Antarctica on Quark Expedition's Ocean Diamond

by Philip Greenspun, March 2013

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For most tourists, visiting Antarctica means living on a cruise ship. This is a review of a cruise that I took in February 2013 on the Ocean Diamond, a ship operated by Quark Expeditions. The article also includes some general tips on traveling to Antarctica and taking pictures there. (See my photos)

All Antarctica cruises take tourists to the same places, so this review concentrates on what is specific to the Ocean Diamond.

Getting There

Try to arrive two days in advance in Ushuaia unless you can put everything important into a carry-on. Aerolineas Argentinas especially is prone to losing bags, which is exactly what happened to my companion with her carefully packed bag (we arrived about 24 hours prior to sailing). Marcelo, a Quark employee in the Ushuaia office, said that at least one person per trip (i.e., every 100-180 people) sails without their baggage. Despite the prevalence of this event, happening every week or so in the summer (Quark operates multiple ships), Quark does not have any consistent procedure, policy, story, or advice. Some Quark folks said "You have to buy everything in Ushuaia". Others said "You can buy everything on the ship". The Quark staff promised to check with the airline, but didn't do anything until after the bag had actually arrived.

There are some interesting hikes and sights to see in Ushuaia so my advice is to arrange your flight so as to arrive at least two days prior to the cruise and enjoy the town (best restaurant: Kaupe).

Book your internal flights and hotels within Argentina on Orbitz or Expedia; Quark Expeditions quoted me 1.5-2X the rates that were available on Orbitz/Expedia.

The Ship

The Ocean Diamond was built in 1974 as a roll-on/roll-off ferry (Wikipedia) and later rebuilt as a cruise ship for Norwegians. She is currently leased by Quark for summers in Antarctica and goes elsewhere for the rest of the year. Vladimir the Quark mechanic said "she smells like an old lady," prompting a female passenger to wrinkle her nose and respond "more like mildew." The Ocean Diamond can carry up to 180 passengers.

We traveled in a balcony suite, which is spacious but is located on the top deck and therefore rolls more. This did not seem to be a factor, though, because nearly every passenger who is prone to motion sickness became seasick, despite the fact that the initial crossing of the Drake was exceptionally tame. Even the ship's doctor fell ill. The Ocean Diamond is one of the larger ships working in Antarctica and she has stabilizers, but there is something about the Southern Ocean that makes people sick. Choose a fly-in/fly-out tour if you are prone to seasickness. (Note that one advantage of the fly-in/fly-out tours is that you depart from Chile, a vastly better organized country than Argentina. Remember that it is not an accident that Argentina has gone from the world's fourth richest country to one of the poorer ones in the past 100 years.)

The actual balcony off the suite was of limited utility due to a lack of drainage. There was always a lot of standing water on the balcony.

The ship has a comfortable dining room and a reasonably functional theater where talks can be heard and films can be seen by the entire group. Otherwise the facilities are pretty basic and the ship feels claustrophic after a few days. The gym is small and the ceiling is so low that it was impossible for me to walk on the treadmill without hitting my head (I'm 6' tall).

The Ship Staff

The crew that runs the ship, cooks the food, cleans the rooms, etc. is leased to Quark along with the ship. These are not Quark employees, in other words, and they don't do much with the Zodiacs or the landings on Antarctica. Everyone associated with the ship was friendly and generally competent.

The Food

I surveyed guests by asking "What percentage of the dishes prepared by the kitchen would you be enthusiastic about having again?" and the answers ranged from 5% (vegetarian New Yorkers) to 90% (backpackers who'd bought a last-minute ticket for about $2000), with an average of about 35%. A handful of guests reported having gotten food poisoning.

Personally I would rate the food as being similar in quality to what you would get at a buffet in a suburban Marriott hotel while the service was excellent.


The ship offers WiFi Internet and I bought $200 worth of cards so that I could send a few megabytes of photos back to family and friends, sizing them down with Picasa first. Typically, however, I was not even able to get to the gateway where I was supposed to type in a PIN number. It ended up costing about $50 and 30 minutes for each email actually sent. A crew member reported that on multiple voyages he had never gotten it to work. On the other hand, a Quark manager said that it worked well from his cabin and that he had sent hundreds of emails.

Logistics of Getting On/Off

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) regulates the number of people that can visit any particular site at one time. The limits typically range between 60 and 90. Thus on a ship as large as the Ocean Diamond, half of the ship must cruise around on Zodiacs looking for whales and seals while the other half pokes around on land. It typically took between 20 and 35 minutes of lining up to get off the ship and getting back on was slow as well due to the need to wash one's boots at one of just a handful of boot-washing stations. This is why seasoned Antartic travelers prefer smaller ships (though Quark could have cut the waiting time by dividing the passengers into boarding groups and calling each one down when the Zodiacs were ready to depart).

