Helicopters onboard m/v Ortelius helped us reach an Emperor penguin colony no expedition has been able to reach since 2013. Of course, penguins can be expected on almost every Antarctic cruise expedition, but our voyage on m/v Ortelius made an unusual foray south of the Antarctic Peninsula to the Weddell Sea, home to the only Emperor penguin colony passenger ships can reach. The onboard helicopters and the ship's highest ice-class rating enabled us to tackle some sea ice we encountered and face unexpected challenges in our attempt to find rarely seen Emperor penguins best known to many from the movie, "March of the Penguins."
Antarctica did throw us a few curveballs -- we met with shifting sea ice, a snowstorm and gusty winds. We wondered if we too would fail to reach the penguin colony on Snow Hill Island, just as other ships had failed in recent years. Ortelius' Captain Mika Appel, undaunted by ice, navigated the ship to a strategic spot that only a ship with an ice-strengthened hull could brave. Once winds calmed, it was a happy day as our two helicopters flew us in small groups to base camp, after which we took a short hike to the noisy colony of some 7,000 penguins. We watched fuzzy, gray six-month-old chicks comically waddling in imitation of tuxedoed fathers. A curious adult penguin crossed the perimeter we maintained in order not to alarm the colony. Our black and white inspector studied us one-by-one, as curious about our colony as we were about his.
In spite of the exhilarating adventures on offer, Ortelius is not the ship for everyone. During the first days of the voyage we overhead a woman muttering she didn't like the ship and we had to wonder if she had been expecting big cruise ship amenities. Generally speaking, that's not the nature of expedition vessels, and Ortelius is more seaman-like than some. The ship's lounge is more neighborhood pub than upscale bar and its plain-yet-functional cabins are no match for design-savvy staterooms on non-expedition cruise ships. But Ortelius leaps beyond plebeian settings when it comes to food, and dinner is something to look forward to, a meal that earns the descriptor "cuisine."
Among polar expedition ships, Ortelius stands apart as a true explorer. Its ice-strengthened hull allows navigation in year-old ice, and that -- combined with heliport and garage space for three helicopters -- allows Ortelius to delve deeper into polar exploration. Our sail south of the Antarctic Peninsula into the pack ice of the Weddell Sea put us in rarely visited waters, and at least a day's sail away from any other ship.
The ship's relatively small size, with a passenger capacity of 116, is a good size for mingling, plus there's no wait to board Zodiacs for trips ashore.
Ortelius' expedition team, led by the always-upbeat biologist Lynn Woodworth, shared a passion for sea birds, penguins, sea ice and all things Antarctica. They ran us through safety drills and environmental procedures -- yet all the while treating us more like fellow adventurers than unskilled passengers.
It's not always smooth sailing in the Antarctic, which is something every prospective Ortelius cruiser should know. On the night we sailed into a big storm in the Drake Passage, we were not altogether certain we wanted to continue our adventurer role. As we sailed into the storm, expedition team member Bill told us in his Scottish brogue, "You want to experience this storm." That night waves knocked the ship so high, we found ourselves heaped at the bottom of the bed. But once the ship stopped rearing like a bronco and explosion-like crashes had stopped signaling the ship was about to go down, we had to admit that, yes, we had wanted to experience that storm.
After all, an Antarctica voyage has to have some bragging rights.
Passengers on Ortelius range in age from 20s to late 70s, with a majority in the 45 to 60 set. More adventurous sailings -- such as the "Search for the Emperor Penguin" and "Base Camp Antarctica" skew younger, drawing solid numbers of the 20 to 30 set. Passengers, no matter their age, are adventure seekers and wildlife lovers; on our cruise there were birders, mountain climbers, filmmakers and photographers. Even during foul weather, an intrepid bunch hovered on deck, watching for whales, seals and stunning vistas.
Oceanwide Expeditions, which owns Ortelius, is based in the Netherlands, so the ship draws many passengers from European nations and Britain. Canada, Australia, Japan, China, the U.S. plus other Asian and South American nationalities add to the passenger makeup. Small tour groups with their own translators may be onboard, as well.
Announcements and programs are all in English; a few itineraries are bilingual but English is always the first language.
We spent a month packing for this trip, but it wasn't to color-match evening dresses with shoes. Ortelius' dress code is "don't get cold," and people show up all over the ship in whatever layer happens to be the top layer at the time.
Oceanwide Expeditions does give specific instructions on footwear. If you aren't wearing the right boots, expedition staff can bar you from shore expeditions on Zodiacs. The right boot is the Muck, a waterproof rubber boot that fits snugly enough to hike. Ortelius will provide Muck boots in your size for free if you let them know your needs early on. But we bought our own to be sure the boots fit snugly enough for hiking.
All shore expeditions, including helicopter transport, are included on Ortelius cruises. Muck boots can be ordered and loaned out at no charge.
Good Argentinian red and white wines are included with lunch and dinner. Coffee service in the lounge area runs around the clock, with a machine dispensing options such as cappuccino, latte, hot chocolate and plain coffee. Tea is also available around the clock, along with a basket of tea biscuits. There's also an included daily 4 o'clock sweet such as cake or pastry.
Gratuities are not included and are suggested at 8 to 10 euro per person a day, plus additional for exceptional service. The euro is the official currency onboard.
Fantastic Antarctica Expedition cruise in December