I am writing these words on the boat having just sailed from volcanic Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands to commence our return journey across the Drake Passage to Argentina after 8 days exploring the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsular.
A few days ago my wife Sharron came down to the our cabin as we slowly made our way up the Neumayer Channeland said ‘Michael – you have to come on deck. This is the most amazing scenery I have ever seen’.
Now this comment was remarkable for three reasons – firstly after a lifetime in Travel as the co founder and subsequently Director of a Queens Award winning Tour Operator there are few parts of the planet that Sharron has not visited. Secondly as anyone who knows my wife will testify unlike myself she is very definitely not an extrovert or prone to great bursts of enthusiasm and exaggeration but rather just gets on with things with an occasional comment of qualified approval at best and finally I had thought exactly the same thing – ‘This is the best scenery I have ever seen’ the previous day…………….and also the day before that!
And given that I have made at least 13 visits to trek in the Himalaya including five times to the various faces of Everest and that I have always thought that the Khumbu area surrounding Everest in Nepal contained the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen that is quite something for me to be thinking but as I have discovered over the last week – Antarctica is unique! And as anyone who knows us will testify there is not much that has Sharron and myself singing from the same hymn sheet with equal enthusiasm. It is usually quite the opposite!
As a matter of fact I should have been writing these words in Albuquerque which is a tad different from Antarctica. A few weeks ago I was in Virginia and looking forward to taking the train across America to Albuquerque and meet with Sharron who was planning to visit her son Stephen for his 40th birthday celebrations – but as no special celebrations were planned she decided to postpone her visit to the end of the summer when she would hopefully have a new grandchild to fuss over and so I suggested’ Let’s go to Antarctica instead’.
This was not so far from left field as it might appear as last year I sold the travel company that we founded 31 years previously and although people occasionally ask ‘What are you going to do with the money’ there was nothing either of us wanted that we could not have afforded before and my main motivation was to give me the opportunity to spend more time on other interests. However I did say to Sharron that we should really treat ourselves to a couple of trips to somewhere we had never been and the two that jumped to mind were to Antarctica and a journey the Trans Siberian railway. Already nine months had passed and we had not got our acts and respective plans together to do either of the trips but here was an opportunity where we were both free at the same time.
And so three weeks before departure we booked. Antarctica is not cheap but as there was availability in the most expensive cabins we got a 40% late booking discount which just brought it down from very expensive to expensive. However I am now thinking it was an absolute bargain!
Sharron flew to Buenos Aires from London and myself from Washington DC via Miami and after a couple of days in Buenos Aires – one of the world’s great cities for me – we flew south to the world’s most southerly town Ushuaia on Tierra Del Fuego.
Ushuaia has a spectacular location, a real wilderness feel and one of the world’s most inclement climates (think cold, windy and wet) but it is here that the vast majority of Antarctic voyages begin because of the proximity to Antarctica – it is only a two day sailing across the infamous Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula and usually on smaller specially adapted vessels that cater for between 80 and 200 passengers – quite a contrast to the mainstream Cruise industry fixated on building ever larger liners that are floating townships with up to 5000 passengers.
Our boat was the Akademik Sergey Vavilov with 96 passengers sharing 22 nationalities, a Russian crew of around 50, a catering and housekeeping team of 10 and a specialist Expedition Crew of 12 plus two guest scientists also added to the team. The Expedition crew were all experienced Antarctic specialists – biologists, geologists, historian etc and primarily Australian or Canadian. Every day when e were not out on the Zodiacs the Expedition crew would give lectures on their specialist fields of expertise as well as talks after dinner in the evenings. A team of 70 plus and an entire boat for 96 customers for two weeks with three meals daily and a host of activities and excursions – I was already thinking maybe this was not so expensive after all!
Understandably most of our fellow travellers had booked a long time in advance and given the costs the majority ,though not by any means all, fell in the 50 – 70 age bracket. Middle aged, Middle Class, experienced travellers and with a healthy number of Aussies and Canadians there were not too many airs and graces in evidence – in short a nice enough group of people to travel with on what was inevitably an informal and casual environment.
