AdventureSmith Explorations’ Director of Sales & Operations, Justin Massoni, makes a case for crossing the Drake Passage and venturing as far as the Antarctic Polar Circle in this review of his time aboard 116-guest Ortelius on the Polar Circle Cruise.

People on the bow of their small ship watching as the ship breaks through some ice in Antarctica.

M/V Ortelius is named for a Dutch cartographer and creator of the first modern atlas… apropos for my journey to the edge of the known world.

The polar expedition vessel M/V Ortelius is named for Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), a Dutch cartographer and creator of the first modern atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. The relative shapes of the continents of Africa and South America in his atlas led Ortelius to float the heretical idea that the continents may have once been joined, and subsequently torn asunder by some unseen mechanism. The theory of plate tectonics would only take another 350 years or so to become widely accepted. This struck me as being entirely apropos for my own journey to the edge of the known world—a trip to the most far flung of continents.

An old world map titled TYPVS ORBIS TERRARVM with a very large depiction of Antarctica.

The Case for the Drake

One look at our website and you will see that AdventureSmith Explorations offers a number of different ways to travel to the White Continent. These variations include air cruises that whisk you via aircraft from the mainland of South America to the South Shetland Islands, just off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, to embark your ship. It only takes two hours or so to fly from Punta Arenas, Chile, to King George Island, Antarctica. These options allow you to cut about four days of sea travel out of your itinerary and, perhaps most importantly, to forgo the crossing of the most storied stretch of the Southern Ocean: the Drake Passage.

Painting of Sir Francis Drake.

Sir Francis Drake (ca. 1540-1596)

In the AdventureSmith office, we spend a lot of time discussing the relative merits of these two methods of Antarctic travel, making the sea crossing or flying it, so that we may better help our clients weigh the options and decide which is right for them on their expedition. Neither is “better’ or “worse”; having the choice at all is testament to the wonderfully efficient world in which we live.

Crossing the Drake was an important part of my exploration of Antarctica, a sea voyage that harks back to a time when travelers were constrained to follow the contours of planet Earth.

On my journey I chose to make the sea crossing, as most visitors to Antarctica still do. For me, crossing the Drake was an important part of my exploration of Antarctica, a sea voyage that harks back to a time when travelers were constrained to follow the contours of planet Earth. There was a palpable sense of excitement aboard Ortelius as we cruised through the perfectly placid Beagle Channel on our first evening. Next morning, we intrepid travelers would cross the very ocean that looms so large in many Ages of Exploration—from 16th century mariners “Rounding the Horn” to Heroic Age explorers embarking on polar expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th.

When we awoke the next day, we had that experience that is common in the 21st century only for serious sailors or those who make their living on the sea. There was no land on the horizon—any horizon—and there wouldn’t be for two days. What better way to begin an exploration to the edge of the world?

Bow of a small expedition ship crossing the Drake Passage en route to Antarctica.

The seas were heavy enough on our southbound crossing to cause discomfort for some of my shipmates, but there are plenty of time-tested ways to combat this. (If you are concerned with seasickness on any small ship expedition, take a look at our essential guide: How to Prevent & Treat Seasickness on Cruises.) The on-call shipboard doctor dispensed scopolamine patches, Dramamine tablets and sound advice. I loaned out the two extra sets of acupressure wristbands I’d packed, my preferred curative (they work—believe it!). It wasn’t long before all had found their sea legs and were enjoying the journey. 

The Drake is also no slouch when it comes to wildlife; we spotted whales and seabirds all the way, honing our identification skills for the continent ahead.

The expedition crew did not let the two days of sea time pass idly by. Our days were filled with lectures on snow/ice photography, the history of south polar exploration, “Birds of the Wind” (Procellariiformes – albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters), the Antarctic convergence, the Antarctic Treaty; the list goes on. The Drake is also no slouch when it comes to wildlife; we spotted whales and seabirds all the way, honing our identification skills for the continent ahead.

Black and white photo of the James Caird expedition Launching from Elephant Island on April 24, 1916.

The James Caird launching from Elephant Island on April 24, 1916. 
Photo by Frank Hurley

In 1916, Sir Ernest Shackleton and five men made their 800-mile journey from Elephant Island in the South Shetlands to South Georgia Island in the 23-foot ketch James Caird—over the course of 16 terrifying days, eating Bovril and old seal. We were making our crossing aboard the 300-foot M/V Ortelius, equipped with a century’s worth of design improvements. We enjoyed warm beds, daily showers, fascinating and educational entertainments, gourmet meals served thrice daily, a well-stocked bar (my other preferred curative) and all the other comforts of a modern expedition vessel. The crossing was over before we knew it, and we arrived at Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands healthy, happy and thrilled with a sense of history and high adventure.

My Review of the Ortelius Expedition Ship

The 116-guest Ortelius was originally built as a polar research platform for the Russian Academy of Science. Designed with an ice class of UL1-1A (one of the highest short of being an icebreaker), the ship was born to navigate these narrow passages and ice-choked waters.

Ortelius is an incredibly sturdy expedition vessel with real touches of class and meaningful nods to modern comfort.

