We sailed from Ushuaia at 9pm on a Sunday night and headed south in fairly good weather towards the Drake Passage and then on towards Antarctica. It was a great feeling to actually be heading to the Great White Continent as the Seabourn Quest Expedition Team refer to it as.
Antarctica certainly had been high on my list for sometime and here I was on the way. The weather was kind as we transversed the Drake and with a rolling swell coming across the Southern Ocean, it was fairly smooth, although the wind picked up a little the further south we sailed and it became colder.
Seabourn Quest sailing from Ushuaia to Antarctica late February 2019... what a great feeling starting the journey across the Drake Passage
Day 1 Half Moon Island - South Shetland Islands Arriving the first morning at Half Moon Island we were in the first group off the ship at 8am. An early start to get all the clothes sorted and get to the Club to get booted up etc and on to the Zodiacs. On shore we found grumpy adolescent male fur seals and mostly Chinstrap penguins and also saw Mother Nature in action as a penguin was taken in front of us by a huge Petrel. Not pleasant but a reminder again how life's pecking order actually works - only if it wasn't such a drawn out process. All in all a great introduction to Antarctica and especially seeing the professional way the Seabourn crew and expedition team manage the process. Just fantastic- smooth precision without fuss.
Day 2 Deception Island - South Shetland Islands We sailed away late afternoon and approached Deception Island at 8pm after a misty couple of hours cruising. The sheer cliffs of the island loomed our of the foggy mist and it was a little scary I must admit. Ominous in fact. A great scene for a horror movie maybe I thought. We were having dinner in The Collonade at the rear of the ship as the Captain made the announcement we were about to enter and it was a little darker than dusk. The Quest sailed very close to the cliffs at the entrance as the other side of the entrance has rocks forcing the ship to use the narrow right hand side of the channel. We entered this active volcano crater with some trepidation and the weather worsened as soon as we were inside, visibility diminished and it was blowing strongly by 10pm. I headed up to the empty Observation lounge on deck 10 at 11.30pm to try and get a photo looking forward. The wind was blowing snow and sleet into the three huge spotlight beams that are positioned on the bow and either side of the Observation deck. It was very eerie indeed feeling the wind hit the ship and the spotlights shining forward into the choppy sea as we were sitting without anchor mostly motionless- in the crater of a live volcano I might add. An unusual experience.
So the Quest was sitting in the middle of Deception Island- first time a Seabourn ship has ever done shore operations there which they were definitely excited about, and we woke to a stunning view of fresh snow on the hills of Deception Island. We are the last shore group to go ashore today so have had a late start and wandering the ship seeing snow everywhere that was mostly washed away by the crew by 10am. But still snow on the pool deck I must say. The view of the freshly snow covered hills that totally surround us is amazing. We have moved into Whalers Bay, a small bay about a km wide, for the zodiacs to operate the shore trips and the ship is just hovering here without anchor sitting in the bay. Sitting in the observation lounge looking out across the water watching the Seabourn ‘orange’ penguins explore the island is lovely. It will be our turn soon if we can drag ourselves away from constant pastries and hot chocolate being offered up here. Lucky I have willpower!!!
Day 3 Cuverville Island
Another amazing place. We awoke to find the ship in Cuverville Island almost nudged up against a sizeable iceberg. We had a Kayak session booked and went down and got all suited up in the special rubber necked and cuff suit and special life jackets suitable for kayaking. I presume the special suits are designed to keep you alive until you are dragged from the below zero water in the event of a capsize that you cannot recover from. Of course I didn't think about the whales or the Killer whales or teh walruses or seals that might up turn my kayak... much!
We were loaded onto the Zodiac and headed off in the chilly morning across to the predetermined kayak site. Seabourn usually schedule 4 kayak sessions per day 8, 10, 12, 2pm approximately. The 10am suited me perfectly.. time for breakfast.. a leisurely look at where we are and how things are operating and time to get my mind around what I had actually signed up for. This was the first kayak session so there was some apprehension. Like anything, after you've done it once, you sound like an expert. So what was I worried about? The 'wet landings' - boarding a kayak from a zodiac. Yes we had practised aboard ship and I had sneaked back at the end of a session and tried it all again as instructed earlier p mainly because my knee was a bit dodgy so I was worried about the execution. Well I shouldn't have worried, the kayaks were all lined up on a pebbly beach amongst some inquisitive penguins. How amazing. We listened to the safety briefings that Seabourn Expedition Team are so pedantic about, and jumped in the kayaks and we were off!