And the boat was ideal. The Vavilov was originally built to keep track of American Nuclear submarines but has worked as an Ocean Research vessel for the past 20 years but is chartered out for Polar Cruises for half the year. The Operator Quark Expeditions was an American Tour Operator but like so many specialist Tour Operators owned by Tui, the UK’s biggest Tour Operator who were the principal under bidder when we sold Casterbridge Tours. The Expedition crew were primarily Australian and Canadian, the Russian crew from Kaliningrad (that strange enclave of Russia inside Poland) and the Catering team from all over. An eclectic mix to be sure and the Boat contained a Lounge and Bar, Comfortable Dining Room, excellent library and a small gym – the cabins are spacious, the food outstanding and we have we have wanted for nothing.
And clearly from Day one the stars have been in alignment as everything that could go right – has done so!
Our crossing of the Drake Passage was benign and although I learnt that the little patches some of our fellow passengers had affixed were to ameliorate the possible effects of sea sickness they were not really required. And although the first day off Antarctica was cloudy we had a terrific experience making our way down the Lemaire Channel breaking the ice as we inched our way forward. Thereafter we have had blue skies every day and properly kitted out (the most comfortable Wellington boots I have ever worn were issued to all of us for the voyage and a fleece and heavy duty waterproof parka supplied that are ours to keep) we have gone out twice a day with our Life Jackets on in small inflatable Zodiacs that can accommodate 10.
The crew are sticklers for properly embarking and disembarking from the Zodiacs with two people always available to assist and despite the potentially tricky transfer from the gangway at the side of the boat to the Zodiacs all went well and only one passenger had a brief ducking and the self inflating life jacket worked just fine.
Our trips on the Zodiac typically lasted around two hours if we were looking at wildlife or three hours when we landed and went ashore – once to visit the Ukrainian Vernadsky Research Station ( the only time the ice conditions allowed the Vavilov to make it to the Base this season), sometimes to visit abandoned huts but usually to get closer to the wildlife, particularly penguin colonies and to make short and easy walks to some of the most spectacular vistas it has ever been my privilege to view.
And perhaps I should put hat last statement in context. I have climbed to numerous viewpoints in the Himalaya including over 6,500 metres/21,500 ft on the eastern flanks of Everest and walked up to the summits of Kilimanjaro, Toubkal and along the Drakensberg escarpment in Africa, and spent months through most of the main ranges in the Alps but I have never seen scenery as magnificent as Antarctica. And as often as not these incredible Antarctic panoramas unfolded before us just a 30 minute stroll from wherever we landed with our friendly expedition team continually reminding us to always give the penguins right of way!
And when we were on the boat travelling between destinations the scenery that surrounded us made the Norwegian fjords and Milford Sound in New Zealand look like a boring river estuary!
The scenery was truly magnificent, (I would write awesome if it was not such an overused expression) and consistently so. I am fortunate to have travelled extensively all my life and it really does take something ‘out of the box’ to impress me but like Sharron I constantly felt that I was viewing the most spectacular scenery I had ever seen….until the next day when I felt the same all over again!
I have been trying to work out why I feel this way and my explanation is as follows.
Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder but can we accept that often the most spectacular scenery is in the high mountains where altitude and the resulting cold temperature means that accumulated snow compacts to ice, forms glaciers which are the tools that result in dramatic peaks, ridges, cornices, ice falls interspersed with glaciers. Anyone who has walked or climbed in the world’s youngest mountain ranges like the Himalaya, Alps, Andes, Alaska and Southern Alps of New Zealand will testify to the dramatic and impressive mountain scenery caused by the relatively recent work of snow and ice.
However because of its location as the world’s most southerly land mass cold temperatures are caused by latitude rather than altitude in Antarctica and this most magnificent alpine/mountain scenery is brought down to sea level. You do not have to go to altitude to see glaciation in action – it is always in front of you and quite often literally as the glaciers calve off into the sea! I have been gazing at magnificent sculpted peaks, razor sharp ridges and arêtes, dramatic cornices but some of these peaks are and ridges are barely a thousand feet high and the giant mountains are less than the height of Ben Nevis.
