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  • Writer's picturesuzannefrey

Speaking Truth to What Lies Beneath: A Review of Oceanwide Expeditions Liveaboard in Antarctica

Updated: Apr 16




As with so many of my fellow divers and underwater photographers, I rely on liveaboard.com, PADI.com, random articles across multiple canonical scuba magazines/sites and, of course, my trusted diving-photographer friends to decide which trips I am going to take. With a busy work schedule and limited vacation time, this has been the best approach and it's worked perfectly fine for the last 28+ years. That said, after each trip, I've found that there's been much more to say and share than has been available that would have been useful to know in advance. Ergo, I'm experimenting with sharing more here for the first time.


A few caveats and clarifications:

  • Most liveaboards and some resort experiences will differ because of who might charter the boat/reserve the space at a dive resort and organize the expeditions. For example, if you are booking a trip through your local dive or underwater photography shop, there might be one or more extra parties involved in setting the itinerary, number of fellow travelers, and experiences. Do your homework on those organizations as well as they can make a HUGE difference in your overall experience.

  • I fund my own trips and receive no compensation in any form from the operations I review.

Feedback is welcome and building a following will take time; that said, we all have to start somewhere ...


Oceanwide Expeditions in Antarctica

Trip Type: Liveaboard

Ship: Ortelius ; Website

Trip Dates: 2/20/24 - 3/4/24


Overall Score: 4.0 Starfish out of 5.0




Was This Trip Chartered? YES

Other parties involved in this charter/expedition


Capacity: 108 passengers; 50 cabins

Note: Typically there's a max of 24 divers on this boat; however, for our charter, they flexed given that the majority of travelers were divers.


Safety & Health





The crew of the Ortelius receives 5 stars for diving and operational safety in my book. Throughout the preparation, execution, and closure of every dive excursion, the crew operated with focus, discipline, and care.


Note: You should always weigh safety as a top consideration on any trip; diving in Antarctica takes safety considerations to a brand new level. Climate change, floating icebergs, caving ice, mixtures of fresh and salt water impacting your buoyancy, the high likelihood of sudden, very severe weather changes, the extremely cold water, and the lack of any hyperbaric chamber within days' of travel all make diving here higher risk than many other places in the world. Your operator must make safety more important than anything else; if they don't, don't go with them.


In addition, there's a full-time doctor and floating hospital onboard. Most of the medical needs we had on the ship were about preventing seasickness - a common problem when crossing the Drake Passage. Lucky for us though, we had exceptionally rare and smooth conditions crossing the Drake in both directions!


Environmental Stewardship:

Ortelius and Oceanwide Expeditions are members of IAATO, the international body governing tourism in Antarctia. IAATO has very strict standards around environmental protection / preservation and I witnessed rigorous attention and adherence to these standards throughout.


Note: This category contains many separate but related considerations. First, I consider whether the primary operation makes its commitment to the environment clear, significant, and obvious in its behavior. Second, I consider whether the operation is subject to audit by third parties who rate, review, and potentially badge operators for adherence to high standards in this regard.


I do not consider whether/not the trip itself is carbon negative for all kinds of reasons. Primarily because it probably is, no matter your origin. That said, I think it means a lot if the operator takes extra special initiative to be a guardian for our planet.


Value for $:

Going to Antarctica is not cheap - no matter what trip you take with whom. Overall I found this trip to be generally good value for the money spent directly on the the trip. That said, a few more hints around equipment (photography and otherwise) would have helped to streamline the experience and expenses - but so many other things made up for the gaps here.


Is thee a roommate option for solo travelers? YES - so if you are traveling, so you can opt to have a roommate and just pay for yourself. Of course, this comes with some risks re compatibility, but you'll save significantly on costs. And you might even either 1) make a new best friend or 2) end up w/the room to yourself if another pairing doesn't come up.


Single Supplement: NO; if you want your own room, you will pay in-full for 2 people.


Preparation (Guidance vs. Reality)

This is not a lightweight trip across any dimension. You will need at least 50 dry suit, cold water dives in advance and, depending on the operator, a "polar diving" certification that consists of at least 2 dives in polar-equivalent temperatures with your cold water diving equipment. Select skills will be retested at this time and verified. No matter how many dry suit cold water dives you have, be certain that you've brushed up on your skills and comfort many times very close in time to departing for this trip.


Divers never travel light, but I broke personal records this trip as I traveled with 8 bags, totaling 350 lbs. If you're a photographer both topside and underwater, expect to invest in additional luggage to bring everything you want (but again, see my advice here to ensure you don't overpack).


Generally, the operator (and charter guides) gave reasonable and lengthy preparation/packing guidance, although I found some gaps that, had they been addressed in advance, would have made this trip even that much more pleasant and rewarding. For more, see my blog post here on preparing for an underwater photography trip in Antarctica.


Ease of Getting There

For this expedition, we departed from Ushuaia, Argentina. Ushuaia is a destination in itself and worth spending an extra day or two here before embarking for Antarctica. You'll want to give yourself at least 1 if not 2 days here anyway just to ensure all of your luggage arrives before you embark for Antarctica.


