What would it be like to kayak in Antarctica? Aqua Bound Ambassador and pro kayaker, David Horkan, knows first-hand. He works as a guide for an expedition cruise ship company that takes their guests there.
What It’s Like to be a Kayak Guide in Antarctica
For an average trip, “I will meet the guests for the first time when I get on the ship in Ushuaia [at the southern tip of Argentina], said David. “They’ll be on a 10-day trip. Hopefully we’ll get 5 or 6 kayak outings in.”
Some trips offer a chance for every guest to kayak—up to 150 guests. On these, the guides face the challenge of preparing and taking out a new set of people on each trip. On other cruises David will take out the same group of people for multiple trips.
Any guest who chooses to kayak is expected to have a certain amount of kayaking experience, as the Antarctic conditions are challenging.
“We work in quite tight perimeters in terms of weather and other factors. And we always have a Zodiac with us for safety—a large speedboat. If we need to get off the water and get back to the ship we can do that. That does happen quite a bit as the weather changes very fast down there,” David said.
He also explained that Antarctica has extremely strict rules about on-land activity. There’s no eating, drinking or toileting allowed. All on-land expeditions must go to a specific site. This is all for biosecurity, that nothing foreign is introduced to the environment.
“When we talk about expeditions in Antarctica, for the most part it’s always from a ship. There might be some overland expeditions, but they’d be very specific and very expensive.”
The Antarctica Kayaking Experience
From the cruise ship, while most of the guests prepare for the on-land experience to see penguins and walk on our planet’s southern-most continent, a small group will prepare to sea kayak.
An hour or two on the water will hopefully include sightings of whales, other marine wildlife and icebergs. “It’s an amazing way to see this part of the world. You get to go to incredible places with names like Paradise Bay,” said David.
Several whale species frequent the Antarctic summer waters
Humpback, blue, minke and killer whales all travel through these waters. He remembers one afternoon when he was out with a kayak group: “Within a couple of minutes we had a minke whale and a humpback within a hundred meters of the kayaks.”
He also commented on the quiet. “You’ll have days with absolutely no wind. All you’ll hear is either the blow of a whale or a cravasse imploded somewhere or a glacier calving.”
David’s work as a regular guide instead of a kayak guide on one trip helped him see the huge advantage of kayaking on these trips over other excursions.
“There’s no noise because there’s no engine,” he said. “You’re master of your own craft a little bit, so you can go off within a reasonable distance of the group. You can sit in complete silence and enjoy…and then you don’t know what’s going to appear. There might be only 10 people in the group and then a whale appears, whereas in the general group there might be 50 people in Zodiacs.
“You’ll also have penguins swimming around you. The atmosphere, the animals you’re seeing and the proximity to them is very cool.
Antarctica is home to several penguin species, too
“You get an understanding of the ecosystem, too. Without the ice you don’t have the algae, without the algae you don’t have the krill, which is the basis of the ecosystem there. Without krill there’s no penguins, there’s no humpback whales or leopard seals. The whole life cycle is dependent on the ice. The warming isn’t as imminent as in the Arctic, but you do get a better grasp of it.”
He continued, “It’s also amazing to be there in small boats when you think of the explorers who were there 100-120 years ago. When things went wrong and they had to escape in these small life boats that weren’t much bigger than a kayak—it’s incredible to think about.”
David Horkan shows some of Antarctica's spectacular scenery
Logistics for a trip like this
David instructs his kayak guests to wrap up well in layers, and stay dry in the kayak if at all possible. “Sea water freezes at -1.8º C (just under 29º F) so we’re kayaking in waters that are just above freezing. Getting wet is not a good thing to do. We often use Pogies [like mittens] on the paddle, to keep their hands warm and dry.”
The air temps can vary widely day by day. He kayaked one day a few years ago when it was 18º C (64º F), the highest on record. Sunshine and no wind can feel warm, but if clouds roll in or the wind picks up it’ll feel colder very quickly.
He has surprised many guests by advising them to take their gloves off. “Gloves are counterproductive. If your fingers are spread apart that means your blood has to go up each one and try to keep it warm. When you keep your fingers together on the paddle it’s more effective and feels better. People don’t believe me, but it usually is the case.”
He explained that the paddling itself isn’t necessarily challenging, but extra caution is needed if they’re in lots of floating ice (called brash ice). He’ll keep his group tighter together, and warn them not to let their kayak run up on a piece of ice (it can make it unstable). If group members need help, it would take him or the Zodiac longer to reach them.
The water temperature in Antarctica hovers just above freezing
They’re also careful around ice bergs and glaciers. The rule is to stay twice their height away from them. “Icebergs roll quite often, we see them rolling all the time. And glaciers calve and can either send ice flying or can send a wave.”
David has been paddling most of his life in multiple disciplines and environments, starting in his native Ireland. He’s kayaked all over the world including Chile, Canada, the US, Australia and most of Europe.
David runs Paddle & Pedal Atlantic Adventures in Ballina, Ireland. Most of their work involves introducing people to kayak through tours and courses, including special sessions for kids. The west coast of Ireland where they’re located demands a high level of kayaking skill due to its exposure to the North Atlantic with its storms and waves. So they bring their tours on the estuary and some local lakes.
Besides his work with Paddle & Pedal and his fill-in guiding in Antarctica, David spends a good part of his free time on lengthy kayak expeditions. These could be a multi-day paddle along his west coast, around Ireland itself, around Vancouver Island and other beautiful places.
Professional Kayaker and Aqua Bound Ambassador, David Horkan
What brought him to Antarctica? He was in the US on a cycling tour down the coast of California. A storm holed him up for a few days, so he bought the book Endurance to keep him occupied. The story of Shackleton’s famous Antarctic expedition, the shipwreck, and the crew’s 20-month fight for survival inspired him to want to go there himself.
After a few phone calls and emails, he sent his resume to a friend who had the right connections. A few weeks later he was invited to work as a kayak guide for a ship heading down…5 days later! He quickly made the necessary arrangements, and has been filling in for this company a few times a season ever since.
If you’re interested in an Antarctica kayak adventure, check out the cruise line he works for: Ocean Wide Expeditions, a Netherlands-based company.
You can connect with David Horkan through Paddle & Pedal or learn more about him on David Horkan Kayaking. You can also follow him on Instagram.
(All photos courtesy of David Horkan)
Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]
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