A day in the life of a polar explorer

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, I should specify that these are modern times. And with modern times come modern comforts.

Hot water, expensive outerwear, and Wifi were not available to the Ernest Shackeltons and Roald Amundsens of the world, but hey . . .  We’re all explorers at heart!

I spent the weeks before my trip attempting to answer the same questions over and over:

                      What are you going to do on a ship for 18 days?

                      Won’t you have a lot of free time?

                      Isn’t it really cold?

                      What are you going to do? There aren’t any resorts in Antarctica…are there?

I will attempt to answer these questions, but the reality is there are no “typical” days . . . Every day is different.

Some days are hectic—filled with early rising, excursions, biosecurity, dramatic landscapes, and wildlife encounters.

Others the weather doesn’t cooperate, and you’re unable to go outside or get off the boat.

Thirdly, there are the at-sea days. These days can vary as well, as the seas have a mind of their own.

I’ll start with the most chaotic:

Excursion days

0715: “Good morning, everyone! Good morning!” Every morning started like this with a wake-up call followed by updates on our coordinates, weather and morning plans announced over the intercom system. “This morning we’re at Graham Passage, and kayaking is a go!”

0730: I head to the dining area and sit at my favorite table. It’s essential to be in Oscar and Sander’s section. They’re the best!

There is open seating in the dining room. While most of the tables have four seats, our 12-seat table is a continually rotating surprise. Aside from the few of us who sit there every meal (three Norwegians and I), we’re always getting new guests. The guides sit with us as well, allowing us to get to know each other and ask questions.

Breakfast is always served buffet style. There’s an omelet/egg station, pancakes or waffles, fresh fruits, smoothies, and various types of bread. The smoothies were a little bit like Russian roulette: would they be made out of berries today or lettuce and lime?

0815: Get dressed. Now, this is where things get tricky—layering for the perfect body temperature. 

The weather was often within several degrees of freezing. The wind was another story as there were days when it reached 60-70 knots (70-80 miles per hour), but it was usually around 15-30 knots.

My kayaking outfit this day consisted of many layers. One heavyweight thermal long sleeve shirt, one mid-weight thermal long sleeve shirt, one sweatshirt, heavy thermal pant layer, one mid-weight thermal pant layer, one pair of regular socks, one pair of heavy wool socks, one dry suit, a pair of booties with toe warmers, one kayaking spray skirt (to keep water out of the kayak), a life jacket, hand warmers, a pair of gloves, a balaclava with a buff over the top, a beanie, and sunglasses. Oh, and don’t forget the sunscreen. Phew! I’m out of breath just thinking about putting on these layers.

0830: Meet in the kayaking group in the main lounge to wait for the kayaks.

0832: Start sweating . . .

0845: Head to the mudroom to disembark for our excursion

0900: Pile 14 people into a zodiac, including our two kayaking guides, Michael and Katrina. Our kayaks trail behind. We make our way out into Graham Passage, looking for an excellent spot to load into the kayaks. We find an area where the swells are not so high and hop in. I’m sharing my kayak with my partner, Mary.

Photo Credit: Quark Expeditions

It’s quiet and the wind is less harsh in the passage. We’re surrounded on both sides by snow-covered cliffs and beautiful, blue glaciers.

Photo Credit: Quark Expeditions

As we make our way deeper, we encounter some brash ice. It crashes loudly against the kayaks as we plow through. The zodiacs cruise by us as we move slowly and take in the beauty. “You’re going to miss the whales if you don’t hurry up,” says Katrina.

“Whales? Well . . . why didn’t you say so?!”  We rush off to catch up with the rest of the group and arrive just in time to see several humpback whale tails breaking the surface of the water. This place is beyond incredible!!

Photo credit: Quark Expeditions

We watch the whales for a while before heading back to the boat.

