What’s a typical day like in Antarctica? What do you do? How do you spend your time? How cold is it, anyway?! I’ve gotten so many questions about Antarctica, but what I’ve really wanted to write about is what a typical day in Antarctica is really like.
First things first: anyone who has been to Antarctica is laughing because there’s no such thing as a typical day in Antarctica! You’re held to the whims of the harsh environment. Your crew might have the best laid plans, and they can be knocked asunder in an instant.
I traveled on the Ocean Diamond in March 2018 with Quark Expeditions, who hosted me on this trip. I spent a few days taking notes on everything I did so I could write this post for you. Here’s a complete log from how I spent one day in Antarctica.
6:45 AM: My alarm goes off. Leanne, my roommate, is up already and taking a shower. As a solo traveler, I knew I’d be paired with a stranger; I lucked out to get someone as sweet and considerate as Leanne, who is a few years older than me and comes from Melbourne via Adelaide.
I grab my phone and take a quick look at the ship’s email, my only source of internet during our 12 days at sea. (There is satellite internet on board, but at $100 for 100 MB, I don’t plan to touch it!) I’m only emailing a few friends and family members to let them know that I’m alive and check in on everything at home.
7:15 AM: “Good morning, everyone, good morning.” Every morning starts the same way, with an announcement on the intercom. It’s going to be a beautiful day on Danco Island.
7:25 AM: Kayaking meeting in the upper restaurant on Deck Four. We meet every morning to get a primer on the conditions and find out what lies ahead. Kayaking conditions can change by the minute, especially somewhere as wild as Antarctica, but it looks good — we’re cleared to paddle today, both morning and afternoon!
7:35 AM: Breakfast! I hit up the custom omelet stand for a veggie omelet and chat with my cook, who comes from Kyrgyzstan. It’s the end of the Antarctic season and he’s excited to go home. His family is planning a welcome home party.
I wrack my brain for Kyrgyz knowledge. “Are you going to have plov?”
He bursts into a grin. “Yes! My mother makes the best plov!”
8:10 AM: Suit up! It takes a good amount of time to get dressed: first my base layer, then my second layer, then my kayaking drysuit. I top it off with my kayaking skirt, booties, life vest, hat, hand warmers, and mittens. (More details on what I wore and packed here.) Ready for anything.
8:25 AM: Kayak meeting time! We meet 20 minutes before the first group is due at the gangway, “zipped and clipped,” and get to spot the zodiacs being lowered from above.
“Hey,” our guide Michael says. “Everyone, put your hands in the center. Now turn them sideways.” He clenches his fist and causes us all to make a spiral, and we cheer!
Since we’ll be walking on Antarctic land today, we step through a tub of disinfecting solution to keep impurities away. Or driver today is Juani from South Africa — not surprisingly, it takes us about two minutes to realize we have a South African friend in common — and speed toward our drop-off spot.
Brian and I are partnered up for this trip. He’s probably the passenger with whom I have the most in common: he’s in his thirties, lives in an east coast city, loves Broadway, and lives a five-minute walk from his sibling, just like I do. Brian’s in the back; I’m in the front. Our guide Vickie holds the kayak in place as I put my feet on the seat, sit on top of the kayak, and slide my way in smoothly before stretching the kayak skirt over my seat.
Danco Island is our morning excursion. This is a major gentoo penguin colony and we paddle along the shore, marveling at the penguins playing in the water before us. The first group arrives on the island and we watch them lots of photos.
Just then an absolute miracle happens — hundreds of porpoising penguins begin jumping around the water! Until today, I’ve only seen about a dozen of them, max. This is incredible. I am knocked senseless with joy.
Soon we make a turn and begin paddling around the island. Soon we land in brash ice. We paddled through brash ice in Port Charcot a few days ago, but this ice is different. It’s not as noisy. It requires a level of athleticism I haven’t deployed until now and soon I’m out of breath — but I keep pushing. (I feel bad that I’ve been taking so many photos and leaving Brian to do the brunt of the kayaking!)
