In the November/December 2002 issue, Dave German, President of Fathom Expeditions, a boutique Polar cruise company owned and operated by Antarctic expedition leaders, discusses the whys and wherefores of cruising the “Last Continent”.

His extensive 8 years of experience has taken Dave German to Antarctica over 40 times guiding general travelers, photographers, IMAX film teams, and geographic societies. His latest project, the IMAX film Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure, is currently showing in theaters across North America.

Antarctic Expedition Cruising - Big vs. Small Ships

Antarctica! Our planet's final frontier. A mystical land at the bottom of the world with no roads, cities or pollution. A place where wildlife and nature dominate the land and sea. The sheer scale of the region demands new sensibilities to be fully understood – 5-mile-long icebergs and valleys filled with penguins. Expedition cruises to this wonderful land are geared to the young and old and offer grand rewards for the curious traveler intent on experiencing the wonders of the world.

The Antarctic expedition cruise industry has recently seen a mild shift, with larger cruise vessels entering the industry. There are pros and cons to traveling South to the “Last Continent” on large ships, most of which have to do with the mandatory guidelines put forth by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO).

Many Antarctic cruisers are unaware that 95% of Antarctic tour ships are IAATO members and hence are bound by IAATO guidelines implemented to protect and conserve the majesty of this most Southern continent. Under these guidelines, vessels are unable to land more than 100 passengers on Antarctic shores at one time, thus compromising larger ships on the number of landing sites visited and the time spent on shore.

For example, a small 50-passenger expedition ship can complete three relaxed landings in one day where a larger 300-passenger ship will generally make only one. In some cases, the largest cruise ships do not go ashore to visit penguin rookeries or scientific bases but simply cruise the scenic waterways filled with ice, glaciers and wildlife. It is important for consumers to ask these questions when they book their lifetime trip South to the Antarctic to ensure they get the most for their travel dollar.

Larger ships tend to offer extra stability while crossing the Drake Passage from Southern South America to the Antarctic Continent. They also offer additional amenities for travelers during their visits. Perks such as piano bars, closed circuit television and hair dressers can be a bonus.

Alternatively, smaller expedition vessels tend to create a private cruise atmosphere and allow for customization of programming to ensure a well-rounded experience in the small group format. Small ships are also able, to navigate protected bays and fjords with ease and can make unplanned stops for up-close visits with Humpback, Minke or Killer whales or to drop the Zodiac landing boats to cruise castle-like icebergs or to explore, for the first time, untouched beaches.

Consumers should also beware of ambiguous advertising that refers to an expedition cruise as being a certain number of days in length when in reality, one day is a hotel night on shore and the advertiser includes embarkation and disembarkation days as full days.

When speaking with sales agents, simply ask how many full days are spent onboard the ship and how many days and landings can be expected while in Antarctica.

The pricing for smaller expedition ships appears to be on the rise because of the more in-depth Antarctic experience and the private expedition cruise atmosphere. Generally, the extra dollars go towards improving the staff/passenger ratios, contributing to conservation and research programs and providing goal-oriented activities such as dedicated photography outings or retracing exploration history landings such as those from the Shackleton and Endurance stories.

Regardless of your interests, it is best to thoroughly understand the expedition cruise product you intend to purchase to enhance value and reduce surprises.

Antarctica, with its comfortable summer temperatures and ubiquitous wonders, is a very special destination that many veteran travelers have referred to as the most rewarding journey of their lives.

I hope to see you onboard one day.

For more information about Fathom Expeditions visit the website at