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Taking the Polar Plunge: Our Aquatic Antarctic Adventure

7 min read

By Craig Shaw

As my wife Amanda and I prepared for our first Antarctic expedition, the Polar Plunge was one of the things we were most excited about. But then, like any wild and crazy adventure you have time to think about in advance, it raised questions and even caused some doubt the closer our December embarkation date drew.

What if the water is so cold, we can't get out?

What if we just totally freak out and back out at the last minute?

What if, in some bizarre Jonah and the Whale moment, a massive aquatic beast somehow aspirates my frozen body into its blowhole, causing me to miss the rest of my Antarctic adventure?

Passenger Craig Shaw takes the plunge, cannonballing into frigid Antarctic waters. Photo: Amanda Wells

Ocean Endeavour passenger Craig Shaw takes the Polar Plunge with a full-on cannonball.
Photo credit: Amanda Wells

Of course, it would never happen, either, but that's beside the point when pre-adventure anxieties kick in. I'm happy to report that not only did we survive our December 2016 Polar Plunge, but it was one of the highlights of an already incredible trip.

If you're considering taking the plunge on your own trip, hopefully our experience can help you understand (and stay) committed to it.

What's a Polar Plunge and When Does It Happen on Expedition?

Also known in the northern hemisphere as a Polar Bear Plunge, this extremely invigorating activity will see you willingly throwing yourself into what is undoubtedly the coldest water you'll ever experience.

Crazy, right?

Maybe, but it's a rite of passage for expedition passengers in the Arctic and Antarctica. Is there any better way to completely and fully immerse yourself in the polar experience? I think not. And despite our ‘cold feet' as the Polar Plunge drew closer, I'm so glad we went through with it.

Many others did, too--86 of the 190 or so people onboard Ocean Endeavour took the plunge that day!

What's awesome is that you don't know quite when it's going to happen, so you don't have a lot of time to stress about it. Throughout the journey, your Expedition Leader and Captain are constantly monitoring conditions to get your group to the most interesting Zodiac cruising and shore landing sites. When the conditions and location are just right, your expedition team will plan the Plunge.

The site of Ocean Endeavour's December 7 2016 camping trip. Photo credit: Amanda Wells

For us, that day came the morning after our Antarctic camping excursion. We'd just returned to the ship at 6:30am and after a nice warm shower and a hot breakfast, Amanda and I headed up to the outer deck to take in some (surprisingly warm) Antarctic sun and shoot photos.

As we walked the decks, listening for other passengers to call out whale sightings, we heard the crackle of the P.A.: “Ladies and gentlemen, this beautiful sunshine and open water is just right for the Polar Plunge, so we're going to go ahead and get that started just as soon as we can here…”

How Do You Get Ready for the Polar Plunge?

There are some activities you'll definitely want to register for as soon as you book your trip--I'm told that kayaking, camping, and cross-country skiing tend to fill up fast. You don't have to sign up for the Polar Plunge so just make sure you've packed a swimsuit and sandals.

Amanda and I really didn't have time to overthink the Polar Plunge until we were actually getting dressed to do it. The ship became electric as we watched the expedition team circling the waters off the gangplank in Zodiacs, checking the area over (to keep the biblical, man-eating whales away, I'm sure).

You'll receive a trip map after your expedition, outlining the landing sites you visited.

When we got back to our room to change, I just remember this look of complete dread coming over Amanda. “But… but I'm WARM!” she protested. My stomach was an empty pit; I mean, I swear I felt it fall right through the floor, into the engine rooms below.

By the time we talked ourselves back into taking the plunge and made our way to the exit, we were near the end of the line. One after another, our shipmates marched out the door, each one looking more terrified than the last. But as they came in and circled back past us in the lineup, we saw that they were ecstatic!

What's the Polar Plunge Like?

As we got closer to the door, we could hear cheering from the expedition team below and passengers gathered on the upper decks. The energy changed from anxiety to exhilaration as we approached the door. Music was bumping and expedition team members gave high octane pep talks to those about to plunge themselves into this little corner of the Southern Ocean.

Passengers came back in screaming at the top of their lungs in celebration. Amanda was ready first, and I couldn't believe how she just went for it after how awful she'd felt about it back in our room!

A passenger takes the Polar Plunge from the Ocean Endeavour in Feb, 2016. Photo: Simon Bottomley

The staff did such a great job of getting us pumped up, and they take safety so seriously you know you can let go of those fears and just take the plunge. Guides in survival gear circle the area by Zodiac, while two others clip you into a harness to ensure they can pull you back in if you're overcome with cold.

So many things raced through my head as I cannonballed into that frigid ocean…

Is that a whale below me or a shadow?

What's cooler than being cool? ICE COLD.

Alright alright alright, I shouldn't have picked a cannonball as now I am 10 feet under Antarctic water.

And then I was out. I did it. We did it!

The few terrified-looking passengers left to jump high-fived me on the way past; some jogging up and down to get pumped up, others wide-eyed and completely still, clearly still trying to talk themselves into it.

Polar Plunge: The Aftermath

Camping on the 7th continent was, to that point, one of the best travel experiences either of us had ever had. While Amanda will still tell you that night we spent in bivvy bags under the Antarctic sky was her trip's defining moment, taking the Polar Plunge was mine.

Craig Shaw and Amanda Wells exploring the 7th continent, December 2016. Photo credit: Craig Shaw.

It was an unforgettable experience we shared not only with each other, but with such a diverse group of people--solo travelers, moms and daughters, other couples, groups of lifelong friends. We met people from India, Israel, Australia all over Europe and the United States on our trip.

And one by one, we literally threw ourselves into the frigid Southern Ocean and came back out energized and renewed.

My best advice, if you're on the fence about taking the Polar Plunge, is to go for it! Have fun with it, like these travelers did:

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