Is A Cruise to Antarctica Worth it? Yes! Here’s Why
My Epic Adventure visiting the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia & Falkland Islands
Investing in a cruise to Antarctica is rarely a snap decision. It’s one of the most remote destinations, the world’s highest, driest and windiest continent, and even the best deals are a pretty penny. But is it worth it?
Years ago, a client showed me photos of her family’s cruise from Ushuaia to Antarctica. I was riveted. Nothing compared to anything I’d seen before, and bonus points, there were penguins. Lots of penguins. I knew then I had to go.
At the end of 2019, just before the pandemic crushed travel, my dream came true, I went to Antarctica and then some. Why haven’t I written about it before? In light of Covid, I chose to wait until travel, especially cruising, was on a more even keel. (Pun intended.)
From Ushuaia to Antarctica
I sailed aboard the Greg Mortimer, Aurora Expedition’s cutting-edge cruise ship named after the company’s founder and the first Australian to summit Everest. At the time, it was brand-spanking new and on its third departure.
The ship was purpose-built for polar regions and the first cruise ship fitted with an Ulstein X-Bow, a toucan-nosed innovation that slices through formidable swells. The ride still feels like a roller coaster, but without the jarring smack when the bow hits the water at the bottom of each wave, known as the slamming effect.
Most cruises to the Southern Ocean focus on the Antarctic Peninsula or South Georgia Island. My trip, of which I was the company’s guest, spanned 21 days, including both South Shetland and Falklands islands thrown in for good measure. Aurora called it an “Odyssey.”
And it was …
We departed Ushuaia and headed south by way of the Beagle Channel. By the following morning, we were well into the infamous Drake Passage.
Passengers in the know called the rough sea we encountered the “Drake Lake.” The “Drake Shake” is far more formidable, I was told. While it may have been true, it didn’t matter. I spent the early morning kneeling on my bathroom tile. Sweaty and cursing my feeble inner ear, I took the seasick pills the ship’s doctor gave me and spent the early hours in my room.
Drake Passage 1, Susan 0.
Challenges like this are part and parcel of a true adventure. While unpleasant at the time, I never felt unsafe, and I would deal with the seasickness again for an experience as rich as this. The good news: I––and most of my fellow guests––developed my sea legs quickly, and while we met with two-story waves and gale-force winds during the cruise, I wasn’t sick again.
If consider the Drake Passage a hard pass, don’t fret. Aurora and other cruise lines offer fly-in options that land on King George Island in the South Shetland archipelago. It’s a proverbial hop, skip, and a jump from the Antarctic Peninsula.
Landings and Conservation
On our second day at sea, we began our firsts. We spotted our first iceberg at 9:45 am, and our first landing was a couple of hours later.
We went on two landings a day unless at sea or if weather conditions became prohibitive. The weather at the bottom of the world is mighty volatile and a major factor in the day-to-day decisions on an Antarctic expedition. Flexibility in our expectations was essential. For travelers who like guarantees or strict schedules met, Antarctica is not for you.
Before our first excursion, we vacuumed our outerwear and packs to comply with biosecurity protocols. Dirt, seeds other contaminants must be hoovered to ensure we didn’t track anything we shouldn’t onto the beach.
“A number of alien species have been introduced to the subantarctic and Antarctica,” our Expedition Leader John Kirkwood told us.
In 2004, 100 penguins died from a bacterium transferred from one colony to another by mud. As a precaution, we scrubbed our muck boots (provided by Aurora) and stepped in a liquid decontaminant before and after each landing.
On land, visitors are limited to a maximum of 100 to reduce the impact on the terrain. The Greg Mortimer is a small expedition ship with an average 126-135 capacity (Any ship under 200 guests is considered “small”), including a group of kayakers who paid extra for the pleasure. We easily stayed within the 100 maximum, allowing us to stay longer. Larger ships must conduct landings in shifts, limiting the time for guests to explore.
Deception Island (South Shetland Islands)
Bundled in layers and clad in waterproof outerwear, our zodiacs skipped across the water towards Whaler’s Bay at the mouth of the ear-shaped caldera and active volcano known as Deception Island.
Coming to rest on the black-sand shore, a wall of steam billowed inland as if a brush fire had ignited––the result of the water, heated by geothermal activity, striking cold Antarctic air.
We were there to explore the ruins of Hvalfangerselskabet Hektor, a 1911 Norwegian whaling station. Norway abandoned it in 1931 due to a slump in whale oil prices. In 1944, it became the Royal Navy’s British base (Base B), which passed to the British Antarctic Survey in 1945.
Scanning the countryside, several ashen buildings on the edge of collapse littered the desolate landscape. Massive orange tanks used to process and store whale oil stood rusted and weather-beaten. An Antarctic Piza, one leaned precariously in the soft sand.
Rusted industrial tools lay scattered, along with remnants of decades-old wooden boats. Two lonely graves marked with large wooden crosses were all that remained of a cemetery destroyed by a mudslide triggered by an eruption in 1967. The base permanently closed in 1969.
I’m a sucker for such settings. I spent hours in Greenland photographing the remains of an old cryolite mine and a sweltering afternoon shooting a collapsing barn while on a 10-day Michigan Upper Peninsula road trip. If it’s old and decaying, I am a happy camper.
However, a handful of Gentoo penguins with lipstick-red beaks distracted me from diving into my ruin porn. Not to mention, two chinstrap penguins, named for the stripe of black feathers tracing their jawline, tottered about. Other than these few birds, the area was absent of wildlife.
Prohibited from entering the buildings for safety reasons, I peeked through window frames and open doors, imagining who might have used the dilapidated stove or walked the cracked wooden floors.
A gutted mess of a grey wood structure with only two standing sides revealed a decorative turquoise armoire. Had a woman lived here? Or was it a sentimental memento from a home thousands of miles away?
I’ll probably never know.
Cuverville Island was where I had my first “OMG! I’m in Antarctica” thought. All my mind’s eye had imagined stretched out before me. The main attraction was a raucous colony of gentoo penguins, 6,500 pairs strong. Their Times Square of sorts was a large ridge overlooking the water, the color of dried blood from scores of webbed feet trampling a mix of algae and poop. The rest was a jagged ebony landscape largely covered in snow and ice.
Penguins squawked, shuffled, sparred, courted, and mated but paid little attention to us. You’d think dozens of large, bright blue (the color of Aurora’s parkas given to us on our first night) bipedal giants would draw attention, but nope.
Our instructions were to stay at least 15 feet from wildlife. The gentoos, however, could come as close as their curiosity allowed. But under no circumstances could we touch.
The colony used winding paths, nicknamed penguin highways, carved out of the snow by their numbers, A trail of switchbacks leading up a steep slope reminded me of the childhood game, Chutes & Ladders.
Cuverville wasn’t the easiest to explore. I stumbled through the knee-high drifts like a drunk, losing my balance more than once. Every time I saw a Gentoo slip, I felt vindicated. If the natives were clumsy on this terrain, I certainly could be.
Many of the penguins were hard at work building nests. The good citizens diligently carried their stones. Other more sketchy nesters waited until a buddy looked the other way, then stole the pebble before the owner was the wiser. And people say animals don’t behave like humans.
The Lemaire Channel
From Cuverville, we passed through the Lemaire Channel at the northern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. The ship sailed at a snail’s pace enabling us to stand in awe of the three thousand-foot cliffs of ice and stone that flanked the narrow 6.8-mile waterway.
A perk of the Greg Mortimer is two telescoping hydraulic platforms that extend on either side of the bow enabling an obstruction-free side view. Taking in the sights was particularly fun from those spots. Others used the top deck for a stunning front view.
When we landed on Petermann Island, our southernmost stop, I did what I normally do. I waited to see where everyone toddled off to and then went in a different direction. Keeping my distance reduces stray heads and limbs in my photos, and animals are likelier to come closer and behave naturally.
(Photographers, here are my 17 Antarctica Photography Tips: Creative & Practical)
The snow was again knee-high, and I didn’t have the energy to fight it. On top of a slope to my right was a large group of gentoos under a cross commemorating three members of the British Antarctic Survey who perished on the island.
To my left was a cobbled bay of rocky outcrops with, you guessed it, gentoo penguins. I found a spot between them, sat down, waited for something to photograph, and didn’t move until it was time to leave. Perfect.
