Antarctica expedition cruise

A Gentoo penguin rookery against a glacier backdrop


Antarctica expedition cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina. The cruise ship only had capacity for 200 guests and did a combination of zodiac rides and on-shore excursions on the white continent. There were also other activities such as sea kayaking, overnight camping and polar plunge.

Time of Cruise: January 2024

Duration of Cruise: Eleven nights


“Wow”, “Magnificent”, “Astonishing”, “Magical” are some of the one word superlatives to describe an  Antarctica expedition cruise.  Unfortunately, pictures do not do justice to convey what someone would experience on trip of a lifetime. It is a whole new level of cruising and traveling.  In a nutshell, an Antarctica expedition cruise is an intimate style of cruising whose aim is to explore several places on the white continent.  There are no set schedule or ports to go to.  The cruise ship basically “parks” itself a kilometer or two from land and make expedition runs on zodiac boats to see wildlife and the astounding scenery.

You have come to the right place if you want to know more about Antarctica expedition cruising.

What Is Expedition Cruising?

Expedition cruising is very different from regular cruise ships.  It is several notches better.  The main differences between expedition cruising and regular cruising are the cost, ship size and the off-the-ship activities (see later sections regarding off-ship activities).

Expedition cruises normally go to the Antarctic peninsula which is the narrow land mass that jut out northwards. There are classes of ships that determine how far south they can go. Our ship captain said that the ship we were on is limited to just below the Antarctic circle. Any further south and the ship could be at risk of getting stuck if surrounded by sea ice unlike icebreaker class ships. We were at one point during the cruise the southernmost cruise ship in the Antarctic.

Expedition team presentation showing our ship being the the southernmost cruise ship

Not all Antarctic expedition cruises are equal. Some do just do explorations north of the Antarctic circle while others venture further south past the 66 degree and 33 minute latitude. Those that stay north of the Antarctic circle may have more off-ship activities that those that sail further south.

Our ship’s destinations after six days. Not marked are Cuverville Island, Neko Harbor and Fournier Bay up in the upper peninsula.
Our ship celebrating its first time crossing of the Antarctic circle


Antarctica expedition cruising is much more expensive than regular cruising.  Expect to pay anywhere from $8,000 USD (promotional price) to as much as $15,000 USD.  We started looking at Antarctica expedition cruises beginning in August for planned sailing in January the following year. 

Our on-line research was not getting us anywhere.  We tried travel agents in the US and they were able to cut a couple of thousand dollars off the total cost but it was still expensive.  It was just by plain luck that we overheard a couple of guys in an airplane from Buenos Aires to El Calafate who said they were going on an Antarctica expedition cruise.  This was about a month before our planned sailing.

The gentlemen gave us their travel agent information in Buenos Aires who found for us an 11 day cruise with Atlas Expedition Cruises (hint:  look for last minute cruises).  The cost was less than half of what we were finding on the internet on our own. (sorry, we cannot divulge what we paid for based on a signed non-disclosure agreement).


Our cruise ship had all balcony cabins. There are no interior cabins. Beds are either a queen or two twins. There is not much separation between two twin size beds. There is a small sofa. There is internet but it is limited to 1 GB of data per guest. You have to pay if you exceed the data limit. Guests have no way of tracking their data usage except by occasionally asking the ship’s concierge on their computer.

Typical queen bed cabin
Typical queen bed cabin

Ship Size

Our cruise ship, the World Voyager

We went with Atlas Expedition Cruises on their World Voyager ship.  The ship’s guest capacity is only 200 people unlike the big cruise ships that carry a couple of thousand guests.  There were only about 148 guests during our cruise.  Crew size hovers around 130 so it is almost a 1:1 ratio.

By international law, only 100 people from a cruise vessel can set foot on Antarctic land.  So expedition cruise ships would need to be small in order to allow all its guests to experience the expedition activity for the day.  


Schedule flexibility is the main expectation in an Antarctic expedition cruise.  The ship’s expedition leader always said that the weather and sea are the master.  Expeditions are canceled if there are strong winds. Our ship’s captain said that he would make plans on where to go at the start of the cruise.  But often, those plans are changed because of the ever changing weather in Antarctica.  They basically look at the weather forecast and head towards an area where the forecasted weather is color coded “blue” which often means the fair winds. Our ship could not get to Detaille Island as initially planned because the path was blocked by ice. We had to change our destination on the fly essentially going to places where the weather forecast was favorable.

Guests and crew alike are expected to respect the environment.  The main rule to follow is that no foreign object is to be left in Antarctica except the boot prints on the snow.  Even sitting, kneeling and setting bags on Antarctic land is strongly discouraged.  The Antarctic expedition cruise industry wants Antarctica to remain as pristine as possible. 

Expedition Activities

It truly feels like an expedition

Atlas Expedition Cruises offered four kinds of expedition activities. These are zodiac rides, landing, kayaking and camping.  Zodiac rides, as the name implies, is basically cruising on the water.  Nobody gets out of the zodiac except when returning to the ship.  It is a great way to get close to icebergs, seals resting on floating icebergs or whales feeding in the area.

Landing is setting foot on land.  Guests are shuttled from the ship to land and taken back to the ship after an hour or so. Landing is a great way to get close to penguins and also see amazing scenery.   The trails marked by the expedition team go up in elevation to scenic vantage points.  Landings and zodiac rides do not occur at the same time.  It is either one or the other.

Kayaking happens in parallel with a zodiac ride or a landing.  So if you do kayaking, you will miss out on the other planned activity for the day.  In our opinion, kayaking and zodiac rides would see about the same thing but would see the same thing as a landing. By going kayaking,  you also have the flexibility to maneuver your kayak to take better pictures.  Kayakers only stay in the water, i.e. no landing.

Our cruise ship also has a polar plunge right off the ship gangway.  The polar plunge happened after the expedition activities.  Our polar plunge happened on day four of our cruise when weather and sea conditions were appropriate. 

Zodiac Ride

A zodiac cruise

A zodiac ride is basically getting on an inflated rubber boat (the ones you see used by commandos in movies) and zipping around a body of water to look at wildlife and the natural environment.  We saw seals lying on icebergs and penguins and whales swimming in the water during our zodiac rides. It is a great way to cover a lot of area in a short amount of time.  A zodiac ride only involves riding.  There is no getting off the zodiac except getting back on the cruise ship.

A typical zodiac ride lasts 1 hr 15 min to 1hr 30 minutes, depending on the number of guests and the planned activities for the day.  In our case, we were divided into six groups with each group having 28 members.  The ship had a dozen zodiacs with each zodiac carrying no more than 10 guests at a time (a zodiac maximum capacity is 12 not including the driver).

Our cruise had a total of five zodiac rides. 


Expedition guides assisting guests on where to go on a typical landing. Notice the group of penguins welcoming the expedition.

A landing activity is setting foot on land to do some explorations.  Landing often takes place where there is wildlife or more specifically a penguin colony.  The penguins have no fear of humans because of infrequent contact.  There were times the penguins were within arms reach as they waddled from their nest to shore or vice versa.

The ship’s expedition team would scout the area first for a landing site.  They would cone or flag the path where the guests can wander around.  Landing time is anywhere between 1 hour to 1 hour 30, depending on the number of guests.  More guests means shorter expedition time because of the limited zodiacs and drivers to shuttle guests to and from the landing site.

It is a great way to observe the wildlife in their natural environment and see some awe inspiring views.

On our cruise, we had a total of three landings, all at different locations.  A fourth landing was canceled due to bad weather.  Typically, the cruise ship would do a landing in the morning, move the ship during lunch and have another landing in the afternoon.


Kayaks getting ready to be towed to the kayaking site
Kayakers in the water

Kayaking is another activity that allows guests to get close to small floating icebergs.  Our ship had six tandem sea kayaks so only 12 guests could be on the water per excursion.  Each expedition was accompanied by two guides.

Kayakers are the first to disembark from the ship.  The zodiacs whisks the kayaks and the guests to the kayaking area.  You have to have a certain amount of agility, dexterity and strength to be able to get into a kayak from a zodiac that is bobbing up and down due to the waves.

Kayak expedition lasts around 2.5 hours.  Kayakers stay on the water.  There is no landing.  At the start of our trip, there was only one kayak expedition per day.  Later on the ship made two kayak expeditions a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, to give all the people that  signed up for the activity the experience.

On our cruise, it costs $200 USD per person to go on a kayak trip.  You have to sign up for the kayaking activity.  You either sign up when you book the cruise or in the cruise ship.  People that book the activity when they booked the cruise are prioritized, meaning they are assigned to the first group.  We signed up during the cruise so we were assigned to the last group.  We had to cancel our kayak trip because we would miss out on the landing expedition.


Camping was only done once during our cruise.  Camping cost was $500 USD per person.  The campers were taken to land around 9:30 PM and picked up around 5:30 AM the following day.  The campers told us there were provisions for doing #1 but not #2.  If a camper had to do #2, they would have to be taken back to the ship and stay in the ship, essentially ending the camping experience.

Campers slept on the snow inside a bivy.  No tents were provided.

Antarctica Cruising Season

Cruising season begins in November and ends sometime in March.  Go early in the season and there is a good chance that passages can still be blocked with ice or icebergs.  Go late in the season and there is a possibility of a freak weather occurrence that could significantly alter the ship’s itinerary.

Clothing To Bring

Atlas Expedition Cruise provided us with really warm parka and waterproof boots (almost to the knees) for zodiac rides and landings. We only needed a base layer under the warm parka.   We had the option to bring home the parka if we wanted to at no additional cost so make sure you leave room in your luggage.

Expedition boots provided by the cruise company. Boots passes thru a disinfecting and cleaning machine upon returning to the ship.

The travel agent recommended to bring waterproof pants in case there is splashing during the zodiac rides or threading through snow.  We never got wet except when we had to stand in the water as we got off the zodiac during landings.  But the boots kept our feet dry.  I wore a leg base layer, hiking pants and rain pants and it was sufficient during the fast zodiac ride though I could feel the cold air penetrating. 

The cruise ship has a mud room for changing from ship clothes to expedition clothes. Our mudroom looked like a football locker room where there are open stalls to hang jackets and store boots. Each stall is numbered by cabin number. Clothing that come in contact with the outside environment, i.e. parka, pants and boots, remain in the mudroom.

Rain pants, beanies, scarves and bags, especially those with velcro, that are to be worn during the expedition are inspected by the expedition team for any food scraps and insects. Clothing that are not exposed to the environment or never worn need not be inspected. They just want to make sure that there are no food scraps and other foreign items that could inadvertently be dropped while out on expedition.

Using cotton clothing during expeditions was highly discouraged.  

Gloves are also a necessity during days when there is a combination of wind and cloud cover.  Gloves were provided for kayakers but those get wet during paddling so another pair of dry gloves would be needed for the zodiac ride back to the ship.

Sun Protection

Sunscreen should be applied to exposed areas as the sun rays are more intense in the southern hemisphere during the summer.  A good pair of sunglasses is a must to prevent snow blindness.  Some people wore ski goggles.  

Motion Sickness

Do bring any motion sickness medicine if you are one of those people who gets easily sick on a ship.  There is the term called “The Drake Shake” which pertains to the two days of crossing the Drake Passage.  Three to five meter swells are common on the Drake Passage on a good day.  I asked the ship’s captain what he worries about the most and he said it is crossing the Drake Passage. Our ship changed course on the return trip to Ushuaia to avoid swells that were more than five meters due to strong winds.

The worst cabins in the ship are located in the upper and forward deck as the rocking motion is most pronounced.  

Back on land and after the cruise, the aftermath of “The Drake Shake” could stay with you for a day or two.  We were on the 11th floor of our hotel and thought that the building was swaying when we were standing still.  We later realized that it was just the lingering effect of “The Drake Shake”.    


An Antarctic Expedition Cruise is a once in a lifetime experience (OK maybe more than once if you have the money for it).  Though the cost may be expensive, it is well worth the money.  There is no other way to set foot on the white continent unless you work in one of the research outposts scattered around it.  

Expedition cruises are much smaller in size than the large cruise ships.  They need to be because only 100 people at a time are allowed to set foot on land in the Antarctic continent.  This is their way of minimizing human impact so that the continent remains as pristine as possible.

Expeditions come in the form of zodiac rides, landings, kayaking and camping.  The same zodiacs are used for rides and landing so it is one or the other.  Kayaking occurs in parallel with zodiac rides or landing so you will not be able to do both.  Camping allows you to sleep on top of the ice and under the stars. Just make sure you do not have to do a #2 or your camping experience is over.

Some people handle “The Drake Shake” well and some do not.  Just be ready for it, especially if you do not have sea legs.  It takes two days to cross the Drake Passage and has to be done twice.  This inconvenience is a small price to pay for a once in a lifetime experience.  As I overheard from one guest – “It is the best vacation ever!”