How to plan a trip to Antarctica

First step. Decide how you’re getting there.

There are basically two ways for tourists to travel to Antarctica: cruise ships and expedition ships. Cruise ships are probably exactly what you are thinking–the big ships that are like floating cities with restaurants, spas, sports, movie theaters, etc. They can hold thousands of people. Expedition ships are smaller and less luxurious, have way fewer amenities, and, in the case of ships that go to the polar regions, have ice-strengthened hulls so they can get through the ice.

Companies that take tourists there comply with an international agreement that allows only 100 people at a time to be on land in Antarctica. Because of this, those large cruise ships don’t do any landings, they just drive by. The expedition ships carry anywhere from 50-200 passengers. The ones with more than 100 passengers rotate groups of passengers on land. (Often while one group is on land, the others will cruise around in zodiacs.) We were only interested in the trips that do landings.

I read up on all the expedition ships and tour operators that go to Antarctica.  I narrowed in on Quark and National Geographic fairly quickly. From there, we needed to find a trip that had availability for three people, and preferably for under $10,000 per person. Even though we were booking a year in advance, lots of things were already sold out, especially the cheaper spots like we were looking for.

Second step. Decide if you’re including South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.

This adds several days and a lot of money to your trip. People who go say they are amazing places. But the prices were too much (starting around $17k per person), so we didn’t opt to include them.

Quark had a trip that went south of the Antarctic Circle, which is farther south than most ships go. Both because it crosses the circle and because it’s a little bit longer of a trip, that one appealed to me the most. We lucked out with finding one triple cabin available on this trip–the last triple!–that fit our budget. Done!

The ship we’ll be on is called the Sea Adventurer, and it holds just over 100 passengers.

Where we’re going


Here is the route our expedition is scheduled to attempt. There are no guarantees–everything is determined by the weather and the ice–so our expedition is planning to cross the Antarctic Circle but there’s a chance it won’t.

We leave from the tip of South America, which means crossing the Drake Passage coming and going. It’s known as the roughest seas in the world. Some people get lucky and have smooth sailing (the “Drake Lake”), but I’m not going to count on that. I’m going to get prescription seasickness meds and hope for the best. It takes about two days to cross the Drake, and that’s a long time to feel miserable. (Coincidentally, I will spend my 41st birthday on the Drake.)

Things I’m thinking about

Photo backup system for Antarctica. Laptop + one portable hard drive. Will there be enough space on the laptop to keep a copy of photos there, too? I want at least two copies. Should I buy a second portable drive? (Don’t really need a second one otherwise, but they’re only like $60…)

Camera transporting system. Backpack or wheeled bag (need to check weights of bags to make decision, I think). Dry bag. Plus of using a backpack instead of wheeled is that if I wanted, the entire backpack could go inside a dry bag to carry onto land. Do I really want to bring an entire backpack full of gear onto land, tho? If not, how do I protect the cameras inside the dry bag as I’m transporting?

Avoiding condensation. Sealing up the dry bag outside, then leaving it closed for 60-90 minutes after bringing it back onto the (warm) ship should prevent condensation from forming on the cameras as they warm back up. That means any cameras I take onto land (2 bodies + a waterproof? all at once? hmmmm) will be out of commission for at least an hour each time I come back on the ship. WHAT IF I WANT TO TAKE PICTURES IN THAT HOUR. Srs bzness. Do I bring a fourth camera (the Fuji?) for that?

Learning video. I think both Antarctica and Alaska (where I’m going next summer) are going to have some prime opportunities for shooting video. Need to learn optimal settings, and then what to do with it after.

Buying our plane tickets. I was hoping to buy these with miles, but it turns out it’s not actually that easy to use miles when I have very specific dates and no real flexibility. I’m still trying to figure out a way to get at least one of us there on miles. For cash tickets, I can find tix for $1500/pp but they include THREE layovers and take a total of 36.5 hours of travel time. Or for $2000/pp we can have just one layover (as it should be–in Buenos Aires) and get there in 19.5 hours. $500/pp is a lot of money but I’m pretty sure about halfway through that 3-layover/36-hour nonsense I would be ready to pay even more than that just for a chance to lie down flat in a bed. (Plus think of all the chances for them to lose our luggage.)

Camera kit

Antarctica, november 2007

I am narrowing in on my Antarctica camera kit. I am thinking a lot about what sort of options I will want as far as lenses, etc., but also I’m thinking about how I will carry it all.

Landings are made via inflatable zodiac boats that take you from ship to shore, and sometimes you cruise around in the zodiacs as well (for getting up close to icebergs, etc.). It’s cold. Although everyone says, “It’s not as cold as you think it will be!” But you still wear expedition-weight long underwear and serious layers on land. I need my gear to be protected from water (splashes while on the zodiac) in some sort of waterproof bag. I need it to be easy to carry while I’m getting on/off the zodiacs. And then I’ll need it to be easily accessible when I’m on land. I will also need to protect it from condensation when bringing it back onto the ship from the cold after landings.

Here’s what I’m thinking, lens-wise:

16-35mm f/4
35mm f/1.4
24-70mm f/2.8
80-400mm f/4.5-5.6

This list is a work in progress.