But there’s a reward. We get through the ice and end up in a clearing, surrounded by calving blue glaciers on all sides. We can’t get anywhere near them for safety reasons, but you couldn’t miss the sound even if you try. The sixteen of us paddle into a line and become a raft, holding onto the kayaks next to us. Our raft floats in circles, as we stay silent, the ice calving around us.
10:30 AM: Excursion finished, we leave the kayaks with Vickie and Michael and Juani drives us to shore to hang out with the penguins.
Earlier in the trip, I spent all my time trying to capture perfect photo after perfect photo of the penguins. This time, I sit and watch them. One of the advantages of doing an Antarctica cruise in March is that you see lots of adolescent penguins. While they may not be as cute as the furry gray babies, they’re a lot funnier — they have lots of pool parties!
Since we’re on a 200-passenger ship and international law only allows 100 people from a ship on the continent at a time, half the group does a zodiac cruise while the other half does a landing. This isn’t to say that a zodiac cruise is inferior — some of the best experiences take place in a zodiac! But for me, with these penguins, this is all I need.
11:15 AM: It’s time to head back — I hop in the zodiac and we speed back to the boat! After climbing up the gangway, we spray down our boots and step through disinfecting solution once again to keep the penguin poop off the ship.
After hanging up my suit to dry, I head to the Club, the lounge area with comfy sofas, big windows, and 24-hour coffee and tea. I grab a seat with John and Trish, an affable Aussie couple in their fifties and two of my favorite people on the ship.
“Now, Kate, I have a question for you,” says John. “What are apartments in New York like?”
Ha. John is about to learn more about New York apartments than he ever knew possible!
“Tiny,” I tell him. “Until you get to 110th St., and then they get enormous — and that’s one reason why I live in Harlem…”
12:30 PM: Lunch time! On the way in, I say hi to maitre’d Alex and accept his offering of a squirt of hand sanitizer. We sanitize our hands often on this ship — before every meal and before we enter the Club or the theater. It seems like overkill, but longtime staff tell me people used to get sick much more often before they started doing this.
Not only is Alex Ukrainian, he’s from Odessa, one of my favorite cities in Europe! We’ve been eagerly gabbing about all things Odessa ever since!
Lunch is a buffet and I usually grab fish and vegetables. Each day there are meat, fish, and vegetable entree options, plus side dishes, a salad bar, and a soup, pasta, and sandwich of the day.
I sit with Bob and Barbara, two more of my favorite people. Barbara is a New Yorker as well and we met at the New York Times Travel Show in January — she came to the speech I gave with Quark and told me she was going on my upcoming trip.
Barbara and Bob met on a tour of Papua New Guinea and they’ve traveled together on several trips since. (Since Antarctica, they’ve also traveled on a cruise from Japan to Vancouver, a long trip through Central America, and they’re planning a trip to the Himalayas next!)
1:15 PM: Nap and rest in my room. I don’t actually fall asleep, but this busy ship can be a lot for an introvert, and I need a bit of alone time before we head out again.
2:20 PM: Time to suit up again. Kayaking is still good to go.
2:40 PM: Time for our afternoon outing in Wilhelmina Bay. There won’t be a landing here, so there’s no disinfection –the others will be doing a zodiac cruise only.
I have to admit that I’m hoping for a more low-key excursion after the hardcore paddling through brash ice we did in the morning. And I’m in luck in the best possible way — Wilhemina Bay is resplendent with whales, and we spend most of our time watching them in wonder.
Normally when there’s a wildlife sighting, everyone speeds to the same location. It’s like a safari that way. But in Wilhelmina Bay, every zodiac has its own whale or pod to watch!
We paddle around, keeping a good distance from the icebergs, searching for seals and penguins in addition to whales. For the past two days, we’ve started yelling, “Come on, come on, come on,” when it looks like a whale is about to show its tail, then we cheer when the tail appears.
Then IT happens. The biggest, most insane thing to happen to use while in kayaks.