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I awoke shortly after sunrise. We’d anchored in Paradise Bay on the peninsula during the night. Stepping onto my balcony, I let the fresh air sweep the last bit of cobwebs from my brain. What a glorious place. Except for the occasional groan of the ship, there was utter silence. It was what zen is all about.
A dark mirror of water reflected the bright toe of a jagged tidewater glacier with its telltale traces of pale blue and the coastline of black rock, snow, and ice. A milky gray sky bled into the horizon, making it impossible to see where the earth stopped, and the sky began.
In the distance, set upon a stubby peninsula, stood Argentina’s Almirante Brown Station, one of thirteen research bases the country operates in the region. The crimson buildings appeared like dollhouses beneath the soaring peaks and were a beautiful contrast to the monochromatic background.
We had two options: go ashore and explore the area around Brown Station or take a Zodiak cruise through the bay to gawk at a slew of icebergs and see what wildlife we could find. I chose the latter. I put on my boots and lifesaver in the ship’s mudroom, then climbed aboard a zodiac.
Robin Mundy, our Deputy Expedition Leader, described icebergs as Mother Nature’s sculpture garden. I thought it was a fitting characterization. In Paradise Bay and the adjacent Skontorp Cove, it was certainly true.
As we meandered through the frozen exhibit, the tranquil, translucent water enabled us to marvel at the enormity of the pale blue icebergs below the surface. The ice above the waterline represents 10% of the total mass hiding beneath. Hence the old saying, “Tip of the iceberg.” No two icebergs are alike, and every curve, hole, ridge, bump, and line tells a story of its evolution.
An encyclopedia of lectures and presentations about the region, wildlife, icebergs, geology, and history, any topics related to our itinerary filled the hours at sea.
We learned about Sir Earnest Shackleton’s doomed expedition to cross the Antarctic continent on our way to Elephant Island. A critical player in Shackleton’s story. His ship, Endurance, became trapped in pack ice in the Weddell sea. Over months, the pressure slowly crushed the ship, sinking it and leaving everyone stranded on the ice. (FYI: Researchers found Endurance 100 years after Shackleton’s death.)
It’s a long, involved story, but they ended up on Elephant Island. Shackleton and five crew members left the rest of the men on the beach and sailed to South Georgia in a small whaler they dragged across the ice. Remarkably he was able to rescue his men months later.
The ship’s historian and adventure guide, Nina Gallo, delivered a dramatic blow-by-blow of the expedition’s fight for survival.
We were so engrossed with her expressive storytelling that the room was genuinely deflated when we had to stop for dinner halfway through. “Part 2” was standing room only.
Unfortunately for us, when we reached Elephant Island, we could not land. We had gale-force winds, one squall reaching 80 miles per hour. We relied on Plan B. Our Captain Oleg Klaptenko positioned the Greg Mortimer so we could view the spot where Shackleton’s crew holed up for four months.
While there were hot tubs, a sauna, a gym, a lovely library, and a masseuse, I didn’t use them. If I wasn’t in a lecture, out on the deck relishing the views, eating, or at the Elephant Bar chatting up new friends, my favorite hangout was my cabin. I spent much of my free time relaxing or editing photos.
There’s a standard among polar cruises called the polar plunge––a zany tradition of jumping into the frigid water because … why not? On our first consistently beautiful day, the plunge was on. It wasn’t on my to-do list, but watching others was certainly entertaining.
Afterward, the ship served a hearty BBQ on the upper deck. We donned sailor hats, sombreros, and kookie eyewear (Why? I have no idea) and danced to songs like Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue.” It wasn’t long before a conga line snaked its way across the deck.
South Georgia Island
Crossing the Scotia Sea to South Georgia Island, a British overseas territory, took two days. Before we could land, we spent the morning re-vacuuming our gear.
South Georgia Island is one of the world’s best examples of successful conservation. Rats, reindeer, and mice introduced decades earlier were among the hazardous flora and fauna eradicated. Everyone works hard to ensure expedition cruising isn’t the cause of a new environmental crisis.
