Antarctica Update: Last Chance for Big-Ship Cruises?

December 29, 2010

(1:45 p.m. EST) -- The Antarctica cruising season is now under way, but for some lines, it will be their last. As we reported previously, changes have been made regarding the type of fuel ships are allowed to burn and carry in this fragile ecosystem -- making it too expensive for big cruise ships to continue visiting the region. But will these changes have an impact on your future plans to cruise Antarctica?

Perhaps not as much as you'd think.

First, some background. A rule was passed in summer 2009 by the International Maritime Organization banning the use and carriage of heavy fuel oils -- the type commonly burned by big ships -- in the Antarctic. A spillage of this type of fuel is considered too much of a risk -- and accidents do happen, as we witnessed in 2007 when Gap Adventures' M/S Explorer was holed by ice and sank. The deadline for the new regulation's implementation is August 1, 2011.

Most small expedition cruise ships are unaffected, as almost all run on marine gas oil and marine diesel oil, neither of which will be banned. However, the problem facing the larger cruise lines is that not only will ships be banned from using heavy fuel oil, they won't be allowed to carry it, either. That means they'd have to use the more expensive fuel for the long trip back to South America, including in waters where the cheaper, heavier fuel would be permitted.

The upshot? This season, which runs through February, will be the last in Antarctica for many lines, including Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Regent Seven Seas and Crystal Cruises. Holland America and Azamara Club Cruises will visit the region in 2011-2012, and Silversea Cruises will continue to send its expedition ship, Prince Albert II.

But agents tell us that most clients aren't bothered by this decrease in Antarctica options. Most travelers who want the full-on Antarctica experience with penguin sightings and Zodiac landings choose the smaller, expedition lines, which will continue to visit the region.

"Crystal's and Regent's cruises are South America cruises, not true Antarctica sailings," says Premium Cruises president Joyce Kluger. "You're in the lower latitudes, but you're not close enough to experience the region and its intimate features." She says she's always directed her clients away from the big-ship cruises that include Antarctica sail-bys, unless they're more interested in the South America part of the itinerary.

And it's not as if many choices are disappearing. For this Antarctica season, Crystal and Regent Seven Seas each scheduled one Antarctic itinerary and Princess and Celebrity planned two, many of which have sold out. But if you're looking to visit the southernmost continent during the 2011-2012 season, you'll find you still have plenty of choices of cruise lines and itineraries from which to choose.

--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor