Trying to prepare for this trip was just as much of a cluster as my pre-req dives with Kristen. There is such mixed information out there that decoding it was a bit of a nightmare. So below are answers to a handful of things I would have found useful when mentally and logistically preparing for my trip.
How do I even book a trip to Antarctica?
Antarctica is one of the few places on Earth that you can’t just book a flight and go to on your own. There are no direct flights, and there are no hotels when you get there. You have to stay on an “expedition” (cruise) ship, and the number of boats going is increasing each year. There are 26 new ships expected to set sail in the 2019 season, so Antarctica is about to jump the shark (lion seal?).
To find the expedition companies that go down, I did a lot of Google searches. There are a tons of companies that go, mostly based in Australia or the UK (I didn’t find a single US-based company). I read through the websites for the top ten or so companies and narrowed my outreach down to those that seemed to offer some form of activities, looking for the ultimate jackpot of an expedition that included scuba diving. Pick your desired activity (if any) and narrow your search down that way. Then reach out to each of those companies for more information. They will provide you with everything you need to know, from expedition dates and costs to packing lists. They will likely even add you to their mailing list, where you could end up with a last minute deal like I did through Waterproof Expeditions, who targets divers and snorkelers in particular for Aurora Expedition.
What is fly/sail?
Once you do a little research, you’ll see that pricing is all over the map. Some of that cost is based on the mode of transportation used to get to Antarctica. There are three options: sailing, flying or a mix of both. Sailing is by far the cheapest option, but requires two days over the Drake Passage (each way), one of the notoriously roughest seas in the world. If you’re on a “budget” (it’s all relative when talking about Antarctica), and you don’t get seasick, then this can be a solid option.
If you do get seasick and money is no option, you can fly to and from Antarctica. But due to the cost, these trips are a rare find, making the last option the best of both worlds.
Fly/sail means that you fly one way and sail over the Drake Passage the other. My seasick-prone stomach appreciated this option, as did my wallet. With Aurora, we flew from Punta Arenas to King George Island, and then sailed back over the Drake Passage.
Cost will also vary based on the number of people on your expedition. Larger boats are often a bit cheaper, but may offer less flexibility and a slightly less personal experience. My boat had just under 60 people and I really appreciated getting to know every single person on it.
I had a lot of trouble figuring out how cold it would be so I could pack appropriately. Finding accurate weather was a challenge because when you type in “Antarctica” to any weather search engine, the results are terrifyingly cold. So instead of looking at “Antarctica,” use more specific searches for the parts of Antarctica and the neighboring islands where you’ll be, like King George Island, Weddell Sea or Falkland Islands. You’ll quickly find the weather is more bearable than you expect. It ranged from 30 degrees F to the mid-50s while I was there, which was quite comfortable when out of the water. The average water temperature was 29 degrees F, making the polar plunge nothing more than a quick dip.
Your accommodations vary based on who you’re traveling with and how much you decide to upgrade. I took the cheapest option available, the cozy three-bed female dorm, and I slept like a rock. I admit climbing up and down the ladder to my top bunk was a little sketchy on a moving boat, especially during the Drake Passage days or when I had to pee in the middle of the night, but it worked for how little time I spent in the room. While the privacy curtains were a nice touch, I could have used a slightly higher guard rail as I had a minor fear of rolling off the bed in the middle of the night because again, moving boat.
Cooked by two Filipino chefs, it was restaurant quality every single meal. Mostly meat, never overcooked. I like my cow to talk to me as I bite into it; it wasn’t that rare, but it always had a juicy pink center, which I appreciate since most mass-produced food is overcooked (and I never heard anyone complain). I also learned a little too late that they also offer a veggie option if you put your name down early enough in the day. This was often quinoa and veggies and made even a meat eater like me a tad bit jealous.
Your fellow travelers
If you go alone like I did, then you’ll be one of the solo travelers paired (tripled) up in the bunks. Besides the two bunk rooms (3 males in one room, 3 females in the other) and a few couples, your travel mates are retired. Don’t be jealous, be happy for them. And listen to their stories. Or at least let them talk you into doing the polar plunge then play Uno with them; they’re amazing.
Plan ahead. There are so many options, from snorkeling to kayaking to even spending one-night camping off the boat, but not every boat offers every activity. Make sure to do your homework and find a boat that offers what you’re looking for. And don’t believe the salesperson that tells you it’s okay to decide your activity on board; book ahead. The expedition company I ultimately went with told me that they were sure I could hop on a day of kayaking once down there even though I was signed up for scuba diving. This is definitely not the case.
Day one in Antarctica we divided into our activity groups to hear our briefings. My trip had three activities: kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving. While most people choose no activity and instead did just the land excursions (i.e. hike/wander around Antarctica 2x – 3x per day when the zodiacs make landings), a handful will take the road more adventurous. About 1/3 of my boat chose an activity, with around 10 kayakers, 8 snorkelers and 4 divers.
