Quarantine with penguins: life stuck onboard an Antarctica cruise ship

When Lonely Planet contributor Edwina Hart boarded a ship in Chile’s southernmost city, Punta Arenas, she knew she was in for an adventure – a voyage to Antarctica. But that was before borders in South America began to close due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Currently anchored off the Falkland Islands and awaiting repatriation, here she shares her experience of life on board. 

I thought taking the polar plunge into frigid waters south of the Antarctic Circle was going to be the biggest challenge of this trip. But diving into the heart-stopping, freezing water on the rocky beach of Horseshoe Island now feels like a lifetime ago. 

The author sits on the edge of a boat, camera around her neck, with icebergs in the back,
Edwina before she knew how long her cruise would turn out to be © Edwina Hart / Lonely Planet

I’m travelling solo on Hurtigruten’s brand new hybrid ship, the MS Roald Amundsen, specially constructed for exploration in polar regions. After departing Chile, we spent our days blissfully alone, sailing south of the Antarctic Circle, a pristine part of the planet where few ever venture. We kayaked amongst icebergs that soar like towering, crystal sculptures from the glass-like water, landed on Yankee Harbour to be greeted by a waddle of squawking gentoo penguins, explored the eerie remains of old whaling stations and watched in awe as the seashell-pink sunset illuminated a backdrop of sheer, white cliffs.

When we set out for Antarctica 18 days earlier, there was one confirmed case of COVID-19 in South America. By the time we were steaming back towards Punta Arenas, the coronavirus chaos had escalated and the borders around the continent were swiftly shutting down.  

Our ship was scheduled to dock on 15 March and, despite some speculations around Chile closing its ports to all cruise ships, we remained optimistic. After all, we had essentially self-isolated for two weeks, which helped with our status as a completely coronavirus-free vessel. My bags were packed, ready to disembark and board a plane to Santiago the next day. 

However, our hopes were dashed early that morning as we were turned away from port. With over 400 passengers left in limbo, we then spent the next few days anchored just off the Chilean coast. The shoreline was so tantalisingly close that you could see it without a pair of binoculars.  

The bow of a ship
Onboard the MS Roald Amundsen © Edwina Hart / Lonely Planet

Fuel was replenished and provisions were restocked from a barge that came alongside our ship. Men in hazmat suits offloaded pallets of fresh watermelons and mangoes that we could spy from the upper deck.

Captain Torry Sakkariassen’s revelation, “We are heading back to the Falklands, to disembark in Stanley,” was met with an explosion of cheers. Our best chance of getting home as quickly as possible was to sail south to the British overseas territory, in the hope of being permitted to disembark and take charter flights back home from the military airport.

This change in plans meant we had to power through the perilous Drake Passage, or the ‘Drake Shake’ as it’s known, due to being one of the roughest seas in the world. From my balcony, the ocean looked like a giant washing machine. Some say that the Drake Passage is the price you pay to get to Antarctica. For us, sailing once again through rollicking 8m waves as we rounded the mythical Cape Horn was the price we were paying to get home to our loved ones.

Despite our setbacks and tenuous predicament, there’s an overwhelmingly positive attitude on board. When I asked the captain how he manages to keep morale high, he said, “It’s very important that we lift the spirits, have a good sense of humour and keep the passengers busy all the time.” The captain, who flippantly introduces himself as ‘the driver’ at the beginning of each loudspeaker announcement, certainly sets the tone.

Two macaroni penguins with yellow hair huddle together
Morale-boosting penguins © Edwina Hart / Lonely Planet

Being confined to your cruise ship without confirmation of when or how you’ll get home isn’t an ideal position for anyone to be in. But you can either spend all day crying in your cabin or make the most of (in my case) a luxurious Norwegian liner. So, my fellow passengers and I intend to do just that. 

We're spending our days immersed in lectures hosted in the science centre by resident scientists, on topics from polar history to Antarctic marine life. Exercise is morning yoga or a 'mile around the ship', pacing the running track on the upper deck. Teambuilding games, such as scavenger hunts, have resulted in near collisions with groups racing around the ship to find hidden clues. Meanwhile, those artistically inclined are spending their hours in watercolour classes painting portraits of whales. Downtime is enjoyed snoozing in the Scandi-chic cabins, or making the most of the Nordic-style sauna with floor-to-ceiling windows offering panoramic views, the outdoor Jacuzzi or spa (a ‘glacier glow’ facial might be just the trick to de-stress). 

Colourful watercolours of sting rays, whales and an octopus
Passing the time in a creative way © Edwina Hart / Lonely Planet

Binge-eating comfort food as we commiserate over our precarious situation is a popular pastime. Norwegian Polar explorer, Roald Amundsen, led the first expedition to reach the south pole in 1911. He was said to have had a soft spot for pancakes on his expeditions, so the diner-style restaurant on board serves them as a speciality. As a nod to Amundsen, I've ordered a Nutella crepe with vanilla ice cream.

The fabulous crew show held one evening had everyone laughing as the tender-boat drivers, who’d previously been zipping us around crabeater seal-spotting in the icy bays of Antarctica, choreographed a dance routine to Sexbomb by Tom Jones. Each evening, passengers are lingering in the Expedition Lounge sipping martinis, renamed the ‘quarantini’ (proof that a robust sense of humour remains), as entertainment, from quizzes to karaoke, continues well beyond a sensible bedtime. 

A man looks out from the deck of a ship with binoculars
Kieran Love, biologist, looking for whales west of the Falkland Islands © Edwina Hart / Lonely Planet

We will be hovering around the coastline of the Falkland Islands for several more days until we are given permission to disembark. Kieran Love, a biologist and expedition guide on board, has found a silver lining in the somewhat stressful situation: “At the moment we are waiting in the west of the Falklands, it’s a fantastic place to be because it’s packed with wildlife. Right now, we’ve just seen gentoo penguins porpoising through the water.”  Alongside the ship a raft of black-and-white penguins torpedo in and out of the crystalline water.  Just on cue, a spurt of water from a blowhole about 30m away reveals a sei whale.  

Many on board are united by their shared love of penguins, which is an inevitable side-effect of Antarctic exploration. It would be difficult to find someone whose hard drive isn’t chock full of adorable penguin photos. Hurtigruten needn’t work so hard to keep us entertained and happy. Many people have found their own coping mechanisms, as one of my fellow passengers confided in me over a three-course dinner. 

“I look at the pictures I took during the voyage of different species of penguins; they’re so cute and funny that I can’t stop laughing. That’s one of the reasons I still feel happy on the ship.” 

I asked her to show me a video she captured of king penguin chicks chasing their mother, and for the moment I forget that I’m stranded at sea.

The writer travelled as a guest of Hurtigruten. Lonely Planet writers do not accept freebies for positive coverage.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is now a global pandemic. Find out what this means for travelers.

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