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7 things that surprised me about my first expedition cruise to Antarctica (there were just 107 guests onboard!)

selfie of girl in Antarctica

Expedition cruising is perhaps the most adventurous style of cruising that exists today. Boarding a small expedition vessel gets you up close to the world’s most wild, remote destinations, allowing you to experience these places in a way few others can.

I recently returned from my first ever expedition cruise, an Antarctica peninsula itinerary by polar cruise operator Poseidon Expeditions. I cruised on the M/V Sea Spirit, an expedition vessel that had just 107 passengers onboard, and the experience was far different from any cruise I had booked previously.

Given that I had previously only sailed on ships with thousands of other guests, I truly had no idea what to expect when it came to expedition cruising. What activities would be offered on the ship? Would I get bored on such a small vessel? What would my day to day life look like when visiting a destination as secluded as Antarctica?

zodiac boat

Throughout the 9 days I spent on the Sea Spirit, I quickly learned the ins and outs of expedition cruising, and I enjoyed the experience more than I even thought possible. From active days ashore to intriguing learning opportunities onboard, here are the 7 things that surprised me about my first expedition cruise.

Expedition leaders play an important role in the overall cruise experience

While preparing for my Antarctica cruise, I browsed the array of pre-embarkation documents provided to me by Poseidon Expeditions. One of the documents provided an overview of each expedition leader that would be on my sailing—their expertise, interests, and polar experience.

I skimmed the document and gathered a basic understanding of the guides who would be on the ship, but at that point, I didn’t fully understand just how influential Poseidon Expeditions’ expedition guides would be to my overall cruise experience.

Sea Spirit exterior

As soon as I boarded the Sea Spirit, I began to see the benefits of having scientists, photographers, and polar experts on the ship. With so many professionals onboard, I was able to attend lectures on topics ranging from sea krill to tabular icebergs, and the guides were always available to answer questions about Antarctica.

Outside of lectures, expedition guides proved useful during activities ashore as well, whether providing insights into the region’s geology and wildlife or driving zodiac boats through narrow, icy channels. It’s hard to imagine an expedition cruise without expedition guides, and I was grateful the cruise line hired such high-quality experts.

There is little down time while on an expedition cruise, with the exception of sea days

Lemaire Channel

Every morning on the Sea Spirit I was awakened by an upbeat “wake up” song over the ship’s loudspeaker. The song changed every day, but it always meant the same thing: it was time to start another wonderful day in Antarctica.

If I’m being honest, I initially thought I might feel bored on a small cruise ship with so few passengers aboard. After all, how many activities could really be offered for just 107 guests?

I quickly found out, though, that my days would be controlled by the expedition team, who frequently came over the loudspeaker to let guests know about upcoming lectures, activities, and destinations of interest the ship was passing outside.

Several times I laid down for a quick nap but was interrupted by an announcement that there were whales following the ship, or that a lecture on a legendary South Pole expedition would soon be offered.

Of course, I sprung out of bed immediately. I traveled to Antarctica to experience as much as possible—the rest could wait.

penguin climbing a hill

When it was time to go ashore, announcements dictated the order in which passengers could disembark. As soon as the first group was called, everyone rushed to their cabins to rapidly put on their Poseidon Expedition parkas and waterproof boots.

Within a few days, myself and fellow passengers jokingly referred to these announcements as “the voice from above,” and laughed at how difficult it would be to make our own decisions after the cruise ended.

The days we spent sailing to and from Antarctica, on the other hand, provided an opportunity for much needed rest. Although plenty of programming was offered on the sea days, too, they were far more relaxed compared to our busy days exploring the continent. It was a nice way to recharge before traveling back home.

Your itinerary will change constantly on an expedition cruise, and that’s expected

people standing near a seal

Mother nature is in full force when exploring Antarctica—sea ice and weather conditions can alter a plan in a matter of minutes.

During the 9 nights I spent on the Sea Spirit, we traveled a total of 1,600 nautical miles… and our route was changed 27 times.

One of the main aspects of expedition cruising that surprised me was just how flexible you need to be. Unlike a traditional cruise that organizes port stops in advance, expedition cruising is much more unpredictable.

Although we encountered, for the most part, sunny and calm weather conditions while visiting Antarctica, there were three times our planned activities had to be altered due to ice conditions that prevented us from landing.

zodiac boats

Fortunately, as opposed to a canceled activity, these changes resulted in scenic sightseeing cruises on small zodiac boats, which gave us another way to discover Antarctica’s landscapes.

The unpredictability of an Antarctic expedition is part of what makes the region so alluring, and the frequent route changes were just another example of how inhospitable and remote Antarctica can be.

