You’ve probably heard about the heroes of Antarctic exploration. Men like Shackleton and Amundsen were some of the first humans to explore Antarctica on foot, camping on the ice and living for years in below freezing temperatures. Today, it’s mostly scientists who go camping in Antarctica, while tourists spend the majority of their time aboard cruise ships. But on some cruise lines, guests have the chance to spend a night camping in Antarctica.
On a Hurtigruten expedition cruise to Antarctica, I had the chance to visit the campsite of travelers about to brave the ice on this overnight excursion. The experience is billed as a 10-hour adventure that costs about $575 USD; availability is subject to the number of the tents, and spots fill up quickly. After a mandatory briefing, thirty passengers left the comforts of their cabins on the M.S. Midnatsol and set out for Danco Island.
Their first order of business was to pitch tents and learn the logistics of the Antarctic-style outhouse (the two buckets the crew brings and takes back to the ship). Paired in groups of two, they were given a two-person tent, two sleeping bags, two air mattresses, and a groundsheet. As the campers set up, hundreds of Gentoo penguins hopped ashore and waddled by the tents.
Once everything was ready, the campers hiked up to a nearby penguin rookery that overlooked the bay and watched the ship sail out of view, leaving them alone in the pristine Antarctic landscape. When I asked if it felt like they had been abandoned, one camper, Natalia Rosa told me:
“I felt that I had to make the most of every second of the opportunity and really feel what it was like being there. Much of the time we spent on landings had been occupied with taking photos because we only had an hour and a half on land to capture the moment. That meant you didn’t really put your camera down and smell, see, hear, touch, etc … Being on land for 10 hours meant we had the luxury to really feel what it was like to be there.”
After spending some time watching the penguins in the rookery, the campers returned to their tents to try to sleep. But as they settled in, they found the cold wasn’t the only thing keeping them awake. All around them, they could hear the sounds of distant avalanches and crashing glaciers. And at 2 a.m., the penguin invasion began.
“I rested my eyes, to be rudely but beautifully awoken by the unmistakable flapping and squawking of the penguins. They surrounded us. There were hundreds of them all bounding past in a thick stream,” said Alexandra Pereira, another camper on the excursion. Throughout the night, the penguins would continue to congregate around the campsite, squawking, fighting, and mating outside the tents.
“We’re talking several hundred, if not a thousand penguins. This happened so many times I eventually let myself breathe (I think I had actually been holding my breath so as not to disturb them from coming right past us) and settled back in for some sleep,” said Rosa.
At 5 a.m., the campers awoke and packed up their tents. The ship cruised back into view and inflatable boats set out to pick up the campers. Back on board, they were welcomed back with mimosas in the warm and inviting dining room, where they shared stories of their restless night on the ice.