If you’re considering taking a cruise to Antarctica, you need to be prepared for motion sickness and a storm. Below is a description of what it was like to cross the Drake Passage—one of the most dangerous oceans in the world—during a storm: projectiles, spilled sewage, lockdown and thoughts of abandoning ship.
I was aboard an expedition 100-passenger capacity ice breaker/cruise ship, heading back to Ushuaia from Antarctica. I paid approximately $800 per night for 13 nights to be in this ship.
I woke up around 1:45 a.m., hungry after having missed my last two meals due to motion sickness. I looked out the porthole: dark. We were further north now, closer to Argentina than Antarctica. Here, it only stays dark for a short while before the sun rises at around 4:00 a.m.
6:30 a.m. – I hadn’t slept all night. I didn’t know how anybody could sleep with the ship tossing, rattling and shaking like it was. I wasn’t scared, but I was dizzy. I estimated the swells outside to be between 30 and 35 feet high. I heard our toilet seat cover slam, courtesy of the slanted angle of the ship. Same thing happened with the drawers underneath my bed—they slid in and out noisily whenever the boat rocked. Finally, I blocked them with my backpack.
8:00 a.m. – I was able to get up for breakfast: cereal, a hard-boiled egg and orange juice in the dining room. However, on my way back to my seat, the ship rolled to one side and I lost my balance, falling onto a kind older lady’s shoulders. Thankfully, none of my orange juice spilled on her. She helped me get my balance back, but meanwhile, my egg had fallen off my plate and was rolling away from me on the floor. Just then, the ship tilted in the other direction, and my egg rolled back with it. Still holding onto the lady, I stooped and retrieved my egg.
The lid remained closed, so the sewage won’t spill
When I finally sat down, a lady next to me kept talking about the sewage that was coming up from the toilets whenever the ship rolled. Why she was talking about that at breakfast, I don’t know. So much for my first meal in 24 hours. Between this and the passengers holding onto their tables and plates every time the ship rocked, I decided it was time to go back to my room and lie down.
Around midday, the swells rose to 45 feet high. I couldn’t sleep. Everything on our desk—except for the television, which was strapped down—slid to the floor. I heard an announcement paging the doctor to come to the bar, followed by another informing passengers that all decks were now closed. We were in lockdown.
My assigned roommate, Laure, came back to our room. “Make sure to put the toilet seat cover down after you use it,” she said. “Did you know some people’s toilets have been overflowing?” Yes, I told her, I knew. I could even smell it. Our toilet may not have been overflowing, but the one in the nearby common bathroom was, and the stench was overwhelming.
Laure also told me about a guy up on deck who fell while taking pictures of the swells. Thankfully, he didn’t go overboard. Another lady fell in the bar, which why the doctor had been paged. And at the beginning of our cruise, one gentleman had lost his balance and gotten a concussion. Word around the ship was that he couldn’t even remember his own kids’ names. I wasn’t sure how much of that was true, but it was true that people were having accidents. Maybe it was safer to stay in bed. I peeked through my porthole again. The water was fast approaching. I was so thirsty my lips were cracked.
Just before 2:00 p.m., the boat shook violently, followed by a loud bang. Next thing I knew, people were talking in Russian over the P.A. system. I wished somebody could translate. Was it the captain talking to the crew in the engine room? What would I do if I heard 7 short beeps, followed by 3 long ones—Morse code for “abandon ship”? I rehearsed it in my mind: layer up, get my life jacket, sneak in the memory card of my big camera and let the others sink. After a few minutes, the talking in Russian stopped, as did the ship’s vibration. No “abandon ship” signal came, so I guessed we were okay.
It would actually have been nice if I was able to get on the bridge and take a pictures of the bow of the ship. I was sure water was splashing everywhere and you could see how high the waves really were, but I was so dizzy, I was not able to get up.
Later on, I got a hold of this video. It was taken by Sarah, a lady from Australia also traveling by herself. Notice the water that splashed all the way from the bow of the ship to the window of the bridge. That splash traveled 6 decks up:
One of the expedition leaders, Chad, knocked on my door to present me with my voyage certificate for crossing the Antarctic Circle. I asked him why things had been so rocky. He said we hit a class 10 storm, with winds measuring 55 knots.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“A class 12 storm is a hurricane-force storm with strong winds. Class 10 is up on the scale.”
This was taken from one of the portholes in my room, which is in Deck 3. This was taken when the storm was already dying since I was able to get up and take this video:
I was very eager to get back on land and away from the storm. After that trip, I can honestly say I could never be a sailor. I wouldn’t be able to function in danger. I admire the men and women who can withstand storms like the one we encountered.
Though I would not discourage anyone from taking a cruise like this, it is not for the faint-hearted. Motion sickness and safety are serious concerns. In addition, there have been many discussions about the possible negative impacts of tourism on Antarctica. On an expedition trip like mine, we hardly ever landed due to the harsh environment, and when we did, it was never for more than two hours due to regulations. However, this article is not about that, as I don’t think tourism down there will stop anytime soon.
Although going to Antarctica by cruise ship is no walk in the park, it is also the trip of a lifetime. Just make sure you’re mentally ready, safe and prepared for anything—especially storms and motion sickness.
(This blog has been featured by Lonely Planet in June 2016. Click here to see the article.)
If you suffer from motion sickness like me, you can check out the article I wrote on “How To Prevent Motion Sickness.” I hope you find it useful.