Exterior image of the 50 Years of Victory Antarctica icebreaker cruise ship

Everything You Need to Know Before Boarding an Antarctica Icebreaker Cruise

If you are looking for a typical tourist trap of a vacation, then it’s best to scroll on. An Antarctica icebreaker cruise is probably not for you.

There is a time and place to lounge in a poolside cabana and sip strawberry-infused daiquiris. But, aboard an Antarctica expedition ship is just not one of those times.

I’ve been to the world’s southernmost continent a number of times. As a small ship cruise expert, it’s part of the job I have to do to stay knowledgeable for my clients. It helps me help them to make the best travel choices to meet their needs.

Allow me to share my experience aboard Quark’s 50 Years of Victory icebreaker cruise.

An Antarctica icebreaker cruise is no ordinary trip


Antarctica is the Earth’s southernmost and least-populated continent. It’s a place with weather so harsh yet equally breathtaking at the same time. You won’t find traffic jams here unless you’re caught waiting behind a raft of sea lions. There aren’t any mobs here, either. Wait, correction. Of course, the rookeries of penguins count.

You are cut off from the rest of the world. And it is oh so glorious… and peaceful.

But Antarctica isn’t just for the Shackletons and the Scotts. And you don’t have to be a rugged, leathery-skinned worldly seafarer to enjoy the earth’s most chilly and remote locations either. I believe there is a fledgling explorer hidden amongst us all. I invited my good friend Lorraine and her 82-year-old mother with me on this journey. We still swap stories about what a memorable time we had.

Life aboard an Antarctica icebreaker cruise


50 Years of Victory - an Antarctica icebreaker cruise ship
50 Years of Victory was built to withstand the icy waters of the Antarctic

We set out on our journey in November, which is springtime for the Antarctic region. The vessel that would be our home for the next 11 days was Quark’s 50 Years of Victory. It’s a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker research vessel built to withstand the harshest of icy waters. It can accommodate just under 128 passengers and around 140 crew members, including the expedition staff.

While it won’t win any awards for luxury ship design, this Antarctica icebreaker cruise is comfortable, has all the necessary amenities required, and can batten off any wild waves the mighty Drake Passage may toss your way.

They don’t call it the “Drake Shake” for nothing


Crossing the infamous Drake Passage, the corridor between mainland South America and the South Pole is an experience unto itself.

How long does it take;
To cross the Drake?

About two full days. You might get lucky and experience calm waters that will rock you to sleep, but it’s good to be prepared. I highly recommend consulting a travel doctor for advice on preventative relief for potential sea sickness. You have options.

Regardless, ships like the 50 Years of Victory were built specifically to weather the most dramatic of crossings. I always felt safe.

A whale's tale can be seen above the water on an Antarctica icebreaker cruise
Whale sightings as we crossed the Drake passage

During the crossing, we spent hours on deck watching the albatross, petrel, shags, skuas, and gulls soar above the ship.

And when we grew tired of becoming couch ornithologists, we grabbed a seat in the lecture theatre, where the expedition staff prepared us for the day ahead. We learned about exploratory history, marine biology, geology, glaciology, and, of course, the birds. So much to learn about birds. Yes, this included the show-stealing penguins.

After 11 days, I never tired of watching the toddler-height, Charlie Chaplin comedians of the South decked out in their formal black and white waddle across the frosty landscape.

a flock of King penguins seen from an Antarctica icebreaker cruise
The penguins always steal the show

There was also plenty of time to read in the library in between meals while getting to know our fellow Antarctic voyagers. For some, it was their first time ever experiencing snow and cold. As three hearty Canadians accustomed to chilly temperatures, we found their reactions adorable.

A Day in the Life of Antarctica


Once we reached Antarctica, our days typically started at 7 am for breakfast before a short orientation from the expedition leader. He or she would go over the loose plan for the day. And was quick to remind us that things could change in an instant. Antarctica has a way of laughing at those who try and make plans. The weather remains fickle, and the captain and expedition team are always looking to take advantage of opportunistic wildlife encounters.

A zodiac carries passengers from an Antactica icebreaker cruise ship to the shore
Zodiacs allow passengers to reach land and navigate narrow passageways

A typical day included two excursions by Zodiac. We’d maneuver around icebergs, hoping to catch a glimpse of pods of blue and humpback whales, leopard, fur and crabeater seals, or maybe even some Commerson’s dolphins.

Or we might do a landing near a penguin colony to watch the antics of the loveable and quirky bird. There are eight species that can be found hanging out near the chilly continent. You may not get lucky to see all eight, but you won’t tire of the search.

a collage of the eight different species of penguins found in the Antarctica
The eight species of penguins you might see

On other days, we’d go to one of the research stations, hoping to learn about some new scientific discovery that was unfolding right before our eyes. Some adventurous guests chose to go ‘cross-Antarctica-skiing’, mountaineering, and even kayaking. After returning to the ship for a hot lunch, we’d go back out and do it all over again.

