Antarctica with Polar Latitudes – Life at Sea and Other Logistics

Antarctica is a dream destination for many travelers – wildlife enthusiasts, sea adventurers, those looking to tick off their 7th continent or maybe a combination of all 3.  In the previous posts, see below for a list, I cover the land and zodiacs excursions we made on a 21 day trip (18 days at sea) to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island and Antarctica on the ship Island Sky run by Polar Latitudes. This post includes the life on the ship and logistics.

Previous Posts

Falkland Islands
South Georgia Island – Part 1
South Georgia Island – Part 2
Antarctica – Part 1
Antarctica – Part 2

Life on the Ship and Logistics

Pre-Cruise Travel
Embarkation Day
The Ship
Internet
Dining
Biosecurity
Photography Equipment
Weather and Sea Conditions
Days at Sea and Other Activities
Zodiac Launch Logistics
Kayaking
Guests
Clothing
Staff

Pre-Cruise Travel

Prior to embarkation we spent 2 days in Buenos Aires followed by two days at the Arakur Resort and Spa in Ushuaia, Argentina. The two days at the Arakur Resort were part of the Polar Latitude package. The two days in Buenos Aires were not. See the following posts for more information on staying in Buenos Aires and at the Arakur Resort and Spa.

Embarkation Day

Guests spent the day in Ushuaia, Argentina or at the hotel before boarding the bus at the hotel or in town for the 4 p.m. embarkation.

Once on board we were greeted by the crew with glasses of champagne or juice and chatted with our fellow shipmates while waiting for the rest of the guests to arrive.

Before the first briefing we all went to our rooms to check that our luggage had arrived safely and then returned to the lounge for our first introductory briefing headed by Nate, the Expedition Leader. Nate introduced the rest of the expedition team followed by a basic introduction of life on the boat.

Dr. Bruce, the ship’s doctor, then gave a hilarious presentation of Covid protocols and staying healthy on board the boat in general including safety tips. They now have covid tests in all the cabins. If you do test positive they impose a soft quarantine where you can go on deck but are required to eat in your room and avoid the indoor common areas. You can do excursion in a private zodiac. No one tested positive for Covid on the pre-embarkation test but they had cases of Covid show up on every trip so far that season. The crew therefore masks for the first 5 days. A few days after embarkation a couple did test positive for Covid and they followed the soft quarantine protocols liked they had explained. The crew had to mask for an additional number of days but no one else reported testing positive.

Next was the safety drill to know what to do and where to go in case of an emergency.

At 6:30 was the meet the Captain cocktail reception. Captain George was another entertaining speaker, giving a lengthy description of his personal and professional history followed by an introduction of his senior staff.

Dinner was served in the main dining room only.

After dinner there was a boot and jacket exchanged called by floor where you could exchange the expedition jacket and/or boots left in your room if they did not fit properly.

We were supposed to leave port at 6 p.m. but due to strong winds we didn’t leave until after dinner, closer to 9 p.m.

The Ship

Our ship, the Island Sky, is no longer operated by Polar Latitudes.

Common Areas

The Island sky has 2 indoor lounge areas – a larger lounge on deck 3 where they gave all the briefings and lectures and on deck 4 there is a smaller bar area with a library at one end.

In the deck 3 lounge they served canapes and drinks during the evening recaps and briefings.

On deck 4 in addition to afternoon tea they served bar drinks all day and had live piano music in the evening. There was also a 24/7 hot drink and cookie station at one end of the bar area.

Although they kept track of the drinks served there was no charge for them.

Despite what the website said there was no gym or sauna on the ship.

Outdoor Viewing Decks

There is a small viewing area off the back of deck 3. On deck 4 you can walk all the way around the deck with viewing platforms off the bow and aft. The guest rooms on this floor have a sliding glass door that opens to this outdoor walkway. Deck 5 aft has a terrace restaurant with a viewing area behind it. Deck 6 has a small viewing area towards the bow with stairs leading to a small 360-viewing area above it. It was great for those who lived on deck 6 in the largest suites.

