas have made it a necessity to nest and live in a religious icon that rests on a hill. As you ascend the island, you come to the Chilean compound where the crew lives. They will invite you into their dwelling to see how life on the Continent of Antarctica is conducted. Sign the logbook and don't forget to climb up to the lookout on top of the compound. Ask before you go into the house, however. Towards the south there is a souvenir shop that the Chileans have set up. This has some neat things that you can buy (they are made in Chile). You can get post cards that are stamped with the Chilean Antarctic Expedition stamp, a patch that you can put on your other arm of your red parka; a cap; Chilean wine; and much more. They will take USD.
After seeing these things and more Gentoos on the eastern side of the area, you will return to the dock and go through the ritual of the washing of the boots again. You then are transferred back to the ship.
Half Moon Island -- This is a small island in the shape of a half moon in the Shetland Islands and is your last landing. You have an additional challenge on this landing since once you arrive at the beach you have to swing your legs over the side of the pontoon and step into the water in order to ascend the beach. Once off the boat you walk up a fairly steep incline to where the Chinstrap penguins live. On your left is an old whaling dory that has been washed up and abandoned. It also makes a great picture. The Chinstraps live on several hills on this island. They make a different noise (kind of like a duck and a turkey combined) but have the same enduring qualities of the Gentoos—including projectile pooping—watch out. There are several trails that you can follow, but you must be careful to watch where you are walking; it is easy to lose your footing and fall—we saw several do this. It is a mess when you do this as you might imagine. We saw fur seals, giant petrels, and Antarctic Terns. The terns chase the petrels like sparrows chase crows since the petrels raid nests. Whales can be seen in the channel towards the west where there is another huge glacier. The icebergs and bergy bits are especially neat around this island; penguins and seals can often be seen on them. This is where your binoculars come in handy. It was really beautiful on our excursion here; the sun was out and the tops of the mountains on the peninsula were visible. It was so comfortable that we took our ski masks off. However, as we left after the washing of the boots in the ocean with help from the crew the weather abruptly changed. A cloud descended on the harbor and partially obscured the ship. A wind came up and it was really brisk and bumpy going back to the ship. Needless to say, we put the ski masks back on. When we got back to the ship and ascended the gangway for the last time, the crew took away our color/cohort badge; it was rather sad.
We hope that this will ally your fears about these excursions. They are a thing that you will never forget.