1045: We leave the kayaks and zodiac back to the ship. I wash off my boots in the cleaning machine as I exit the gangway, and our head of security, Manoj, scans my ID to check me back in. We wouldn’t want to leave somebody out here.

Photo Credit: Quark Expeditions

1100: I stop in the mudroom to remove a couple of layers before heading up to my room to hang up my gear. Luckily, we didn’t step on land, so biosecurity should be quick.

 It is necessary to remove all sand granules and seeds to avoid spreading invasive species to other areas. 

1115: Head back downstairs to grab a cup of tea and a cookie before checking out the gift shop. They’ve been adding new items to the shop throughout the trip to keep us interested . . . and the cookies are always available (haha).

Now that everybody has returned to the ship, the crew pulls up the anchor, and we set sail to our next destination.

I head to the main lounge to meet some friends and watch the sea go by while waiting for lunch.

1230: More food! Even if we just washed them, we all must clean/alcohol gel our hands before entering the dining room. Germs spread quickly on the ship.

Lunch is also enjoyed buffet style. The omelet stand is replaced by a meat carving station and pasta dish. There are always three main dishes: fish, meat/poultry, and a vegetarian option. As if that wasn’t enough, a salad bar with fresh fruit, potato, rice, bread, and steamed veggies are also available. 

We’ve discovered that the kitchen has lemon sorbet. Oscar gives me a sly look and says, “anything else?” but I convince him to hold off until after dinner.

1315: After lunch, I head to the observation lounge on deck 7. We’re headed to Portal Point to do our continental landing (WE FINALLY GET TO STEP FOOT ON ANTARCTICA!!!!), and we’re told we might be able to spot some whales on the way.

I grab another tea and sit down. It isn’t long before our marine biologist guide, Annie, announces that she sees one. After nineteen seasons, she could probably spot a whale with her eyes closed . . . heh!

1400: We arrive at Portal Point and get ready for our afternoon excursion. No kayaking this afternoon, but my group gets to disembark first!

Time to layer up again. This time I replace my drysuit with waterproof pants and the bright yellow jacket we’ve been provided. It’s crucial to be waterproof. I grab my camera and head down to the mudroom to make sure my gear is clean.

1445: I get excited as we cruise past the icebergs. We’re not able to get so close in the kayaks because we would be at risk if they started calving. Henry, our glaciologist, tells us they’ve run aground and will be stuck here until they melt. They’re all beautiful, but my favorites are the ones that look like Japanese fans.

As we arrive at the landing spot, we see the foundation of an old British refuge hut, which has been relocated to a museum in Stanley, Falkland Islands.

A short walk up a steep hill finds us on a plateau overlooking the bay.

Photo credit: Quark Expeditions

WE’RE IN ANTARCTICA!!! The excitement is palpable. 

We line up for pictures with a provided flag, which has been standing proud at the bow of our ship. The winds have beaten it as we made our journey here and it’s torn, but this reflects the harsh weather of the polar region. We’ve made it—the 7th continent.

There isn’t much wildlife at Portal Point in March. Most have returned to the sea; however, the views and feelings about finally being here are enough to sustain us.

Of course, it’s not long before whales start appearing in the bay. “Come on, guys,” says our guide, Pat. “We’ll go find them.”

1630: Since international law states there can only be 100 people (not including guides) on land at a time, and we have 170 guests on our boat, the group is split. We head back to the zodiacs to give the other group their landing opportunity.

A group of seven of us hop into the zodiac with “Uncle Pat.” Since this is the end of our trip, we’ve become somewhat of a family. Diane and Karl, an English couple, are our parents. They’ve now got five more kids: two Americans, two Australians, and another from London. We make quite a group.

We travel with several other zodiacs to an area with one whale. Pat decides it’s too crowded and decides to head in a different direction. There are whales everywhere, but he sticks with plan A and follows two whales as they head into an open area.

We’re surrounded!!

There are whales on all sides: how do we choose where to look? Tails and fins are everywhere. We even see a couple of them lunge feeding (coming straight out of the water to catch krill near the surface).