Choosing a Room with the Best Wildlife Viewing

Decks 5 and 6 have private balconies that give you views on one side of the ship or the other. From deck 6 though it is easier to get out to the bow of the ship on that deck or go up one level to the 360-viewing platform. On deck 5 you are on the same deck as the terrace restaurant and the aft viewing platform, but to get to the bow of the boat you have to go up or down one level. On deck 4 you have views out the sliding glass door plus you have easy access to the bow or aft on that deck as there is a walkway all the way around the deck. The downside is that other passengers also walk in front of the sliding glass door to you room.

The Deck 5 Veranda Suite is comfortably sized for a long voyage. The room is furnished with two desk/vanity areas with drawers for storing personal items, two sitting chairs with a small table between and a comfortable queen-size bed. There is a sizable walk-in closet that had 20 hangers plus a narrow dresser unit with 2 shelves, 3 small drawers and 1 large drawer. There is also ample floor space for the boots they give you, life jackets and other shoes you may have. The bathroom I found large for a ship with a reasonably sized shower, counter space and storage under the sink. The sink was deep with a working stopper that made washing clothes by hand easy. After getting most of the water out by wringing them in a towel they easily dried on hangers in the closet. There is a hotel style laundry service with items ranging from $6.20USD for trousers to $2.30 for underwear.

Our only complaint about the room was the coffee maker. It was difficult to use as it didn’t quite fit in the space provided. Otherwise, it made reasonably good coffee. There was also a complimentary mini-bar with cold drinks.

Housekeeping was offered twice a day generally when we were at breakfast and again during the dinner service.

Internet

In the library there were 2 computers for guests to use that were connected to the internet all the time. They did not lose service like the guest Wi-Fi did. The guest internet lost service in Port Stanley at the beginning of the trip and didn’t get it back until we were on our way back to Ushuaia at the end of the trip. One of the problems logging on to your email on the guest computers is getting a code on your phone. How you get the code without internet will be different depending on your phone and email provider. If having reliable email is important to you, you should research this before your trip.

Dining

Meals were served in the main dining room on deck 2 and on the 5th deck lido deck in suitable weather i.e., when it was not too windy. Because the lido deck had heat lamps in the ceiling of the covered area and plastic wind shields along the sides it was a pleasant place to dine on most days. The same food choices were offered on both decks. On days when it was not possible to eat lunch outside, they offered a light lunch in the 4th deck bar area. I liked this option as there were larger window on the 4th deck and fewer people.

All meals had an extensive selection of offerings including vegetarian, vegan and gluten free options.

Breakfast

Breakfast was a cafeteria-style hot and cold service that included – cut fruit, yogurt with various dried fruit and nut topping choices, sliced cheeses and charcuterie, smoke fish, eggs cooked to order, breakfast meats, hash browns, sauteed mushroom, stewed tomatoes, baked beans, porridge, French toast, waffles or pancakes.

Self-service items included a bread, pastry and jam table, a gluten free corner, hot drink (although their coffee was not very good) and a table of cereal, milk choices, whole fruit, and juice.

Lunch

Lunch was set up like breakfast with a cafeteria-style hot and cold service. The cold service included a build-your-own salad with lettuce and a variety of fresh vegetables. In addition, they had a couple of prepared salads e.g., tuna salad, salami salad, beef salad, etc. Also available were a couple of choices of sliced meat and cured fish.

Hot items changed daily with a couple of meat-based selections along with a vegie option. The selection over the 18 days at sea included a wide variety of international choices. Examples include – fisherman’s pie, Coq au vin, liver and onions, goreng noodles and pumpkin and lentil dahl. On deck 5 they often had a daily special table. Examples include – Caesar salad, build-your-own pasta, sushi, and fish and chips. There was also a daily soup and bread table. For dessert they had a fruit and cheese table and a dessert table with a selection of desserts including ice cream.

Dinner

The dinner service was off a menu with a widely varying menu from day to day of international selections. The menu included a choice of 3 starters, 2 soups, 3-4 main courses and 3 desserts. Also available everyday were a couple standard selections such as chicken breast and steak. Choices for vegetarians, gluten free, dairy free, egg free, sugar free and healthy option were indicated on the menu.

A white and red wine was served every evening with the selection changing daily.

Food was nicely presented and OK to good. Sometimes the meat was overcooked and dry and the fish portions small, but in general the dishes were well-executed. If you are used to cooking with or adding salt to your food you will find that most dishes lack salt. There were, however, salt and pepper on every table.

