No longer the unattainable frozen continent reserved for (fool)hardy explorers. The Antarctic Peninsula is attracting more cruisers than ever with its promise of awe and wonder.
When the weather is favourable, the Lemaire Channel delivers a photo opportunity like nowhere else on the Antarctic Peninsula. Most ships arrive from the north, passing through the gap and into the channel proper to find a mirror-still expanse of water that perfectly reflects the surrounding mountains and glaciers.
So many photographs are taken here; it’s jokingly called 'Kodak Gap'. Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic are well known for their photographic tours.
The sensation of cruising among majestic deep blue waters dotted with ice crystals and imposing formations is a lingering experience for visitors. Whether it’s in a tiny Zodiac boat or on board your cruise ship, you get the feeling of being in a world far away.
Even aboard a luxurious ship like Hapag-Lloyd’s MS Hanseatic, the beauty and savagery of this environment is not diminished.
Even in the coldest months of the year, killer whales, or orcas, can survive deep under the ice in Antarctica. Male orcas, with their tall dorsal fin, grow to 9.75 metres while females average around 8.5 metres, and they love to feast on fish, seals and penguins.
The largest of the dolphin family, pods of these highly intelligent and social animals are best observed from the deck of a ship like Ponant’s L’Austral.
Icebergs come in all shapes, colours and sizes with only about 10 to 20 per cent of their mass visible above the water. They can be thousands of years old and as big as the island of Sicily, making icebergs the real wonders of the sea.
Cruising in a Zodiac next to a giant ice structure is an intoxicating experience. Just don’t get too close: icebergs can roll over without warning.
These chilled-out mammals are not particularly shy of humans, and can grow to a whopping three metres. Their expert diving skills help them avoid their predators, the orcas and leopard seals, plus capture their favourite fish.
You’ll learn all about these and other lovable animals with specialist lectures aboard ships such as those operated by Peregrine Adventures.
Penguins, penguins and more penguins. You’ll quickly become familiar with several species of these adorable flightless birds who are expert swimmers and underwater hunters.
These gentoo penguins can be seen all over Antarctica, living in large colonies where there is not too much ice. Bird experts, like those aboard Silversea Expeditions, will help you learn all about their crazy antics.
In the summer months, whales travel to Antarctic destinations, including the 2.5-kilometre Yalour Islands in the Wilhelm Archipelago, to feed on huge amounts of krill that thrive there.
Quite often you will see the tail of a huge whale like this fluke as it dives for its next meal. Humpback, minke, fin and even the giant blue whales (the largest mammals ever to have lived) can be seen in the nutrient-rich waters around the peninsula.
At the bottom end of the Lemaire Channel, you’ll find the otherworldly Iceberg Alley. Because of the currents and winds, icebergs from all around the peninsula end up there when they run aground in the shallow water, creating a bizarre landscape of icy allsorts.
No wonder it’s a popular place for Zodiac cruises full of eager photographers. Even on voyages where there may not be many landings, for example with Holland America Line, you can still enjoy incredible spectacles like this from the deck.
Words: Roderick Eime
Adventures cruises are not mega ships, but can offer five-star comfort, pool and spa facilities on board larger vessels. Or if you’re happy with super comfortable without all the trimmings, a smaller vessel can take you to more remote destinations that are inaccessible to most vessels, and absolutely breathtaking such as Antarctica, the Kimberly, the Amazon, the Galapagos Islands and Arctic Norway.
Unrivalled nature watching
Expedition cruises take you to remote and wild destinations that no other types of cruise liner can. Often accessing destinations by military standard craft, like heading into the rainforest by Zodiac inflatable during the Amazon’s flood season when water levels can rise over 35 metres. Or docking overnight to see a plethora of wildlife at dawn hunting at the water’s edge, from the deck of the ship or your cabin window. Visiting largely inaccessible regions such as the Kimberley and Arnhem Land, your mode of transport is the only way to see secluded gorges, awesome rocky outcrops and native wildlife that is abundant in this region.
Onboard enrichment programs with expert credentials
Not only do you see the places nature documentaries are made in, you go into them with a specialist expedition team who provide onboard presentations about the natural and cultural aspects of your destination. This is as well as leading the shore excursions. Professionals in their fields, the expedition team provide the bulk of the onboard and shore activities, so you’ll gain a multilayered insight into your destination. That’s not to say there’s no fun and games on board, it is a holiday after all and light hearted fun is always around with some nights dedicated to social activities rather than educational.
Expedition cruises stop at many destinations which are so isolated that you can only get to them by water. Visit remote villages and witness centuries old ceremonies in Papua New Guinea, or sail to the Western Sahara where the desert meets the ocean, and experience one of the world’s most extreme environments. Adventure cruises usually offer a variety of excursions at each stop, based on different interests and fitness levels. While a high level of fitness is not a requirement on expedition cruises, many stops are wet stops, where passengers disembark on to smaller vessels and sail to shore or explore in the water, so a high level of mobility is essential to be able to take part in shore excursions, and the whole focus of adventure cruises is the shore activities.
Expedition Cruise Lines
Expedition cruise lines usually exclusively provide adventure cruises. Expedition cruise line Lindblad Expeditions provides cruises in partnership with National Geographic, with onboard experts made up of naturalists and scientists at the top of their field. Australian owned Orion Expedition Cruises boasts 5-star yachts and itineraries as diverse as Borneo, the Spice Islands and the Russian Far East. If you want to see the breathtaking Arctic and the Norwegian Fjords, Hurtigruten and Lindblad offer several different itineraries. Peregrine Adventures sail ice breakers to Greenland, speciality liners to the Galapagos Islands and provide a rich program of onshore activities. For a bigger focus on luxury and wilderness locations, but less hardcore adventuring, Silversea’s Silver Explorer gets the balance just right. Enough comfort and pampering to make cold temperatures more than worthwhile.
Adventure Cruises for Luxury Cruise Lovers
If you don’t love the sound of expedition cruising, then you probably wouldn’t enjoy it that much. Expedition cruising is very different to traditional cruising – comfortable and luxurious yes, but glitz, glamour and nightly entertainment, well no. Many leading cruise lines are dipping into expedition cruising. With a blend of onboard luxury, choice dining and entertainment, plus adventurous and educational shore excursions and onboard enrichment programs, the cruise liners visit popular adventure cruising destinations like Antarctica, Alaska and the Galapagos Islands. But for a true explorer experience, adventure cruises give you the insider view on some of the world’s most beautiful and intriguing places.