An hour and a half passes in no time. We’re supposed to head back to the boat. But how can we head back? The whales are in the way! Hahah!

Pat finally tells us we’re late and we have to return. *sad face*

1800: We return to the boat and peel off the layers. There’s a little bit of time for a warm shower before recap.

1830: I head down to the main lounge to grab a mini sandwich at happy hour. I’ve discovered our bartender will make me a lemon, ginger, and honey “tea” to warm up. Really they’ll make almost anything you can imagine.

1845: We have recap every evening before dinner. During this time, the guides do a brief overview of the things we experienced that day, show a few cool pictures, and we learn about our next adventures. Tomorrow we’re doing the polar plunge!

1910: After the recap, we have a kayaking meeting. Michael tells us the weather, and it looks like it might be a go for Enterprise Island/Foyn Harbour in the morning. Katrina is excited because this is her favorite spot. They take a rough count of who is interested. “Uhh . . . me!”

1930: Dinner is a five-course plated meal with unlimited wine. It usually takes 2-2.5 hours.

After eating so much food, I’ve learned to choose only a few. The main course has three options: seafood, meat/poultry, and vegetarian. I stick with this course and the salad. Plus, I already agreed to the sorbet earlier in the day (Oscar remembers everything).

2115: A reminder is announced over the intercom: in 15 minutes, Norm, our 86 year old geologist, is doing a bar talk about why things took so long back in the 60s. I finish eating, grab what’s left of my wine, and cozy up in one of the couch corners. He usually uses people as props, and it’s very entertaining.

2230: Norm finishes up his talk and we drag ourselves upstairs for bed. I catch up with my family and Dave for a little bit (the Wifi is expensive, and I don’t want to waste it). It’s been a very long, exciting day, and the sway of the boat lulls me to sleep pretty quickly. 

Photo Credit: Quark Expeditions

What the days are like when the weather isn’t fit for excursions:

Well, we ran into a couple of different situations regarding the weather . . .

The weather had to be pretty good to make kayaking a possibility. Fortunately, if kayaking wasn’t an option, we just returned to our original groups and enjoyed the planned landing and/or zodiac cruise.

And during one day, the swells were too high at the shore. Our landing was canceled, but we were still able to zodiac cruise around the area.

On one occasion in South Georgia, we were unable to land or zodiac during our afternoon excursion. Our leader, Woody, spoke with the captain, and we tried sailing to another spot. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate there either. The captain decided to sail around the bay, allowing us to see the views anyway. Our original plan was to stop at Gold Harbour. Since this is one of the most incredible places in South Georgia, it was added back in as a second chance landing, and I’m so glad we didn’t miss it!

Finally, if the weather was too bad and none of the former was possible . . . or if we were at sea, there were always lectures.

At sea/lecture days

Quark has been chartering polar expeditions for almost three decades. They know what they’re doing and hire guides who are experts in their fields. During times when we couldn’t get off the boat, we spent hours learning about everything from geology to ornithology, history, and marine biology. Our guides were very passionate about what they do.

There were hours spent in the observation lounge, drinking warm beverages, running outside to take a quick picture before your fingers froze off (or trying to get one that was “good enough” through the window), watching the waves, and cheering on penguins as they attempted to jump onto and climb icebergs. 

“Good enough!”
Penguins jumping and climbing

We ate lots of food, played card/board games, and just enjoyed getting to know each other. We put our phones down, moved away from social media, and immersed ourselves in the experience. (and given the pandemic-stricken world to which we were returning, it was important to soak up as much of this time as possible, no matter how low key things were!)

Final thoughts

So…no. There are no resorts in Antarctica, but there is so much more!

This trip was more than I ever dreamed it would be. I met friends who feel more like family, successfully navigated my first solo adventure, and experienced things others can only imagine. All before rushing to get home in the middle of a pandemic!