Antarctic Cruises suitable for passengers with limited mobility or wheelchairs
Our thanks to Yann Rashid, who provided this information. Yann works regulaly on the expedition teams who manage the shore visits in Antarctica and has first hand experience of helping wheelchair users and passengers with restricted mobility to visit Antarctica.
I am working on board as expedition leader and guide in the polar regions. Our ships are - to a certain extent - designed to allow people with limited mobility to enjoy the thrill of Polar travel as much as possible. There are elevators reach all guest decks and there are ramps/chair lifts available where needed, for example to access the lecture theatre.
For all "land" activities we use Zodiacs from the ships read dock on deck 2. Guests normally come down from the main lounge (deck 3). However, there is a "secret entrance" to the marina deck (deck 2) passing through the restaurant which is located on deck 2 for passengers who cannot manage the steps. From the marina deck, there are 4 steps that are needed to be descended in order to access the zodiac platform. If the traveller is restricted to a wheelchair it is fairly easy to lift them down those few steps. If the guest can manage a few steps there is a hand rail to help them walk and hold on.
Getting onto a zodiac is possible, but of course it depends on the weather. And what might be possible for some guests, may perhaps not be possible for others. If the conditions are calm then it should be manageable. If our guest is able to walk, even if only a little with some assistance from the crew, this makes a big difference, as opposed to a wheelchair+guest being lifted onto the zodiac. This also depends on how heavy the person is : it can be very hard for the sailors /crew to get some people in and out of a zodiac. But we always try.
The landing sites are varied. Sometimes its sandy beaches, sometimes rocks. And even if we say we go to site A, we might change it to site B at last minute, thus rendering some sites impractical for some guests even if we said otherwise to begin with.
When it comes to coming ashore, then we recommend that if a guest has limited mobility that they be the last one ashore - and occasionally if we need a dedicated zodiac to bring that guest ashore, then this may be the best option. I have often seen guests with limited mobility come ashore and even just sitting on a rock with penguins around them is an amazing experience. The vegetation / terrain might make it difficult to move much further than the shoreline but sometimes it is possible to go further. Some landing site are probably out of bounds for guests who cannot move a few metres above the shore line - for example Neko Harbour in Antarctica has a high wave risk (caused by collapsing ice features so we ask all guests to vacate the landing site as soon as they land. South Georgia is also quite rough and exposed. Even for the expedition team conditions can sometimes be tricky.
If some guests cannot make a landing, then we try to provide a zodiaccruise instead to explore some icebergs or search for wildlife, if this is logistically this is possible and does not impact the experience of all the other guests.
For zodiac excursions, if we can help for a guest with special requirements then we will, but its always tricky to juggle with the wishes of the other 199 passengers. For example, we need to take into consideration the languages of our guests and the languages of our guides. If our guest is able to get into a zodiac without a wheelchair (of course assisted) then this is best because then it is usually easy for them to join any Zodiac cruise. If they can only get in with a wheelchair then this is more tricky since we need to have a dedicated zodiac for that 1 person. This doesn't mean to say we can't do it - we do do it often, but perhaps the cruise time is limited - and not guaranteed (it takes time to strap a wheelchair into a zodiac, and perhaps we simply cannot dedicate 1 zodiac to 1 person on that day).
When our guests are ashore, then it if up to the Expedition Leader to coordinate the land activities (incoming and outgoing zodiacs, the hikes, the guide team, the safety of guests ashore etc). They have a lot to consider so it is always recommend that guests with limited mobility ask the reception/guest relation manager how a landing might work out and to coordinate with the EL if they can join, and always be active in this respect. Not to say that the expedition doesn't care about all passengers, but the truth is so many things happen on land and its easy for us to get distracted. So a little reminder, always helps!
All of this also depends a little on the guest. They really need to understand what their limitations are (this is the case actually for ALL our guests) and flexibility is key.
Many activities can be enjoyed from the ships: ship cruising between icebergs, whale watching etc.
So to cut a long story short. Yes it is possible, and almost alwways does happen, but we cannot make any guarantees.