One evening near the end of the trip they had a special barbeque dinner on the lido deck. The barbeque banquet was an impressive spread including carved vegetables and fruits, breads turned into wildlife, a roasted whole pig and for dessert a tower of profiteroles. Other offerings included the usual type items with plenty of salads and side dishes and other types of meat and vegetables.

Afternoon Tea

In addition to the main meals, afternoon tea was served in the bar area on deck 4. Tea was a less ambitious spread of small sandwiches and desserts as well as a featured dessert.

Biosecurity

To prevent the spread of diseases and invasive species on both South Georgia Island and in Antarctica they take biosecurity very seriously with cleaning parties and gear checks.

South Georgia Island has strict guideline. Before the arrival to the island, they show a film showing both the amazing wildlife on the island and the need to protect the delicate eco system. Guests are then called down by deck to go through all their outer clothing and gear to remove any seeds and other debris that may have been picked up at other destinations. You’re required to go over your gear thoroughly with tweezer, Velcro brushes and vacuum cleaners to ensure that no stray particles remain. You are then supposed to check your gear between all landings to ensure that you do not spread foreign contaminants from one site to another.

The biosecurity process for Antarctica is almost identical to that for South Georgia Island. Nate, the Expedition Leader, gave a required presentation of the importance of protecting the wildlife and environment and the necessary procedures to do so. We then went back to our cabins to collect our outer gear and were called down by deck. This time you had the choice of having the staff help you check your gear or you could just sign that it was clean without bringing it down again.

I was disappointed to discover that because of the danger of spreading avian flu you couldn’t have anything on the ground at the excursion sites except for your boots, tripod and walking sticks, meaning no sitting or kneeling or laying your backpack on the ground. This made photography more of a challenge and you had to figure out how to manage your gear and get down low without putting anything on the ground. You were also supposed to maintain a distance of 5 meters from all animals and if they approach you, were supposed to back up maintaining that distance. This was often difficult to do as the animals do seek up on you, especially when you are crouching.

Photography Equipment

With two of us taking photos I used a 20L sport backpack containing two bodies and two long lenses (Canon R5 with a 100-400mm lens and a Canon 7D with a 70-200mm lens and a 1.4 extender). In a second smaller backpack I had a Fuji XT3 with a 16-80mm lens for documentation photos. The photographer on board generally only carried a 100-400mm lens. Neither bag was waterproof, but the 20L bag did have a rain cover. It also could be flipped around to the front of you while the waist belt is attached and opened from the back. This was an asset when you can’t lay things on the ground.

To help keep equipment dry, I lined the inside of the 20L bag with a trash compactor bag (a trick I learned from kayaking in Alaska) and put the small backpack in a dry sack. It did not need to be a backpack-style bag for transporting gear in the zodiac. It just needed a handle of some sort. All in all things weren’t too wet in the zodiac and a rain cover in most cases would be sufficient. That said, if you have expensive gear and don’t want to chance it, I would take extra precautions for those rare occasions, such as lining the bag or using a dry sack.

I also carried in the backpacks extra batteries, SD cards, lens cloths, filters (which I did not use) and a monopod (which I only used once for a waterfall photo that was not really worth the trouble). I was thinking that with having to crouch rather than kneel I could also use the monopod for stability. (Because of the spread of avian flu you can no longer kneel.) There was so much walking around, however, that it wasn’t worth getting out the monopod even though sometimes it would have been nice to have extra stability.

I generally wore most of my warm gear on the zodiac and then switched some of the layers with my camera equipment carrying the cameras on a harness and putting some of the middle layers, i.e., puffy jacket and mid-weight wool shirt in the backpack.

This is the first time I’ve tried a harness with two cameras. I found that the Op/Tech harness did work well for managing both the long lens and the Fuji. I mostly used the long lens but I did take a number of documentation photos at each landing site.

On the zodiac excursions, I put my R5 with a long lens in a dry sack and used a GoPro 10 for documentation. My biggest disappointment with equipment was the quality of the GoPro video. In the past we’ve mostly used the GoPro for underwater footage and have been happy with the results. This time, however, the quality of the footage was poor. Next time I would try a higher quality setting, cinematic rather than standard.

