I’m a new member and I know that can mean skepticism. I do have an established presence on Trip Advisor (martyk74). I wanted to share my review here as I am sure many people start their research here. I did post a similar report on TA forums so if you read it there, you can skip it here. I might count as a “One Post Wonder” since I don’t have any upcoming plans for another expedition or cruise but am happy to answer questions.
Also, this is a long one.
I have never been on a traditional cruise before and these types of voyages to Antarctica are labeled expeditions because they aren’t like traditional cruises (from all I’ve heard).
After much research, we chose this Base Camp style of expedition because it was more active than some other expeditions, Oceanwide gave us a fair deal and it fit the schedule we wanted.
I couldn’t have been more happy with our choice.
We did the Base Camp expedition with Oceanwide on the Ortelius Dec. 29, 2018 to Jan. 9 2019.
Here is a link to my pictures. First 10 or so are in Ushuaia but then the rest are Antarctica. There are pictures of our daily programs that were posted each day for the landing days.
I have so much to say I don't know where to start. It was fantastic from start to finish. The crew, the expedition staff, the ship, the landings, the activities, the weather - ANTARCTICA - everything was great! Did I say the weather was great? It was near perfect. Everyone got to camp and kayak that wanted to (116 pax and most everyone wanted to do these activities as it’s included in the price of the expedition and most people chose this expedition for the activities). They said it was the first time that that had ever happened. The captain said it was the easiest voyage he had done ever! I know we were so very lucky and thankful for how perfect everything went.
I’ll say a little about ourselves. We are a married couple from southern Indiana USA. I’m 44 and my husband is 42. We are of average physical condition but we like to challenge ourselves and take active vacations.
We had a twin room on the 4th level that was right next to the dining room and reception and the gangway exit. It was a nice location and we didn't notice extra noise.
We were very pleased with our room. It provided just enough space and storage and even the bathroom was bigger than some European bathrooms I've been in. It had 2 twin beds and a desk in between. We could control the heat in the room (heater was underneath the desk). We had two portholes. The room had an armoire which was divided to be used by two people and hooks right by the door to hangs jackets/coats. Life vests were kept in a cabinet under the hooks.
FOOD AND DRINK
The food was pretty good, better than I expected and plenty of it. Some days were better than others of course. A few times I ate just to not be hungry but the food was never bad, just not always something I would like. There were always a few choices for the main course and a vegetarian option. Always salads and breads, fruits and cheeses. Always a soup available at lunch, plenty of sweets. Most of the time it was a buffet but during the Drake crossings and on New Year's Eve, dinner was a plated service. Breakfast and lunch was always a buffet. I normally don't eat 3 meals a day but during our landing days, it became easy to eat more.
At the bar/lounge, they provided snacks 24/7. I did wish we had brought on our own snacks just for personal preference. There was also a complimentary coffee machine and hot tea station. I am neither a coffee nor a hot tea drinker but it did also have hot chocolate and I must have had 3 of those a day. This station also had wafers and cookies available at all times. Of course water was also always readily available and we were provided with water bottles to keep full.
I had 3 merino wool base layer shirts that I wore for landings. I had 3 different fleece layers and then I rented the parka and the rain slicker that was offered as a service with Oceanwide from the company New Headings.
I used the parka on the ship when I wanted to go outside. This was by far the coldest I ever felt during the expedition was out on the ship when it was moving. It was easy to throw the parka on over my base layer. I usually had to put on a hat and a wind proof buff for my neck and face as well. I never took the parka on a landing.
For landings I wore the base layer, the fleece layer and the rain slicker. I looked like the Gorton’s Fisherman with the slicker but it was fine. I quickly learned to shed the slicker as soon as we landed. It was never really necessary as we never got wet on the zodiac and it never rained. If I left it on, I got way too hot with all the hiking and moving around. Sometimes I also took off my fleece layer too. It was always above freezing during the landings and often in the 40’s and 50’s.
I had 3 different pairs of gloves. I wore the goretex gloves on the zodiac and they came in handy during camping. They were too bulky to be practical for anything else.
I had a pair of thinner gloves that I could use my phone with however these too also proved to be more of a nuisance. I ended up usually not wearing gloves or wearing my fingerless alpaca gloves. If I had it to do all over again I would get waterproof mittens that will flip off to expose the fingers.
