Sailing to Antarctica on the Silver Explorer

Liz Bell follows in the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton on an expedition to Antarctica        

 “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

Shore excursion  in Cuverville, Antarctica
Shore excursion in Cuverville, Antarctica

Who could resist? These legendary words began Shackleton’s recruitment campaign for his star-crossed Antarctic expedition of 1914, and the inspirational narrative of Shackleton and his 27 men aboard the eponymous ship “Endurance” is etched forever in the psyche of exploration. My childhood imagination was fired by such epic tales of derring-do, as I pored over monochrome images of hoary, ice-rimmed heroes.  I had to go.

The anticipation for this trip is part of the whole experience; the intimate size of the Silver Explorer necessitates an early booking, about a year in advance, but the wait becomes almost as nail-bitingly exciting as the trip itself. Friendships are tested by reaction to the trip and as the departure date draws near, thoughts turn to extreme conditions described in chilling detail by generations of explorers. Christmas presents were themed along thermal lines; ex-military supply shops were contacted; rugged young men in outdoor equipment shops showed respect.  And then, of course, there is the Drake Passage. Guide books hint darkly at the dangers of this 1000km stretch of water lying between South America and Antarctica where the Antarctic Circumpolar Current powers its way unhindered from East to West.  This piece of water, however, glued 132 souls together in shipboard camaraderie; from the pre-boarding lunch where conversation edged nervously towards the elephant in the room – the Drake Passage – to our early departure from the Peninsula, we bonded over the latest prediction from the Passage Weather website; everyone was on watch. We all became expert captains, encouraged by open access to the Bridge, but Day Skipper certificates were meaningless in this seascape of shifting bergy bits and tabular icebergs the size of apartment blocks. “Is my job,” shrugged Captain Golubev modestly; it was; and he did it brilliantly.

Rumours of landfall reach fever pitch after crossing an amazingly calm Drake Lake, and yes, the Jacuzzis on deck were used. Now it was time to don rubber boots in the Mud Room and test the carefully researched and assembled kit. Ironically, by now the wind had freshened, the seas were choppy, and the skies leaden. Who would deny a frisson of adventure as we boarded the Zodiacs en route to our first wet landing at Barrientos Island in the South Shetlands.  All used clothing had already been checked for bio-security, in accordance with IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) regulations to ensure no alien material compromises the integrity of the environment. I’m sure Shackleton would have approved of such stringent measures, albeit amazed at the idea of recreational adventure compared to the “generous self-sacrifice” of his team.

Then finally, at last, an ammoniacal whiff of guano and a cacophony of squawking greets our arrival on Barrientos Island, home to gentoo and chinstrap penguins. But all is forgiven, these most loveable and comical creatures. Gregarious and garrulous, they stretch their necks skywards in raucous duets whether between spouses, or parent and child. Actions are mirrored in bonding rituals which are essential for survival. We laugh at their stone stealing for nests, admire their stoic moulting as they wait for new winter feathers, fear for the survival of the chicks, especially those hatched too late in the season to be weaned before they are stranded by sea ice, sealing their fate. We watch in horror as merciless skuas, like ugly brown harpies, harass and seize a hapless youngster. This is a master class in survival of the fittest. Even penguin parenting favours the strongest chick and we react with politically correct concern. One Zodiac group saw a four-metre leopard seal seize and devour a penguin in the water. This continent of climatic extremes, demands extremes of its indigenous wildlife.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re sorry to interrupt your lunch – there are orca whales to starboard.” Normally only 7 blasts on the siren would tear us away from lunch – but this was a showstopper! How magical to cruise up close to those leviathans, as two males with two-metre dorsal fins escort females with their young. Three cheers for all the staff who rapidly rearranged lectures and dinners to give us unmissable viewings of wildlife and scenery, such as the spectacular sunset cruise down the Lemaire Channel; here vertiginous mountains rear upwards, forming a passage so narrow which at times defies entry. Shafts of amber sunshine are a backlight to the dramatic monochrome of glaciers slithering across black volcanic rock. The water is a viscous black, littered with brash ice. “Madame, would you like hot chocolate?” Thank you, Silversea.

Zodiac landings on the Peninsula are a unique feature of expedition cruising, enabling passengers to eyeball both land and marine wildlife. As an elderly American guest, anxious to assert his credentials, assured me, “We come on cruises to learn, not to sleep.” And this is the hallmark of the Silver Explorer; the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Expedition team inspired us with their infectious passion for the White Continent, sharing their expertise and bubbling with their “can do” approach, whether driving Zodiacs, leading glacier walks or delivering lectures.

Man must surely be unique amongst species in deliberately seeking to colonise hostile environments; Port Lockroy, established as a British listening post in World War II, is a living museum with a tiny post office and gift shop. Even more evocative and spine-tingling was our visit to Base W on Detaille Island, within the Antarctic Circle at 67 degrees South. The base was suddenly abandoned in 1959 and the interior is frozen in time; underwear still hangs to dry, tins of Pearce Duff custard powder wait to be used, and Joan Collins, the world’s “most beautiful woman”, smiles from a magazine cover, forever young. As snow falls from gun-metal skies, we salute the spirit of the scientists and explorers who forged a domestic life in these conditions.

