Sunday 31 December 2017

Silver Explorer, Day 14 - Goodbye to 2017

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
It's the last day of 2017 and I usually do some kind of list for this post - but since I'm in the middle of an expedition here, I'm going to skip that. It wasn't my greatest year for travel, anyway - or a particularly good year for many people all over the world. So let's draw a veil over all that and concentrate on the here and now.
Here, this morning, was Mikkelsen Harbour, in an island to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula. It's just a little dot of rock in the middle of a bay where huge glaciers meet the sea all around. Today the island was crusted with snow, the bare patches of rock covered in nesting Gentoo penguins (who were also busy providing their own encrustation - I haven't dwelt on this, but boy! Penguin colonies sure do stink). There were also a crabeater seal, an elephant seal and two Weddell seals who occasionally spoke to each other in their weird electronic-sounding wails and whistles.
The focal point of the island is a red-painted building called a refuge hut - though, given that the door is securely padlocked, it's moot how much refuge would be accessible. Ask the Argentinians about that - it's their flag painted on the outside.
There was also a photogenic wreck of a wooden boat, surrounded by whale bones - but what took everyone's attention was a penguin which had thought it was a good idea to climb up onto a small and very sculpted iceberg that was grounded on the beach - and then discovered that it couldn't get down again.
It dithered for ages, to our amusement, trying to summon up the courage to jump down from various points around the edge, and chickening out time after time until, finally, desperation triumphed.
Back at the ship, I hadn't even taken off my boots when whales were spotted nearby, so I dashed out on deck to watch as a couple of humpbacks circled the bay in a leisurely manner, occasionally lifting their tails (to a chorus of shutter-clicks) to dive. There was a classic seal on an ice floe too.
And then we glided away across a glassy sea to the site of our afternoon expedition, Cierva Cove where there's another (unmanned) Argentinian base but mainly a huge variety of icebergs. We got a bit distracted by a passing minke whale, and a snoozing leopard seal on a berg, but most of the time we were marvelling at the ice itself. 
Scallops, cracks, bubble grooves, caves, undercuts; luminous blue, dazzling white, dirty black, crystal clear; from clinking slush under the Zodiac to a towering mountain of an iceberg that dwarfed everything around it: all astonishing, and beautiful. And, amazingly, not even cold - though the temperature was meant to be zero, there was no wind, plus a bit of actual sunshine, and it felt warm enough to dispense with hat and gloves. So when Luke passed around a chunk of ice he'd fished out of the sea, I could feel the bubbles popping under my touch.
Unexpectedly (for us passengers) we then came across a Zodiac loaded with cheerful crew in Happy New Year hats handing out glasses of bubbles (the alcoholic sort this time) and biscuits and chocolate. Nice touch! And of course it had already been New Year's Day in New Zealand for quite some time already.

After the customary evening briefing - at the end of which someone asked about the weather forecast for our crossing of Drake Passage in a couple of days' time and got the answer "Doesn't matter: we're doing it anyway" - we headed off to dinner and found the restaurant beautifully decorated for NYE.
Balloons, streamers, glitter, hooters, hats and tiaras - and all the staff cheerfully in the mood too. The food was good (crab and Dover sole for me) and our dining companions from Canada and Australia good company. Conversation topics tonight included the Panama Canal, US customs horror stories, and bath robes. Oh, and humpback whales made a couple of appearances outside, too.

Saturday 30 December 2017

Silver Explorer, Day 13 - Seven continents, tick

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
Name-dropping: there's always a degree of one-upmanship when you're in the company of other travellers. Sometimes it's subtle, sometimes blatant, but you're never for long in ignorance of the other places they've been. Of course it can be hard to avoid when you're a bunch of strangers parked around a dining table trying to find common ground, and normally I find it more amusing than irritating (apart from that teeth-gritting skite on the Intrepid trip who defined the latter extreme). I'm always aware of how many places i haven't (yet) been, which is a bit shameful for an even incognito travel writer, so I let the others get on with it. But tonight? Tonight I boasted about scoring my perfect seven. Continents, that is: Australia, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, Africa and now, finally, Antarctica. 
I set foot on it this morning at Brown Bluff, an extinct volcano on the tip of the Peninsula where a snow-streaked bare rocky cliff rises up over 700m. Some people did a bit of a climb up onto the glacier, but I stayed at sea level, poking around on the pebbly beach ogling the Adélie penguins who have a 20,000-strong rookery there. 
Two hours passed effortlessly - well, there was some effort, but it was all to do with the preparatory dressing in five layers on my top half and three on the bottom, and then doing impossible things like bending my arms. It was minus 1.6 degrees outside today, and just a touch chilly.
The penguins didn't seem bothered, busy nesting, sitting on fluffy grey chicks, canoodling, squabbling, hooting and screeching, and rather sweetly collecting pebbles as a present for the nesting partner. Every so often there was a literal March of the Penguins, as they filed along the beach to cluster together beside the water until one of them was brave enough to leap in, followed by all the rest. Apparently there are leopard seals here for them to contend with, so there's safety in numbers.
Besides all the penguin activity, there were beautiful icebergs to admire: blue, white, transparent, sculpted and hung with icicles, small, big and gigantic. They make a constant popping noise as air bubbles break: it's very distinctive.
Our afternoon expedition was along the coast a bit at Hope Bay - aka Esperanza, as Argentina has a base here with a permanent population which includes children, astonishingly. Here we did a Zodiac cruise around the bay, getting a closer look at some lovely bergs and failing to resist the urge to take yet more penguin photos. They're so cute, and move so fast in the water, that the perfect shot is always tantalisingly tricky yet possible.
Finally there was dinner, with the Persian/US couple again, and the young SAFAs who now live in Sydney - tonight's conversation included a very old joke, a car high-jacking, Adelaide and Hurricane Irma; while the Explorer sailed past a huge variety of spectacular icebergs back up to the tip of the Peninsula and headed down the other side.