Connecting to Ushuaia via Buenos Aires (BA) is very common. That said, pay attention to your inbound airport and your departing airport as there are two major airports in BA and you might find yourself having to commute between the two.


At present, there's only one domestic airline (Aerolineas Argentinas) that serves Ushuaia; they depart from either of BA's major airports. That said, they're super-strict about luggage allowances and they change their itineraries (sometimes significantly) without informing you. So be vigilant about checking your flight times and statuses.

Overall, obviously the ease of getting anywhere depends on your particular origin vs. destination. But to make this more of a "universal" rating, I consider how many hops and how much time it will likely take most folks to reach their destination. In this case,

  • Expect to transit through at least one major South American city (likely Buenos Aires)

  • Ensure you have at least 6 hrs between flights (if not a full overnight) in your connecting city. Customs can take quite awhile and it's not unusual to get a grilling from the officials about your equipment.

  • The flight from BA to Ushuaia is 3 hours.

  • Plan to stay in Ushuaia at least one if not 2 days prior to boarding the boat.

  • Remember it will take 2 days from Ushuaia for the boat to reach the tip of Antarctica. (and 2 days on the way home).


In other words, you are going to spend a fair bit of time in transit - and you will be hauling/transferring a fair bit of luggage for much of it. But it's all very straightforward travel. Should you be limited by the jaws of your corporation, note that you will burn several days of vacation however just on transit.


Underwater Photographer Friendliness & Facilities

There's no dedicated photo room, storage, or lab on this boat. Normally that's a negative for me, but in this case, you keep, charge, and maintain all of your gear in your room. I actually really liked this, but I didn't have a roommate therefore I didn't need to share. I think it would have been pretty cramped had I been sharing my space with another photographer.


I also want to know if the dive boat operators will be conscientious about photography equipment. I've seen one-too-many guide/operator carelessly scratch an expensive dome port. In this case, the operators were thoughtful and careful when they handed cameras to the divers in the water or removed them at the end of the dive. That said the zodiacs were pretty crowded and each diver really was responsible for taking care of their gear - including loading cameras onto the zodiacs, putting covers on domes/etc. as quickly as possible once getting back to the zodiac, and carrying cameras back to the ship and one's room afterward.

Also note that the only "rinse" tank on this ship was one's own shower. And this makes sense - it's Antarctica and fresh water outside, well . . . hopefully you get the picture.


The Dive Experience & Equipment

You will need to bring all of your own equipment, aside from weights and tanks.


This includes bringing a special regulator configuration (and cold-water proven regulators, too).



The dive experience here was extremely different from any other I've experienced, across multiple dimensions. The TLDR; this is a very DIY type of diving experience. You'll set up your own gear, you'll load it onto the zodiacs before they lower these boats to the water, you'll take your own gear out of the boats once the zodiacs are back on board. You'll need to help the zodiac drivers by taking your BC and weights off in the water before helping to lift it into the boat. And don't forget: you're drysuit diving - so you're carrying a LOT more weight than normal and wearing dry gloves that make everything that much more challenging. So, this is not your concierge luxe lazy diving trip - this is an adventure in every way.


And, don't forget, even if you're on a fairly lengthy trip, you probably won't have that many dives compared to other liveaboards. We had 1 dive/day - and not every day - due to the high number of divers onboard.


As I mention above, the zodiacs are snug w/all that gear, cameras, etc. - but it's totally doable. Entry is via a roll. The real gotcha for me (and many others) was getting back into the zodiac after the dive: there are NO LADDERS. I'm not entirely sure why there are no ladders - perhaps it's an environmental consideration to limit the amount of potential contamination, but does add to the challenge of diving in Antarctica if your core and upper-body-strength doesn't scream "super-buff."


The good news is that all of the zodiac operators WERE super-buff and completely badass. So they help you get into the boat if you can't hoist yourself solo. This is a humbling experience and certainly not glamorous, but I got over it and with some practice needed only one try and some help to get back onboard.


One of the biggest surprises of the trip (at least for me) was that we were diving in many "unexplored" or "unknown" sites. As a result, it was totally unknown and thoroughly random whether/not we'd end up seeing anything.


The other big surprise was that we didn't see much non-macro life underwater. We saw no schools of fish or really any notable sea life larger than a starfish. Dive sites also weren't scouted for wildlife in advance.


As a result of this - and a few aborted dives due to safety or (no joke) still-spilling diesel from a wreck - I really didn't get a lot of underwater photos. This was disappointing for sure - and does make me want to do a "do-over" trip given how much I learned this time. When "diving" in Antarctica, I learned you have to adjust your expectations, appreciate the amazing adventure overall, know that any dive could be canceled at any time due to conditions, and do not place too much emphasis on the diving alone.

Due to the lack of emergency services, depth limits are set to a very strict 70 feet and you will be prohibited from additional diving if you exceed this. Nitrox is not an option, but given the depth and diving frequency limits, you don't need it.