The Drygalski Fjord, at the island’s southern tip, was first on our schedule, where the wide expanse of the Risting tidal glacier awaited. A dense fog lent a fitting eerieness to the fjord’s Game of Thrones topography. The mountains were bare compared to Antarctica’s views, broken only by the occasional chunky blue and white alpine glacier spilling from a summit.
Around the Drygalski, a new iceberg exhibition was in full swing with some extraordinary shapes and textures!
At the mouth of the fjord was Larsen Harbor. Strong winds typically make the harbor unsafe to explore by zodiac, but the elements gave us a pass. The kayakers put their skinny chariots into the water as well.
From our zodiac, we giggled over some sub-adult fur seals playing on rocks rising from the water. One appeared next to the boat but quickly disappeared, as seals are wont to do.
King Penguins, Fur, and Elephant Seals
St. Andrews, Gold Harbor, Salisbury Plains
Over four days, we visited the King penguin colonies at St. Andrews Bay, Gold Harbour, and Salisbury Plains’ where we spent hours exploring.
Robin mentioned in the ship’s Penguin Post, a daily recap of our Antarctic Odyssey cruise, that South Georgia has “in-your-face wildlife,” and my face said Bring it on!
The experiences on each beach were similar: landing, amazement, a lot of wildlife, and too much fun. Photos in this section are a selection from all three.
Ian McCarthy, who I often hung out with, was one of the Aurora naturalists and a retired Nat Geo films cameraman. He spent six weeks on St. Andrew’s Bay, waiting to capture a gorgeous sunrise shot that made the film.
(Technically, he lived in a boat anchored offshore. For possible contamination reasons, they weren’t allowed to stay on land. They even had to store their poop on the boat. But I digress …)
We landed on St. Andrew’s Bay just as the sun broke the horizon on a beautiful clear morning, though it didn’t last for long. The penguin metropolis was buzzing with activity. Along the almost 2-mile beach, groups of three-foot tall King Penguins tottered from here to there, passing each other on an invisible two-lane roadway while others swam in the surf.
An enormous rookery (or breeding nest) was packed like a sold-out Lady Ga Ga concert at the beach’s south end. So as not to disturb them with our zodiacs, we landed at the north end.
Southern Ocean Fur Seals
Sharing the beach were plenty of fur seals. The males are big and can weigh four to six hundred pounds. Sitting up, they are easily the height of a Great Dane. Females are much smaller.
We were cautioned to be on our toes; fur seals can be fierce, especially males. “Seals have big teeth, and they [can] bite, warned John during one of our pre-landing briefings. “When a seal threatens you, it’s a territorial defense, and they just want you to get out of their territory.”
In short, we are bigger than them, so they aren’t keen to take us on. But they may want to make a show of it. Seal machismo and all.
If a seal charged us, we were to hold our ground or back up slowly without looking them in the eye. “Do not turn and run because if you run,” John advised. “Firstly, the seal can move faster than you can. Secondly, your chances of falling over are quite high.”
At first, I was nervous. There were a lot of seals. But I soon realized that most didn’t seem to care I was there. And for those that did, it was obvious. No sneak attacks. If a fur seal was tense, it responded with a breathy whimper. It meant business if it made a deep guttural growl. Walking away was the answer.
Southern Elephant Seals
South Georgia is also home to a robust population of elephant seals. Giant Jaba the Hutt blobs that can grow up to 20 feet long, weighing roughly six tons.
The adults stacked on top of each other in blubberous clumps. They made noises that were a mix of frat-boy funny and gross. Think long, drawn-out, baritone burps or someone suffering from industrial-strength diarrhea reverberating off the rocks.
One morning, I sat cross-legged on a beach, photographing penguins coming in and out of the water. I felt something nudge my back. An elephant seal pup was trying to inch its way onto my lap.
In contrast to adults, elephant seal pups are blessed with undeniably adorable mugs with long whiskers and large black orbs for eyes.
Thrilled about the visit but trying not to touch my visitor, I leaned back and held my camera over its head, snapping photos. I had no idea if the images were in focus.
The seal backed away when a guide approached but protested vehemently with a raspy, hippo-mouthed “wah–ah-ah- ah-ah-ah.”
