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Exploring Antarctica – Cruise by or step on?

Cruise by or step on-featured image-silver

A highlight of my year was doing my Antarctica expedition cruise. A lot of lines offer cruises to Antarctica, but there are many different approaches so there are key details that are not obvious but make a big difference…

Exploring Antarctica – Cruise by or step on? 

Imagine a remote and pristine wilderness, a world of ice and snow that few have had the opportunity to explore. Antarctica, the southernmost continent on Earth, has long captivated adventurous travelers with its otherworldly landscapes, breathtaking glaciers, and abundant wildlife.

This awe-inspiring destination is typically visited via cruise ship, but there’s a broad range of cruise experiences. Before you book your plans, it’s important to define your expectations and the type of experience you desire. Most people don’t realize there is an essential factor that can make or break your Antarctic adventure – the size of the ship.

Size Matters 

When booking an Antarctic cruise, one crucial factor that often goes overlooked is the size of the ship. The size of the vessel can significantly impact the overall experience of the cruise, as it determines the accessibility to different areas of Antarctica and the opportunities for landings and wildlife sightings.

Ships carrying more than 500 guests onboard are not allowed to land while in Antarctica. Any larger cruise ship that includes Antarctica in its itinerary will be doing scenic cruising, but the passengers will not be stepping on the continent. Larger ships are also prohibited from entering certain areas in Antarctica.

Ships that have 499 or fewer passengers are able to disembark passengers in Antarctica, but there are still strict guidelines, as only up to 100 guests from one ship are allowed to be on land at any one time.

Ships that are designed for expedition cruising, with landings in the polar regions, are not regular cruise ships and have been modified with an ice hull and specific ship features such as ice-detector sonar. Depending on the size, they carry 10-25 zodiacs, kayaks, and have a dedicated ‘mudroom’ area for guests to prepare for excursions.

Scenic Cruising vs. Stepping On 

Cruising in Antarctica on a larger ship typically involves sailing through the Antarctic waters on a cruise ship without making any landings. Passengers can enjoy the stunning views of icy landscapes, glaciers, and unique wildlife from the comfort of their cabin.

For these larger ships, the cruise lines promote the visit to Antarctica as a scenic cruising experience. The ships cruise slowly through the area, and they will feature experienced guides providing commentary and pointing out wildlife or significant sights on land.

On the other hand, stepping on Antarctica involves setting foot on the continent and exploring its landscapes and wildlife up close. This is typically done through landings via small boats or zodiacs from the cruise ship, allowing passengers to disembark and venture onto the Antarctic continent.

Stepping in Antarctica provides a more immersive experience, allowing travelers to walk on the snowy terrain, witness the breathtaking vistas of mountains and glaciers up close, and encounter Antarctica’s unique wildlife, such as penguins, seals, and seabirds, in their natural habitat.

Determine your preferences

Both scenic cruising and stepping on Antarctica offer unique and awe-inspiring experiences, and you will want to decide what is most important to you.

Cruising on a larger cruise ship tends to have a significantly lower price point than smaller expedition ships and may provide more entertainment and amenities on board, and Antarctica is often included as part of a longer cruise visiting many ports along the South American coast.

Scenic cruising in Antarctica is suitable for various physical fitness levels, as most activities are optional and customizable. Some of the larger ships are able to accommodate wheelchair or scooters, so those with limited mobility can enjoy breathtaking views, wildlife spotting, and learning from expert guides. The scenery in Antarctica is extraordinary, and sights of icebergs, glaciers, whales, seals and penguins will still be part of the experience.

Expedition cruises that offer landings on the continent of Antarctica are perfect for those looking for an immersive and hands-on experience, setting foot on the pristine wilderness. Expeditions tend to have a team of trained scientists and naturalists who can provide insights for a deeper understanding of Antarctica’s ecosystems, history, and wildlife.

In addition to the opportunity to actually walk on Antarctica, different expedition cruise lines can provide other excursions, such as kayaking, and some ships have submarines.

Expedition cruising doesn’t always include a landing since there are so many variables such as weather and ice and wildlife. Zodiac cruising can be just as amazing, where you can lean over and grab a chunk of ice from water or see a whale spout right beside you.

Differences in Sizes of Expedition Ships

In general, with fewer guests on board, each person will have more opportunities to go ashore throughout the entire voyage, maximizing their landings experience.

While guests on Antarctica-bound ships can still participate in the zodiac or kayaking tours, it’s more important to note that the number of opportunities to disembark from the ship may decrease with more guests on board. Typically, ships accommodate anywhere from 100 to 499 passengers.

A general rule of thumb is that ships in the 100-250 range will have two excursions per day, and ships that are 250-499 will have one excursion per day.

Decide your Antarctica Experience

Being aware of the variations in the different Antarctica experiences helps you decide what type of experience you want, and what size ship provides what you are looking for.

Regardless of which option you choose, taking a cruise to Antarctica is unlike anything else you will do in your lifetime. You will experience wilderness and wildlife in a way that no other venture can offer.