Prepping for Your Antarctica Cruise: 6 Tips for the 7th Continent

So you’re considering an Antarctic expedition.

You’re not alone — the fastest-growing segment of the cruise business is expedition cruising, and a wild array of lines, from Atlas Ocean Voyages to Silversea, Princess to Ponant, Hurtigruten to Swan Hellenic, all have cruises to Antarctica in 2023. Porthole was recently fortunate enough to sail aboard Quark Expeditions’ Ultramarine (expect more on this new ship in Porthole Cruise and Travel Magazine) and came away with some insights for getting the best out of an Antarctica Cruise.

  1. Lectures. Attend them. Ultramarine was a fantastic ship, but the greatest asset on board was the expertise offered by more than 30 expedition guides. They included historians, marine biologists, ornithologists, military pilots, safari guides, and researchers who’d spent years above the Arctic Circle in Svalbard or at facilities in Antarctica like McMurdo Base.  They are, in the best possible way, geeks. They love polar regions, they know an awful lot about them, and they’re super eager to share their enthusiasm. This isn’t like school. It’s like a sneak preview of what you’ll be seeing on your landings. You’ll come away a big fan of krill, light-mantled sooty albatrosses, and Commandant Jean-Baptiste Charcot (who brought Champagne and a croissant baker on his Antarctic expedition). If you can’t catch the lectures in person, they should also be available via simulcast in your cabin.

2. Mid-layers. Don’t overdo them.

This may be Antarctic travel heresy, but most of the time when visits take place, it’s Antarctic summer. You can tell the folks back home you were braving sub-zero winds to rub noses with the penguins, but the temperatures are really more like Boston in November. Once you’re on the ship, the best tip is to walk both sides of the outer decks (it’s Deck Five on Ultramarine) before breakfast and adjust your wardrobe accordingly.
When packing, avoid cotton. It holds water, and you’ll be on boats and in snow. You’ll want a base layer (merino wool, silk, or polyester thermals, a couple of pairs of wool socks), and maybe two mid-layers (a long-sleeved shirt, wool pants or synthetic leggings, a wool sweater or non-cotton fleece). Your cruise line will probably provide your outer layer: loaned snow boots and a parka to keep in a distinctive shade of yellow. (On our flights home, the Quark guests were resplendent in a bright canary while the Seabourn folks in the same passport lines wore a deeper goldenrod.)

That and a hat, gloves, and scarf are really about it. You can get any other warmth you need from a pack of chemical handwarmers kept in pockets or boots. They’ll also keep your phone battery alive a little longer in the cold. 

Photo: Porthole Cruise & Travel

3. Bathroom floors. They’re heated. If you’re the kind of cruiser who’s not above doing a little laundry in the bathroom sink, heated floors are the perfect clothes drier. But they’re also ideal for doing what they’re designed for: returning sensation to your frozen fingers and toes after a few hours walking with the penguins on shore or spotting fin whales on deck.
Basically, thanks to this simple bit of technology, every cabin comes with its own private sauna. Just bear in mind that it takes more than an hour for them to reach full temperature, so turn them on before you head out and they’ll be toasty on your return (plus your freshly washed T-shirts will be ready to change into). 

4. Learn the lingo. 

    • Sporty is expedition leader-ese for “F@ rough!” as used in the phrase, “Well, the winds are gusting over 45 knots so it’s looking a little sporty out there.” 
    • Fresh is expedition leader-ese for “F@ cold!” as used in the sentence, “That low pressure we saw on yesterday’s charts brought the mercury below 0-degrees C this afternoon, so it’ll be a bit fresh at Danco Island tomorrow morning.”
    • Whipping describes the wind and/or waves once the captain has closed outer decks until conditions improve; in other words, the weather that you are not expected to partake in. Example sentence: “It’s started whipping out there, so I’m afraid those doors should remain closed until Captain says otherwise.”

5. High seas. Expect them. (But don’t freak out.)  Unless you’re on one of the few passenger ships departing from New Zealand, you’re going to be spending time in the notorious Drake Passage, where 8-meter seas are not uncommon. That means waves of more than 25 feet. 

Some of your fellow travelers will rely on prescription scopolamine patches. Others of us go with the flow. Keep watching the horizon. Don’t let yourself get hungry. Take a green apple from the breakfast buffet and keep it in your cabin just in case. Take a Bonine as soon as your palms start sweating (except with the aforementioned handwarmers). Order a ginger beer. If the bartender adds rum and a lime, that’s a dark and stormy. The rum will not help, but the ginger will.

Don’t lock eyes with that polar-bear photo in the forward stairwells. That beast does not have your best interests at heart. Look out the window. Sip tea in the observation lounge, if you can.

This is the windiest region on Earth, but what blows in will also blow out. Tranquility is waiting there, just over the horizon. Keep staring out there and you’ll find it. . 

Photo: Porthole Cruise & Travel

6. Bring your phone as well as a camera. The best photos will happen off the ship, but they might not take place on land. If you’re on a Zodiac zipping between icebergs and a family of humpbacks starts surfacing nearby, you’ll want to snap a photo quickly. You’ll want to keep your nice camera and fancy telephoto lens in a waterproof bag — but an iPhone in a Ziploc bag is just as waterproof and can be in your hand in a second. 

And if you’re lucky enough to snap a sounding whale’s splashing tail, you can use that same phone to load the photo up to The site should be able to identify that individual whale from its tail, and can send you emails as it’s tracked during its global migrations. 

Another advantage of keeping a phone handy is to be able to record videos with sound. Until you’ve stood in the middle of a colony of 150,000 king penguins, waddling carefully around the fleshy mountains of half-snoozing fur seals, you can’t really appreciate the sounds of an Antarctic voyage. 

As much as photos, that cacophony is something worth remembering from a bucket-list trip. 

Photo: Porthole Cruise & Travel

Reporter, mystic, musician, and beekeeper, Grant Balfour has published work in outlets as diverse as Kung Fu Magazine, Biscayne Times, the Australian poetry journal Cordite, and the Weekly World News. His second-favorite beaches include Richard’s Bay, South Africa; Sanur, Bali; Los Mochis, Mexico; the northern bank of the Elbe in Hamburg; and the one five minutes from his home in Florida. His favorite beach is the one between his ears.