For processing photos I used Lightroom on a laptop and backed up photos after every excursion onto external hard drives.

Weather and Sea Conditions

The Southern Ocean is known for variable weather and rough seas and we did have a bit of everything, except no bad storms. The ocean did have considerable swells, especially on longer crossings. One afternoon the swells were higher than the Deck 3 lounge as you looked out the window.

The infamous Drake Passage was not too rough, no worse than our other open sea crossings to South Georgia Island and then to the Antarctica Peninsula.

They gave out Meclizine, a motion sickness medication, like candy. I personally didn’t have difficulty with sea sickness and most people I talked to had mild symptoms. Nearly everyone, however, was taking at least a little something, if not pills then they wore a patch.

The weather for the excursions was variable with everything from beautiful sunshine to wet snow. Generally there was some amount of cloud cover. We didn’t have any really bad winds. Most of our mornings in Antarctica were foggy, but we did have one amazing clear morning.

With the variable conditions planned excursion sometimes had to be changed, but they generally got us out somewhere on all but one excursion day. Our first day in Antarctica we only saw Elephant Island from the ship. We saw lots of whales that day but again from the ship.

Temperatures were much more comfortable than I thought they would be. In the Falkland Islands and on South Georgia Island some days were as high as low 50s. The last day on South Georgia Island it snowed with a high of 35°. Antarctica was colder with highs in the upper 30s to low 40s.

Dressed properly, however, it was not uncomfortable. They gave us an expedition rain jacket to keep and thick soled rubber boots to borrow. With the right layers underneath, gloves and a cap we stayed quite warm. The ship was always toasty warm.

Days at Sea and Other Activities

Lectures
Citizen Scientist
Other Activities
Sightings at Sea
Evening Entertainment
Evening Recap and Next Day’s Briefing
Bridge Tour
Polar Plunge

On this voyage it’s a long way between destinations with a number of days at sea, 1 day between Ushuaia, Argentina and the Falkland Islands, 2 days between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island, 2 days between South Georgia Island and Antarctica and 2 days back to Ushuaia from Antarctica.

Polar Latitudes did a good job at keeping folks entertained with lectures and activities and keeping them informed of any wildlife, icebergs or other sightings.

Lectures

Lectures included both instructional, e.g., getting in and out of the zodiacs and how to interact with the animals and educational on a range of environmental and wildlife topics as follows:

Mammal and Bird ID – The well-presented lecture got our feet wet in how to ID the various birds and mammals we would be encountering. I found it overwhelming at first, but by the end of the trip I had a much better grasp of identifying the wildlife.

Lecture on the history of the Falkland Islands and the conflict with the UK – A sad and complicated history that appeals to Brits and history buffs. It did give visiting the Falkland Islands another dimension, but personally I was more interested in the wildlife on the islands than the history.

Photography – There were two talks on photography – Basic Photography and the Art of Photography. For the Basic Photography lecture, Lisa, the ships photographer discussed the elementary principals of photography for operating a non-instamatic camera. In the Art of Photography lecture she discussed the different ways of thinking about what you are shooting as well as teaching the basics of composition, connection and storytelling. Whatever your skill level Lisa was a good resource for improving your skills.

Seabirds – Jeannine talked about the life and migration patterns of various sea birds of the region.

Shackleton’s Adventure on the Endurance – Is a fascinating story of survival in Antarctica in 1914-1916. I did not go to the lecture because I had just finished the book, but I highly recommend reading “Endurance” by Alfred Lansing.

Krill and Phytoplankton – A fairly technical talk on the ocean waters, currents and wind by Michael followed by a talk on the importance of krill by Jeff. Unfortunately the gently rocking ship put me right to sleep.

Seals of the Southern Ocean – Jeff discussed the different species of seals found in the Antarctica region describing their general life cycle, mating habits, the raising of the young, where they live and what they eat. I found it an engaging talk with great photos and video.

Penguins 101 – Jeannine started the lecture with the etymology of the word “penguin” and the first bird considered to be a penguin, the great auk, followed by the evolution of penguins starting 60 million years ago. She then discussed penguin anatomy and how they differ from other birds. She spent the last 10 minutes or so on the different species found in Antarctica, where they are found, interesting traits and so forth.