Once the dive briefing wrapped up, I walked over to the kayak guide and asked if someone decided not to go on one of the kayak excursions if it would be possible to hop on. I have never been shut down faster or felt like I had asked a dumber question. Save yourself the awkwardness and don’t listen to the travel agent. Confirm your activity ahead of time and stick with it.
The Polar Plunge
But there is one activity that everyone can do once down there: the polar plunge. While I planned to get into the below freezing water, repeatedly, in a dry suit, I had no idea that hopping in in just a bathing suit was even an option. Until I met Fran.
This is Fran (look right). We first met on the two-hour plane ride over from Punta Arenas when my seat sprung a leak (from someone’s water bottle in the overhead bin) so I moved to the front of the plane to sit with Fran. Fran is 74 and I knew we would hit it off immediately when the drink cart came down the aisle and she asked, “is that Johnnie Walker? It is? How nice. I’ll have that and a white wine to wash it down.” Not wanting her to drink lunch alone, I ordered the same and as the front row, we proudly set the tone for the rest of the plane.
Fran was traveling alone since her husband had no interest in Antarctica. “This is a big trip for you then,” I said. “So what are you most excited about?” “The polar plunge, of course,” she responded. This is how I learned that we would likely have the chance to jump in at some point during our trip. And that some point came way sooner than expected.
With the weather temporarily on our side day 1, we started with a land excursion followed by our first activity. Following my first epic dive with a leopard seal,
I was drying off when Fran came over and told me to “put on my swimming costume.” Laughing until I realized she was serious, I ran back to my room and quickly (ok reluctantly) put on my bathing suit. I then covered up in warm clothes and came out to the deck where a line snaked around the boat with 15 – 20 people ready to take the plunge. I watched as one by one each person climbed down the ladder we take to get to the zodiacs, hop off the ladder into the water, surface, panic, and climb back onto the ladder. It looked miserable.
So naturally, when it was my turn I said there was no way I was walking the plank all the way down. I knew if I was that close to the water that I would never hop in. So I didn’t. Instead, I ducked under the ropes, walked along the side of the boat and did this.
Upon climbing back aboard they handed me a shot of Sambuca at the top of the ladder. Let’s be honest, no one wants a shot of Sambuca. But after a quick dip in 29-degree water, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t taste good. Then I rushed down to the boat’s sauna to get cozy with the rest of the idiots passengers dumb enough to take the plunge.
I brought four cameras with me: a Canon DSLR, an underwater camera, my GoPro and my iPhone. But I’m no pro. Fortunately, the company planned for this in the best way possible. First, we had Scott, a professional photographer (and my dive buddy for the trip), hired to take professional photos on behalf of Waterproof to be used as marketing materials. Scott takes amazing photos, meaning I walked away with the best version of my memories.
Beyond that, Antarctica attracts photo enthusiasts like @chriswdc, who come down to capture once in a lifetime experience images like this Crabeater seal. Then there’s the shared computers, the most brilliant idea ever. Aurora provided two laptops in the common area for folks to share photos and videos with their fellow passengers, and fortunately, people were very generous sharing their memories. This was especially great for those of us that spent so much time on or under the water, thus missing most of the land time.
The delays can be real. Get trip insurance.
Real talk for a minute. I booked a seven-day trip in Antarctica but only spent about 4.5 days down there due to inclement weather. This was a huge bummer after five frantic weeks of prep plus all the gear I had to purchase specifically to dive there. The fantastic weather and epic experiences we had during those days made up for the lost time, but the disappointment was still real.
That two-hour plane ride from Punta Arenas to Antarctica where I sat next to Fran? That happened twice. And a day late. I got down to Punta Arenas Sunday night before our anticipated Monday departure. However, when we got to breakfast Monday, we were informed that the weather was keeping the boat we would be taking from getting back and that we may be delayed. Tuesday rolled around and we finally got on the plane. That’s when I met Fran. We got 15 minutes away from Antarctica when the pilot announced it wasn’t safe to land, so we turned around and flew back to Punta Arenas. After an hour in the airport, we made attempt number two. Fortunately, the second time was the charm and we finally landed on King George Island a day and a half late.
We then departed Saturday during dinner instead of Sunday due to a rough weather forecast on the way back, losing another day on the back end of the trip. After doing the Drake Passage on a semi-calm day where waves already reached the upper deck and even the commander of a Spanish navy research ship fell overboard, I would hate to see what it would have looked like a day later when the seas were rough.
Motion sickness is also real
Which brings me to life on a boat for a week. Two words: Get scopolamine. I’ve used this little lifesaving patch before and it worked magic even during the two days battling the Drake passage. While half our boat was confined to their bunks for 48 hours, I was walking around, taking video from the deck and playing Uno.
The one thing I did suffer from was dehydration. Despite carrying a water bottle with me everywhere I went, I still got so dehydrated that I lost my vision close-up. I got a little freaked out trying to read my kindle and not being able to make out any of the words. Drink lots of water before, during and after the trip, and bring electrolyte supplements to be safe.