Friday 29 December 2017

Silver Explorer, Day 12 - Calving and whaling

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
This morning we arrived at Elephant Island, the final element of the Shackleton saga we've been travelling through over the last five days or so. This is where, for 135 winter days, 22 of his men lived in extreme discomfort - but also in hope. While The Boss and five others made a break for South Georgia, they sheltered under two small boats from their ship, the aptly-named Endurance (by this stage just splintered rubble under the ice back in the Weddell Sea). They lived on penguins and seals, and had their morale maintained by the indomitable Frank Wild.
Point Wild is named after him, but could also be a description, because it's nothing more than a small, low, exposed and rocky peninsula (to the right, above) much favoured by chinstrap penguins but never by any human with a choice - unfortunately, there was none for Shackleton's men. This is the only piece of flat land on the island. The what and how of their time there is unimaginable, honestly. The site is 100% hostile to humans.
There are glaciers either side, the bigger one now named Endurance and busily calving while we were anchored in the bay. Frustratingly, it was impossible to photograph because by the time the low roar of falling ice reached us, it was pretty much all over apart from a scattering of icy rubble on the water.
We were lucky to be able to do a Zodiac tour - the swell is frequently too rough for that - and, rugged up appropriately for the zero degrees temperature, had a close look at the penguins and the site of the camp. There's a bust erected there, looking bizarrely out of place. It's of Piloto Luis Pardo, the Chilean captain whose steamer finally rescued the men in August 1916. Shackleton had made three previous rescue attempts and was on board when this one succeeded, counting the men anxiously as they approached shore.
We detoured out for a closer look at our most beautiful iceberg so far, a towering mass of sculpted ice that seemed to glow blue - meaning it's made of compressed ice, that could be millions of years old.
And then we returned to the Explorer, to warmth and softness and comfort, and truly thanked our lucky stars that we were able to do just that; especially when a really big pod of fin whales - second in size only to the blue whale - appeared ahead of the ship and we got frozen to the bone trying (and pretty much failing) to get a photo of them. How luxurious, to be able to just step inside to get warm again! And then to go down to browse the restaurant's extensive lunch buffet offerings which today included an actual suckling pig.
The rest of the day? Naps, naturally - but also a couple of lectures, on photo manipulation, which was fun, and the history of the whaling industry, which was not, and must have made uncomfortable viewing for a good number of the nationalities on board. Or I hope so, at least.

Thursday 28 December 2017

Silver Explorer, Day 11 - Naps & stats

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
Overnight the wind died down and we woke to a much calmer day - just 10kph wind-speed instead of yesterday's 70+ (and the 100kph of a few days ago). The motion of the sea is much pleasanter - it's always an advantage, not to be thrown out of bed - and undeniably soporific. A common comment amongst us guests is that we've never slept so much or so soundly - like rocked-asleep babies, in fact.

It's probably also a factor that life onboard is so stress-free. There's literally nothing to do other than various forms of relaxing, which for many people (not me, natch) is a real novelty in their busy lives. It's also why sea days are so welcome, with no excursions to do, just a few lectures to attend if you're interested, meals to eat, books to read, people to chat to. 
The Captain had some excitement, though, telling us all about a huge tabular iceberg directly ahead of us that he's on first-name terms with. Bravo-15 Zulu is a piece of the world's biggest ever iceberg, B15, that calved off the Ross ice shelf in 2000, since when bits have been breaking off and causing excitement and nuisance in all sorts of places - including offshore from Timaru in 2006. B15-Z is a decent size too, about 25km long, and before it vanished into the sleety haze was lit by iceberg blink: the technical term for a glow of white light reflecting from the ice onto the low cloud above.

