Antarctica: Nothing Else Comes Close
An exhilarating Adventure Cruise to the Falklands, South Georgia Island and Antarctica
By Tab M Hauser
I have seen a lot and been around the world a few times visiting 45 countries on six continents.
Nothing in all the wonderful places I have been to compares a visit to the bottom of the world and the islands near it in Antarctica. I would not change anything about our 18-day voyage that left the tip of South American and cruised 3498 nautical miles round trip.
Our stops included two days in the Falklands Islands, three days at the very remote South Georgia Island and four days in Antarctica. Our journey on the 340-foot ice-rated Silversea Explorer also spent several days on the high seas (literally) between stops. As we cruised further south we were following whales and dodging icebergs.
We picked the Silversea Explorer because it is known for its five-star service (cabins come with a shared butler), gourmet food, open bar, 24-hour room service, comfortable cabins and a no tipping policy.
On board were 130 passengers and a crew of 121. This included 13 expedition leaders with expertise, degrees and advanced degrees in botany, history, marine biology, geology, photography, and Ornithology.
Two leaders had lived in Antarctica on research bases. This company specializes in luxury, and it's not cheap at $27K per person---but this is the ultimate bucket list destination!
A Mutual Sense of Adventure
We shared our voyage with people from Britain, Australia, Austria, USA, Canada and Chinese (in that order). Everyone had a mutual sense of adventure, a love for nature and willingness wake up, layering up and see beautiful things while facing the elements.
Days would start by boarding a zodiac in the swell alongside the ship. We would then be ferried to a beach for what is called a wet landing.
The zodiacs would also give tours of the small bays while our expedition leader would tell us about our surroundings.
While many may think this adventure is for the young, at 59 we were on the lower end of the age bracket. There were many couples, widows, and widowers in their mid to late 70's pushing on and embracing the elements, beauty and remoteness.
The first two stops in the Falkland Islands were New Island and West Island. On both islands, we hiked almost a mile on open fields to view rock hopping penguins and albatrosses either sitting on their nests or in some process of courtship by the sea. On New Island, we watched 100 penguins cliff dive into the waves to search for food for their mate and chick. Overhead albatrosses would swoop over us and the cliffs barely flapping their six-foot wingspan.
On our second day, we visited the capital Stanley for a tour. Stanley is a quiet outpost of England that made headlines when the Argentine government invaded it in 1982. It is still a sore topic between both countries.
Stanley offers a few shops, a good museum along with a couple of pubs to get an authentic British beer. If you are a fan of the old Range Rover Defenders, you will see all the different models dating back to 40 years.
Beautiful South Georgia Island
From Stanley, we cruised two days south-east into the Antarctica Convergence to South Georgia Island. South Georgia is an unspoiled sub-Antarctica island that is 104 miles long, up to 23 miles wide and 75% snow covered. It has an unusually long rugged coastline due to all its many narrow bays.
It is a scenic place with pointy snow covered mountains dropping down to shores teeming with wildlife. This island is well preserved having only 20 residents in Grytviken and receiving only 7000 lucky visitors annually. (Compare that with St. Thomas which can bring over 10,000 cruisers in a day!)
The Explorer made several stops over three days here. At 6:30 in the morning we boarded the zodiac to make a landing at Salisbury Plains. Here we stepped on to the beach only to mingle and view 60,000 nesting king penguins and many one year old feathered fledging's.
These birds met us at the beach with a curious look before going about their business. Later the fledglings started to set each other off with calls and running amok. (To see how happy baby penguins really dance click https://photos.app.goo.gl/QyGCT1bQqpgpEbN62 ) The colony went back a few miles until it reached a glacier.
Scattered about the beach and around the penguins were fur and elephant seals. Male elephant seals can weigh 8000 pounds with the females top out at 2000 pounds.
There were also the smaller fur seals going about their business or laying around. Occasional one would growl at us. Later that afternoon we called on the settlement of Grytviken. This is a research station that shares a bay with the ghost town of a large former whaling colony.
Here you will find a small museum and the restored southernmost church where you can pull the ropes and ring the bells. It is also the grave site of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Our visit coincided with the unveiling of a life-size bronze bust of Sir Shackleton done by expedition leader and sculpture Anthony Smith.