There’s a sense of camaraderie among fellow passengers, which led to new friendships

two people smiling in antarctica

When sailing on a ship with just over a hundred passengers, it’s a given that you’ll become familiar with each other by the end of the cruise. Friendships quickly formed amongst passengers, whether during a shared meal in the dining room or when watching a rookery of penguins together ashore.

The exhilarating polar plunge helped passengers loosen up as well. As each timid guest jumped into the chilling Antarctic waters, massive cheering ensued, and a celebratory party at the ship’s jacuzzi followed soon after.

By the end of the cruise, I felt just as sad to leave my new friends as I did to leave Antarctica, and this was not something I expected when I booked my expedition cruise.

I was also surprised by the diversity of guests onboard

people taking pictures of cape horn chile

I initially expected the average age of passengers on an Antarctica cruise to be far higher than it really was. When I thought of expedition cruising, I pictured retirees in their seventies and eighties, but this couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Although there were several older guests on the Sea Spirit, I was surprised by the amount of passengers in their twenties and thirties. One group of girls, in fact, was cruising to celebrate their friend’s thirtieth birthday!

In addition to a wide range of ages was the large number of nationalities. There were guests from the United States, Germany, Taiwan, Russia, the Netherlands, Italy, and Australia onboard, to name just a few of the countries represented.

I enjoyed cruising with such a diverse group of passengers. It provided constant opportunities to learn about each others’ countries and cultures, and every conversation I had with fellow guests was fascinating.

For photography lovers, expedition cruises are an ideal way to travel

Spert Island Antarctica

From adorable penguins to sly leopard seals and soaring albatross, wildlife viewing opportunities are abundant in Antarctica. For photographers, cruising to the seventh continent is a dream come true.

Expedition cruises offer a magnificent environment for photographers, whether novices or professionals. The breathtaking landscapes and bountiful wildlife in a destination like Antarctica provide endless photo taking opportunities.

A photography workshop was offered en route to Antarctica, too, which gave helpful advice to newbie photographers looking to capture their best photographs throughout the next week. In addition, the Sea Spirit’s resident photographer was available during the sailing for additional questions and photography advice.

Poseidon Expeditions even held a photography contest at the end of the cruise, and seeing everyone’s photographs of Antarctica’s mountains, icebergs, and wildlife was a treat.

Just be warned: you’ll almost certainly be tempted to upgrade your camera setup upon returning home!

Expedition cruises are more active than I expected, from hiking in the snow to boarding zodiac boats

people hiking in antarctica

Something I didn’t expect when traveling to Antarctica was that I would be sweating and panting while hiking up the side of a mountain. If anything, I figured I would spend most activities ashore with frozen fingers and toes ready to get back onboard the warm, comfortable Sea Spirit.

Every landing site in Antarctica is unique. Some offer short, flat walks along the coastline and others entail hiking uphill through the snow. Regardless of the activity, there was one trend: cruising to Antarctica was an active adventure.

As someone who prefers active vacations, I reveled in the opportunity to hike through the snow and view Antarctica’s majestic landscapes from above. Thus, my favorite activities ashore were those with long walks up, down, and around mountain landscapes.

I was surprised by the level of activity offered on shore landings. Although participating in the more strenuous activities was optional—you could always stick to flatter land near the shore—the views were nothing short of spectacular.

Even getting in and out of the small zodiac boats required some level of fitness, as you had to hold your balance to board the zodiac and swing your leg over the side of the boat upon disembarking.

zodiac boats

Nonetheless, even the oldest passengers onboard were able to successfully navigate their way around landing sites. However, visiting the continent could be more challenging for passengers with more severe physical limitations.

Expedition cruising quickly became my favorite style of cruising, and I’m already planning my next trip

Throughout my 9 days aboard Poseidon Expeditions’ Sea Spirit, I constantly found myself surprised by the overall expedition cruise experience, and always in a positive way.

For as long as I can remember, I have been intrigued by traveling to the furthest and most remote corners of Earth. Little did I know an expedition cruise would be the most immersive way to experience these regions.

girl standing in front of a glacier

While aboard Poseidon Expeditions’ Sea Spirit, I had innumerable ways to discover Antarctica up close, from daily landings ashore to zodiac cruises where we sailed past icebergs, glaciers, and rocky cliffs hundreds of feet tall.

Today’s travel industry offers countless ways to cruise, from traditional leisure cruises to the Caribbean to riverboats sailing through Europe’s picturesque towns. Yet for the most intrepid of travelers, the sense of discovery abundant during an expedition cruise is simply unmatched.

Feeling inspired to visit Antarctica with Poseidon Expeditions yourself next season? Get an additional discount of $500 USD for cruises in the 2024/25 Antarctic season by using the code #JENNA500 when booking.

For more details on expedition cruise offerings, contact Poseidon Expeditions directly.

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