The scenery one sees surrounding us at sea level in Antarctica approximates to what you would find around 3,500 metres/12,000 ft in the Alps or at 5000 metres/16,500 ft in the Himalaya. And we are surrounded not only by magnificent landforms but the glaciers that are responsible for sculpting the magnificent vistas. Everywhere you look glaciers are flowing into the sea and breaking off (calving) to form the most spectacular ice bergs some of which contain brilliant hues of shimmering blues as well as the traditional white of frozen ice. So not only do we have fantastic mountains and glaciers all around us but the bays and inlets are peppered with incredibly shaped ice bergs and ice floes. And to top it off seals are plentiful often basking on floating floes and penguins are everywhere – it is an unbeatable combination and I do not apologise for being so dogmatic – this is the most magnificent scenery I have ever seen and the most impressive travel experience in a lifetime of travelling.
If I had to name my most memorable travel experience before coming to Antarctica I would perhaps nominate a trip I made with a really congenial group of clients eight years ago. We crossed the Himalaya from Nepal into Tibet and continued our trek around Holy Mount Kailas before driving across the Tibetan Plateau, the roof of the world, and then continuing our walk to the Raphu La at the foot of Everest’s rarely climbed North East Ridge. However Antarctica is something else because we have been continually immersed in the most magnificent scenery and always kept amused and fascinated by the antics of the ever curious waddling penguins whenever we go ashore.
A couple of days ago we had an experience which left the Expedition Crew reeling with excitement and.
After loading onto the Zodiacs we were about to cruise amidst the icebergs of Wilhemina Bay when we realised there were two whales close to the Vavilov and we hung around for maybe 40 minutes as the whales circled the boat. They were clearly in no hurry to go anywhere, continually approaching the three or four Zodiacs that had not departed to go further afield, surfacing to have a good look at us (I had no ideas these giant creatures were barnacle encrusted which I guess really puts the problems of teenage acne into perspective) and diving beneath our Zodiac. Our Canadian HelmsmanJohn (Flipper) was the Expedition’sLogistics Manager and commented that the eerily calm water after they dived down aside our boat was almost supernatural – in seven years of Polar expeditions he said had never been so close to a whale and assured us there sensing ability was such that even though we could not see exactly where they were beneath us they would not surface under us and tip us all out!
After almost an hour of close up whale watching (it was almost – but never quite- ‘Ho Hum – what are these whales going to do next?’) we dragged ourselves away and set off to explore some other parts of Wilhemina Bay and found ourselves about 200 metres off shore where one of many giant glaciers was flowing into the sea. And by giant I would estimate maybe a half to three quarters of a mile wide! These glaciers are really an incredible sight because as the glaciers leave the land – or rather the ice mass atop the land – the towers of ice crack and fracture and lean at crazy angles before breaking off to form ice bergs and float away.
As we hove to off the glacier one of the passengers commented ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to see some of this ice break away’ and two things happened. Flipper firstly responded ‘I think we have used up all our luck today with the whales but you can but hope’ and seconds later a tower of ice about the size of a double decker bus broke away in front of us and set off a chain reaction as parts of the glacier came crashing down until the sea in front of the glacier was just like a battlefield awash with the debris of floating ice.
And then after a 30 second delay the process restarted and chunks of ice would break off and sink down into the sea and then we witnessed one of the most amazing physical manifestations any of us have seen. Emerging out of the sea and growing ever upwards in almost slow motion was a colossal piece of ice at least the size of a three storey house which rose, tipped and floated away with all the other ice flotsam. I can only assume that the snout of the glacier was tens of metres thick and when a tower of ice broke away the process continued with that section of the glacier that was underwater which once released needed to find the right equilibrium to float and so emerged up out of the water like a released balloon before partly submerging to start life as an iceberg.
I have a degree in Geography and have explored most of the worlds diverse landforms at some time or another but nothing prepared me for the birth of an iceberg and to see nature at work so spectacularly and close up and humbled, grateful and excited we made our way back to the Vavilov hardly able to believe what we had seen andFlipperour guide and helmsman was as excited as any of us. I cannot remember how many times he said ‘unbelievable’ and we all felt pretty privileged to have had a ringside seat for a close up view of nature in action as one of only two Zodiacs who had gone to that particular glacier.
When we got back to the boat that we noticed all the other Zodiacs were congregating in an area about a quarter of a mile away from the Vavilov and Flipper asked us if we wanted to call it a day or go and check out what was going on.