All about the settlement were elephant and fur seals in between ruins and some whalebones. Sorling Beach was the next day's visit. Here we hiked up a hill for the views of the snowcapped mountains, small waterfall and to see the gentoo penguins courting or nesting.
On the walk down we watched the fur seals and some pups playing and swimming in a natural pool by the beach. This bay has a three-mast former whaling boat stuck in the mud making this one of my more scenic photos taken during the voyage.
During our time here we visited four more bays on the island. Each had unique hikes to plateaus or beaches to view glaciers, mountains, and wildlife.
We ended our visit to South Georgia with a zodiac ride around the rocky shore where we spotted macaroni and chinstrap penguins.
With South Georgia off our stern and the bow heading southwest it was going to be two days at sea on the way to Antarctica. Days at sea had lectures about photography, wildlife, martini making, history, and cooking. One lecture abruptly stopped when the captain announced we had changed course to avoid a half mile long iceberg.
This was our first iceberg so all guests layered up and took to the bow to see a stunning angled piece of ice slowly come out of the fog and glow. In the middle of our second day, the captain announced another large iceberg in our path.
As we got close it looked more like an island with radar measuring it at 11 by 6 miles. Between us and the iceberg were a school of finback whales feeding. The captain learned after reporting in that we came upon iceberg "B15B". B15B is a "small piece" broken off of B15 which seventeen years ago was the world's largest iceberg.
During our pre-dinner Antarctica briefing, the expedition leader was interrupted by the bridge announcing a pod of humpback whales nearby. Nearly everyone rushed to their cabins to dress for the cold and grab their cameras and binoculars to enjoy the sighting.
For the next 45 minutes, we stared at the seas and watched mist from the blowhole break the surface followed by fin and fluke. We were treated to seeing the entire whale body at the surface as it swam slowly off our starboard side.
The White Continent
Our first stop after two days at sea was to view Elephant Island. Nearly all the guests knew of Explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and his famous failed mission but successful crew rescue. Elephant Island is where the crew gathered after leaving the ice flow they were living on.
This is where Sir Shackleton sailed a 22-foot boat with five men and crossed 800 nautical miles in one of the world's most spectacular small boat voyages to seek help.
After seeing the beach and landscape through the sleet and fog it is hard to imagine people surviving over the dark winter there. Due to the waves, shore landings are rare here.
Over the next four days, the Explorer stopped at eight different locations in Antarctica. We did five beach landings. Every landing offered something special to see. Some had us walk on beaches amongst the penguins and seals. Others had us walk through the snow over different terrain to view giant glaciers avoiding the penguin trails.
Landings usually lasted about two hours which was more than enough time to take in the area. At all the landings the leaders were around to either guide us or explain what we were seeing. Our stop at Hope Bay was the most scenic of the voyage. After landing on an icy beach we hiked up a small hill with nesting gentoo penguins for a 360-degree view of an all-white landscape that included tall mountains and icebergs in the sea.
To see the view in a 40-second video click the link: https://photos.app.goo.gl/WUeoTFJZqnVjp2oJ3
Three of other stops during our time in Antarctica included zodiac rides. In Cierva Cove we carefully went around the small icebergs. Here we witnessed the collapse of a 200-foot iceberg. Seeing it drop and roll and then hearing the crunching sounds while bits of ice were spat up was an incredible site. One of the prettiest zodiac rides took place in Mikkelson Harbour.
Under picture-perfect skies, we viewed icebergs from small to up to several hundred feet long and 50 feet high. These icebergs looked like sculptures with one had three caves worn into it. In the harbor, there was a zodiac ride for the crew. It was not uncommon for the crew to have shore leave off duty. Here they called us called us over for what we thought was an engine problem. When we threw them a line they handed back Champaign (naturally chilled given our location) and chocolate. It was a classy surprise that made the everyone laugh.
The Antarctica Plunge
Our last stop at Deception Island had us do a double landing and a scenic cruise around the large caldera. This former whaling and research station that was overrun with volcanic activity offered diverse hiking. This included a walk around the ruins, a moderate hike up the hill for the view and then a quiet three-quarter mile black sands beach walk for just the two of us.
After all the guests were back on board an announcement went out for anyone that wanted to do the Antarctica plunge. Twenty-three brave guests set out with a bathing suit under winter gear. At the beach, they stripped down and stepped lively to take a fast dip.
