If you mention “going on a cruise”, the stereotypical trip comes to mind. Packing swanky new tropical-style clothes, smart-casual with some blingy little numbers for the evening; loafers for the guys with perhaps a gaudy shirt and Bermuda shorts.
The ship is huge, with several hundred or more passengers, four meals a day, dancers, magicians, a casino, bingo and shuffle board, as well as the chance to lounge on a deck next to a pool, soaking up the sun.
Expedition cruising could not be further from this image. The ships are small by comparison and usually only have about 100 passengers, with the emphasis on education, interesting destinations and adventure. Lecturers give insight into the history, anthropology, wildlife, music, geology and archaeology of the places to be visited. Activities can involve scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking, hiking, bird and whale watching or even visiting rural villages and schools.
If you are on an expedition cruise in the Mediterranean, ancient cultures, or classical music, can be themes for a voyage, while expeditions along the West African coast might centre on cultural diversity and the Indian Ocean, with its many islands, is an exciting expedition cruise destination. The days are filled with shore excursions and evenings taken up with recap stories at the cocktail hour, where the day’s events are relived in a light-hearted way.
The secret weapons of an excellent expedition cruise are an adventurous leader and a fleet of zodiacs. These small, flat-bottomed rubber craft have an outboard motor and can carry about 10 people. This means the ship can go almost anywhere. Even if there is no pier, intrepid explorers can disembark into a zodiac and land on the beach or a small jetty in shallow water, offering many options and the greatest flexibility. It all depends on the destinations, which can range from a tiny West African island to Antarctica.
So, let’s talk about Antarctica. An expedition cruise ship will anchor close to the shore and passengers land on at least two places each day and possibly enjoy a zodiac cruise. Remember, it hardly gets dark at night in the Land of the Midnight Sun, so a late evening expedition can be special.
The most accessible part of the great Antarctic continent is the Antarctic Peninsula jutting out into the Southern Ocean and the infamous Drake Passage. The peninsula is protected by the Bransfield and Gerlache straits and the South Shetland Islands, so once you are down there it is often surprisingly sheltered and calm.
The starting point is Ushuaia, Argentina, a small town at the southern tip of South America.
A day and a half should get you across the straits, which can be the Drake Shake or the Drake Lake! You should have one of each just so you know what it’s about – it all adds to the experience and just think of all the albatrosses and Giant Petrels to be seen.
During the crossing, there will be lectures on penguins and other seabirds, glaciology, meteorology, marine mammals and the amazing history of the discovery era when great explorers traversed the continent in old-fashioned clothing, with poor food and no internet, in the most vicious weather.
Information will be given about the strict code of ethics and the dos and don’ts for your safety in this sometimes hostile environment.
There are never two ships in one place, as a timetable has been worked out to ensure the feeling of extreme wilderness is sustained.
Once you have seen your first iceberg, the fun begins. The trusty zodiacs, skippered by strong and fearless men and women, land you on the beach, minding the penguins and seals.
You can climb the ridges of Penguin Island and peer into the crater of a long-extinct volcano, slide down a snow-covered hill at the abandoned Almirante Brown Station and be enchanted by the penguins and their antics on Cuverville Island.
Gentoo, Adélie and Chinstrap penguins can be seen in their hundreds on many of the islands. Sit quietly and you may be rewarded by an inquisitive penguin pecking at your boots. Weddell, crabeater and leopard seals can be seen lounging on ice floes and the enormous elephant seals hang out on a few of the more northerly islands.
When ice does not block the way, the ship might traverse the famously beautiful Lemaire Channel, where sheer black mountains and ice tower above the narrow channel, which is a mere 800m wide in places. Glaciers and peaks line the way. The ship may proceed a little further south, to visit the Ukranian research station, Akademik Vernadsky, where the bar is festooned with a variety of colourful, outsize bras! One of the scientists might take you on a tour of the station, explaining the research, and treat you to a tot of vodka. You can visit the Wordie Hut and the museum. It is exhilarating to climb the snowy hills around the station.
Another station you can visit is Port Lockroy on Goudier Island, administered by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust. It has an interesting little museum, with penguins resting on the steps, and a small gift shop.
Normally, your ship will only visit one station on a 10-day trip though if the ice has choked up the approach, this will be impossible, but there are so many places to see around the peninsula you will never be disappointed.
There could be time to wallow in a heated pool dug in the volcanic beach of the Deception Island caldera or to have a memorable zodiac ride in Paradise Bay with minke and humpback whales making eye contact. Experience the surreal fantasy world of wind- and wave-sculpted icebergs, with archways and domes, crenellated castles or gigantic sharks, delicate icicles glinting in the sun and the breathtaking majesty of glaciers and icebergs with intense blues emanating from the depths of the fissures in the compressed ice.
A zodiac ride among these icebergs, which often collect around the Pléneau Islands, could be one of the highlights of a trip.
When to go
My favourite time is the beginning of January as there is still plenty of snow and the penguin chicks are tiny and adorable. Earlier in the season, which generally begins in early December, it is awesomely beautiful with thick snow and tiny penguin chicks or parents sitting on eggs. Later in the season, early February, the chicks are big, cuddly and curious but a bit smelly! It really does not matter when you go – every day in the season is different.