I had a pair of cheap sunglasses and a pair of cheap ski goggles. It’s never been a problem to travel with cheap sunglasses. They do the job and if they get lost or stolen then I’m not out much money. Well my cheap travel sunglasses broke on the first day of landings and I didn’t have extras. The hotel manager took them to try to glue them. In the meantime, I tried using the ski googles but these proved to not be dark enough to help much. I took them camping but they were pretty useless and I never used them again.
They were able to glue my sunglasses back together and I carefully made due with them for the rest of the trip. In hindsight, I would spend the money and get the pricey Glacier glasses that I saw many people using and perhaps a less expensive back up pair. It was simply unbearable to be outside without eye protection on the sunny days and even on the cloudy days it wasn’t comfortable.
I wore comfy fleece type pants for landings and put on the waterproof rain pants over those. I always left those on even though I’d get sweaty. They were the kind that zip all the way up the legs and this made it easy for putting on boots and also getting ventilation on the landings.
One landing I tried wearing merino thermal bottoms with hiking pants and the waterproof layer and this was simply too warm. The thermal bottoms only came in handy for camping.
I had wool hiking socks that I wore and only needed to wear one pair for landings. My boots would get soaked with sweat. It might sound like I’m a sweaty person but I’m not and I get cold easily.
I had 2 hats: a thick wool hat and a thinner acrylic hat and I switched between the 2 but many times I took them off. The last few landings I simply wore one of those multi-purpose lightweight buffs as a headband that I had bought in Patagonia to give some control to my hair from that Patagonian wind when it was too warm for a hat.
For shoes, of course on landings we had on the provided muck boots. On the ship, I wore a pair of slip on Asics with ankle socks. Never used my hiking boots during the expedition.
Inside the ship was comfortable and I usually wore some fleece pants and a long sleeve shirt with a light fleece top layer.
We found our trekking poles useful on some landings without snowshoes where going down was a bit slick.
So camera gear is like clothing and what works for one person won’t be right for another.
2 full frame camera bodies: Nikon D800 and D810
Nikon 16-35 f/4
Nikon 24-70 f2.8
Nikon 70-200 f/2.8
Sigma 150-600 Rented
GoPro Hero 7 Black
iPhone 7 Plus - for impromptu videos and shots that didn’t need taken with the Nikons.
Gorillapod - used with the Go-Pro
Tripod ( only used in Patagonia and then only sparingly because of the wind).
I could have used the tripod more but didn’t. If I ever go back, I’ll make an effort to use that more.
It took two backpacks to carry all the gear and my husband helped me out with this.
I rented the waterproof backpack from the service that Oceanwide provided. I never used it. It wasn’t big enough to put all my gear in and it was very thin so I would have had to add padding taking up even more space. I put the rain cover over my Lowepro backpack and this was quite sufficient. I also never needed to use the rain sleeves I brought for the cameras.
I only used the 16-35 a few times on the ship. It got the most use on our hikes in Patagonia.
In my backpack for landings I carried the 2 bodies with the 24-70 and the 70-200 attached and my husband carried the Sigma in his pack. I was glad to have the Sigma for the extreme close ups but in my opinion, people can easily get great close pictures without that much reach. The penguins were frequently very close. The extreme reach would come in most handy on the ship for whales and seals however it was a big, heavy lens and I found I didn’t want to put forth the effort to have it on me all the time and try to shoot with it on a moving ship. Yeah, I missed some whale shots because of this.
So I would say that I used the 70-200 the most, then the 24-70 and then the 150-600. I haven’t looked at my pictures yet though to say if I have any regrets. A better telephoto lens would have been nice but I simply couldn’t justify the cost of buying one or the risk of renting one. I know there were several people on the ship with top quality super telephoto lenses. One guy I believe had a Canon 100-400 that I saw him use constantly with a monopod. I used to have that lens so I know it’s a good one and I’m sure he got some great whale shots that were too far for me.
I had a Capture One clip on my backpack strap that I attached one of the cameras to when I was using the 24-70 lens. This was super handy and less cumbersome than having two cameras hanging from my neck. It was also great when I was hiking with just one body.
I brought 2 external hard drives that hold 2 tb to back up photos. The when traveling I keep the hard drives in a separate piece of luggage from the cameras so that if something happens to one then I still have a backup.