Back to the Waddlers
The first group of King penguins I came upon, I photographed at a machine gun’s pace, which is never a good strategy. I needed to slow down and be more thoughtful if I wanted any successful images. I was just so excited it was hard to calm down.
Forcing myself to take my time, I moved slowly around the beaches we visited to find different vantage points, backdrops, and behaviors. I sat on an ottoman-sized ice chunk by the shoreline at Gold Harbor to watch a raft (a group of penguins in the water) of Kings belly surfing in the tide.
A few came over for a look. Intrigued but cautious, they stuck their beaks out tentatively, like dipping a toe into cold water. Their necks stretched until the rest of their body had to follow. Their interest quickly waned when they realized I wasn’t a threat (or maybe I was just dull). They eventually moved on, business as usual.
Around the rookeries, I stayed on the perimeter as instructed. No matter the location, they were fascinating sensory overloads. It was hard to grasp the sheer number of penguins I was seeing. They just went on, and on, and on.
Emanating from the colony was a cacophony of chirps, gaks, and harmonic mating calls resembling a kazoo. Click on the video above for a sense of it.
These days were my favorite. I was like a toddler obsessed with a toy. I didn’t want to leave. I always wanted more time. Still do.
I knew little about Shackleton before boarding the Greg Mortimer, but after Nina’s lectures and watching Shackleton, Kenneth Branagh’s epic four-hour film on the ships video system, I was thoroughly intrigued.
So it was particularly poignant to arrive on the shore of King Edward Cove to visit the spot where Shackleton was laid to rest in 1922. Despite the other 63 men being buried facing east, Shackleton faces south in honor of his love for Antarctica.
With a whiskey shot in a paper cup, Nina gathered us around Shackleton’s grave.
“I’d like to raise a toast to Shackleton, “the Boss,” his men and all the friends we share our adventures with that become more than friends, but also family as well.”
With an enthusiastic “Cheers!” I slammed my whiskey.
Grytvikin Whaling Station
Our primary reason for visiting King Edward’s cove was Grytvikin, the historic abandoned whaling station founded in 1904, near the cemetery. It was the first whaling station in the Southern Hemisphere.
One of seven, Grytvikin was the island’s largest settlement, replete with a church, hospital, commissary, post office, bakery, and coffee roasting house.
The old whale manager’s home is now a museum with a few non-resident staff leading tours and managing the gift shop during the season. Photographer Frank Hurley’s images from the Shackleton expedition were particularly fascinating.
Stromness, another station on the island, I observed from my balcony earlier in the day, but the remains are too dangerous to explore, and there was fear of exposed asbestos.
Hundreds of fur and elephant seals lounged on the beach, scattered amongst the wreckage, reclaiming their natural habitat. They were all over Grytvikin, too but in smaller numbers.
“They were very efficient,” said Sarah, a museum interpreter of the whalers. They could dismember “a 20-meter (60 foot) whale in 20 minutes.” At its height, this factory processed 35 whales a day.
In the beginning, there were so many whales in the harbor that the whalers fished it exclusively for two years. Only after they depleted the population did they move to open water.
“When whaling started here, the products we got from whales weren’t available from any other source,” explained Sarah. “They were very important.” That changed with the introduction of the petrochemical industry.
From the start to when all land-based whaling ceased on the island in 1965, whalers killed 175,0250 whales to make nine million barrels of oil. Only in recent years have some whales returned to their old feeding grounds.
Bleaker Island in the Falklands
Our last stop before returning to Ushuaia was the Falkland Islands, 800 miles northwest of South Georgia and 2.5 days sail. We spent a few hours in Stanley, the capital of the archipelago. It’s a cute seaside town with a few restaurants along the main drag and souvenir shops. It was nice to see, but my heart belonged to Bleaker Island, one of the Falkland’s 776.
I was so used to the dark, snow-swept landing in Antarctica and South Georgia it was shocking to land on Sandy Cove’s white sand beach bordered by silver-leaved sea cabbage and Tussock grass. Our destination was cliffs on the far side of wide grassy meadows used for organic sheep farming where a large colony of rockhopper penguins resided.