Cetaceans – Jeff’s talk was mostly about what makes whales and dolphins different from other species and different from each other and how they have adapted to their environment. The last 20 minutes was information on the life cycle of specific animals and where they lived.

Geology 101 – Stephi discussed the basics of geology – geological time, shifting of tectonic plates, types of rocks and how they relate to Antarctica. She was one of the more engaging speakers bringing the audience and their experiences into the lecture.

Orca Ecology – Scotty’s orca lecture focused on the orcas we saw, discussing the various species found around the world, how you tell the species apart, male versus female characteristics, their feeding habits and other life cycle behaviors.

Climate Change – I didn’t listen to Michael’s Climate Change lecture because frankly I found it too much work to follow what he says. A number of guests told me that they liked his lectures despite the fact that they didn’t always follow what he said.

Coastal Cleanup Project – Jeff talked about the coastal cleanup project he participated in in 2020 and 2021 when the sightseeing ships outside of Vancouver couldn’t run because of the Covid pandemic. They used the boats and crew to clean up the shores, removing tons of debris that had collected there over the last 100 years.

Interview with the Captain, Hotel Manager and Chef to discuss the back room operations of running a cruise trip such as this.

Citizen Scientist

The ship offers several Citizen Scientist programs that allow passengers to participate in the collection of data including identifying whales, participating in bird counts, evaluating cloud formations, seaweed raft watches and looking for beetles under rocks.

We participated in one bird survey and one cloud survey. I’m not a birder and found the birds too far away to be of much interest. The cloud survey was too abstract for me as a non-scientist. Those interested in birds and the sciences will get much more out of these activities.

Other Activities

A couple of times they offered an art workshop on drawing wildlife from photographs.

A gift shop was opened for a short time periodically.

They had a number of contests – such as drawing, photography, haiku and bingo.

One afternoon they ran a charity auction to raise money for the South Georgia Heritage Fund. Jeff and Michael had a hilarious shtick presenting mostly white elephant type items for auction. There were a couple of items that people might actually want such as a nautical map of our route with beautiful hand drawn images of wildlife of the region. It was highly prized and went for $1,000.

Sightings at Sea

While some days we did come across whales, iceberg and rock formations, other days there wasn’t much to see.

On the way to South Georgia Island we passed Shag Rock, a cone shaped formation out in the middle of the ocean that attracts wildlife both above and under the sea. We only saw birds at a great distance and with considerable marine haze in the air. Later we saw our first Antarctica iceberg and there were whales about but none closer than distant spouts.

The day after we left South Georgia Island the ship came across a pod of pilot whales traveling with hour glass dolphins. This was an exciting and rare sighting in these waters. The ship even turned around to try to catch them again but they were too far off to the side. On the first approach they were headed towards the ship at 11 o’clock. From this angle they were fairly easy to photograph. The pilot whales were much easier to photograph even though the dolphins came closer to the ship and swam with us longer. The dolphins didn’t come up out of the water as high as the pilot whale resulting in photos of more splash than dolphin.

On the second day of open sea nearing Antarctica there was a giant iceberg, 73×14 miles long, that we had to go around. Even though we were just a mile and half from it all we could see was fog. Icebergs often create their own fog bank. Interestingly they didn’t know exactly where we were along the iceberg because the radar can only see 12 miles in either direction. What they saw was 12 miles of ice to the north and 12 mile of ice to the south. The captain therefore had to pick a direction to go around it. He chose heading north towards Ushuaia because there was reported more ice around the south end of the iceberg. This turned out to be the longer way around and cost us a bit of time, but not so much that we were way off schedule.

One afternoon there was a low cloud over the ocean that looked like a wall of fog.

Evening Entertainment

Zoltan, the resident piano player, played music in the bar area nightly after dinner. On one occasion he gave a classical concert in the lounge.

On a couple of evenings they played the Shackleton movie, complete with popcorn.

One evening for dessert a chocolate extravaganza with an impressive array of chocolate desserts was served in the lounge. After dessert was the crew show. The mostly Filipino staff demonstrated their singing and dancing talents presenting a combination of western songs of the baby boomer generation and traditional Filipino numbers. At the end of the performance the audience also got up and danced to a couple of disco tunes. It was quite the spectacle and great fun.