A typical morning or afternoon outing from the Ocean Diamond entails 30 minutes of waiting, 1.5 hours on land, 1.5 hours in a Zodiac, and 0.25 hours waiting to wash boots upon re-boarding. As the IAATO rules prohibit "peeing like a penguin" on land or "peeing like a leopard seal" in the water, you'll need 3.75 hours of bladder capacity to be an Ocean Diamond tourist.

The Quark Crew

The naturalists and scientists that came on our ship were very interesting and helpful. We learned everything about birds from Fabrice Genevois, a French marine biologist, Mark Maftei, an American ornithologist, and Nicole Trudeau, a Canadian ornithologist. Norm Lasca, a professor from University of Wisconsin, gave fascinating geology lectures.

The lower level Quark staff were solicitous of passenger comfort and oftentimes a lot of fun. Vladimir Seliverstov, the Russian who drove Zodiacs and fixed their motors, was a superb photographer and a fun guy to share meals with. Diane Erceg gave interesting talks on Antarctic history in between stints as a friendly Zodiac driver. Shanti Davis shared her marine biology expertise and remained calm after a leopard seal bit a hole in one of our Zodiac's compartments. Yukie Kopp was a lot of fun as well.

The Quark expedition leaders, however, were not as easygoing as the Zodiac drivers, guides, and scientists. David Wood ("Woody") reacted to a request for an extra 2-minute Zodiac run the same way that one would expect the captain of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier to receive a suggestion from an enlisted man to stay in port another few days. On our second day on the continent, I watched Anne Inglis (" Annie") ridicule a passenger for not following the correct procedure for getting into the Zodiac from the beach (presumably the passenger was supposed to have become an expert on the preceding day).

Outdoor Gear

Quark gives you a list of outdoor gear to bring that would suffice for a 10-day ice climbing trip in the Alps. What do you really need? You're going to be off the ship about 10 times, each time for at most 3 hours of which at most 1.5 hours is very light physical activity. So basically you need the clothing that you would take for a one-day winter hike in New England. Here's the minimum: The ship's staff will do laundry at a reasonable price.

Photo Gear

Remember to look at my photos before taking my advice!

Wildlife in Antarctica tends to be fairly approachable, so lenses longer than 300mm (full frame) are not necessary unless you are passionate about capturing seabird portraits. The most challenging aspect of Antarctic photography is the high contrast between dark rock or water and bright snow. Choose a camera whose sensor has been rated high in dynamic range by the folks over at As of 2013, sensors made by Canon and included in their professional bodies were dramatically inferior to those made by Sony and included in the full range of Sony cameras as well as in Nikon professional bodies. I took a Sony RX100 point and shoot ($600) and a Canon 5D Mark III ($3500) plus assorted L-series lenses ($don't ask!) on my Ocean Diamond trip. Despite mostly being left on "green idiot mode", the RX100 typically produced far better JPEGs than the $3500 Canon, regardless of what exposure was used on the Canon. The long lenses of the Canon were better for wildlife, of course, but I came to rely on the little Sony for scenery and also for its built-in panorama mode. It is possible that if I spent a few months in Photoshop working with the Canon RAWs that I could eventually produce some great JPEGs, but I'm not planning on living to 225 years of age.

As of 2013, probably the ideal camera for Antarctica would be the Nikon D800 with its Sony sensor and a Sony NEX as a backup/point-and-shoot (I am partial to the NEX-6). You'll have a limited opportunity to use a tripod, but a carbon fiber monopod (e.g., Manfrotto 694CX) is useful, especially when augmented by plates from Really Right Stuff.

Remember that once you get on the ship in Ushuaia there is no possibility of ordering a replacement SLR body, even for Amazon Prime customers! So it was very comforting to have my gear stowed safely in a Lowepro DryZone 200 during Zodiac rides and landings.

With a full-frame camera, I would recommend the following lenses:

Fun Fact

My companion is a corporate slave with a BlackBerry on T-Mobile. In the middle of one night near the continent her phone received four days of email. There is apparently a public GSM tower on Antarctica!


Antartica is a great trip, but the Ocean Diamond is not big or stable enough to save passengers from seasickness or claustrophobia. Therefore it is probably better to go on a ship with fewer passengers. Those looking for more luxury should consider Silversea, which offers Antarctica cruises for a similar price to Ocean Diamond's better cabins.