The atmosphere aboard an Antarctica icebreaker cruise


You build close friendships with your fellow travellers when you take a small ship cruise. With less than 150 passengers on board, most of whom share a similar worldview, it’s an easy, laid-back atmosphere.

Meals were a family affair, and everybody ate together. People were chatty and eager to share what they’d seen during the day.  And then, later in the evening, we’d gather in the bar area, like a bunch of kids around a campfire, to hear gripping tales of past voyages from the expedition staff. 

I guess storytelling must be a pre-requisite to land the job – because they were all so good at it. The team joined this Antarctica icebreaker cruise from around the globe, but they all shared a similar passion for the flora and fauna of the polar regions.

The people you meet aboard an Antarctica icebreaker cruise


Reaching land on the elusive seventh continent is, for many, a completion of a lifetime travel goal. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to find many of your fellow travellers will be well-travelled.

There is no need to be intimidated, though. The one thing I know for sure is that travel is an ideology that humbles the most boastful of men. I met the most interesting people aboard the Russian icebreaker cruise.

An expedition staff aboard an Antarctica icebreaker cruise lectures passengers on the flora and fauna of the area
Learning about Antarctica from the experts

One 83-year-old Kiwi gentleman was travelling with his granddaughter. As a younger man, he’d spent his career working on tall ships that sailed between the UK and the South Pacific. Did he have some nail-biting stories to share. Completely fascinating. His dream was to sail around the legendary Cape Horn once more, so our Captain did his best to get the ship within a few miles of this iconic landmark.

I often get asked what the nationality breakdown will be on board. The majority of polar cruises I sell cater to an international clientele.

Seasonal Changes and Wildlife


Antarctica’s travel season runs between October and March, but the tourist season really swings into action in November.

The first time I journeyed south was in March (considered the fall). By March, things are winding down. There are fewer ships, but temperatures are beginning to drop. And while you miss out on seeing penguins and other birds hatch, you are more apt to catch a glimpse of whales and fur seals. And the sunsets! The fall has the best sunsets on the continent than any other time of the year.

An iceberg appears as the sunsets on an Antarctica icebreaker cruise
Fall is the best time for sunsets in Antarctica

This visit, however, was in spring. It’s still a bit chillier than the temps experienced between December and February, but the clear skies, virgin ice, and snow offer photographers the most ideal backdrop. The contrast of the landscapes is extreme, with black mountains stark against the angelic white snow and crisp glaciers.

The best part of travelling in spring is seeing the fauna come alive. In November, they are just beginning to mate and build their nests. By December, the eggs have been laid, and the chicks are starting to hatch toward the end of the month.

An Antarctica icebreaker cruise traveller gets up close to snap a photo of an adelie penguin
Warning, you will return home with too many photos

Come January, the penguin chicks are getting bigger, and some are leaving the nest to form crèches as protection against predators while both parents go to sea to collect food for their young.

Clear skies offer incredible reflections of the mountains in the sea.
Travelling during peak season offers crisp blue skies

In late February and early March, most penguin chicks have fledged, and many parents have left to begin their annual moult. Many of the colonies that were covered in several metres of snow in November are now muddy and covered in guano, with little snow to be seen. Still, the little penguin chicks had us roaring in laughter and smiling with their amusing behaviours.

Travelling during shoulder seasons like November and March can offer more attractive rates over the more popular and warmer December to February months.

Final thoughts on travelling on an Antarctica icebreaker cruise


Travelling to the world’s chilliest and highest continent is a lifetime experience. I don’t want to say, “once in a lifetime,” because I’ve already been twice and gladly go again.

For a land that is vast, cold, and seemingly inhospitable – Antarctica is unusually welcoming!

With ice-capped peaks floating in the ocean amongst friendly seals and penguins galore as icebergs float by – Antarctica is probably the closest you can get to being out of this world without leaving Earth.

a close up pic of a leopard seal
The unfussy leopard seal is a fierce predator, snacking on anything it can find

Antarctica is a journey I’d recommend to any adventurer who loves nature and is a searcher of the novel. It appeals to the romantic, the pioneer and the knowledge-thirsty wanderer. Most of all, it’s an experience tailored specifically for those who aren’t afraid of feeling small in this big, big world.

Antarctica is waiting for you. Call to book an appointment with me, and let’s talk.

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Are you considering a trip to Antarctica and wondering if an icebreaker cruise is for you? Learn more.



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