Extensive renovations to the top two decks in 2014-2016 created spacious, airy and sophisticated spaces in the Twin and Superior cabin categories. My home for the 12-day voyage was a Twin Window cabin on Deck 5, and I was impressed by the overall space, available gear/clothing storage, modern bed-and-bath appointments and the views provided by two large windows. She is an incredibly sturdy expedition vessel with real touches of class and meaningful nods to modern comfort.

Ortelius ship anchored in Ushuaia with the city and mountains in the background.

One of the real boons for onboard activities is the large helicopter landing pad aft of the main stack. This unusually large deck space allows Ortelius to deliver helicopter-assisted itineraries into the Weddell (emperor penguin rookeries) and Ross Seas, and provided us with a platform to spread out for activities on this voyage. This is where we geared up and adjusted our kayaks and had the world’s most scenic outdoor barbeque sailing through Neko Harbor.

Ortelius uniquely has separate spaces for the lounge and the lecture room; on many polar vessels they are one and the same. The lecture room is located in the bow section of Deck 3 and provides bench seating for the entire passenger complement to attend lectures and screenings. The “Krill Them All”  lounge is located forward on Deck 6 and affords comfy couches, great views and easy access to the many exterior viewing areas. This is where you’ll stop in to refresh your cup of coffee during your many hours patrolling the decks to spot wildlife and take in the grandeur of Antarctica.

A panorama of the bow of the ship coming into Antarctica with sea ice and mountains and lots of dark clouds.

The White Continent

Antarctica is often described superlatively: highest, driest, coldest, most pristine. It’s noted for temperatures of -129°F, for the Dry Valleys where no rain has fallen in millions of years and for containing about 70% of the world’s fresh water locked in ice. This is truly one of Earth’s most unique environments, deserving of the many superlatives laid at its icy doorstep.

This is a world of ice—the ice sheet of Graham Land not simply carving its way down valleys but spilling over the top of thousand-foot peaks. You will likely never see anything like it; I certainly hadn’t.

I must admit that I felt pretty confident that I was impervious to being blown away by glaciers, snowfields and sea ice. I spent six summers in Glacier Bay, Alaska—an area containing one of the densest concentrations of tidewater glaciers in the world. Well, this is a different thing altogether. Gone are the vast rocky moraines and alluvial fans. Gone are the verdant patches of vegetation just finding a foothold. This is a world of ice—the ice sheet of Graham Land not simply carving its way down valleys, as in coastal Alaska, but spilling over the top of thousand-foot peaks. You will likely never see anything like it; I certainly hadn’t.

Iceberg and jagged snowy peaks of Antarctica seen from a small ship cruise.

As with many Antarctic cruises, the Ortelius generally offers kayaking as an optional activity. This activity must be booked in advance, and is currently at an added cost on every itinerary other than the Antarctic Peninsula Basecamp Cruise.

Paddling quietly amongst the glaciers and wildlife of this vast wilderness is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of us.

For novice kayakers as well as more experienced paddlers, this is an opportunity not to be missed. The excursions are extremely weather dependent, not incredibly long and typically don’t get too far from the ship—but guess what? You are kayaking in Antarctica! Paddling quietly amongst the glaciers and wildlife of this vast wilderness is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of us. Kayaking spots aboard any of these voyages are very limited; there are currently 14 kayaking spaces available aboard Ortelius. The best advice we can give is to book early and secure your space for the kayaking activity immediately if you are interested in this unique experience.

Guests from small ship cruise kayaking close to land in Antarctica.

It is important to note that if you are with the kayaking group, then you will necessarily be missing some of the other daily activities. On my voyage, I was unable to participate in some of the shore landings (as well as the polar plunge) due to the fact that my group was paddling at the time. I had to content myself with drifting in my kayak off the coast of Cuverville Island as dozens of humpback whales serenely fed in the shallows around me.

And as she slipped back below the surface with barely a riffle, we were all left breathless with the certainty of our personal connection to the natural world.

In Skontorp Cove, I struggled to get my GoPro in the water as a group of three crabeater seals took turns playfully surfacing just off my stern (and out of camera range) no matter which way I turned. In Foyn Harbor, on our last day in Antarctica and at the end of our final kayaking excursion, came the ultimate paddling experience. Two adult humpbacks came in close to our group for a series of spy-hops just as we were transferring from the kayaks to a Zodiac for the return to Ortelius. The feeling of a calmly curious 40-ton mammal gently raising her massive head out of the water to get a closer look at you is hard to describe. We spend so much time in wild places believing that we are The Observer that it’s quite moving to have the tables abruptly turned.  And as she slipped back below the surface with barely a riffle, we were all left breathless with the certainty of our personal connection to the natural world.

A group Antarctica travelers kayaking in red kayaks with their paddles up and snow and a glacier behind them.

Geography Matters – 66° 33’47.2” South, the Polar Circle

The Antarctic Circle (currently) lies at 66° 33’47.2” South Latitude. On the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, this line runs through Crystal Sound, just north of Adelaide Island. Along with the equator, the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and the Arctic Circle, it’s one of the five major lines of latitude (east/west) that girdle our globe.

