Take the plunge: What it’s like diving into the Antarctic Sea

written by Patrick ONeill March 14, 2018
A passenger takes the polar plunge

There’s a crackling sound coming from the ships speaker system, which usually means a message from our expedition leader, Cheli, is imminent.

Cheli, a polar expert with over 120 voyages clocked in Antarctica, is known for her dry Kiwi sense of humour and contagious personality. Usually she’ll let you know that lunch is ready, or a penguin expert is about to do a talk, or the launch order for today’s expeditions, but today her voice has an ominous tone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, today is the day. The weather conditions are finally looking favourable for everyone to do the polar plunge! Smooth seas, light winds and freezing water at Cierva Cove. Hopefully no leopard seals.”

A ship in Antarctica

Photo by Patrick O’Neill

I walk the narrow halls of the Ocean Adventurer, our ship for Intrepid’s 10-day Antarctic Explorer trip, back to my cabin, to make sure my roommate Bill, from Tallahassee, Florida, has heard the announcement. Unsurprisingly, Bill, a super-fit lawyer/athlete in his late 50s, is already dressed in his swimming shorts and is attaching his go pro to his wrist.

“It’s time to roll, Patrick, let’s do this”.


I had committed to definitely maybe possibly doing the polar plunge (jumping off a small platform on the boat and into the icy Antarctic waters) to my travel companions, but there was no way I was letting Bill go alone.

I quickly change and, dressed in our bathrobes, we head down to the ship’s mud room; this is where you get in and out of your expedition gear twice a day. It was an unusual sight to see the usual coats, beanies, gloves and gumboots traded in for shorts, swimming costumes and skin! The excitement levels, however, are more or less the same, just a little different.

Cierva Cove, Antarctica

Cierva Cove. Photo by Patrick O’Neill

I walk past the oldest passenger on the ship (I know this because she’s not shy of letting you know). She’s in her late 80s, and she’s rubbing her hands together with glee. It honestly nearly makes me cry. I join the line, sign the disclaimer (because, you know, the water is cold and the polar plunge comes with a few risks), and focus my eye on the door.


With each minute, we get closer and closer to the door. All we can hear are screams, splashes and laughter, and people return with huge grins and chattering teeth. Bill and I get to the door and turn right, then head for the gangway that leads down to the zodiacs. Except today, there’s no zodiac – just still, dark, cold, Antarctic water.

Staff about to jump into the water

Photo by Dave Merron

We’re greeted by Kevin, one of the ship’s kayak instructors; he’s wearing a pink wig and an enormous smile. Resident ship photographer, Dave Merron, has his camera gear ready to capture the moment for you. The expedition leaders do the necessary checks on the belt and rope, just in case they need to haul you back in.

Without hesitation, Bill takes the plunge! I cop a bit of splash from his ‘bomb’ into the icy water. He dog paddles for a second or two before heading back to the steps of the gangway. “Oh my gosh,” he yells in a southern accent, “You’re next!”.

A man jumps off the boat into the water

Before. Photo by Dave Merron

A swimmer resurfaces

After. Photo by Adrian Boyle

I was next. There is no turning back. After quickly putting on the belt and rope, I decide on the Band-Aid theory: let’s get this done quickly. I step on to gangway, look straight ahead at the giant glaciers in the distance, take a deep breath, and jump. That’s me in the picture at the top.


Yes, the water is cold (very cold – about two degrees celsius), but you really don’t stay in long enough to feel it, and the adrenaline in your body is ample enough to keep you warm. I open my eyes underwater and see nothing but a dark bluey green, bordering on black. It is silent. I’d like to say I had a moment down there, but I’d be lying; the experience seems to end before it begins. It’s quick, but memorable.

I swim back to the boat, grab a towel from Kevin and give him a high five. Bill and the ship’s Captain are waiting for me at the door of the mud room with a shot of vodka. Yes please! Would I do it again? Absolutely! But for most, it truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

A man in a santa costume

Santa before. Photo by Adrian Boyle

A passenger emerges from the water

Santa after. Photo by Dave Merron

A few tips on getting the most out of your polar plunge:

  • Don’t overthink it. Just do it.
  • If you’re taking a GoPro, make sure it’s tightly secured. MANY plungers have dropped their cameras when they hit the water because it’s So. Dang. Cold.
  • Put a bit of flair into your jump! There’ll be a photographer documenting it for you, so add your own bomb/belly-flop/diving style (even if it makes you feel like a bit of a dill when you’re doing it)
  • Did we mention just doing it? You’ll kick yourself if you don’t.

Tempted to take the polar plunge? On an Intrepid Antarctic voyage, you’ll also kayak between icebergs, see penguins and whales, and have the adventure of a lifetime. Check out our range of Antarctic experiences here

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