I’ve Been on 25 Cruises, but a Trip to Antarctica Changed Me in Ways I Never Expected
An avid cruiser discovers so much more than glaciers and penguins on her life-changing trip to Antarctica
Ever since my husband and I took our kids on the best Alaska cruise more than 20 years ago, I’ve been hooked on cruising. I love waking up in new cities—or countries!—every morning and only having to unpack once. I love the ease of having world-class restaurants and entertainment right outside my stateroom door. And most of all, I love being surrounded by water views. Honestly, I think I could happily live on a cruise ship.
Over the past two decades, I’ve done family cruises and adults-only cruises, sailed solo and with my husband or friends. After 25 cruises on the best cruise lines, I was convinced I knew everything about cruising and that, yes, it really was all about the journey rather than the destination. And then I sailed on Viking Polaris to Antarctica last December, and the destination was impossible to consider secondary. Although I had visited every other continent and seen some of the world’s most beautiful and fascinating sights, nothing prepared me for the jaw-dropping, quiet majesty of this magical place. Its presence was always palpable, and I felt it deeply.
An Antarctica cruise had topped my bucket list for years—as it apparently has for many travelers, who have made it a must-visit destination. But I had no idea it would be so moving and life changing. Antarctica’s otherworldly landscape, its remoteness and its natural wildlife all added up to what turned out to be one of my favorite cruises ever.
Although I had read all kinds of cruise tips before embarking on this 13-day journey, I found myself constantly surprised. Here are some of the life lessons my Antarctica cruise taught me and the unexpected ways it changed my perspective.
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Flexibility is everything
Every traveler knows that things never go according to plan. But you get a real lesson in flexibility in Antarctica, where weather conditions can change dramatically from minute to minute. Remember, this raw nature is one of the reasons we all want to visit Antarctica in the first place!
Cruise lines will always put safety first, and if you’re set on one specific port or excursion, you may be disappointed, because Antarctica itineraries are constantly being rerouted. You have to be able to literally go with the flow and accept that certain activities may have to be canceled—and may end up being replaced with even better things!
In fact, one of our best days occurred when all landings were canceled. As we parked seemingly in the middle of nowhere, curious whales and penguins surrounded the ship almost all day. We got to watch penguins casually float by on pieces of ice and saw so many whales, we stopped running to the deck when someone spotted one. It was an unexpectedly joyous day and one in which we also got to explore some of the ship’s hidden cruise features.
When you fall down, just get up
Courtesy Lois Alter Mark
It’s not easy to walk on the snow, and many passengers fell at one point or another on our treks to see the penguins. It’s embarrassing and frustrating—yes, I’m speaking from personal experience—but it goes with the Antarctic territory.
While it was tempting to just give up and go back to the ship, the penguins themselves provided a real lesson in persistence and resilience. Surprisingly, these black-and-white beauties faceplant all the time, and they simply get back up and continue on their way. If they—animals used to the challenging terrain—still end up in the snow, all we can do is follow their lead: Shake it off and keep going.
Experiences are more valuable than things
Although I like to bring home local art or crafts from my trips, I left Antarctica with nothing but memories. Unlike almost any other cruise, there are no shopping shore excursions, and obviously, there are no stores at all on the seventh continent. I could have picked up souvenirs in Ushuaia, Argentina, considered “the end of the world” for its spot as the southernmost city on the globe. It’s where the cruise begins and ends, after all. But I knew that nothing would beat my photos and memories of this amazing trip. I’d rather save my money to do it again someday.
Gratitude is game changing
I’ve been on all-inclusive cruises, themed cruises and dozens of other seafaring adventures, and I have to admit this is the first one during which I didn’t hear anyone complain. Instead, what I did hear over and over again was how grateful people were to be there, something I felt deeply every single day of the trip.
I totally related every time someone said, “Can you believe we’re in Antarctica?” or “How lucky are we to be experiencing this?” Even on days when we had to skip a landing due to bad weather, I could hear people reminding each other, “We’re here in Antarctica, and that’s what matters.” I’m convinced that focusing on the positive is the key to contentment, and I’ve been practicing this using a gratitude journal since returning from my trip.
Don’t let fear hold you back
Courtesy Lois Alter Mark
Fear is inevitable, and it’ll keep you from enjoying life if you let it. I’m not talking about legitimate fears, like facing down tourism dangers or coming face to face with a bear. I’m referring, rather, to those paralyzing fears of looking silly or not doing something perfectly.
I was this close to spending my limited time in Antarctica wearing gear that was too small for me because I was embarrassed to ask for a bigger size. And I was nervous about getting on the Zodiac (the smaller boats we used while exploring) every single time because I was sure I’d look foolish and clumsy.
Here’s the truth: No one cares. Everyone is busy enough worrying about themselves, and I would have always regretted missing out on something—or being comfortable in my skin, never mind my cold-weather clothes—because I worried about someone else’s opinion.
Climate change has serious effects
Courtesy Lois Alter Mark
Our planet is precious, and if it’s going to survive, we must take care of it. Nowhere is this more evident than in Antarctica, which is pristine and stunningly beautiful in its natural scenery because it’s been removed from much human interaction. Thankfully, Viking took this into consideration, making sure we were appreciating nature without aiding in its destruction.
Before we were allowed to touch land, Viking made sure our clothes were decontaminated and free of any plastic pieces that could fall off. Our boots were disinfected each time we returned to the ship, and everyone was very careful not to disrupt the fragile ecosystem. Onboard, scientists explained the devastating effects of climate change on the landscape around us—glaciers are melting, animals are dying—which was sobering and made all the warnings real.
Also sobering: By taking a cruise, I was complicit in this. According to a study in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, a large cruise ship has a carbon footprint of more than 12,000 cars and can negatively impact reefs, wildlife and people. Because I was aware of this, I specifically chose Viking for the measures the company takes to make sure it doesn’t cause more damage—including reducing fuel consumption, designing a bird-safe lighting mode and advocating for a whale-safe speed—as well as for the role it’s playing in science.
Viking has not only partnered with Cambridge University, Cornell University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose scientists conduct important research on their two small expedition ships, but it has also published the cruise industry’s first scientific paper, following observations of the rarely encountered scyphozoan Stygiomedusa gigantea, commonly known as the giant phantom jellyfish. All this helps raise awareness and get people invested in protecting the planet. That’s significant.
Since my cruise, I have become much more committed to sustainable living, trading in single-use plastics for reusable cups and straws. I want to be able to bring my grandkids to Antarctica in the future.
- Viking Polaris cruise
- Marine Pollution Bulletin: “Environmental and human health impacts of cruise tourism: A review”
- Polar Research: “Personal submersibles offer novel ecological research access to Antarctic waters: an example, with observations of the rarely encountered scyphozoan Stygiomedusa gigantea“