The Antarctic Circle is defined as the northernmost line of latitude at which the sun never drops below the horizon for a full day on the December solstice, and never rises above the horizon on the June solstice.

The Antarctic Circle is defined as the northernmost line of latitude at which the sun never drops below the horizon for a full day on the December solstice, and never rises above it on the June solstice. Remember this is the Southern Hemisphere, so the solstices are reversed from those in the North; above the Arctic Circle the sun is perceived to be doing just the opposite. I’ve often thought about the abstractness of the idea. If you were four feet tall and traveling to the Antarctic Circle with a friend who was seven feet tall, wouldn’t the circle technically be in a different place for you? Wouldn’t you need to be several steps north of her to observe the sun with the same perspective? Or wait, was it south of her?

My expedition to Antarctica was on a Polar Circle itinerary—meaning that the vessel makes every effort to cross this line of latitude, ice and weather permitting. These itineraries are typically only attempted in late season, usually late February through March, when the drifting sea ice is at its lowest extent.

GPS on bridge showing the small ship expedition south of the Antarctic circle.

Since most Antarctic small ship itineraries don’t include the Circle, at AdventureSmith we are often asked, “Is it worth it?” That question is fraught, because geography means different things to different people. I spent several years living near Fairbanks, Alaska, 120 miles below the Arctic Circle. Solstice is a big deal for those that live in high latitudes, both summer and winter, and we would venture north to the Circle every June 21, when the sun never set. We didn’t really get anything in particular out of the deal; the tundra and boreal forest south of the circle looks exactly the same as that to the north. The caribou had no more spring in their step, the magpies no less urgency in their manner. It was done, simply, for the abstract joy of living the day that never ends.

Man standing on rocks looking at the snowy landscape of Antarctica.

Why cross the Antarctic Circle? Because it’s there, of course.

I feel much the same about the Antarctic Circle. The rock, ice and wildlife at 66° 33’47.1” is certainly no less spectacular. Nothing in particular happens when you cross, save for the blare of the ship’s horn to mark a unique occasion and milestone of personal geography. You don’t stay long, as the ship must soon turn to start the long journey north. But geography matters, as does our human connection to it. Did Amundsen and Scott really need to stand at the Pole proper? Was there anything in particular gained that couldn’t have been achieved standing a couple miles away? George Mallory clearly addressed this issue best when posed a similar question of personal geography, after repeated failures to summit Everest: Why cross the Antarctic Circle? Because it’s there, of course.

A lone ship sailing around calm waters with icebergs large and small.

Justin’s Suggested Reading for Antarctica

At AdventureSmith Explorations, we encourage our travelers to arrive informed. Before each voyage, we provide travelers with reading lists related to their destination, covering everything from guidebooks to poetry. Whether you choose to read before, during or after your Antarctic expedition—or perhaps all of the above—here is what I recommend:

The Worst Journey in the World
by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

The title of the most aptly named memoir of polar exploration doesn’t actually refer to Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal march to the South Pole in 1911-12. Cherry-Garrard was indeed a young member of Scott’s ill-fated expedition, but the title refers to the “Winter March,” the season before the summertime attempt on the Pole. Cherry-Garrard and two other men sledged across the Ross Ice Shelf in the dead of winter in order to retrieve viable emperor penguin eggs. And it was, quite understandably, a miserable journey.

Cherry-Garrard (luckily for him) didn’t go south with Scott in November of 1911, but instead returned to Cape Evans basecamp – waiting to assist in the polar team’s return. Scott and his ill-fated company were not located until the following summer, with Cherry-Garrard among the party that found Scott, Birdie Bowers and Bill Wilson frozen in their tent, only 11 miles from their next supply depot.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
by Alfred Lansing

If you are an explorer at heart and haven’t yet read this book, do so tout suite. This book chronicles the almost unbelievable story of the failure of the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and the 28 men who survived it.

There have been several recent reboots of the story, including a fine account by Caroline Alexander, but the meticulously sourced 1959 classic by Alfred Lansing is where you should start. Lansing had access to surviving expedition members; later chroniclers, of course, did not.

Rounding the Horn
by Dallas Murphy

Cape Horn looms large in any discussion of a sea voyage to Antarctica. And I suppose it looms large in any actual sea voyage to Antarctica, it’s just to your west as you exit the Beagle Channel. This very readable primer on the history of navigating the Capefrom the native Fuegian people to Magellan, Drake and Darwinis a great start.

The cape at the southern tip of South America is the point at which the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet, and “Rounding the Horn” was necessary to transit between the two before the advent of the Panama Canal in 1914. As you exit the Beagle Channel on your way south across the Drake, it’s hard not to imagine yourself in the company of these earlier mariners. 

People hiking close to penguins with their small ship in the background among icebergs.

For more photos from this trip, including penguins and icebergs, view my Facebook album on AdventureSmith Explorations’ Facebook page.

This Antarctica cruise review was written by an AdventureSmith Explorations crew member. Read all AdventureSmith Expert Reviews for more trip reports.  For dates, rates and booking information on this trip, see Polar Circle Cruise, or contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about our small ship cruises and wilderness adventures: 1-800-728-2875.