Cruisers Heading for Antarctica have a Trio of
Vessel Categories from which to Choose
When I tell friends I'm cruising to Antarctica, I invariably get one of two conflicting responses. Some furl brows and in tones of utter disbelief ask, WHY? Others beam with envy and exclaim, WOW! These days the wows outnumber the whys.
World's coldest continent has become the hottest cruise destination. In the past 16 years, visitation to the Southern Ocean has soared over 500 percent.
Antarctica provides a cruise experience that's not for everyone. It offers no dock-side hucksters, no seaside shirt shops and no port-side post offices for mailing "wish you were here" cards back home. Folks visit Antarctica for its beauty, wildlife and a chance to experience an environment where little has changed since humans first sailed by.
Snow-capped mountains soar straight from the ocean, and frozen glaciers plunge to the sea. Massive icebergs float like mini-Gibraltars, their surfaces varying from ghost white to vivid blue.
Penguins strut the beach, looking like tuxedo-clad maitre d's ready to seat beach-strolling passengers. Overhead glide a host of seabirds that include albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, terns, gulls and skuas.
On the mammalian front, Antarctica offers a quintet of pinniped species ranging from mammoth elephant seals to predatory leopard seals. Seven varieties of whale inhabit the southern waters, including the massive blues, largest mammals on earth.
Human habitation has occurred only over the past two centuries, and the artifacts Antarctica's first residents left behind provide a museum in the wild. Today's occupation is largely limited to scientific bases. Many welcome visitors.
Getting to Antarctica is not easy. Cruises typically take a week or more and involve crossing some of roughest seas on the planet, including the infamous 600-mile Drake Passage between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula.
Three broad classes of ships service the bottom of the earth, and choosing an appropriate vessel can present a personal challenge. Each style, I've found, offers advantages and disadvantages.
SMALL ADVENTURE SHIPS
My first voyage to Antarctica was aboard the Akademik Ioffe, a Russian research vessel now operated by Quark Expeditions. A sister ship, the Akademik Mstislav Keldysh, starred as the modern-day research vessel in the movie Titanic. From its deck, the elder Rose dropped her diamond into the sea.
Adventure ships carrying under 200 passengers are the most common craft used in Antarctic cruising. They are small and intimate with luxury varying by vessel. While neither spacious nor opulent, the Ioffe provided comfortable accommodations and an unpretentious onboard environment.
For most of us, landings provide the biggest joy on Antarctic cruises. Most ships use Zodiacs, inflatable motorboats invented by Jacques Cousteau, to ferry passengers to and from shore. With capacities limited to about a dozen per shuttle, fewer passengers mean shorter waits, longer beach stays and more excursions per day. On my cruise, two-a-day landings were common.
With many small adventure ships, the bridge remains open to visitation. There, passengers can enjoy a captain's-eye view of the route, talk to officers and watch icebergs highlight the radar screen.
Most small adventure ships strive for education over entertainment. Naturalists offer slide lectures about natural and human history, and they can provide on-the-spot assistance identifying birds, mammals and places. Since the staff often dines with passengers, it's easy to supplement formal lectures with one-on-one conversations. Entertainment is usually limited to an evening video, which for some reason, seldom seems to feature the movie Titanic.
Small vessels have one distinct disadvantage. Built for icy waters, they seldom boast underwater stabilizer wings. In rough seas, adventure ships can bob like an olive in a martini shaker. On my cruise, only about a third of the passengers made it to breakfast after our first night on the Drake.
LARGER EXPEDITION SHIPS
For those wanting more space and amenities, a number of larger vessels cruise the icy south. My big-ship experience came onboard the now retired Ocean Explorer I as part of a world cruise. We sailed from Buenos Aires to the Falkland Islands and down to the South Shetland Islands on the Antarctic Peninsula, 200 nautical miles north of the Antarctic Circle.
Large ships have the advantage of space. Cabins may be more spacious and luxurious. Common areas may feature picture-windowed lounges where passengers can enjoy the frozen scenery with a frozen daiquiri in hand. Dining options often range from pre-dawn pre-breakfasts to dinners served at multiple seatings followed by midnight buffets for those still hungry. There may even be room service available.
Like their smaller counterparts, most expedition vessels offer numerous lectures and educational programs. They often feature group activities, better fitness centers and more entertainment possibilities.
Under new regulations, ships carrying fewer than 500 passengers can land folks ashore, with no more than 100 on the ground at any one time. The result is longer waits, less time ashore and fewer landings.
The bigger ships may be marginally more stable in the rough waters, but don't expect a miracle. When hit with winds capable of blowing Toto to Oz and waves cresting higher than a Kansas water tower, even the biggest boats can buck like a Wichita bull.
For those who think that even a 500 passenger vessel is too small, a handful of major cruise lines offer Antarctica detours on South American or world cruise itineraries. Passengers get a drive-by viewing of Antarctica, but because they cannot go ashore, the closest those cruisers will get to a penguin will be the tuxedo-clad maitre d's seating them for dinner.
While small adventure and larger expedition ships may feature "ice hardened" hulls, they are not capable of busting through a frozen sea. A genuine icebreaker can do exactly that.
The most famous passenger-toting, true icebreaker plying Antarctic waters is the Kapitan Khlebnikov operated by Quark Expeditions. Like adventure vessels, it carries a small number of passengers, its staff offers lectures about the places visited, and the bridge remains open to visitors.
Where the icebreaker cruise excels is in its ability to reach sites otherwise not reachable. On the Ioffe, we pushed to cross the Antarctic Circle. On the Khlebnikov, we literally bumped the southernmost edge of surface navigability.
Our route paralleled the Ross Ice Shelf, a California-size, ocean-covering sheet of frozen freshwater standing hundreds of feet high. Nearby towers Mount Erebus, the world's southernmost active volcano. McMurdo Station, headquarters for America's Antarctic operations, basks in its shadow.
It was near here in the early 1900s that Robert Falcon Scott and Earnest Shackleton prepared for their attempts to reach the pole. Their nearly century-old huts remain intact with leftover canned goods still occupying shelves.
While an icebreaker's advantage is accessibility, its disadvantage is a tendency to rock 'n' roll. Icebreakers break ice by sliding onto the surface and using the ship's weight to crush through. Thus, they sport rounded hulls with neither keels nor stabilizer fins. If the sea is calm, the ships sail smoothly. When the going gets rough, they ride like a boogie board through a class 5 rapid. Furniture must be strapped to floors, and beds include seatbelts to keep sleepers between the sheets.
On my voyage, side-tossing tilts reached 30 degrees or more. They provided yet another reason to beam and think, WOW!