So since there's nothing much else to report from today, here are some statistics for this particular cruise:

Size - Silver Explorer is 6072 tons, 108m long, draught 4.4m
Previous incarnations - 8 since launch in 1989 
Purchased by Silversea - 2007 (uniquely, second-hand)
Last refurbished - 2017
Design - Ice class 1/A
Passengers Guests - 136 on this voyage (capacity 144)
Staff Crew - 116 from 23 countries
Venetian Society members (ie not Silversea virgins) - 32
Solo travellers - 13
Age range - 9 (unusually low - holiday time) to 84
Nationalities in total order - US, Australia, Switzerland, China, UK, Taiwan, Canada, Hungary, Mexico, Netherlands, Ireland, Japan, Austria, NZ, South Africa, Finland, France, Hong Kong, Singapore
Price for this Medallion Suite - USD80,200 (good grief!)

Wednesday 27 December 2017

Silver Explorer, Day 10 - Boredom, bridge and beef

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
It was a lumpy, bumpy night and I was glad to be lying in bed. We’re now heading westwards, into the prevailing wind which is blowing 70kmh-plus, and there’s a lot of noisy lurching and crashing going on as the bow plunges into the swells and the propeller at the back is lifted out of the water. Hooray (so far) for Scopoderm! There were even a couple of tabular icebergs on the horizon: huge, flat-topped chunks, broken off from the ice sheet, that you measure in kilometres.

Today there were talks to attend – another of German Wolfgang’s boring geology lectures; English Danny being slightly less boring about explorers (but a bit patronising in his manner so I didn’t bother about offending him by nodding off in the theatre); and Irish Luke being entertaining talking about his two years as a researcher on South Georgia. There was also a cocktail-judging competition going on.
Our Zodiac group had a tour of the bridge. ‘Tour’ is a bit misleading: we stood along one wall while the Captain explained about his precious paper charts, the echo-sounders, compasses and all the different screens arrayed along the control panels, safety, waste disposal and other technical stuff. He claimed himself to be the writer of emails while the real professionals sailed the ship. He also said he was CDO – that’s extreme OCD where everything must be in alphabetical order. Ol’ Piers is a bit of a card. Massive waves periodically broke over the bow, swamping the bridge windows; and we also spotted some spouts blows, though we couldn't see which whales they were.

And then there was the Venetian Society cocktail hour, for repeat Silversea guests (*cough* number 5 for us). The dress code was a bit mystifying: ‘Casually elegant’ – as opposed to the Captain’s Welcome evening, which called for us to be ‘Elegantly casual’. So I wore the same dress. There was the usual announcement of high-sailors: the top person has spent 169 nights on a Silversea vessel. Not a patch on the 700+ person on our last cruise, but still. That’s a lot of cruising (and money).
Finally we had dinner, with a special Shackleton anniversary menu (the Endurance expedition ended in 1917) that featured beef Wellington and chocolate soufflé. Ernest could only have dreamed of such deliciousness. (Though we felt slightly authenticated by our sitting on chairs chained to the restaurant floor.) Tonight's rambling conversation, with a couple from Florida, included Coronation Street, polar bears and snoring.

Tuesday 26 December 2017

Silver Explorer, Day 9 - Boxing Day

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
The plan today was to go to St Andrews Bay, famous for its colonies of 200,000+ King penguins. Those who wanted good light and fewer other people around were to be ready to be Zodiac’d ashore at 4.30am (it’s light before 3am, remember). So of course I woke at 2am, and 3am, and dozed fitfully till 4am – and then, when I reported to Reception, all kitted out and having for once remembered my life-jacket, I was told it was all off. Katabatic winds ripping down the valley made it too dangerous to load us into the Zodiacs.
So I went back to bed, and the Explorer sailed meantime to Gold Harbour, a striking bay with multiple glaciers caught between high jagged peaks and, along the beach, another very respectably-sized colony of King and Gentoo penguins – something like 50,000. Fur seals and moulting elephant seals in abundance too. It was really relaxing to wander along the warm black sand, looking and observing, waiting for money-shot photo moments, with no hassle or hurry-ups at all.
We moseyed, we sat down, we paddled in the waves, we were approached by almost-bold young penguins, we took oodles of photographs, and it was just delightful. The elephant seals roared, the penguins peeped and honked, the sun shone, the sea sparkled. I certainly didn’t feel cheated about the change of plan.