After the plunge they toweled up or went flat on their back in warm wet black sands that were radiating heat from the ground below just 15 feet from the 32-degree water. One man left the warm sand, ran 100 yards from the beach and did a face plant into the snow before drying up.
Know Before You Go
During our voyage we trekked in sand, mud, snow and 31-degree water getting out of the zodiac. Besides taking in the beauty of the area we racked up an impressive amount of wildlife spotted. This included a dozen types of birds, two species of whales and dolphins, three kinds of seals and five different penguins. To do this you need to be in good health, able to walk and get serious about what you bring to wear.
Preparing for this trip correctly is critical to your enjoyment. Silversea gave each guest a two piece jacket for the cruise and to take home. The outer wind and water resistant shell complete with the Silversea Expedition logo was red so we can be seen a mile away in the snow and in the water, in case we fell over.
They also sent out a list of clothes to bring. Guests that layered up using their recommendations were comfortable and dry. Those that did not were cold or paid a big premium to buy clothes on board. We recommend inner silk socks under thick winter socks as well as inner gloves to put inside winter gloves.
As a photographer, I had a medium fleece outer glove for dexterity for my right hand but threw a hot hand packet in my gloves to keep my fingers warm. (I also put one in each boot on my toes to keep them toasty.) Being layered up was important and we never felt too cold to miss anything.
On the windiest of days, we used long underwear inside fleece pants inside high-quality snow pants. (Half the days we did not need to layer up three ways) The snow pants allowed us to tuck a lower insert in the boot while the outer part went over the boot.
We rented neoprene Bogs boots through the ship that kept us warm and dry even when stepping into the icy seas on the wet landings. We added a balaclava that protected our neck and chin and allowed us to put it over our head and under our hat if we needed extra warmth.
To help add or remove layers, a complimentary backpack was given to each guest. Because of my camera equipment, I passed on using it and brought along a waterproof bag attached to shoulder strap that allowed me to keep my cameras dry on the zodiac rides to the beach.
Lastly, we were on the high seas averaging 12 to 16 feet with 27 feet across the Drake Passage (A.K.A, the Drake Shake). While not overly prone to seasickness we wore the Transderm Scop Seasickness Patch on our open ocean days as a preventative and felt fine other than a little dry mouth.
Silversea makes life on board easy and casual. There are no formal nights. There was a welcome and farewell cocktail hour and dinner with a quarter of the men wearing jackets. I wore nice pullover shirt and black jeans that worked well.
With 18 days on board and a week in Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls before the cruise, clothing space was limited. To ease the packing the ship provides at no charge the use of their two laundry machines. There is also a pricy laundry service. Food was upscale and incredible considering the chef had to provision for 18 days. (She gave a lecture on how it was done).
Breakfast was buffet style having anything for the international crowd. There was an omelet station as well as table and room service. For lunch, a premium buffet always had four main courses a carving and pasta station, salads, soup, and sandwiches. We never ate the same thing twice and many dishes had an international flavor that reflected the kitchen staff.
On the aft deck, they made incredible burgers. The chef being sensitive to food allergies would always pass the next night’s menu to anyone with a problem and ask them to choose in advance what they may like. If the three choices on each course of the four gourmet course dinner were not acceptable they could grill you a veal chop or almost anything you ask for.
Service was five star with water and wine glasses always attended to. Dinner always finished with a dessert wine or a port. A “Hot Rocks” outdoor dinner was offered nightly. Here you would dress for winter and be presented with a 10 inch super-heated stone slab where you cook what you ordered. We did this twice and enjoyed the camaraderie of others who found al fresco Antarctica dining fun.
Nightlife was quiet with a piano player in the lounge. Most people retired after dinner exhausted from getting up early. There were two lounges on board with a bar and coffee/cappuccino service starting after breakfast. For anything you needed, your butler was your go-to person.
He sometimes appeared out of nowhere and seemed to know what you needed before asking. His records showed my taste for premium rum and on the second day, a liter of seven-year aged Cuban rum appeared with ice and lime. He can confirm spa appointments, 24-hour room service as well as unpack or pack your luggage.
For information on this cruise go to www.silversea.com . This is a $27,000 per person cruise, but again, you only live once!
Tab Hauser was President of two small family businesses before selling out and embracing his passion for writing and photography. When not at his home in Glen Cove, NY he is traveling the United States and world where he visited 42 countries so far.