Plus, I shoot with an sd card and a cf card in each camera so in case one fails the other backups it up and indeed I did have one of my sd cards corrupt. Each card was 128 gb shooting in RAW and these were large enough to last me the whole trip including our 2 weeks in Patagonia and 2 days at Iguazu Falls. And I shot a lot.
My husband used the GoPro exclusively. He clipped it to his backpack strap and used it to take time lapse photos and video. He also attached it to the ship for the time lapse through the Lemaire Channel.
INTERNET – TV – COMMUNITY LAPTOPS
We had 100 mb of free internet and it worked pretty good but it goes fast. I put one picture on Facebook and I think that used like 30 mb. I also started to briefly look at email before I realized it was going to drain me. So I didn’t get on the internet much but you can buy extra mb and it did work better than I expected it to.
We had put a bunch of movies on our notebook to watch during downtime on the ship. This turned out to not be necessary as there are essentially 3 movie channels that continuously play movies and documentaries in the tv in the room. The tv also gives access to a 24-7 bow cam, a map showing the route and location as well as the days schedule and menu.
As said earlier, it is possible to make a satellite phone call. I think we had to pay 25 Euros for a 25 minute phone card. They actually gave us one card for free for my husband to try to make some contacts regarding his mom’s passing.
My only criticism was how they handled the photo sharing. 2 laptops were setup in the lounge but only one was used for photosharing. Many people put their pictures on the laptop but the only pictures I wanted to save were the ones from our camping night and the ones the professional photographer took. I waited for hours for my turn. So many people wanted to look through every folder and every picture. It would take them 30 minutes. It took me 3 minutes to do what I wanted to do but because the photos I wanted weren’t posted until the Drake Crossing, I had to wait. There has to be a more efficient way to share photos.
We used the laundry service several times. More than I thought we would because we got more sweaty than anticipated. It was pricey to be sure. I wish we had done laundry during the 2 days in Ushuaia as this would have saved some money.
THE DRAKE AND THE PATCH FIRST CROSSING
So I’ll say here what was not so great for me and that was the Drake. I get motion sickness very easily and I used the patch. We pretty much had the Drake Lake so they said. The only thing the patch did for me was kept me from actually vomiting, otherwise, I felt awful. I struggled to go to the briefings on our activities and I only managed to eat a little dinner on the first night on the Drake . On the second day, I asked the doctor if I could take Dramamine with the patch and he said yes. This seemed to help me better.
LANDING DAY 1
Our first landing was on New Year's Day at Cuverville Island and what a fitting way to ring in the New Year. The location was stunning and we were all just a bit flabbergasted and we overwhelmed with what to see and do.
We are told the largest Gentoo penguin colony is on this island and they are everywhere. One of the passengers came ashore in a tuxedo to mark the occassion. Some people stayed on the beach front to observe, some of us climbed in the snow to get higher views. I wanted to climb to take in the scenery. However, when it was time to come back down, the path had gotten quite icy and I decided the safest was to descend would be to slide down. No snow shoes were needed at this location.
Second landing of the day was at Orne Harbor and this is actually on the peninsula. It was a fantastic location and might be my favorite. There were chinstrap penguins at this location one of only 2 places we would see them. We were in snow shoes for this landing and hiked up to 2 different fanatastic viewpoints to see the chinstraps. From high above, we could see whales below and the lucky kayakers got an experience of a lifetime for about 30 minutes with the whales so close to them.
That night was our camping group night. This was the activity I was most looking forward to and I was anxious for it. Our campsite was at Doumer Island.
We left the ship about 9:15 and it sailed away so we couldn't hear it but could still see it. We had to use snow shoes to climb up to our camping spot. It was just a stunning location and even though the sun never set, the light was gorgeous on the surrounding peaks.
Camping is not in tents but in bivy bags. I have never camped before so this was a completely unique experience. There was about 33 of us I think, not sure exactly and we all had to use a shovel to dig a space in the snow for our spot. We dug out a spot for the 2 of us. I used my hands and my husband used the shovel. This was the most use my waterproof gloves received the whole trip. It sounds like work but we made it fun.
After we had all dug out our spots, our camping expedition leader, Gracie had a short fun activity for us. We used our bodies to spell out Antarctica. We had enough people to do it in 2 groups and we all go our photos. I loved it.
