Antarctic Expedition Cruise
Professor Molchanov, February 2005
by Robert L. Benton
Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world (or as it dubs itself, “The City at the End of the World”), lies at the tail end of the South American continental Andes mountain range. It has perhaps one of the most beautiful air approaches of any city I’ve seen, with glaciers, mountain lakes and snow-covered peaks and a one runway airport with a new and rustic wood log terminal featuring dominating high glass windows. Once on this soil, one notices that it is in every way a dusty and sprawling frontier town, the gateway to Antarctica and a bustling port city during the height of the Austral (southern) summer.
We arrived on February 1st, having flown continuously from our home in Chicago via Miami and Buenos Aires and then via Aerolineas Argentinas to Ushuaia. Perhaps to make sure that all of the passengers arrive in timely fashion given the difficulty of getting here, our expedition cruise provider, Quark Expeditions, provides one night’s lodging before the ship sails for the trip, in our case the twelve day “Classic Antarctic” voyage on the Professor Molchanov. The ship is one of four chartered by Quark; three sisters including our own, the Professor Multinovskiy and the Akademik Shokalskiy and the Orlova, a larger and somewhat more stylish ship. Ours each carry forty eight passengers and the Orlova one hundred, but all of them have the requisite numbers of zodiacs for their group to make two landings a day, weather permitting, and naturalists to guide them and to provide lectures with information on this magnificent and mostly unseen continent.
The small and rustic hotel provided is comfortable if basic and, because it is slightly out of the main part of town, offers complimentary shuttle service on an approximately hourly basis. We remembered from a previous trip here a lovely, small and intimate restaurant, run by a local family and it provided us a marvelous dinner that night, overlooking the harbor and featured two of the best specialties of the area, merluza negra, black sea bass and centolla, king crab. It hasn’t lost a step since we discovered it. The evening provided a comfortable and restful sleep to restore that lost to the short naps during the long flights the night before.
There are many different operators, ships, amenities, and levels of fares available to see this unique area. Beginning with the major cruise lines which now route their big ships through a portion of the peninsula, you can see some, albeit very little, of the fauna and the formations from the deck. There are no landings here, and one to three days constitutes the total exposure. Other companies provide larger ships with varying degrees of amenities, and at the other end are the expedition cruises where the ships are small, the amenities few, the rates less and the experiences in great depth.
The best of the companies belong to the IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tourist Operators. These follow a specific and tightly organized code of conduct designed to protect the fragile and pristine ecology of the area. Generally from high end to low, you’ll find Abercrombie and Kent, Lindblad, Oceanwide Expeditions, Polar Star, and Quark among others, and the ships range from the small (in our case, forty eight passenger), to the large, Marco Polo and Hanseatic ranging up to five hundred. In your research, investigate how many zodiacs and naturalist-guides the ships carry and remember that the IAATO code specifies no more than 100 people may be ashore at any time and most limit zodiacs to ten to twelve passengers.
Each trip needs at least four days for the Drake Passage (two in each direction) and most leave from Ushuaia, though there are some from Port Stanley, Falkland Islands and from Puntarenas, Chile. Trips begin at about ten to twelve days and depending on routes and stops, can last for two weeks or more. Some of the more in-depth trips leave from New Zealand and traverse the “back side” of the continent but can sail for nearly a month with higher rates to match.
I should also add here that Quark, and most likely others of the “expeditionary” class, offers cruises with special activities throughout the season. In Quark’s case, these include such activities as kayaking, scuba diving, and camping out in certain allowed areas. Each catalogue includes listing of the ships and cruises involving these activities, as well as highlighting those designed for families and multi-generational groups. A good travel agent or recommendation of those who have made the trip can be of excellent counsel.
Embarkation day dawned surprisingly clear and temperate but with wickedly strong winds causing whitecaps on the adjacent Beagle Channel. As the jumping-off point for the Antarctic, days here are most often cloudy and wet. We spent the day in town while our luggage departed early for the ship which had arrived in the morning. We were told that bus service to the ship would be provided both from our hotel and from a central spot downtown and we opted for the latter, winding up at the central hotel where the Orlova guests were placed, since both ships were leaving that evening. After some brief sorting out, each ship’s complement found the proper buses and were taken to their respective berths on the long pier. Ushuaia is always an interesting place during these days because a full range of expedition ships start and finish here (see following summary) and many South American cruises by the major lines also stop here for a day. Each day sees an assortment of large ships and small at the dock.