Like a temperamental diva, the austral summer reinvents herself several times a day; eerie morning fog confuses the senses, shades of grey meld into purple and lilac, then sunshine highlights distant snowy peaks or pierces the startling blue crevasses of a glacier.  Rose-pink and green algae bloom on the snow. A shy Minke Whale is astonished by the Zodiacs in Iceberg Graveyard in Pleneau Bay. Here, smaller icebergs, sculpted into phantasmagorical shapes by the relentless wind and waves, appear in every shade of the blue/green spectrum. Crabeater seals haul themselves onto a handy berg and yawn carelessly, oozing dribbles of salmon-pink krill. The serrated edges of glaciers plunge down to the sea like giant linen-fold panelling, occasionally calving with a reverberating growl and the whoosh of a tsunami. This is a photographer’s paradise, from the luminous clarity of the cloud formations to the texture and colours of the icescape.

But Drake Passage had the final say.  As sick bags were strategically placed on handrails we knew this would be a roller coaster ride.  Now through 8 metre waves, we were escorted back to Ushuaia by a succession of soaring albatrosses and, like the Ancient Mariner, I was simply in awe of these iconic birds which are at sea for around five years before making landfall to breed.  Thanks to expedition travel on Silver Explorer, who could indeed resist the magnetic attraction of these Polar waters. Ushuaia is billed as “The city at the end of the world and the beginning of the rest”. It certainly is.

Majestic views from out on deck in Antarctic Sound

Majestic views from out on deck in Antarctic Sound


Penguins having glacier fun
Penguins having glacier fun


CRUISE LINE:  Silversea

THE SHIP: Silver Explorer.  Luxury expedition ship; registered with Lloyds as highest notation 1A ice-class vessel; 132 Guests; 117 Crew;  butler service; all suites have ocean views, some with a balcony.

ITINERARY:  “Classic Antarctica” from Ushuaia to Ushuaia. ( Each cruise subject to variation en route) Barrientos Island (Aitcho Islands), South Shetland Islands, Brown Bluff, Tabarin Peninsula, Cuverville Island, Errera Channel, Port Lockroy / Jougla Point, Goudier Island. Base W, Detaille Island,  Pleneau Bay, Wilhelm Archipelago,  Neko Harbour, Andvord Bay

DURATION:  10 days

GUEST PROFILE: Truly international, from all parts of the world, English speaking, seeking the untravelled road; age 30 – 70s; all levels of physical ability but bear in mind zodiac landings; single guests welcome; not suitable for children

FACILITIES: Open-seating dining in the restaurant; Outdoor Grill on aft deck when weather permits; 24-hour room service;  bar, internet cafe, library, boutique, spa, beauty salon, fitness centre, laundry, humidor, 2 outdoor whirlpools; films available for in-suite viewing; theatre for lectures which can also be viewed in-suite

WHEN TO GO:   November – March

WHAT TO PACK:  Casual / informal dress code, no formal nights.; complimentary parka and water-resistant backpack provided; rubber boots may be rented in advance but most sizes available on board; walking pole, waterproof trousers, thermal underwear, hat, gloves, sunglasses, sunscreen, camera; binoculars available in suite.

WHAT TO BUY:  On-board boutique carries essential toiletries and limited range of warm clothing. Retail opportunity for postcards with unique stamp at Port Lockroy.  Local arts and craft shops in Ushuaia.

ALL- INCLUSIVE FARE:  Cuisine by Relais and Chateaux; complimentary wines, champagne and bar drinks; in-suite bar stocked as you wish; zodiac expeditions led by expert naturalists; gratuities included

UNIQUE SELLING POINT:  Crew to Guest ratio of nearly 1:1 ensures personal service; 8 zodiacs provide efficient transfer of guests on shore visits; comprehensive lecture programme by expert expedition team, which on this cruise included a geologist, climatologist, ornithologist, marine biologist, historian, fisheries expert and photographer.

CRUISE LINE:  Silversea, winner of several prestigious cruise line awards. Its world-wide itineraries visit both well-known and undiscovered ports.

ACCOMMODATION:  Pre- and post- cruise hotel accommodation and transfers in Buenos Aires are not included but can be arranged with Silversea. This can be extended with additional nights, or an optional land adventure to Iguazu Falls. Otherwise the Sofitel Hotel is centrally situated and extremely comfortable

PLANNING YOUR JOURNEY:  All guests embarking or disembarking in Ushuaia are required to buy the package which provides an economy class charter flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, with transfers from Ushuaia Airport to the Pier. This is regardless of whether guests actually use the package so keep this in mind if you wish to spend time in Ushuaia exploring the National Park of Tierra del Fuego.


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