On the last night at the captain’s cocktail party, Lisa, the ship’s photographer, presented a slideshow of the trip and announced the winners of the haiku, photo and drawing contests.

Evening Recap and Next Day’s Briefing

Most evenings Nate, the Expedition Leader, conducted an evening recap to highlight the events of the day followed by a briefing of the next day’s activities.

Bridge Tour

On open sea days bridge tours were offered a couple of times a day. You did, however, have to sign up in advance. On the first day the sign-up sheet for the 3 times filled up very quickly but over the course of the trip they offered more times to allow all that wanted a tour a chance. The gracious captain George spent 45 minutes with us discussing the operation of the ship and taking the time to answer all questions that were asked.

Polar Plunge

One afternoon in Antarctica after the last excursion for the day, they offered the opportunity to jump into the frigid waters. For those that wanted to participate they dressed in their bathing suites and came to the back of the ship where they were harnessed and jumped off the side of a zodiac and then climbed a ladder back into the boat. It’s considered a rite of passage on a trip to Antarctica.

Zodiac Launch Logistics

Getting off the ship either for a shore excursion or zodiac tour was always a dance in logistics as the changing swell and wind made getting in and out of the zodiacs from the boat launch difficult. Depending on the weather the excursion plan could change several times before they found a suitable location. Even when it looked like a beautiful day there could still be too much swell and a need to change locations.

The guests were divided in 4 groups – Adelie, Chinstrap, Gentoo, and King – at the beginning of the trip. The order of debarkation was by named penguin group which changed for every excursion.  We were supposed to be called down to the lounge by group so we could board the zodiacs in order, but this frequently broke down. Groups were either not called or the guy checking you out the door didn’t pay attention to the group order. Despite the lack of controls guests were generally respectful of the group order.

Before boarding the zodiacs we waited in the lounge for our turn to board. When our group was called our ship ID was scanned as we left the lounge to go to the deck.  We waited on deck for our zodiac to be ready, then headed down stairs to the boat launch, walking through the biosecurity Virkon solution on the way. One by one we were called to board. You give the attendant your bag and with help step down to the zodiac. It was sometimes tricky when there was much swell but they generally don’t launch zodiacs if the swell is too great.

Kayaking

On this trip there were a fixed number of dedicated kayaking spots, about 16 out of 95 passengers. Now there are a number of trips that also offer more passengers an opportunity to try kayaking which I think is a nicer option. While kayaking in Antarctica is awesome, you have to choose between kayaking and spending time with the wildlife on shore. If you are interested in photography this can be a tough choice.

Since they offer kayaking to those with little kayaking experience they only went out when the conditions were very calm. The kayakers did have a chance to kayak on both South Georgia Island and Antarctica but a number of kayaking opportunities were cancelled due to rough seas.

Guests

On our ship most guests were from the UK, US or Canada and in their 60s or 70s. Most were reasonably active and well-travelled. I was surprised that few were interested in photography though everyone did take pictures, most using small cameras or phones. Few had long lenses. Many were interested in ecology and wildlife.

Clothing

For me the weather was warmer than I was expecting and I had plenty of layers to keep warm. Although I am not generally comfortable in the cold I was hopped up on adrenaline from the scenery and wildlife and didn’t mind the cold as much as I thought I would. Others I talked to were cold despite wearing multiple layers of clothing. I took relatively few clothes. I wore wool long johns under my thin hiking pants and generally two layers of long sleeve wool tops, one light weight and the other medium, under a puffy jacket and then the outer expedition jacket they give you. On South Georgia Island I often wore only the light weight wool top under the expedition jacket.

Staff

Overall the staff was professional, kind and as accommodating as possible. Of course not every passengers’ wishes could be granted but they made an effort to grant as many as possible. Nate, the Expedition Leader, would let us stay out longer when time permitted. He worked hard to get us on shore when the weather and sea conditions made it difficult to do so.

The dining room staff and housekeeping were equally professional and accommodating. The ship was a well run operation both in terms of the excursions and life on board the ship.

Date of Trip: January 28 – February 17, 2023

For links to all the posts in this series see the Antarctica, Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island page.