This is what it’s like to explore Antarctica’s wilderness in a Zodiac 

written by Sahar Aman March 19, 2024

If you love adventure, there’s little that tops the thrill of zipping around Antarctic waters in a Zodiac.  

Imagine the anticipation of standing on the gangway of a ship with sheets of ice drifting in front of you, bundled up against the cold Antarctic breeze, waiting to embark on a Zodiac into the unknown. (Enter Idina Menzel singing).  

‘It’s exciting to get kitted up in the mudroom and walk down the gangway,’ says Mandy Alderson, who visited Antarctica in late 2022. ‘The crew gathers as the Zodiacs are lowered down into the water. Meanwhile, you’re lining up with the rest of the people joining you – about eight to ten people per Zodiac. There’s a real buzz of activity.’ 

Even now, while recalling her first Zodiac experience, Mandy’s joy is palpable. ‘There’s this incredible feeling, especially the first time you get off the ship. Because you’ve seen Antarctica, but now you’re really going to see it.’ 

Exploring Antarctica’s natural beauty in a Zodiac is an intimate experience. 

zodiacs being loaded

These small, motorised, inflatable boats are essential for transport and exploration in polar regions. Zodiacs can maneuver through icy waters and narrow channels alongside icebergs to reach areas inaccessible by larger ships like Intrepid’s Ocean Endeavour. 

Zodiac excursions often include shore landings and wildlife watching, with opportunities for up-close encounters with ice formations and animals such as seals, penguins and whales. 

Mandy says that sitting on the side of a Zodiac, holding onto the rope, you can’t help but feel like you’re on the adventure of a lifetime.  

The expedition crew are so well-trained, they create a balance for travellers between feeling confident (like you’ve done it a million times) and experiencing something so unreal and new.

‘You don’t feel like a passenger. You feel part of an expedition. I think that’s the magic of anything in Antarctica. You start to move away from the idea of being a tourist or traveller. You become an adventurer surrounded by other adventurers.’   

Mandy explains that you’re guided at every step by expert Intrepid expedition leaders and crew members ‘who just look the part in their red jackets.’ She adds there’s always someone on the gangway and in the Zodiac helping you get in until you’re sitting safely. 

‘You have no doubt that you’re in good hands. The expedition crew are so well-trained, they create a balance for travellers between feeling confident (like you’ve done it a million times) and experiencing something so unreal and new.’ 

Paired with another Zodiac for safety, the small boats set off, cutting through icy water towards the day’s activity, usually a landing site or a water-based excursion like whale watching. Unpredictable weather can sometimes lead to changes in the plan, but that’s part of the adventure.  

‘I think the first time we jumped into the Zodiacs, it was snowing and quite gloomy, but that just adds to it. You really feel like you’re in the elements in Antarctica,’ Mandy says.  

‘When you’re coming out of the Zodiacs for a landing they nose up to the shoreline. You’ve got these big boots on and you jump into shallow water. Again, there are people there to help you. Then you’re on land, seeing penguins and pretty much losing your mind every five seconds.’  

zodiacs making a landing

Zodiacs wait until you’re done and then pick you up to return to the ship. Sometimes, you’ll be zipping along the water. Other times, you’ll slow down completely. 

‘When you get to some parts – where there’s packed ice, for example – you’re moving super slow, in many cases almost drifting. In some destinations, the engine gets cut off entirely, and then you’re just floating in absolute stillness,’ Mandy explains. The silence is broken only by lapping water and the occasional sound of ice cracking in the distance.  

Zodiacs aren’t just about landing onshore or navigating Antarctic waters. Being out in these small boats often leads to unexpected, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  

It was literally right there. You could smell the whale and the noise was so loud that it just kind of reverberated all around you.

On Mandy’s second Zodiac expedition, the crew members heard over the radios they carry that some humpback whales had been sighted, so they made their way over. ‘We were just cruising around. Everything we’d seen had already been incredible… but seeing the whales was just mind blowing.’ 

Intrepid follows International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators guidelines in keeping 100-metres distance when whale watching, but if the whales approach your boat (and they often do), you get to enjoy the show.  

‘They’re so massive, but they move pretty quickly and silently. We’d come to the right spot and could see the whales. It was already the best moment of our lives, and then they disappeared. We’re all watching and waiting to see if they come back up.’  

Suddenly, everyone in the Zodiac heard the most incredible noise of air being expelled through a blowhole and realised the whales had come up beside them.  

‘It was literally right there,’ Mandy gestures. ‘You could smell the whale and the noise was so loud that it just kind of reverberated all around you and then the whale just drifted back down under the surface. You can’t plan for moments like that.’ 

She says that people always ask about her favourite travel destination. ‘I always say Antarctica, but I will separate it from other places I’ve visited because it’s a different experience. It sits within its own adventure space. You can’t compare it to anything else.’  

Zip through Antarctica with a small group adventure here.

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