We passed the Orlova, also loading, and found our smaller ship at pier’s end, with the bow facing out toward the Beagle Channel. As might be imagined, embarkation of a ship this small (and we had forty two passengers notwithstanding our forty eight capacity) was nothing short of a breeze. Our luggage was already in our room, since we’d added the pre-sent tags at the hotel before we journeyed to town. We were in one of the larger rooms, one deck above the embarkation level. The ship only had three passenger accommodation levels, one each above and below the embarkation stairs and the other on the same level.
It’s important to recognize here the difference between an expedition ship and the more familiar cruise ship. Many, though not all, of the expedition ships are of Russian ancestry, though they are not built there (ours and her sisters were built in Finland, Orlova in Poland). They are ice-hardened (there are a few icebreakers but that’s a different level of expedition and expense) and have Russian navigation crews and the largest body of experience with this climate, but are quite spartan in terms of rooms and amenities. The categories ranged from triples and doubles with adjacent, though shared, toilet and shower facilities (all had sinks in the cabins) to upper and lower doubles with attached private toilet and shower to the one suite across from the captain with living room and bedroom. There were no elevators (Orlova did feature two of them) and the comfortable bar functioned as a lecture and gathering room as well as a library while one of our two dining rooms offered a TV set for viewing videotapes of the area. There is, of course, no reception anywhere on or around the vessel. The navigation bridge was open to all passengers at all times, except for docking (and that was only in Ushuaia at beginning and end) and when a pilot was on board (again, leaving and arriving at Ushuaia through the Beagle Channel). The bridge was one deck above the highest passenger deck. Open air viewing was on the bow, in Antarctic weather rather cold, windy and often damp.
Our passports were collected by the ship’s office, to be returned at disembarkation and processing for customs, and anyone who had valuables to store was invited to bring them to the office. There are no locks on the cabins and no safes in the rooms. The lifeboat drill was quite different from most we’ve experienced because of the weather conditions and the location in which the ship sails. Boats are covered and the passengers get their instructions in great detail, including actually getting into the boats and becoming familiar with their seating, dimensions and even starting the engines (while still in the davits) to show that they do indeed work. More important, we got a lecture and demonstration the next day on the boarding, safety and operation of the five zodiacs aboard which would be the workhorses of the trip once we reached the continent and surrounding islands. Crucial to this process was the “attendance board” at the exit to the zodiac loading deck where
passengers turn their tags from “in” to “out” by number whenever they start the excursion and reverse upon return to allow ship’s personnel a ready count to make sure all are aboard before moving to the next destination.
Precise to the minute, we cast off and moved into the Beagle Channel toward the Drake Passage. It should be explained here that the Drake Passage is “the admission ticket to Antarctica,” a body of water at the end of the continent where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet and then clash with the Southern Ocean, the body of water continuously circling Antarctica. Often rough, it is simply the only way to get to the continent for small boats and large, those that simply cruise through and provide passengers a rail from which to see this place and those that explore in depth. It can be a monster (“the Drake shakes”) or a pussycat (“the Drake lake”) and you simply don’t know from cruise to cruise. In our case, we were called together and our top naturalist-guide, Olle Carlsson, told us that we’d gotten a very confusing report. On one hand we were told there was a terrible storm, at the extreme top of the scale of gales, and if this were true, we’d have to lay up in the Beagle Channel for a full day to allow the storm to pass, thus losing a day of our trip. On the other, another report said that we might miss the storm entirely. The captain, an experienced Russian mariner, would make the decision. After what seemed to be an eternity, he decided that he felt he could exit behind the storm and we were off. He was correct, but ahead of it one of the mega-cruise ships had to abandon about five hundred passengers ashore in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, when advised to leave its mooring and head to sea to avoid major damage, returning after riding out the storm to pick up the group which had taken shelter overnight in an auditorium. Two of our sister ships experienced forty foot waves when they encountered the same storm.
The Drake was, we were told, rather mild, but some of our group suffered some discomfort in the day and a half we plowed across it. Our American doctor did a brisk business in providing free seasickness remedies, from pills to shots, and in the end we all survived rather well. There were lectures each day by our three naturalists, and an accommodating hotel staff with some wonderful meals. We ate at long tables in the two dining rooms, with whomever we wanted. Breakfast was buffet style, with hot items like eggs or pancakes, sausages, bacon, and potatoes on different days, hot and cold cereals, fruits, yogurts and toast, and of course, juices, milks, coffee and teas. Breakfast was also the time when each of us read the menus for lunch and dinner and marked what we thought we’d want of the choices available (a sound method for food management and reduction of waste). Lunch offered two entree choices, along with salad and soups, and dinner provided three alternatives, usually meat, fish or vegetable, coupled with appetizers, salad and soup. Each included desserts, of course and portions were filling but not overly large. Our chefs were European and made miracles in what had to be a very small kitchen.