Afterwards, we bed down and it was after midnight by then. Really, I didn't want to sleep but it would be hard to stay up and move around because the snow was so crunchy it would disturb the others.
I discovered that our spot was quite level and I kept sliding off my sleeping pad. It took quite a while for me to get situtated so that I was reasonably comfortable. Then I just lay there wide awake staring up at the blue sky at 1 in the morning. I really couldn't believe I was sleeping on Antarctica. I did finally fall asleep and our wake up call was to be around 4:15 so it wasn't very long to go really. At one point, I did hear a penguin walking through camp and periodically, I could hear calving nearby.
So here I'll talk about using the bathroom while camping. They tell you not to drink much and to go as many times as you can before leaving the ship. They do however, bring a portable toilet set up away from the camp with a snow wall for privacy. I was determined to not have to use it. But woke up at 2:30 and really needed to go. I lay there for about 30 minutes trying to ignore the discomfort and hoping it would be possible to not have to go before getting on the ship. My biggest issue was not actually using the toilet but the fact that I would have to get my snow shoes on and crunch past everyone, probably waking some up and everyone would know what I was doing. Finally, bodily function overcame embarrassment and I made the trek and felt so much better aftewards. By the time I got back to my sleeping bag it was only another 30 minutes before we were being roused.
We did have to fill in our spots and this wasn't particularly easy as the snow got hard and icy. But we had to make it so that when the penguins came by, they wouldn't get in a hole that they couldn't get out of.
So yeah, I think I slept about 90 minutes and I was very tired the whole next day but it was totally worth it and I'm so glad I did it.
LANDING DAY 2
We were back on the ship by about 5-5:15 and I took a short nap before breakfast. Our landing this moring is supposed to be at Port Charcot but first we are sailing the Lemaire Channel. It is a gorgeous morning and many of us gather outside around the ship to watch the grandeur as we sail by. I stood out on on the bow and marveled at all the ice floes. It was simply stunning. Occassionally we would spot seals and penguins in the water or on the larger ice floes. It was such a wonderful morning that I didn't mind that our morning landing was cancelled due to ice pack. We were actually told that a French ship's landing party had gotten stranded on their landing where we were supposed to be for a for a few hours because their zodiacs couldn't get back to the ship due to the ice.
We sailed back through the channel which was every bit as magnificent as the first time.
Our afternoon landing was to be at Petermann Island but this got cancelled due to ice conditions. However, they did take everyone out on zodiacs and this was our afternoon to kayak.
Kayak day for us turned out not to be the best experience. We have only been kayaking twice before, which was disclosed and my husband rolled his kayak the very first time. So even though I really wanted to go, I was apprehensive.
We were all in 2 person kayaks and it was a nice day water was pretty calm and we were in a protected area. But as soon as we got in and tried to take off, problems arose. I was in the front, my husband in the back and he also had control of the steering with the feet. This was the first time we had used this type to steer with the feet and at first we kept going in circles until the guide said that his foot was pressed down on the right paddle.
But I had already started to panic. I was deathly afraid we would turn over. I was breathing heavy and felt like I was hyperventilating with every paddle stroke. The guide stuck by us and talked me through better technique and calmed me down. I started to enjoy the experience. For about 45 minutes I did pretty well but my hands and and legs were getting soaked and I was starting to freeze. My hands were getting numb and it was getting harder for me to hold on to the paddle. I started to panic again. My husband noticed that the kayak was shaking and couldn’t figure out why. I had to tell him that I was trembling uncontrollably from the cold. He notified the guide and he immediately summoned the zodiac that follows all kayak groups to pull me in. I was most concerned that this would mean that it would cut short the other kayakers time. They wanted to take me back to the ship but I insisted on staying in the zodiac because I didn’t want the others to have to stop for me. They gave me a fresh pair of clothes and a parka and we waited for the others to finish.
I think it’s safe to say that we are not kayakers but the guide was excellent the whole time and I thanked him later for his patience with me and his instruction.
LANDING DAY 3
Our morning Landing is at Useful Island. Its another stunning day and we had another great landing with a hike up for some great views into the Gerlache Strait. We saw more chinstraps penguins today and it was also the first day I saw penguin chicks!
