The first time I visited Antarctica was when I was 12 years old. Since then, I've been back a few times. Here's what you need to know about staying safe on the South Pole.
Cruise operators take safety very seriously as it’s not just the continent that is dangerous, but also the seas surrounding it. The notoriously rough Drake Passage must be crossed by all cruise-goers seeking to reach the Antarctic Peninsula and anyone who suffers from severe sea-sickness is well advised to take a plane across the passage.
The peninsula is certainly a much less harsh environment than the interior of Antarctica, however, safety precautions are still a must as icebergs, low temperatures and huge amounts of ice make the cruise considerably more dangerous than a standard boat tour.
Always prepare for rough weather and seas when boarding an Antarctic cruise. Whilst Antarctica cruises are often delayed because of severe weather, they will still sail in moderate conditions. To reach the Antarctic Peninsula you must first cross the infamous Drake Passage, sometimes referred to as the ‘Drake Shake’. The passage extends for 1,000 km between the South Shetland Islands and Cape Horn and ships must traverse the passage at right angles to the current. This, combined with the passage’s frequent high winds, usually makes for a somewhat ‘lively’ crossing. The crossing generally takes 48 hours and many Antarctic visitors see it as right-of-passage.
Although the passage is occasionally dead calm, the likelihood is that at some point on your journey there or back, pitching and swaying of your vessel will occur. If you suffer from mild or moderate sea-sickness, Antarctic cruises always have a doctor on-board. The doctor will prescribe you sea-sickness pills. Phenergan is often used as this is scientifically proven to combat sea-sickness considerably. If you are suffering from sea-sickness, try to leave your cabin and walk on deck. Stare at the static horizon to help your eyes and inner ear adjust. You’ll find your sea legs much more quickly by walking around. A little food is better than an empty stomach for sea-sickness and you should avoid alcohol and tobacco.
When the weather gets very rough it’s a good idea to sit down or lie down in your cabin. The lower your body weight is to the ground, the less chance of movement you have. Always avoid bringing things like silk pajamas as you’ll slide back and forth on your bed! If you must move about the ship in rough conditions, always do so with bent knees to absorb any sudden movement. Make sure you are always holding onto a handrail and do not place your hands on the edge of doors as a sudden lurch may slam the door on your fingers. Try to avoid the open decks in rough conditions as these will often be slippery.
Remember, do what feels safe to you. Many people absolutely love the rough sections and will be out on the deck next to the rails taking in the full experience. Your crew will only take precautions when it becomes considerably rough, and this is quite rare. Generally, you’ll be free to move about and do whatever feels comfortable.
Whilst much of the peninsula is actually land, there is still a huge amount of ice. Some of the most incredible landscapes in Antarctica are made purely of ice and your cruise operator will no doubt make one or two stops along the way.
Your guide should give you some tips to walking on ice such as gripping with your toes, however, your main weapon will be your boots. This is why choosing the right boot for your Antarctica cruise is so important. Often, operators will actually provide you with boots, but this is not always the case and it’s prudent to bring your own. Grip is the key. Crampons are not allowed to be worn in most buildings, therefore, you have to make do with either rubber or small metal spiked boots. Look for boots with deep lugs and a high rubber content; these will have the most grip.
Always make sure you keep a slow pace on the ice and try not to make sudden movements. Keep your balance centered and keep your steps short. Although it’s often cold, always keep your hands out of your pockets in case of a fall. Always keep together and stay within sight of your lead guide. There are no signposts on the ice and you could easily wander off and get lost, especially as the weather can literally turn in minutes.
Extreme cold is not a major factor for cruise-goers in the summer as temperatures are often above freezing. However, at night and during the shoulder months, temperatures can get well below freezing. Layering up and keeping your extremities warm is the key to your safety. Like the boots, many Antarctic operators will provide you with a warm jacket, but once again, you shouldn’t rely upon this. When outside, you should wear a thick winter jacket with a fleece and base layer underneath. You’ll find that you’re often too warm and need to shed some clothes; this is where wearing layers is extremely helpful.
Always wear a beanie, gloves and two pairs of socks. As long as your extremities remain warm, your body has a far better chance of not getting cold. If you ever feel your hands going numb or starting to hurt you should speak to your guide immediately. He or she will advise you on the best action. This can be anything from hand warmers to returning to the ship.
For anyone thinking of visiting the interior of Antarctica on a specialized tour, safety precautions will be much higher and you will need professional training before attempting such a trip. Temperatures are far lower there and severe weather is frequent.
Keeping your gear and equipment dry and safe should be a high priority. This is especially true of camera equipment which is never cheap to replace!
Seaspray from bow waves is common and you need a good waterproof jacket, not just for yourself, but also for your backpack. Always keep your valuables in a sealable dry bag when going ashore and only remove them when you are well on land as the zodiac landings are often quite splashy. Even if it’s sunny, always wear your jacket when traveling on the zodiacs as getting wet is the fastest way to become cold in Antarctica. Make sure you bring a waterproof cover for your backpack as added protection.
Your camera gear will perform better when warm and you should keep your lenses and camera bodies in socks or something similar when not actually photographing. In very cold weather your O-rings will shrivel, the lubricants in your camera and tripod will seize up and the LCD screens will freeze. Your camera essentially becomes brittle and fragile. Lenses and camera bodies that use composite materials such as plastic metal and glass will struggle as each material will shrink at a different rate when exposed to freezing conditions.
Keep your camera gear out for as little time as possible and always store in a dry and warm place. Avoid taking your camera and lens from the extreme cold straight into a warm room as this will produce a layer of condensation on both the inside and the outside of the camera. Therefore, you need to minimize any rapid changes of temperature with your camera gear. Wrapping the camera up in a sealable bag outside and leaving it in your warm room for several hours before unsealing the bag is one way to achieve this. Try not to keep all your camera gear in one dry bag as any mishap will mean you lose your all your equipment.
The cold temperatures will also sap your battery life far more quickly than you would expect. Remember to bring several backup batteries and a spare SD card.
The major cause of Antarctic cruise incidents is icebergs. Always make sure that your particular cruise ship is ice-strengthened with a reinforced hull. Occasionally a large cruise ship will head to Antarctica without any extra protection – this is madness. Although the Titanic story is nearly h100 years old now, icebergs still have the same effect. Thankfully, technology has moved on since the days of Titanic and predicting icebergs and weather changes is now much easier and safer. Forward scanning sonar and ice radars are used by all Antarctic cruises.
Regardless of technology, the waters around Antarctica can be dangerous and every Antarctic cruise operator is obliged by law to conduct a full evacuation drill within the first 24 hours of the ship's departure from port. Your crew will make you aware of all the procedures. This generally means describing where your life jackets are located, where the exits can be found and where to meet on deck. When the evacuation drill commences and everyone arrives on deck, your crew will then describe in detail the lifeboat procedures. By law, the lifeboats must be able to accommodate more people than are actually on-board. Some operators will also conduct a fire drill in the same manner.
In such a remote location as Antarctica, safety comes first. The peninsula is perfectly safe as long as you are sensible and follow the directions of your guides and crew members who are all professionally trained to deal with the harsh environment. The trade-off to venturing to such a remote land is to witness an untouched wilderness, a simply spectacular landscape that will stay with you forever.
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