After two days on the Drake Passage, our first day of arrival into the Antarctic Peninsula dawned with a great deal of palpable excitement. We were to make our very first landing at Paulet Island, home to over 100,000 breeding pairs of Adelie penguins and a large and active colony of blue-eyed shags (which most of us know as cormorants). This island, rising from a volcanic cone more than 1,158 feet high was in an iceberg alley fueled by tabular bergs broken from the Larsen, Filche and Ronne ice shelves to the south, mixed liberally with sea ice of assorted ages from one year to multi-years. Adding to the interest was the remains of a hut from the Nordenskjold Expedition in 1901-1903 where some of the members stayed for part of the winter. We saw the island and heard the rush of anchor chain and we were moored, so for the first time we donned the layers of warm clothing we brought with us and made our way to the zodiacs. Dressing from that time became an exercise routine, including long thermal underwear, warm shirts and sweaters, durable pants, a few socks and a pair of heavy rubber boots, at least shin high and most with liners, wet suit bottoms (zodiac seats tend to get splashed more than a bit), parkas, scarves, ear muffs, hats and heavy gloves. This is topped on each and all zodiac excursions by a life preserver, light and maneuverable but triggered automatically by contact with water.
Slowly and tentatively at first, we descended the stairway and grasped the arms of the assisting sailors until each zodiac had its complement and we pulled away toward shore. As we hit the shore, each of us in turn rotated our legs and stepped into the water over our ankles, but the boots kept us dry and we moved onto the rocky beach to meet our welcoming committee of penguins and assorted seals. As we looked, walked and snapped, we received one more surprise; a heavy and wet snow began to fall. It didn’t deter our walking, but it did manage to freeze up my camera battery and by the time we reached the hut, I had no ability to photograph it. Not to worry, however, because once I was back on the ship, it thawed and the rest of the trip was never a problem. This landing, as most of them, took about two hours before we retreated to the ship for the next stop. And one other crucial part of the routine-- as part of the ecologically conscious tour operators, Quark provided two large buckets of disinfectant and as we embarked from the zodiacs, each of us plunged our boots into the bucket and with brushes provided, scrubbed the bottoms and sides free of any mud and contaminants. No traces of soil could be brought from landing to landing lest we bring an infection to the tightly packed penguin colonies. It also was a relief to each of us because the odor in the colonies is quite distinct, and since we stored our boots in our cabins, the cleanliness was of great satisfaction to us as well.
After a warm and satisfying lunch on board as the ship moved on, and a chance to relax and regroup, we made our second stop at Brown’s Bluff, at the northernmost tip of the Arctic Peninsula and the continent’s mainland. In addition to another colony of Adelie penguins, we added kelp gulls, and pintado (painted) and snow petrels to our list of species viewed. The bluff rose 2,225 feet to a bluff and was studded with “lava bombs,” chunks of lava thrown there by much earlier volcanoes. After a recap of the day’s activities and the next day’s schedule, dinner brought satisfaction and a good night’s sleep.
Each day’s activities following produced more and different rock and ice formations and animals of the sea. Half Moon Island brought us our first Chinstrap penguins, so named for the distinctive stripe around their heads, Weddell and fur seals, both in the water and resting on land or on ice floes and, even more spectacular, views of whales in the waters around us, Humpbacks, and Minke whales brought here at this time by the up welling waters and millions of tons of krill, a shrimp-like shellfish which is the basal element of the Antarctic food chain for whales, penguins and seals alike.
The second landing of the second day was at Deception Island, perhaps the most interesting of the trip. Named because to most captains who couldn’t see the opening to an inviting bay, it looked merely like an island of solid rock, but to those who persevered, it provided an inlet and shelter from the choppy seas. Once the site of a Norwegian whaling station and the British Antarctic Survey’s hut, the latter evacuated in 1967 after the first eruption in modern times of the volcano, it provided the site for the famous “Polar Plunge” for all the zealous among us. Our naturalists started digging in the sand immediately at the water line and making a pool, using the sand removed to create a sheltering dike around the pool. To our surprise, the place they dug was access to a thermal spring and the pool filled with water of about eighty degrees Fahrenheit. Once full, those participating, who had worn swim suits under their clothing, stepped into the warm waters and pronounced them inviting and comfortable. A few even switched back and forth from the pool to the thirty degree waters of the bay and back, very quickly, of course. Those basking had a great time until the wind arose and started generating large and heavy waves which ultimately claimed the dike and spilled cold water into the thermal pool and everyone ran for their towels and warm clothing, but the photos proved the mettle of the “plungers” and later in the trip they received their written citations of their derring-do.