Afternoon landing was at Ketley Point, Ronge Island. This turnned out to be my least favorite location mainly because we couldn't move around much so it felt crowded. There was a short hike up provided but it just kind of ended before the top of the hill and it got conjested. We could see over to a penguin colony on a plateau and those with binoculars watched a penguin fend off attacks from skuas.
However, 2 things made this landing special. A Weddell seal had beached itself right next to one of our walk paths and was obliviously sunning itself. We had to very quietly walk past one at a time and then could stop for photographs once we got the proper distance.
Secondly, this was the location they let us do the polar plunge. I wore my bathing suit underneath but I wasn't entirely sure I would go through with it. We all gathered in the zodiac area either to watch or participate. The first man in was about to complete his goal of swimming in his 5th ocean and we all cheered him as he completed it. Then others started stripping off and going in. One guy donned a banana suit and went it, another went in in his penguin suit. A few guys decided to time how long they could stay in before the doctor made them get out.
I slowing began removing my clothes still not sure but getting caught up in the moment. I decided that I would regret it if I didn't do. I stood on a rock looking at the water. I knew as soon as my feet hit the water, I would have to move fast or lose my nerve. I stepped down into the water and wow, yes it was very cold. I almost immediatley turned around sat down in the water layed all the way back so that I was completely submerged and gasped as I stood up. I called out over and over again, "That counts!" "That counts!" It certainly does count. A towel was waiting for me and I dried off as much as possible and got dressed. The sun was out and it felt so good. They let the plungers get on the zodiacs first. The water temperature was measured at -.5 Celsius and they said about 40 people did the plunge which they said was the most they'd ever had do it on an expedition. Found out later that my husband who was supposed to record my polar plunge started laughing so hard that he missed me until I was coming out of the water.
LANDING DAY 4
Our morning landing was at Neko Harbor and this is also a peninsula landing. It is our morning for mountaineering. A bit about the mountaineering first...To do the technical mountaineering with crampons you had to have the special mountaineering boots that cost about $400 and are heavy. I made the decision that it was not worth it to me to buy these boots that I would maybe wear one time and have them take up weight and space in my luggage for the whole trip. If I got there and they said I couldn't do it in my hiking boots, then I was going to be ok with that. But it turned out that they had technical and non technical outings to sign up for and our mountaineering was in snowshoes. We were still harnessed and roped together and were given ice axes because we would be near cravasses and in fact, the guide had partially fallen in a hidden cravase the day before.
We did see some of the technical climbs including an ice climb and then on the last climbing day they did an 8 hour technical climb. All in all I made the right decision by that ice climb looked really neat.
So we had a gorgeous hike up to a crevase and the views of Neko Harbor were stunning. It was quite a workout going up and it was pratically like skiing down in the snow shoes. We had great fun. We also got to see some calving which this site is famous for and took lots of pictures as proud “mountaineers.”
They had shown us a video of an earlier landing where there was a glacier calve that created a mini tsunami. Let me tell you, you know you are in trouble with the penguins start running. It was an impressive video and there were kayakers in the water that managed the wave successfully.
The afternoon Landing was at Danco Island. This landing offered a hike to a high vantage point but we were spent fron the morning mountaineering so we plopped ourselves down near the penguin colony for a while. While observing the colony and admiring the views, we all spotted at about the same time a sail boat coming into the harbor area. We all couldn't imagine what it must be like to be on a sail boat in Antarctica and to especially cross the Drake. We then went down to the zodiac area and observed some of the penguins there.
This evening dinner is a barbeque out on the helideck and it was such good fun! We all got bundled up and it started to snow as we ate good barbeque and drank mulled wine out on the deck. It was a a perfect ending to another great day.
LANDING DAY 5
This morning we are supposed to split up where half the group goes to Port Lockroy and the other half goes to Jougla Point. But Jougla Point is not reachable due to ice so we split the landing so each group got to go to Port Lockroy.
Everyone is excited to visit the penguin post office and some people wrote a lot of post cards. I saw one woman still writing her post cards on the zodiac.
I was very surprised to see just how small this little island is. First, a worker from Port Lockroy came aboard to give a talk. He was a French young man and was very entertaining. We enjoyed the talk and learning about the history and also about the workers experience.
We had a about an hour on land and I went to the post office/gift shop first. Picked up a t shirt, magnet and Christmas ornament and mailed my post cards and headed out to the penguins. See the report was that it was teeming with penguin chicks and the penguins were all in very close proximity due to the size of the island.