A whale slowly rises out of the water, nose first, coming up higher and higher and higher. This is completely different from everything we’ve seen so far! Most of the whales just barely edge out of the water. What is this one doing?
Nausea burrows inside me. I think I might wet my drysuit.
And then…it goes underwater once again. It happened too quickly for me to photograph it, but I don’t care — I’m just lucky enough to have lived it!
“You know those dry suits?” my kayak friends joke. “They’re not dry anymore!”
“Everything surprises me in Antarctica, but it takes a lot to impress me. That impressed me,” says our guide Michael. “The only thing that would make that better would be if an orca jumped over all the kayaks.”
“And then Michael Jackson randomly started singing,” I add.
5:00 PM: Back in the zodiac and back on the boat. I take a shower and change into my lounge-around-the-ship clothes: leggings, a t-shirt, and my favorite long hoodie from Athleta.
5:40 PM: Time for the ship’s daily recap in the theater. Each day, our Expedition Leader Woody and several of the Expedition Staff share some of the best moments. Today it includes an AWESOME photo of us kayakers in Wilhelmina Bay with the whale breeching in front of us!
Everyone is uploading their photos to the shared drive. (Everyone, that is, except the pro photographers, because the rights will transfer to Quark.) We’ll be able to access them for the next two years.
6:00 PM: Usually we do a four-course plated dinner with unlimited wine. But tonight is special — we’re doing a barbecue on deck! The deck has been transformed and music is blaring. Everyone is in their bright yellow coats, grabbing food and laughing. It’s also “crazy hat” night, though only about a third of the passengers join in.
Hilariously, the Macarena starts playing.
“I haven’t heard this song since high school,” an American guy around my age says.
“Well, now you’ve heard it on every continent!” I offer. He laughs.
8:00 PM: Tonight’s activity is Antarctic Trivia in the Club. I get paired with a group of randoms including the Macarena guy. We choose the team name “Unstable, But Not Unable” then later lament that it should actually have been “Clueless and Unaware.” We’re pretty terrible at the trivia!
“I love when drunk people shout out the answers,” jokes our host. That, of course, leads to a drunk guy shouting out the answers. “What explorer was named Gentleman of the Border Region?” “RICHARD NIXON!”
The tie-breaker question: “How many eggs has the ship used since the beginning of this trip?” The answer? Over 8,000. Wow.
8:45 PM: I grab a seat with Kirsty from Australia and Leo from Brazil, both of them around my age. While most people on the ship are over 50, what kind of thirty-somethings end up on a trip like this? Kirsty works in broadcasting; Leo works for a big tech company. There’s an American engineer and a Brit who works in the oil industry. I notice that the North American and European thirty-somethings tend to work more upscale jobs; then Australians tend to work more middle-class jobs. You’re far likelier to find an Australian nonprofit worker than an investment banker. There’s a whole blog post in that, I’m sure.
In a celebratory mood, the three of us split a bottle of champagne. We discuss Kirsty’s green card lottery win and upcoming move to New York. We have no idea at the time, but five months later, she and I will be drinking mojitos together in the Hamptons!
10:30 PM: Back in the cabin, catching up with Leanne, and winding down for the night. Between the kayaking, the socializing, and the champagne, sleep comes quickly.
How are other days different?
Sometimes the conditions aren’t safe for kayaking. And if that’s the case, the kayakers do zodiac cruises and sometimes landings, just like the rest of the passengers. Luckily, we have primarily glassy conditions on this trip.
Keep in mind that most passengers don’t kayak. There were only 16 kayaking spots for the 200 people on this expedition; I was extremely fortunate that I got a spot. If you definitely want to kayak, try to book as far in advance as possible.
(Starting in late 2019, however, Quark will be offering a paddle-for-a-day option which lets you try out kayaking in a sturdy inflatable kayak. This is a good option for people who don’t want to commit to kayaking the whole trip.)