How cool to be paddling around the small icebergs, seeing penguins a few feet away swimming to or from somewhere. Just gobsmakingly amazing! The first powerful moment for me was really the Deception Island experience the day before and this was the second. Here we were in Antarctica sitting in kayaks floating amongst ice and animals in this wonderful wilderness feeling very privileged to be there. I can feel the emotion just typing these words. If you have any inkling of desire to see Antarctica, just go! Go do it!! And then write and tell me bout it. They say a few thousand people see Antarctica every year, an incredibly small percentage of the population of the world. How about being one of them?
The standard daily shore excursions work around for about 75 people in each of the 5 colour groups. More cute penguins but these Gentoo penguins here have a more inquisitive nature and some come right up to you and peck gently at bright coloured objects on your pants etc or just stand quietly at your feet.
After returning to the ship, late afternoon the whales arrived and surrounded the ship. Thee were quite a few but trying to get a good tail shot was hard to do. It is really quite special to see these wonderful creatures in such numbers and in such spectacular surroundings.
Day 4 Paradise Bay
Stunning morning view of Paradise Bay from Zodiac
This is our first stop on the Antarctic mainland and we struck a lovely sunny day with not too many clouds for our arrival. How lovely to see that blue sky in such a pretty tranquil location. There was no wind and it was fantastic taking some glorious photos. You sort of get used to seeing glacier everywhere starting with Glacier Alley in Chile and now down here there are so many of them but they are always amagnificent sight.
Today was a zodiac tour day as there are no landings at Paradise Bay and we will have to wait for Neko Harbour tomorrow to stand on the mainland as such. I am told that Paradise Bay and Neko Harbour are the two usual spots cruise ships can go to on the mainland peninsula. Well Paradise Bay is aptly named I can tell you. It really was a stunning view early in the morning with the blue sky above giving beautiful light for some beautiful views and photographs.
The Zodiac headed out on the perfectly glass like water at times as whales were in the distance. It was quite exciting being on a zodiac speeding off to see whales but also a little apprehension set in as we were in a Zodiac too. But they keep a distance from the whales and this lot were having a snooze for a while but woke up later and we found some others more lively a little later. Following Zodiac tours saw a whale breach but ours was not so lucky. We headed off to the Argentinian Station - Base Brown - which is manned by military personnel that was not far away and happened upon one of the men stationed there who came out on to the jetty to wave at us. We pulled alongside and the ET member driving the Zodiac spoke a little Spanish so we were able to have a brief conversation with him and then headed off in search of more wildlife.
Day 4 - Lemaire Channel
We sailed from Paradise Bay late afternoon after securing the Zodiacs and kayaks. Most days there are four kayak expeditions and either shore excursions by Zodiac or Zodiac tours if landings are not possible. The ship appears to carry about twelve Zodiacs so it does take a little time to winch these up onto deck 5 aft or load into the marina hatch in the stern of the ship on deck 3.
Lemaire Channel is one of those places where you see ships sailing close to a rock face in a promotional picture or video on a beautiful sunny blue sky day that makes you think 'wow! I want to go there'. Well it wasn't like that this day. The Captain announced we were heading south to have a look at Lemaire once we left Paradise Bay, but as you can see from the photos, our way was blocked by large slabs of ice. We put our nose into the channel and hovered there for a while, and then slowly reversed out the way we had come, turned around slowly and sailed away. It was cold, windy and bleak on deck and the lovely footage I had seen before on a stunning Seabourn video did not match what I was looking at today. Nothing is guaranteed down here. But if you want to see that lovely video, then look below. How amazing it must have been to experience such a spectacular day on the Quest sailing the Lemaire Channel that trip. But all was not lost as were were heading to stunning Neko Harbour the next day.
Short video with spectacular footage of the Seabourn Quest in Lemaire Channel
Day 5 Neko Harbour
A lovely blue sky just made Neko Harbour a photographers dream. We also had a kayak tour booked so were very lucky to have that experience in such a beautiful place and having struck a great day. We sat in our kayaks totally silent sitting in the middle of pancake ice listening to the thundering and cracks of the glaciers as they moved and occasionally 'calved' huge pieces of ice off into the sea - causing a small tidal wash near where we were later on. The Expedition Team were always on the lookout though and a sleeping whale was spotted in the distance at one stage but we left it alone. It really was a highlight to be paddling about in a kayak even if it was a 'wet landing' as they called it where we had to board the kayaks directly from the Zodiacs. Not as hard as it sounded, but I was thankful for the training sessions on the ship where you learn the manoeuvre using a chair and a kayak on the deck.