So I sat and watch and photographed the penguins with their chicks. I thought we might see some out waddling around but they weren’t old enough for that. We saw one next with a chick and an egg. Unfortunately we did see a skua steal a penguin chick and fly away with it to another plateau where it could be seen eating it. Circle of life, still it was sad.
Afternoon landing was at Dorian Bay. For this outing I decided to leave my photography gear on the ship and have a nice landing soaking up the scenery without thinking about taking a picture. It wasn’t easy but I didn’t regret it. We made a nice circular snow shoe hike around the site and watched the penguins and the scenery. We saw one lone nesting penguin very stressed by 2 skuas that were sitting on either side of the nest. We stood and helplessly watched as the penguin defending its nest. Finally both of the birds flew off...for the time being.
We took some iPhone pics and admired the scenery before us and all around us. When we got to the top of the hill we realized we were on the other side of Port Lockroy and could see it from above.
LANDING DAY 6
Well this day was definitely one of very mixed emotions.
Right before breakfast we got a message from the front desk for my husband to contact his brother. Knowing this wasn’t going to be good, the front desk told us what to do to use the satellite phone service.
My mother-in-law had passed away the day before. She had been suffering with Parkinson’s disease for several years but otherwise she wasn’t in a condition where we thought she would pass soon.
Obviously, this changed the tone of the end of the trip but there was nothing we could do at the bottom of the earth and we decided that we would still try to enjoy the last day. Though he had to made some additional phone calls and try to make the coroner’s office understand that no, it was not possible to send a notarized statement authorizing his mother’s cremation.
It was definitely a shock and I felt so bad for my husband to have to feel the guilt of not being there and seeing her one last time.
They didn’t have to let us have a landing this day as we were pretty far south and needed more time to head back. But the expedition worked with the Captain and because the Drake forecast looked good, a brief landing was arranged at Georges Point. And what a fantastic last landing it was. We only had 30 minutes but it was just a gorgeous morning in a stunning location watching gentoo penguins and we all appreciated this last moment on land. We even saw the sailboat again.
Back on the ship it was time to head back and we sat on the observation deck for hours passing through the Gerlache Strait and watching stunning Antarctica pass by. The day was just glorious with unreal 360 views and I couldn’t help but be in awe one last time at how lucky we were. There were seal and penguin and whale spottings. I never got a good whale fluke picture. Once when I was shooting the mountains I heard a spout right beneath me and looked down in time to see a humpback whale catching a breath. I prayed for it to show its fluke but it went down and never came up again.
Another time we saw whales in the distance and it was clear the ship would sail right next to them. I was poised for a shot and as the ship went by, I could see their shape just beneath the water surface. Everyone raced along the side of the ship hoping for them to surface but it wasn’t to be. If it’s fair to say I had a disappointment, that would be it but it’s really not fair since the whole entire trip was one spectacular moment after another. We did see a fair amount of whales on this trip in the distance. The staff said it was more than normal for this time of year. One camping group got to see whales close to their camping spot too.
THE DRAKE AND DRAMAMINE 2ND CROSSING
On the return Drake crossing, I decided to just take the Dramamine. This worked much better. I didn’t feel sick at all but I was in the Dramamine fog for 2 days. If I wasn’t moving then I was falling asleep. It seems for 2 days all I did was eat and sleep. We did have some extra time to sail by Cape Horn and by this time we were back in calmer waters and so I got by with 3 Dramamine tablets for 2 1/2 days of sailing back.
I found the expedition and ship staff to be very friendly and engaging. The expedition leader met each zodiac at every landing and gave a rundown on what to do and where to go. Every night before dinner we met in the lounge for a daily recap and a preview of the next day. Also the daily schedule was posted in the reception area. The expedition staff was frequently in the lounge conversing with passengers and sitting in the dining room. They were always passing along information and answering questions. They would joke around with us and were an all around a great group. I had the sense that they went out of their way to make every day special and safe and indeed it was.
Our fellow passengers were equally a joy to be around. It was a lively group and we enjoyed talking to new people everyday about where they were from and travel. Back home, we don’t have fellow travelers to converse with and now that I’ve been to 23 countries, I was still probably one of the least traveled on the ship. It was great hearing about adventures and getting ideas and advice.