Over the past few years I have been lucky enough to embark on half a dozen expedition cruises, visiting some amazing places, from the high Arctic to Antarctica, as well as warmer climes.

I’m always prepared to take my chances when it comes to weather and sea conditions! And I’ve never been disappointed yet.

How does expedition cruising differ from large ship cruising?

Well for a start, expedition cruises use small ships. As a rule they may take just 100 – 200 passengers. The ships can get into small harbours and places that would be inaccessible to larger ships. Getting on and off the ships to travel to shore is usually done in inflatable zodiacs. In some places, such as Antarctica, there is a limit on the number of passengers allowed ashore at any one time, so there may be a rota for who goes ashore first (usually alternating port and starboard cabins). Apart from the crew, there will always be an expedition team on board, with the team leader working very closely with the ship’s captain to ensure the best possible sightings and experiences. They are likely to be from all over the world – hugely experienced and really interesting people. The itinerary is often flexible, with changes often the result of weather conditions. There is little in the way of formality and dressing up for dinner is definitely not a requirement!

What sort of people go on expedition cruises?

Generally people who are interested in wildlife, or visiting slightly more unusual destinations; people for whom a holiday is an adventure not just the chance to see a place. Because expedition cruises only have a small number of passengers, they are not the cheapest type of travel. For that reason passengers tend to be older, usually retired. Because getting in and out of the zodiacs can be a bit tricky at times, particularly if the sea is a bit choppy, you do need to be reasonably agile, though help is always on hand, and you may well find yourself with a ‘wet landing’, involving wading ashore – not a problem in warm Pacific waters, but can be a bit nippy in the Arctic or Antarctica.

What about sea sickness?

Well it is always a big worry for me, particularly on trips where there may be one or two whole days at sea. I go pretty well prepared. I start taking travel sickness pills even before I board the boat, I wear wrist bands, I apply patches behind my ears, and I eat ginger constantly. I rarely drink alcohol on board, and I’m pretty careful with what I eat. If I do feel queasy I tend to eat just dry bread.

A trip from Iceland to Greenland involved two full days at sea – it was calm. Returning from Antarctica to Ushuaia in Argentina we had to cross the infamous Drake Passage, which can either be like a lake or a snake. I was braced, ready to take to my bed for the duration, but it was like a millpond. Incredibly lucky! I did struggle a bit coming out of the Panama Canal into the Caribbean. The announcement that the winds were getting up and the sea becoming a bit choppy so people might like to take a sea sickness pill came a bit late. I did take to my bed that night, missing the celebration dinner for transiting the Canal. But then so did about half the passengers. You are always told to focus on the horizon if the sea is getting a bit rough. I do find that a bit tricky when the horizon is rising and falling! On the whole though I’d say I’ve been pretty lucky, and I’m always willing to risk it for a stunning destination.

What sort of programme is there on board?

Every day there will be an itinerary. Things may change, because of weather conditions, or other reasons. We’ve had changes because of pollution, coast guard refusing to allow us to land, strong winds/rough seas. But a suitable alternative will always be offered.

The expedition crew will put on lectures relevant to the trip. These may include: geology; archaeology; whales; penguins; exploration etc. The team are not just very knowledgeable when it comes to driving the zodiacs, and escorting trips ashore, but they are also excellent speakers, with very good presentation skills.

Each day there tends to be a debrief/briefing session each evening. This will be a review of what you’ve done and seen during the day, but also relevant information about the next day’s itinerary.

If there are walks on shore, how fit do I need to be?

The type of excursions on land will vary depending on where you are. For some trips we have been offered a range of walks – short, medium and long. For the long ones you do need to be reasonably fit.

There is no obligation to go ashore, though it would always be a real shame to miss out on a trip off the boat.

Getting in and out of the zodiacs requires a bit of agility, but there are always crew members to help. And once you get used to the way zodiacs skim the waves you will love them. On one trip we did have someone in a wheelchair who was physically lifted in and out of the zodiacs, but then obviously couldn’t really go very far once on land.

Is the food good?

We have had good food and we have had excellent food. It tends to vary from boat to boat. Either way there is plenty of it – breakfast, lunch, dinner, with plenty of choice and special diets always catered for. Then there is often afternoon tea as well. You might not need it, but you can quickly get used to it.

Is there a dress code?