There was yet another one, though, when we got to Cooper Bay where we were meant to be given a ride along the shore, because it turned out that the conditions were unsuitable for getting us safely into the Zodiacs. Not wanting us to miss out on our only opportunity to see macaroni penguins, the Captain gave us several circuits of the bay in the ship, and we were all able to see these little cuties - and chinstrap penguins too - porpoising (proper term) through the water, incredibly quickly.
Then, as a bonus, we sailed down into Drygalski Fiord, to see the literally ice-blue glacier at the end, and passing plenty of others along the way, gleaming white in the sunshine and contrasting with the black of the sharp rocky peaks. Waterfalls were blown sideways. Calved-off icebergs floated in the water. Penguins mysteriously chose to park themselves on an icy glacier instead of the beach. And while all this bleak, hostile scenery was passing by, we were ensconced in the comfort of our cabin suite, alternately venturing out onto our veranda and then scuttling back inside to warm up again. I'm so happy our cabin suite is on the starboard side - it's been the right (ha!) side all the way.
Today we tried going to the Panorama Lounge for afternoon tea, choosing from a tea menu and having little sandwiches and cakes served on a tiered stand, along with warm scones with jam and cream. All as it should be. After that, there was a really good film about Shackleton (who else?) to watch in the theatre, with popcorn. Using original photos and movie footage combined with reconstructions, it gave a chillingly realistic picture of what those men endured, and how remarkable it was that they succeeded. I wonder about PTSD, though.
As South Georgia slipped away behind us, its spectacular and unexpected glories disappearing into the haze, we set out across the Scotia Sea towards Elephant Island, a journey of 722 nautical miles and two days. At the evening's briefing, we were warned for the first time on the journey that we were heading into 3-4 metre swells which would produce a “heaving motion” according to the Captain. I’m hoping that any heaving will be restricted to the waves.

Monday 25 December 2017

Silver Explorer, Day 8 - Christmas Day

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
I dunno. You grow up in New Zealand, having summertime Christmases with wintertime traditions, everything seeming upside down; and then for once have Christmas Day so far down south that there will be snow and icy winds – and what happens? You wake up to a sunny day with the temperature almost 12 degrees. It’s just not right.
It was, however, very pleasant – and even though it wasn’t a day of opening presents and eating too much, it was still one of my more memorable Christmas Days. We are in Grytviken, the nearest thing South Georgia has to a town, and it was open and ready to receive us. We anchored in the bay pretty much where Larsen did back in 1894 when he found it filled with “hundreds of whales”. Today, a few spouts blows had been seen, but the place is dominated by the machinery that processed 175,250 whales over 62 years (which, just to underline the carnage, is the number that passed through the land stations only – which was 10% of the total taken by factory ships).
It’s a pretty place, nevertheless: little white Norwegian church where you’re allowed to ring the bells; Post Office with its own stamps where you can send yourself a postcard (“It might arrive by Easter”); former manager’s house converted into an excellent museum; so many seals lying around that you really had to watch your step; picturesque shipwrecks around the shore; and mountains all around. 
We were taken around on two tours by enthusiastic locals, and heard, amongst a lot of really interesting stuff, that the three terriers we’d seen being walked through the village are Kiwi dogs trained by their Kiwi handlers to ferret out rats. There aren’t meant to be any there anymore, having been totally eradicated to the benefit of ground-nesting birds including the pipit, which we heard, the only songbird in the Antarctic region. (Reindeer have been eliminated, too.)
The main focus of the visit to Grytviken is the cemetery further around the shore: white-fenced with 20 or so gravestones within it, the biggest being Shackleton’s – his body facing south, towards Antarctica, breaking with the tradition of facing east. Alongside, on his right, are the ashes of Frank Wild, his right-hand man. We were supplied with glasses of wine or whisky, to drink a toast to ‘the Boss’.
Sailing away, we took a detour to visit the Nordenskold Glacier which reaches down to the sea where broken-off ‘bergy bits’ float around the edge.
Our afternoon stop was Godthul, where we went ashore for a hike, stepping over whale bone and around seal pups, some of them only a week old. We clambered up a hill through clumps of tussock, across shiny grass and peat bog, and then up sloped of broken slate, that tinkled quite melodiously. We had to detour around nesting giant petrels; and I marvelled, as ever, at the perversity of the Gentoo penguins who bypassed plenty of suitable sites to establish their rookery way up the hill.
Some went 100m further all the way to the top, but the rest of us then wandered back down, stopping off for a bit of bird-watching here and there and enjoying the golden light.

Christmas Day dinner, to satisfy the non-Europeans on board, offered roast turkey (though I couldn’t resist the lobster) and we ate with the staff captain, from Finland, and his daughter. We had an interesting conversation (did you know that it’s compulsory to learn Swedish at school in Finland?) but it made for a late night considering there’s a really early start tomorrow. Would you believe 4.30am?


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