In this series, we’re sharing how expedition cruising can help you reach more remote, Bucket List destinations in comfortable, often luxurious accommodations. Expedition cruises bring you up-close encounters with wildlife, untouched landscapes and unparalleled adventures, all from the comfort of your expedition ship. Unlike traditional ocean cruises that focus on the ship, expedition cruises focus on far-flung destinations and the nature, history and culture of the places they visit. The ships are much smaller and itineraries tend to be much more adventurous.
It was snowing the morning I first set foot on Antarctica. The weather was exactly as I had imagined it would be on this morning; cold, overcast, snowing. On other days on the trip I’d be surprised by how warm it was, but not this day. I think that’s part of what made the first “landing” so perfect – it was very “Antarctic-y.”
This is what a trip to Antarctica is all about, getting off the expedition ship and exploring the continent. Standing on a glacier, amongst the wildlife. Seeing hundreds of thousands of penguins. Millions even. Every day you’ll have one or two landings, or sometimes a landing and a Zodiac cruise. The expedition ships that travel to Antarctica are small and ice-hardened, so they’re maneuverable and able to navigate waters full of sea ice. The captain and the naturalist crew will be looking for the best places to land that will afford you the best wildlife viewing, and they’ll also be on the lookout for whales, seals and sea birds you can see from your balcony.
First, let’s talk about gear. The Antarctic expedition season is typically November-March, which is summer in the southern hemisphere. Even so, temperatures can range from just below zero to around 30 degrees in a normal year. We experienced lows around 10 degrees at our furthest point south up to about 35-40 degrees on the warmest day at our northernmost stop. We’ll talk more about what to pack in another post, but two things you don’t have to pack are a parka and rubber boots – both of those will be provided to you by your expedition company.
The boots you’ll borrow; knee-high rubber boots that will keep your feet and calves dry, because you’ll be climbing out of the Zodiacs into shallow water in order to reach the land. You’ll also need a pair of waterproof pants that can fit over the boots; I used snowboarding pants, some others wore thinner water proof pants.
The parkas are warm, wind-proof coats that you get to take home. It will most likely be your favorite souvenir, and even if you’re from a warm climate you’ll end up wearing it all the time. The grocery store. Picking your kids up from school. The beach. Ok, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea!
Then there’s the mechanics – how do you get off the big boat onto the little boat? Let’s face it, a Zodiac looks like a tiny little rubber raft next to the ship, and you’re in Antarctica, so you’re wearing a lot of snow gear. I’ll admit to being a little nervous about this part when planning for this trip; I really didn’t want to be “that guy” and fall into the water in front of everyone (especially not freezing cold Southern Ocean water). Turns out, it’s actually very easy.
First, you’ll head down to the ship’s marina, located at the back of the ship on the lowest deck. Next, you’ll walk through a disinfecting solution to clean your boots; this is done every time you exit the ship, to make sure no harmful bacteria on the continent (you don’t want to give the penguins a disease!). Then you basically walk right onto the Zodiac; two crew members will be there to take your arms and help you onto the small boat. If you can walk down two steps, you can board a Zodiac! You sit on the side of the Zodiac, like a raft, and off you go! There are ropes you can use to hang on, but honestly I almost never needed to use those. Apart from one or two spots where we did some cruising through dense sea ice, the ride really isn’t all that bumpy.
The scenery in Antarctica is the most gorgeous I’ve seen anywhere in the world, but the highlight of this trip for me really was the wildlife. You climb off the Zodiacs right into the middle of penguin colonies, and I’m not exaggerating when I say you will see millions of penguins. We were accompanied not only by the amazing team of Adventures by Disney Adventure guides, but also by Ponant’s team of naturalists, who were able to answer all of our questions about what we were seeing.
The smallest colony we visited was about 5,000 breeding pairs and their chicks – the largest was more than 500,000 breeding pairs and their chicks. The sight – and the smell – is like nothing I have ever encountered.
The time I spent watching penguins waddle around, and waddle right up to me, is going to go down as a highlight of my life. Because it’s breeding season, you get to see penguins at all stages of life, from hatching out of an egg (right in front of you!) to fluffy young chicks covered in down, to crazy looking juveniles losing their fluff (the “teenagers” of the penguin world). We watched parents swimming out to sea to catch fish for their babies, and returning to barf it up all over them (like most birds, the parents regurgitate food into their babies mouths; it’s gross but cool).
In addition to penguins, we also saw a lot of seals. Fur seals were most common, but we also encountered Crabeater seals, Weddell Seals and a few others. Almost as entertaining as watching penguins waddle around is seeing seals trying to move on land. You also, unfortunately, experience the Circle of Life, sometimes a bit more close-up and personal than you might like. Penguins have a few main predators; the skua is a mean-looking sea bird with a nasty beak that swoops down and steals penguin chicks right out of their nests, and we saw many a baby being taken. They also have to watch out for leopard seals and orcas, and we saw penguins eaten by both of them. Both orcas and leopard seals like to play with their food, by the way, tossing the poor little guys up in the air in a sick game of penguin volleyball. I just kept humming “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King every time I had to watch a baby penguin being eaten by a bird.
Even surrounded by so many penguins – Business Geese, Fancy Chickens, Tuxedo Birds – it’s remarkably peaceful. There are literally no other humans for thousands of miles. No roads, no cars, no hustle. Not even any bustle. It’s incredible, as you stand there, to think that your feet are touching a place where very few other humans will ever stand.
Setting foot on the continent of Antarctica was a bit surreal, a Bucket List experience I never realized I needed to do. The landings are incredible, something I’m never going to forget. In spite of the long journey it takes to get to the bottom of the plant, and in spite of the smell that comes with a million penguins all in one place (everyone poops, after all), it’s something I can’t wait to do again.
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