Sometimes there’s no morning or afternoon excursion. While the crew tries to get you out as often as possible, sometimes you can’t argue with Mother Nature. They often don’t know if they can clear passages until they arrive. And if there’s no afternoon excursion, they serve afternoon tea in the Club! (Which we really didn’t need, considering how much delicious food there was, but MY GOD we took advantage of it!)
Whenever you’re not doing an excursion or activity, there are lectures on science, ecology, and history. My favorite takes place on International Women’s Day. Our ship historian, Justine, leads a presentation on the history of women in Antarctica called “Where are all the women?”
I am now obsessed with Jackie Ronne and Jennie Darlington, the first women to spend the winter in Antarctica in 1947-1948. They didn’t let subzero temperatures stop them from wearing the most glamorous clothes. Jennie later wrote, “Antarctica to me is female. Fickle, changeable, unpredictable, her baseness disguised by a white make-up of pristine purity. Suddenly she strips off her gloves, rolls up her sleeves and with the ferocity of a wolf, springs at your throat.”
Usually it’s a plated dinner. Dinner has four courses: appetizer, soup, entree, and dessert. After a few days of gorging, most of us take a cue from the staff who have lived on this ship for months and omit one or two of the courses. Unlimited wine is served: one signature red and signature white.
Clearing Up Antarctica Misconceptions
I find that people have a lot of misconceptions about what trips to Antarctica are like. Perhaps nobody more than my mom, who was asking me a few days before the trip if I really had to go! She was more worried than she’s been for lots of my other trips. But after seeing it for herself, now she wants to go to Antarctica.
I hope this typical day cleared up for you just what these trips are like.
And just remember:
It’s adventurous, but not frighteningly so. Yes, the elements are wild, but you only spend a few hours outside each morning and afternoon, and other than that, you’re on a really nice cruise ship with a professional crew. The crew and staff always take steps to keep you as safe as possible.
You don’t need to be in excellent shape. You should be in decent shape, and good shape if you plan to kayak, but you don’t need to be an ultra-marathoner before you tackle Antarctica. The hardest thing is climbing the steps of the gangway. Some of the older passengers had issues with this climb, but they were able to explore Antarctica safely.
You could have a nauseating journey…or not. The Drake Passage is home to some of the roughest seas in the world, and you spend two days crossing them from Ushuaia. We happened to luck out on my journey and had moderate crossings without much nausea. I have friends who have fared much worse.
You learn a lot, but that’s not all you have to do. There are lectures on geology, marine mammals, history. And you can go to them…or you can slink off to the library to borrow a book. And there is always a cup of tea with your name on it in the Club.
Everyone is welcome — and everyone is interesting. What kind of people do you think go to Antarctica in the first place? People who have traveled extensively, of course. And everyone has stories to tell.
READ NEXT: Antarctica and the Traveler’s Ego
Essential Info: I traveled to Antarctica on Quark Expeditions‘ Crossing the Circle: Southern Expedition in March 2018. The 2019 voyage starts at $8,995. The kayaking supplement is $995, which includes kayaking throughout the voyage, but starting this summer in the Arctic Quark is offering one-day “paddling excursions” that are better suited for people with less experience who don’t want to kayak every day.
Quark often has sales — I recommend following them on Facebook and checking out their website. Additionally, some people can get deals by flying down to Ushuaia and jumping on a last-minute discounted trip — though this is risky! You never know what will be available. If you’re looking to kayak, book as early as possible, as kayaking slots are limited and sell out quickly.
See my Antarctica Packing List for information on what to pack.
While Quark has Antarctica-specific evacuation coverage for emergencies, you need to have your own travel insurance as well. For my trip to Antarctica, I used World Nomads, which I highly recommend for both Antarctica and elsewhere.
This post is brought to you by Quark Expeditions, who hosted me in full on this trip and covered most of my expenses including the full cost of the expedition, kayaking supplement, two nights’ accommodation in Ushuaia, and round-trip airfare from New York. I paid for all incidentals, staff gratuities, gear excluding the Quark parka, and all expenses in Ushuaia excluding the hotel. All opinions, as always, are my own.