Choosing an Antarctic Expedition: Part 2
Joshua Holko – Go to Part 1
In the first part of this article we looked at the options of either
flying or sailing to Antarctica. As we discussed, this is a critical
decision which will have a huge impact on both your wallet and
your overall Antarctic expedition experience.
In this second part of our series we are going to explore what you
need to know about choosing a ship suitable for your needs if you
have indeed made the decision to sail to Antarctica.
The first and most important consideration when you are
investigating the multitude of sailing options to Antarctica is “How
many passengers does the ship take?”
This very critical piece of information is going to significantly impact
how much shore time, and in turn, what sort of photographic
opportunities you can expect whilst you are in Antarctica.
Before we discuss this in further detail it is important to understand
that the IATTO (International Antarctica Treaty Organisation) body is
responsible for the protection of Antarctica and managing tourism to
the continent. Their regulations are continually being refined and
updated. The critical regulation you need to consider when choosing
your ship is the maximum number of passengers permitted to land on
Antarctica at any given point in time is limited to no more than 100
people (including ships expedition staff).
Therefore, if you choose a ship that carries 100 passengers or more you will be forced to
wait your turn and rotate on landings in order for the expedition company to comply
with IATTO restrictions. This will be extremely frustrating having travelled all the way to
Antarctica and being made to wait your turn. In short, you will miss landings, miss wildlife
opportunities and miss the best light of the day as you sit with increasing impatience
waiting for your turn.
My recommendation is therefore that you choose a ship with as few passengers as
possible. Anything less than 100 is acceptable with something around fifty or less being
ideal in my experience. In fact, the fewer the better – period. Keep in mind that fewer
passengers also decreases the potential for other guests walking into your photographs
Once you have made the decision to choose a ship that carries fewer than 100
passengers, the next thing I recommend you check with your expedition company is
what ice class the ship has been rated. You want to make sure that your chosen vessel is
capable of going into broken sea ice and that it is able to push ice out of the way. This is
going to ensure that you can get nice and close to icebergs for the best photo
opportunities and that you can get into ice-filled bays that other ships simply cannot
access. There is an important distinction between an ice breaker and ship that has been
ice hardened. You are unlikely to find an ice breaker for your expedition as such ships are
usually reserved for commercial operations and are far from comfortable during a Drake
Passage crossing (they roll and wallow in high seas due to their hull design).
Rather, you’ll want to select a ship that is rated Ice Class 1. Ice Class 1 is the next class
down from an icebreaker and ships with this rating are capable of pushing not
insignificant pieces of ice out of their way. I have quite literally driven one of these ice
hardened ships into the pack ice; parked it, stepped out and walked on the frozen sea.
That is an experience not to be missed.
A word on ship stabilizers. Some expedition companies market the fact that their ships
have stabilizers to help keep them from rolling around too much as you cross the Drake
Passage. Whilst stabilizers can and do make a difference to ship movement, you should
be aware that ships equipped with outboard stabilizers are generally unsuitable for use in
the ice. Stabilizers are easily damaged by large pieces of ice so the captains of these
ships are usually going to avoid taking the ship into the ice or too close to icebergs.
Therefore, I recommend you avoid ships that are sold and marketed as being “stabilized.”
Once you have chosen a suitable ice class ship that carries fewer than 100 passengers
the next thing you need to ensure is that the ship has sufficient zodiacs (small rubber
boats that you will use for cruising and landing in Antarctica) for all passengers to be
transported at the same time. On average, you can comfortably accommodate up to ten
photographers (8 is better) on a Mark V Zodiac and still have sufficient room to
Therefore, a fifty passenger boat is going to need not less than five (and preferably six)
zodiacs. Ships will always want to keep one zodiac in reserve for safety purposes so
always bank on the total number of zodiacs on the ship being one less than advertised.
The number of zodiacs available for operations is as important to your photographic
experience as the total number of ships passengers and the ships ice class rating.
Another significant consideration in choosing a vessel is the amount of deck space
available on the ship for photographers. You are going to be sharing this vessel with up
to one hundred (or possibly more) other photographers who are all going to be
jockeying for the best position to make photographs during your expedition.
It is therefore prudent to find out if there is an open bridge policy and if you can venture
out onto to the bow and stern of the ship for photography when it is safe to do so (many
ships have closed bow policies and forbid passengers to access this area of the ship). Ask
your expedition company about the places on the ship you can and cannot go so that
you have a good understanding of exactly how much space you will have available. If
possible, try and obtain a deck plan for the ship so that you can analyse potential
Don’t underestimate the importance of maneuverability on board the ship for
photography. When the ship is under steam and you are passing icebergs you need to
have ample deck space and to be able to move quickly to obtain the best angles.
One thing you should be acutely on the look out for is generic expeditions that offer a
photographic component as part of their overall program; or expeditions that comprise
in the majority of general tourists with what is marketed as an additional small dedicated
photography group that plans to co- exist on the same ship. These expeditions are
disasters for photographers who are dedicated to their work and who want to achieve
the best possible photographs. Any expedition that comprises in the majority of general
tourists will first and foremost have to cater to this majority (and not the much smaller
group of photographers). Such groups will not rearrange their schedule to suit the best
light for photography and will not be able to suitably serve the needs of the dedicated
I can tell you from experience that these sort of expeditions are incredibly frustrating as
you are forced to photograph during midday landings in harsh light in order to meet the
standard meal times when the light would be optimum for photography. If photography
is your primary goal, avoid any sort of mixed expedition at all costs.
You should also do your research on your expedition leader and photographic leader. Try
and find out what sort of experience they have working in Antarctica. It is of critical
importance that your expedition leader have experience working with photographers
and that they understand the needs and requirements of photographers looking to
capture stunning images in the best available light.
The expedition leader is in charge of daily operations and therefore is going to make all
of the decisions pertaining to shore landings and zodiac cruises. If those operations are
planned for midday light to accommodate standard meal times you can expect a very poor
experience from a photographic perspective. You absolutely must have an expedition
leader who is willing to shift meal times to ensure you are out in the best light of the day.
Typically in Antarctica this is very early in the morning and very late in the evening. It is
the responsibility of your photographic leader to liaise with the expedition leader to
ensure you get the best opportunities.
It is also fairly common for photography guides to have little to zero real world Antarctic
experience. Such guides should generally be avoided as they are likely to be far more
interested in their own photography than in helping you or others on the expedition. If
possible, try and select an expedition that includes a photography guide who specializes
in polar photography or who otherwise has significant experience operating in
Antarctica. Such guides know what to look for in terms of subject and know how to
position a zodiac for the best backgrounds and to take advantage of prevailing light.
Such leaders also know how to liaise with expedition leaders to deliver the opportunities
you would otherwise miss.
The photographic leader and expedition leader you choose are going to have as much
bearing on the success of your expedition as the ship you choose to travel on. They are
critical elements to your success, and as such you should weigh equally your leader and
ship choice for any expedition to Antarctica.
In part three of this series we are going to look at the very important decision of what
time of year you should travel to Antarctica in order to achieve your desired