The afternoon shore landing presented stunning views as we climbed quite high up an icy slope from the main Gentoo penguin colony below. A beautiful day it was to visit this lovely place. There were many Gentoo adults still left moulting plus we saw a large Weddell Seal sunning itself on the beach. These Gentoos were so friendly here too as they walked up and down their penguin highways. I remember panting and puffing up that hill and those rented walking poles were used for the first time and I have to say, they paid for their hire getting up and down that hill. It was quite steep and slippery so the sticks helped to keep me upright but more so on the way down I have to say where you could lose your balance quite quickly. The view from the top was magic as some of the photos will indicate and you just had to stand there and take it all in - plus snap lots of photos. Standing on that hill is one of those special moments you have down in Antarctica. As we took in the view, there was a sizeable calving of ice from a glacier right beside the colony below making some noise and causing a small wave as it fell into the sea. An amazing place indeed. Zero degrees to - 2 and no wind today and I have hardly worn gloves except occasionally in the Zodiac where the wind can bite at speed - but always four layers on though.
So when you see all the pics of the ship, it just hovers all day most days except day one I believe when we anchored, with bow thrusters and props gently going on and off all day keeping her in a safe position as well as Zodiacs coming and going from the tender platform. When the ship sails for Antarctica, apart from the 25 experienced specialist Expedition Team members that join the ship, there is an Ice Pilot - someone very experienced in ice navigation in a command position - to add to the already experienced group of navigation officers. They run extra people on watches at night I was told- and on our voyage the Ice Pilot assisted in the con of the ship overnight when the ship is moving between places with 2x senior ice experienced officers on watch and others as well as lookouts. On this trip I believe the Ice Pilot was a former Captain of a Canadian Ice Breaker. For example, one of the Senior First officers had done 5 or 6 seasons in Antarctica before and then you consider the experience of the Captain and Staff Captain- so a huge pool of experienced people are standing up there steering this ship between locations at all times. They also rotate officers from other Seabourn ships on a ice training basis so junior officers assigned to other ships that may not do the polar runs also build up experience for when they may be required for a stint on the Quest or the two new expedition ships coming online 2021/2022. I spent some time talking to various officers about procedures and safety and I can say I was really impressed by their professionalism.
Seabourn Quest at Neko Harbour with a small US research ship that came in behind us
Neko Harbor Sailway
We sailed out of Neko Harbour towards our next stop. The light in the sky was amazing as you may get some idea of from looking at the pictures below. I actually went upstairs and set my GoPro up on the Deck 10 Observation Deck handrail and took a fantastic video which I will upload here with others once I am land based again. We happened upon the fantastic iceberg floating in the sea. It was larger than it looked but the pic taken from the cabin window helps with perspective. The Captain stopped the ship and then we did a circuit of it one way and then spun around and did a circuit back the other way so everyone on board could get a good look at it from wherever they were at the time - most were at dinner.
Day 6 - Torgersen Island/Palmer Station
Last day in Antarctica and the weather was not that great after the spectacular day the day before. Being closer to the ocean, the big swells were rolling in from the bad weather in the Drake I suspect and it was even snowing mid morning. We had arrived very early and there was a large iceberg off the back of the ship and I have to say it was raining at 7am when I stood on deck at the back of the ship hoping our early (first) Zodiac tour of the day would be cancelled. A very grey day but still we were on the Zodiac at 8am off pushing through the large brash ice in our way getting to the island. Torgensen is the home of Adelie penguins - a shorter more stout variety - but still black and white. There were Elephant seals, 'crab-eater' seals also fur seals being very inquisitive and swimming around the Zodiac. About an hour or more on the Zodiac was plenty for today and back on board for breakfast and a hot tea! But I did feel sorry for those in the kayaks today managing rougher conditions and lots more brash ice than I would have liked.
Palmer Station is the smallest of the three US research bases down here in Antarctica but still very sizeable. It is manned 12 months of the year and some of our expedition team had been stationed there in recent years. A group of about ten came aboard from there for lunch and then coffee - obviously a welcome change having a ship visiting them during the summer season offering a change of menu and new faces- plus one of the ET members was stationed here some years ago. It seems Seabourn (and maybe other lines) carry some research staff and supplies down to the Antarctic when they come this way from what I was told.
And now we sail back across the Drake... The Captain had attended our daily briefing the night earlier and explained the weather in the Drake was far from good and hence that was the reason they had chosen to stay south on the Antarctic Peninsula rather than have come south earlier and worked our way north for a quick hop back over the Drake. This way by staying south he was hoping to get behind the typical weather system and we should miss most of the weather. And he was right. Yes we rocked and rolled with an at times active following sea that threw plates and glasses off tables but not the rough trip experienced by the previous cruise. Every night at 6.30pm there is an Expedition Team briefing covering the current days experience, where we are going to be the next day, weather reports and general information or presentations from Expedition Team members. Iggy and his team of 25 are consummate professionals in every way. They are a cohesive, professional team that gives you exceptional confidence in what they do and even if you have a physical limitation, Iggy and team will do their best to ensure your experience is just like any others if possible. There are a huge complement of officers and crew also performing a wonderful job to make all the guests on board have a great experience, but they will be mentioned in another article.