On our way, we spotted Magellanic penguins. I’d seen them in South Africa’s Boulder Bay and Bartolemé in the Galapagos. They are the only species that live in burrows and are often called jackass penguins because of their ridiculous donkey hee-haw.
Making our way through a dense patch of Tussock grass, we found the rookery as expected, on white stoned cliffs, at least 300 feet above the ocean. Hundreds of small rockhopper penguins bursting with personality were tending to their families. Fluffy gray chicks sat at their parents’ pink feet, begging for food.
Much smaller and finer-boned than King penguins, rockhoppers have short, curved orange beaks, red eyes, and yellow eyebrows that turn into plumes on either side of their head. They hunch when they walk like Frankenstein’s Igor and creep along the stone with their flippers slightly forward as if sleepwalking. They constantly bickered, and when they hop, it’s a zippy little movement that’s so damn cute. They really need their own reality show.
The grass bordering the rookery left a narrow path to walk and stay at a responsible distance from the colony. A chose a spot, sat down, and waited. Sure enough, three little guys didn’t take long to inch their way over.
For a few seconds, they became distracted by a pebble. Like the gentoos, they use stones for nesting. You’d think they found the Arkenstone they were so fixated on it.
My butt fell asleep, forcing me to squirm to get comfortable. My movement drew the threesome’s attention back to me. The bravest came so close to me that I could have easily stroked its head, but I didn’t dare. It was all I could do not to hug it mercilessly.
On the way home, we encountered some big waves between the Falklands and Ushuaia. They hit in the middle of the night, and the room rose and fell in all directions. Believe it or not, it wasn’t bad. It was more like being in a funhouse.
I later learned from Captain Klaptenko that we faced the boat’s highest waves to date. He was delighted by how well the new ship sailed through it.
During an interview, he told me a funny story. Other industry captains snickered when Aurora announced he’d be Greg Mortimer’s first captain. But the jokes on them. It sailed so well, now they are all jealous.
Even after 19 days at sea, I could have turned around and done it all again. I was green-eyed with jealousy of the Aurora team heading back out. It was all that I hoped it would be.
Was it perfect? Of course not. But I would do it again in a heartbeat.
FYI– A packing list and photography tips will follow. Be sure to check back.
Aurora Expeditions Cruise From Ushuaia to Antarctica: The Nitty Gritty
The ship is really beautiful in an elegantly understated way.
- 77 cabins, 6 decks, with an average of 132 passengers per voyage.
- All cabins have ocean views
- 85% of cabins have private balconies
- Modern lecture hall
- Multiple observation areas
- Zodiac launching platforms
- Wellness center
- 2 small jacuzzies
- Spacious mudroom
- There are snacks, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and water 24 hours a day.
- Buffets for breakfast and lunch, table service for meals.
- Menus provide multiple options
- At dinner, house wine, beers, and soda are included. Otherwise, they are an additional cost.
My take: The food was inconsistent. To be fair, it was the third departure. Many of the onboard staff had never worked on the ship before. Some of the meals were great, others just so-so. A few dishes I thought were subpar. I was not the majority voice on this subject. Many of the passengers I asked loved the food. Some agreed with me.
I’m not a culinary traveler. So while I recognize the quality of cuisine, it is rarely a factor in my choice of outfitters unless I hear the food is really bad.
My Cabin: C- Class on the 6th Floor
I loved my cabin. It was spacious, bright, and had plenty of space for clothes and gear, plus a private balcony. A large, wall-mounted flat-screen TV and a desk area. The ensuite bathroom was small but not too small. No complaints.
The Expedition Team
The Expedition team, which for me includes naturalists, lecturers, etc., was incredibly knowledgeable, friendly, and eager to answer questions. They weren’t as Kumbaya as other expeditions I’ve been on, but that’s not a criticism. It depends on the vibe you want.
The Hotel Staff
The hotel staff was incredibly accommodating and friendly.
Animals Found in Antarctica
While I focused on penguins (we also saw macaroni and Adelie penguins) and seals (a couple of Weddle seals, too), in this post, many more species were seen during the trip, but not necessarily by me. The wildlife in our trip recap included whales (Fin, sei, and humpback whales) and scores of birds (Sjua, giant petrel, Antarctica cormorant, and wandering albatross name a few).
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