And while I hinted at this above, unless you're planning on only shooting icebergs or hanging in suspense waiting for very big and rare wildlife, bring your macro setup. The vast majority of what you'll see on most dives is macro. Of course, you'll regret this when that leopard seal shows up, but they are not nearly as common as I expected. We saw them only 1x (and there were 3 of them together) - and while snorkeling.


The Snorkeling Experience

As the trip progressed and we were no longer able to dive near icebergs due to safety risks (warming temps), many of us saw some greater benefits in snorkeling. As a photographer, the opportunity to practice split shots in this iceberg-laden environment was super fun and being up-close to penguin colonies was incredibly special.


But also, be aware: a few of our outings around penguin colonies were awkward "belly crawl" experiences vs. snorkeling experiences. Basically, we were in extremely shallow, very rocky water right at land's edge. This was especially cumbersome when carrying a large camera rig and delicate wide-angle dome port. There's really no other option, so don't take this as a complaint per se, but more of a "be aware" so that you're not surprised.


The Land Experience

Topside Antarctica is breathtaking - truly it is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Harsh, untouched, white, black, grey against an expansive and beautiful blue sky and ocean - it lives up to all of the hyperbole. Our land experiences varied from a significantly slippery and steep climb up to a penguin colony visits through to site visits at scientific stations (current and past). I loved all of our visits to penguin colonies - and just wish I'd have brought yaktrax and hiking poles to stabilize my footing as a few icy climbs were really "no joke" (and I'm a good / fit / experienced hiker). The other outpost visits were fine and presented an interesting glimpse into what life was like for earlier explorers as well as current ones.

Daily Life

The days were BUSY and there was not a lot of downtime. That was fine w/me, but I know it's not for everyone. That acknowledged, and I don't know if it was a facet of the complexity of our trip or more of a norm on an Antarctic expedition, but schedules frequently changed or communications broke down a bit about what was happening when and who it impacted. In general, I can go with the flow - but I definitely found it challenging when planned events were moved EARLIER than expected more than once.


Classes & Educational Opportunities

One of the reasons I enjoy traveling with the groups that I do is because I also always learn from others on the trip. This trip was no exception - and because it was a 'citizen science" trip as well, we were treated to all kinds of lectures. I always love learning more about photography, Lightroom, and Photoshop and Erin Quigley of goaskerin.com not only formally presented on these topics, but also generously made herself available for individual consultation every evening (as I've always seen her do). Numerous scientists presented on their research and findings across Antarctic birds, sea spiders, phytoplankon and zooplankton (e.g. krill), the "lovable" tardigrade, whales, seals, and more. Other photography professionals, like Cristian Dimitrius and Becky Kagan Schott, presented on their work and approaches. Lastly, we were also treated to presentations on climate change in Antarctica, the governance of tourism in Antarctica, and more.


Rooms

I found my room (a Twin Deluxe) much more spacious than expected and largely very comfortable. There was plenty of storage for two people and the bathroom had to have been the largest I've ever had on a boat. The room was also beautifully quiet, despite being on a large boat. My only gripe was temperature control - I did have some trouble getting the temperature quite right - normally I found it a bit too warm in the room. I wouldn't call the rooms posh, but overall I was pleasantly surprised by how nice the accommodations were.


Food

We all know that food can make or break a trip. In this case I was highly skeptical that the food would be good, given the scale at which it needed to be prepared. My skepticism was mostly proven wrong. Breakfast and lunch were buffet style and there was always something good (ok, I skipped breakfast, but saw it one day). Dinner was always plated with 3 main course options. The plated dinner made for a nice way to wind up the day and connect w/friends. The head chef was apparently Indian-and-Austrian in descent and it showed. In particular, I loved the dal dishes.


The kitchen was also very kind and flexible about making slight adjustments to the dishes (e.g. grill the fish vs. fry it; hold the dill, etc.).


Service

The operations leader for the Ortelius was outstanding and she did a great job herding all of us throughout the trip. She maintained a sense of humor throughout as well. The individuals who took care of us across our rooms and meals, too, were friendly, thoughtful, attentive, and generally incredible. There were a few others who were more prickly and took time to warm up - esp the bartending and front-desk staff. Ultimately though, they, too, had warmed up to us by the end of the trip. I suspect we were pretty overwhelming given all of the divers. One positive upside to being on such a large boat is that there were more advanced systems in-place to keep track of expenses along the way (just scanned your room card when you bought a drink) - vs. the kinds of systems that are typically in-place on smaller boats.


Social & Solo Travel Friendliness

This trip was highly social given the special nature of the expedition and its participants, but the layout of the lounge/bar area also makes it very easy to strike up a conversation or sit quietly and read. Given that this is a large boat though, I can imagine that if you are traveling solo and without an affinity group (e.g. photographers, scientists, etc.) you could get lost among the masses. This was the largest boat I've ever traveled on - it came dangerously close to feeling like a "cruise" (and I've sworn never ever to take a "cruise") - and I was grateful to know a group of individuals well and find my tribe that way. But I think it would have felt very different had I not known anyone - and I don't know how comfortable I'd have felt as a result.

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