We decided on the latter and what was going on was pretty unbelievable as the two whales had remained in the area and had resumed interacting as all the Zodiacs started to return. They were quite clearly playing and enjoying the company of the Zodiacs as they basked close to the surface and even allowing Annie’s (the Deputy Expeditions Leader) Zodiac to nestle up against a whale. They were close enough for people to reach out and touch as they lay basking in tandem with spout clearly visible just a few feet away from me and I quickly shot about 100 images of the whales and various Zodiacs together. Most of the Expedition crew were veterans of multiple polar seasons and all went to a great length to say that such a literally ‘in your face’ whale watching experience was not the norm.
Perhaps the most memorable comment came from Mika, the Canadian Marine Biologist who had completed seven seasons with Canada’s largest whale watching operation. Mika had proven to be that sorely sought after combination – an informative and entertaining lecturer and quite clearly conservation in general and whales in particular were the driving forces of her life. That evening she commented to me. ‘I have worked with whales for 10 years and never had an experience like that. That can never be topped and I am not sure where I can go from here. I feel like looking for another career as I will never be able to improve that experience with the whales today’
Mika was one of an expedition team of 12 that included two Marine Biologists, an ornithologist, a geologist and an Antarctic Historian and all doubled as Zodiac Guides. Together with two guest scientists doing research on Penguins they provided a comprehensive range of lectures about the Geology, Wildlife, Birdlife and History of this fascinating seventh and rarely visited continent. And as someone who has trained Tour Guides and Tour Managers and appreciates how much planning and organisation goes on out of sight to get tour groups from a to b without mishap I was well impressed with the service our expedition crew was providing and ended up thinking that our trip offered outstanding value for money considering the expertise, professionalism and indeed complete seamless operation that was provided. And the incredible weather and exceptional whale experiences we had have helped as well! The team took obvious pride in what they were doing and were all committed to the Antarctic – a continent about which I knew virtually nothing as it was the only continent on which we had not operated our own programs during the last 30 years.
So for me this trip has been in every sense a learning experience.
I have learnt about the Antarctica Commission headquartered in Buenos Aires and have been impressed at the steps our team took to practice non intrusive and non contaminating tourism. I have found time to read ‘Endurance’ Alfred Lansing’s classic account of the Shackleton Expedition and the lessons it teaches about Leadership and Survival and today we have visited Deception Island, one of the possible destinations Shackleton considered trying to reach if he could ever escape the icebound grip of the Weddell Sea.
This morning we saw one of the world’s biggest penguin colonies coating the sides of a valley stretching inland as far as we could see. At first I wondered if it was snow dusting the steep hillsides above the beach but no – it was thousands of penguins! There are penguins everywhere – surrounding the seals (including one giant elephant seal) and languishing lazily on the black volcanic beach.
And this afternoon and went ashore and hiked around the cordillera of a dormant volcano in scenery very reminiscent of the crater of Kilimanjaro! Antarctica never fails to surprise and impress and it has been a fine finale to a superlative experience.
So Antarctica has been a fantastic experience and the weather was a terrific bonus six blue sky days out of eight on the Antarctic Peninsula and the infamous Drake Passage was like a pond both ways – the kayakers went out 13 times in Antarctic waters which apparently was a record. And on a personal level I managed to read 7 books and get to the gym two or three times most days so hopefully am not putting on too much weight from the plentiful food. I can now see why the cruise was so expensive but could not fault anything – the expedition staff were friendly, patient and professional to a fault. I have never travelled with a more professional or friendly team and I have trained Tour Guides and Tour Managers in the past.
I certainly think it could be a good idea to spend some of our Casterbridge receipts on a few of these exotic trips each year although it may well be impossible to top this! We are already wondering if we can fit in a Quark trip with the same boat and expedition leaders to Greenland and/or Spitzbergen this summer!
And short term we are set for a week in Patagonia before another 10 days between Buenos Aires and at the Iguarzu Falls and frankly it does not bother a week me if it rains all the time we are in Patagonia as we cannot be disappointed after the last two weeks!
I have always counselled to be wary of the zeal of a convert, always the most enthusiastic of all. And I have become one! For years I have told people if they only do one long distance hike in their life they should walk to Everest Base Camp through the Khumbu area of Nepal via Gokyo and the 5400m/18.000 ft Cho La Pass for the superlative travel experience but now my message will be a new one.
Beg, Borrow or do whatever it takes to give yourself every chance of getting to Antarctica at some point – it is truly the world’s superlative travel experience.
© Michael Bromfield 2012