Expedition cruises are not about formal dress. After a day ashore, when you might be wading through a messy penguin colony for instance, you are obviously expected to change for dinner, but casual clothing is fine. If you want to dress up that is fine too. There may be a captain’s dinner at the start or end of the cruise, and you may want to wear something a bit different for that.


The challenges of packing

The first expedition cruise we did was to Greenland. It involved a train to Oban, but then flying back from Greenland, via Copenhagen. Packing was challenging as one of the essential bits of kit we had to take was a pair of knee-length wellingtons. On the plus side, you can stuff a lot of pairs of socks and knickers into wellies. On the downside, they are pretty heavy!

Depending on where you are going you may be given a clothing list. If its to the Arctic or Antarctic you should be prepared for some pretty cold weather. But there really is no need to go out and buy lots of expensive clothes. The secret is layers. Lined trousers are handy, and you can always wear woolly tights or leggings underneath them; thin T-shirts can form base layers, polo necks/neck warmers are handy, as is a woolly hat. And gloves of course. Sometimes a jacket may be provided on the boat, and also boots.

What sort of facilities will the boat have?

The cabins are comfortable and have plenty of storage room. Some will have outside balconies. Cost will vary depending on which deck you might be on, and what type of cabin you opt for.

There will always be a nice lounge, dining room, a small library and often an outside deck for eating. Some of the slightly larger boats might have a gym (tricky on a running machine or exercise bike at sea, but amazing watching albatross flying past as you work up a sweat!).

Wifi may be available, usually at a price, though reception can be variable depending on where you are. You may find yourself forced to abandon daily email checks!

There will always be a doctor on board but there may be times on some particularly remote trips where you are a long way from shore and hospital facilities. In this case there may be specific requirements in relation to your travel insurance, but the company will advise on this.

Some real highlights

There have been so many unforgettable sights and experiences: crossing the Arctic and Antarctic circles, transiting the Panama Canal, landing on St Kilda, actually getting to visit Antarctica (a life-long ambition), visiting Shackleton’s grave on South Georgia. Not that I like champagne, but enjoying a glass of champagne, while sitting on a zodiac among incredible scenery. Zodiac cruises among icebergs. And then there’s the wildlife: up close to whales which seem to regard the zodiacs as just another whale; walking through a colony of 200,000 king penguins; seeing lemurs in Madagascar; and 30 or 40 white tailed sea eagles overhead off the coast of north Norway.

Visiting a village three hours up river in the remote Darien Gap area of Panama was an amazing experience, finding the guide book comment that it was “unchanged since the days of Francis Drake” somewhat untrue – the village had a phone box, satellite dish, solar panels and a shop!

‘Hairy’ moments

There have been a few, though vastly outweighed by the highlights.

Having to do a zodiac to zodiac transfer at sea was ‘interesting!’. Our motor died and the zodiac driver had to radio the captain to ask permission for the transfer to take place. Fortunately the seas were calm and the crew helped us get from one to the other.

Waiting to hear if we would be going ashore in Madagascar. Wind was lashing, seas incredibly rough, coast guards were cowering in the bottom of their boat, unable to come aboard; being thrown across the lounge when a strong wind hit. When you see them lashing down the furniture you know you’re in for a rough patch!

After hours waiting to go ashore, being ordered out of Venezuelan waters and unable to make planned island landing with barbecue lunch on beach. For some reason that we never discovered we appeared to be under threat of being taken to a nearby naval base for questioning if we didn’t immediately pull up the anchor and leave. Needless to say we didn’t hang around and the barbecue lunch took place at sea, out of Venezuelan waters!

Advice to anyone considering an expedition cruise

Sue has now done two talks for Mirthy based on expedition cruises. The first, in December 2021, was ‘Svalbard: voyage to the land of the polar bear’; the second in January 2022 was ‘Passage to Greenland’. On 10th February, she will be talking about her Antarctic trip.

Author: Sue Ablett

Sue has had a varied career from Russian linguist for the Government, to University research (pulling in a PhD ‘for fun’), and for the last 20 years of her working life was Executive Director of a national children’s cancer charity. She is a very keen traveller and has a big catalogue of travel talks, based on trips to every continent. She set up and continues to chair Evesham Festival of Words, and has a number of talks devised specially for the Festival – mainly travel talks with a literary twist.

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