In succeeding days we met Gentoo penguins, distinguished by their orange beaks and white patches over their eyes, brown and great skuas, black-browed and giant albatrosses and many other of the Antarctic summer residents. In those areas where we couldn’t land, we made zodiac cruises around icebergs ranging from the tabular, shelf-like pieces to the phantasmagoric shapes of those sculpted by the winds and waters, many with deep green or blue colors from the air squeezed down by the relentless pressure of new snows and years of aging. Where gray or brown stripes appeared, we found that they were probably caused by volcanic eruptions, hundreds or thousands of years before and then covered with fresh layers and continuously compacted. The densities were incredible. We explored science stations long abandoned and those of more recent vintage, never disturbing any buildings, but noting the preservation that takes place in this driest and coldest of climates.
One stop of note was at Port Lockroy, a British Science Station now manned during the summer by three Brits who maintain the machinery and have preserved the station as it had been during World War II. They also receive post cards and letters which they will mail for visitors, the only working public post office on the continent. All of us mailed something, including cards to ourselves for the albums. They also had a very nice stock of souvenir items, clothing, books and tote bags and no doubt helped the station sustain itself financially. It was to close for the winter about mid-March. We sailed through the picturesque Lemaire Channel, a short and narrow stretch bordered with pack ice throughout its length, and we found that we were the first trip to manage that passage in the last three to four trips, the earlier ones finding the channel blocked by ice at both ends. We could hear the ship contacting the ice while we were in the dining room and it made for an interesting background to our meals whenever it happened.
On Wednesday, February 9th, we made our final day’s excursions in and around the continent and peninsula, in the form of zodiac excursions in the absence of good landing sites and generally facing sheer glacial walls. We were blessed with amazing pure and bright sunshine, little or no clouds (and those we saw were wonderfully photogenic) and enough whales, birds and swimming or floating penguins and seals to seal indelibly the images in our minds before we began the journey home. We watched a colony of penguins upon a high rock formation, seemingly reticent about plunging into the sea below to search for food. Suddenly we realized the reason; out of nowhere a leopard seal, a predator which makes its main meal of penguins, charged our zodiac, mouth agape, to scare us away from his source of food. It was a frightening and sobering vision. One sight of interest was a partially sunken hulk of a tanker which had caught fire with a cargo of whale oil in 1916 after filling up at a whaling station, and by scuttling the ship, the precious cargo was saved and transferred to another ship which came to its rescue. The ship, and the abandoned oil barrels stored on shore, along with other evidence of that era, stays preserved as living history for those who visit here. Those final two areas, Wilhelmina Bay and the Melchior Islands, provided a classic farewell as did a sleeping Humpback whale which allowed us to approach very near and very quietly before he took notice and with a final blow, dove below with a salute from his flukes. And with that, we began the trip back north along the Drake Passage to civilization.
As we rode the swells in the Passage, we had more lectures about this land we’d seen and the creatures we’d met. We also saw a wonderful BBC series produced by the inimitable Richard Attenborough called “Life in the Freezer,” three programs of remarkable photography chronicling life here throughout the year, but especially in the rugged winters when you might think that all was dead and quiet. Not so! And we traded stories with our fellow passengers who had become a single encompassing entity with us over the trip. With mailing and e-mail addresses in hand, we promised to exchange photos and thoughts (and have done just that) once we reached our far-away homes. Our arrival and disembarkation in Ushuaia was more than a little anti-climactic and most of us just relaxed in town before we headed off to the airport with our luggage to catch the afternoon flight to Buenos Aires. With the thoughts of Antarctica and its magic playing and replaying in our consciousness, we realized we’d taken the opportunity few people have to see a part of our world that is critical to all of us and understood by only a small percentage indeed. It was a trip we simply will not forget.
Robert L. Benton is
the Associate Publisher of Travel Today, a supplement to
Chicago Sun-Times and New York Newsday
© 2005 Robert L. Benton