By Paul Motter
We all saw the news about the Clelia II losing an engine in Drake's Passage on its way to Antarctica. The ship was able to regain some power and make its way back to Ushuaia, Argentina. Ironically, it probably would have been better off if it had been able to continue to the frozen continent, as the seas would have gotten calmer as the ship continued south. But due to a broken window and crippled communications the ship had no choice but to turn back.
Every cruise to Antarctica has to face Drake's Passage, but the passage is not always as cruel, especially in the dead of summer as it is now in the southern hemisphere. Still, the potential for bad weather in polar regions is something for which every expedition cruiser needs to be prepared. In fact - before anyone even considers a polar cruise I recommend a lot of research. You can start with my article about Polar Cruising.
Size does matter when it comes to rough seas. While any ship will be buffeted by the type of seas that hit Clelia II, a larger ship would have ridden it out more smoothly. People still would have gotten seasick, but the rapidity of motion, side to side and up and down, would have been reduced a great deal. A small ship will change direction with every small wave while a larger ship tends to move only with the larger motion of the sea.
Unfortunately, recent changes in rules for tour operators to Antarctica have made it all but impossible for larger ships to offer Antarctic expedition cruises. Ships that burn bunker fuel (most large cruise ships) are not allowed in the Antarctic polar region and no landings of more than 100 guests plus staff are allowed anywhere in Antarctica. So most Antarctic expedition cruises are now done on very small vessels, 1500 to 4000-tons, carrying about 100 cruisers. Most anything larger is considered a sightseeing cruise with no (or limited) landings.
The Arctic is a bit different. Even a regular cruise ship, such as the Oceania Cruises' Insignia (30,000-tons and 680 passengers) is planning a trip to Longyearbyen in the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic next July. This is equally as far north as almost any expedition ship will go, although smaller expedition ships tend to spend more time in the region. But Insignia is not an expedition ship; it is a regular cruise ship. This is an unusual journey for an average cruise vessel, but we will probably see more cruises like this as large ships are now restricted from visiting Antarctica.
The planned itinerary to encircle the island of Spitsbergen to the north, possibly even reaching the Arctic polar ice cap, makes the Insignia cruise especially interesting. The ship is also scheduled to explore Magdalena Bay, considered the most northerly point any cruise will reach. The bay contains some of the largest glaciers in the north, large enough to make Alaska's glaciers look like ice cubes.
But I want to interject a word of caution about Arctic cruising. Although the seas tend to be far calmer than Drake's passage, Arctic cruises tend to go far deeper into the Arctic polar region than any Antarctic cruises can go. The Arctic and Antarctic Circles both start at 66.3 degrees of latitude, north or south, with 90 degrees being the actual pole.
But Antarctica is a land mass surrounded by ice, while the Arctic Circle is pure ocean with a very thin ice cap - not more than a few meters deep even at the North Pole. That Insignia cruise should be able to penetrate the 81st parallel without a problem. This is about 700 miles farther north than the top of Alaska and even farther north than most Alaska cruises ever reach. It is also much deeper into the polar region than most Antarctic cruises ever penetrate.
So, the one thing you need to know is that it will get very cold up there. Svalbard is not just a slightly cooler version of Alaska. Alaska is a rain forest compared to Svalbard. The wind can whip up mightily in Svalbard, even in the bays, and you can get extremely cold.
If you plan to go outside in Svalbard I recommend that you take windproof and even waterproof clothing. The worst thing that can happen to you up there is that you get wet. If you do get wet on a windy day there is no way you can tolerate the cold, windy weather. If you plan to go to the Arctic on an expedition vessel then a fully waterproof clothing ensemble is an absolute necessity.
There is a possibility you will see polar bears, walruses, whales and plenty of sea lions. But it is so cold in Svalbard even the bird population is pretty small. And in case you are wondering, no, you will not see any penguins in the Arctic - they only live in Antarctica. But you won't see polar bears in Antarctica; they only live in the north.
Discuss the Oceania Cruises here: Oceania Cruises