Go with the floe in Antarctica

SAILING through the narrows of Neptune’s Bellows into the flooded crater of a volcano to find a vast ice sheet ahead, Captain Alexander Golubev did what any self-respecting captain of an ice-strengthened expedition ship would.

He gently rammed the Silver Explorer deep into the solid ice paddock, then stopped so guests could disembark. The moment on Deception Island marked a turning point in an extraordinary voyage to Antarctica. The passage across the notorious Drake Passage from Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina had been bleak, with grey skies, icy winds and seas strong enough to keep many queasy guests in their cabins. Sighting huge tabular icebergs and a landing by Zodiacs on Aitcho Barrientos Island to see the first of what would be thousands of gentoo, chinstrap and adelie penguins had cheered the mood, but the next expedition landing was cancelled on safety grounds. Then everything changed. As is the case with expedition cruising you have to be flexible, and the unscheduled decision to instead head to horseshoe-shaped Deception Island really did appear to change everything. Gliding into the ice sheet in the remote crater island without a sign of human habitation got the adrenalin flowing. Then, after guides had checked the ice, guests were carefully escorted off for a walk on the ice sheet around the ship to take in the moment and snap a few photos. Once we reversed out of the ice, a second unscheduled landing on the same island allowed views of an abandoned whaling station, thousands more penguins unconcerned by human visitors, and a climb up the crater ramparts to Neptune’s Window for views out to the sea. The thrill of the day was echoed in the excited chatter over dinner that night and set the scene for the next few days. The weather cleared to blue cloudless skies, the wind dropped, the seas calmed to reflective pools and wildlife from humpback and minke whales to leopard, crabeater and Weddell seals were sighted. And, for the most part, there was not a sign of other humans – just glorious Antarctic wilderness in near 24-hour summer daylight where a walk up a snow-covered hill was warm enough to strip down to a T-shirt. The cruise aboard Silverseas’ expedition ship Silver Explorer generally included multiple Zodiac landings or Zodiac cruises taking in coastlines and icebergs each day – always a thrill to zoom about in the hardy part-inflatable landing craft. Stops such as Cuverville Island, Neko Harbour, Goudier Island, Paradise Bay, Pleneau Island and Cierva Cove all had their share of wonder as we rugged up, took to the Zodiacs and embraced Antarctica. While it was an Antarctic expedition, it was in the style polar pioneers might find hard to recognise. Silversea is a multi-award-winning ultra-luxury cruise line and Silver Explorer does not skimp on comforts. All suites and staterooms have ocean views, all with butlers as well as room stewards, and touches from designer toiletries and bottomless mini bar to a pillow menu. With a maximum 132 guests and 122 crew, the service levels are superb – my butler regularly cleaned my shoes, my spare sunnies and reading glasses and even my suitcase without being asked while I was busy on Zodiac excursions. The drinks are complimentary and there are no gratuities so you know the cost up-front, and they even supply a heavy-duty red parka to ensure all guests are adequately clothed and easy to identify in the snow. The service level extends to the dozen expedition guides, each an expert in areas from marine biology to glaciers, whose lectures in the ship’s theatre added education to adventure. Two whirlpools on the sundeck meant you could relax, drink in hand, in hot water while admiring glaciers and icebergs, and the five-course gourmet dinners in the restaurant were paired with wines. Other facilities on the 108m ship include a spa, outdoor grill as a lunch option, two observation lounges including a bar area with entertainment, beauty salon – all in all, an easy ship to return to after a day’s exploring. However, a trip to Antarctica is about ice adventures, landscapes, and even being thankful for gravity – at the bottom of the world you don’t want to fall off. Captain Golubev and expedition leader Conrad Combrink – both with the mix of competence and confidence you want in the wilderness – charted an unforgettable journey for all on board, sailing 1791 nautical miles, or the equivalent distance of Sydney to Darwin. From sailing through the spectacular Lemaire Channel and the fjord-like Peltier Channel to spotting wildlife and finding ideal landing spots under blue skies, they turned on a genuine adventure, always with safety at the forefront. In half a dozen days we made about a dozen landings or extended Zodiac sightseeing cruises, including visits to a British and a Ukrainian base. About 25,000 tourists visit Antarctica each year but cruise ship operators such as Silversea, who are members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, keep in touch to try to avoid each other in the wilderness, to preserve the sense of splendid isolation. Silver Explorer staff also oversee a careful program to ensure all boots are cleaned before and after landings to avoid any contamination –  you can hire gumboots or bring your own and you’ll need waterproof pants for climbing out of Zodiacs in shallow-water landings. Of many highlights, three are seared in the brain: landing at Petermann Island and climbing a hill to find a sheltered bay full of icebergs in a still sea under brilliant blue skies; a Zodiac ride through the eerie Iceberg Graveyard, where trapped icebergs erode into artistic shapes as their ancient air pockets burst while seals bask; and a stop at a British base where for once there was another ship at anchor, just outside an ice sheet. Captain Golubev motored past him and yet again gently rammed the Explorer deep into the solid ice sheet so we could simply walk off to go to visit the base. On a cold continent, that was just plain cool. — The writer was a guest of Silversea. — Go2 – ANTARCTICA Silver Explorer is offering two Classic Antarctica voyages, departing December 2 and 12. Round-trip from Ushuaia, this itinerary navigates Drake Passage to spend five days exploring the Antarctic Peninsula, with highlights such as Brown Bluff, the Lemaire Channel, the Weddell Sea and Cuverville Island. Fares start at $11,500 a person, twin share, including a charter flight between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia. All meals, wines, champagne, spirits and gratuities are included in the cruise fare. More: Ph 1300 306 872 or see silversea.com/expeditions  

Originally published as Go with the floe in Antarctica

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