In case you’ve missed it, I’m covering our Silversea Antarctic voyage as if it were a five-course dining experience. Late for our meal together? Pull up a seat at the table. Here’s what you’ve missed so far …
Our Intermezzo was one delicious morsel, so much so that we savored the taste, which was shaken not stirred, for nearly 48 hours. After having departed the Falkland Islands on Wednesday at around noon we began to see the first signs of Antarctica at around 10 a.m. Friday.
The first signs? Icebergs, objects of floating bluish beauty, detached from land, tabular chunks of ice larger than mansions. I stepped out on my balcony and poised my camera. On some, penguins dotted a blanket of snow that was hitching a ride. Land ho!
Our plan for this afternoon: We will anchor somewhere off the Antarctic Peninsula, which juts out like the Grinch’s finger (albeit white instead of green) into the Drake Passage. The expedition team will ready the Zodiacs and prepare to rotate all 204 guests ashore. Our anchorage will be just off Half Moon Island, situated in the South Shetland Islands. With temperatures just below freezing, the sun is bright and Half Moon Island, and all of the surroundings within our view, is glistening, as beautiful and as white as the sparkly smile in those cheesy toothpaste commercials.
Guests are divided into six color groups. The groups are rotated ashore so that at any one time, there are no more than 100 guests ashore, in keeping with the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty. Unlike getting on a tender to go ashore on a Caribbean island, getting on a Zodiac to set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula requires some preparation. First, empty your bladder. Next, empty it again. There are no bathrooms ashore, and getting back to the ship takes time, not to mention that the Zodiac can make for a bumpy, bladder-unfriendly ride.
Next, layer. Starting from the bottom, a single pair of socks will do. Your rubber boots (which Silversea provides at no additional cost) will keep your feet dry and warm during the 90 minutes or so that you’ll be ashore. Next, don your silky long underwear, top and bottom, followed by snow pants or waterproof pants. Add another warm layer for your torso, then finish off with the parka that Silversea provides (and which you can take home with you at no additional charge). Top your noggin with a warm hat that fits snug so that the wind does not blow it off. Add a buff to cover your chin, and have a warm pair of gloves handy. Apply sunscreen to any exposed areas, and grab your life vest (not the big orange life vest but the thin one that Silversea provides, designed for Zodiacs).
As for gloves, I prefer thinner gloves that will allow me to operate my camera, although I do pack a thick pair of gloves in my backpack, just in case my digits get too cold.
Speaking of the backpack (which Silversea also provides), you’ll want to stow your camera gear inside. The backpack is water-resistant, not waterproof, so it’s a good idea to pack anything that you do not want to get wet in a waterproof bag. The reason is that the Zodiacs are prone to sea spray that can dump quite a bit of water on passengers, especially those sitting up front. Being up front, however, also allows for the best photos, so it’s a trade off between possibly getting wet and getting unobstructed photos.
You can find much of your gear at an outfitter like REI. As for cameras, we brought a pair of GoPro Hero 7 Blacks, which have the added advantage in that they can be submerged for underwater video. The GoPros were great for the underwater shots and also for video time-lapses. Not so great for photos, though. For photos, we brought two Panasonic mirrorless DSLRs with both wide and telephotos lenses, and important if you plan to shoot video, variable neutral density filters. We packed a tripod but never used it. My advice? Leave the tripod at home.
The videos in this post were shot with a Panasonic Lumix GH5 sporting a Panasonic Lumix GX Vario 35-100mm f/2.8 II POWER O.I.S. lens. That’s a mouthful, but the name says a lot. The upper end of the range (100mm) allowed me to shoot wildlife while keeping a respectable difference, while the f/2.8 is what photographers refer to as a “fast lens” in that the aperture opens wide enough to let in sufficient light. The ND filter, which is like sunglasses for your lens, allowed me to open up the aperture (this is not a photography lesson so I will leave it at that).
Your equipment and any clothing that you plan to wear ashore will go through a biosecurity check to make sure that you are not introducing new plant species to Antarctica.
Now that you’re dressed, packed, biochecked and your group color has been called, it’s time to head down to the mudroom. Carry your boots with you. On subsequent landings, your boots will be in the mudroom. What do you wear to and from the mudroom? I brought Keen Aruba II slide-on sandals. They were perfect because encumbered with all of my gear, I did not have to bend down to unlace them. They simply slid on and slid off. Out of the sandals and into my rubber boots. Easy peasy.
One last thing: Button up your parka. You’re going ashore for the main course of our five-course menu. Welcome to the White Continent.
Congratulations! You’ve survived your first few challenges. You’ve endured the Drake Passage, you’ve properly dressed yourself, and you’ve made it into the Zodiac. Our first stop is Half Moon Island, about a 10-minute Zodiac adventure from Silver Cloud.
The excitement builds as the Zodiac zips away from the ship. The wind in your face is cold and refreshing. Keep a sharp eye. You may see penguins launching themselves out of the water, briefly flying above the sea. As you approach the shore, the expedition team will be there waiting for you. Before you get out of the Zodiac, they’ll brief you on what to do next and when to be back for the return to the ship. You don’t want to be late, although it’s not likely that the ship would sail without you.
When exiting the Zodiac, one by one, slide to the front and swing your legs toward the back of the Zodiac. Lower your feet into the water. Take a moment to appreciate the height of those rubber boots, which keeps the water from breeching onto your feet. Take off your life vest and leave it in the designated area. You’ll pick one up on the return trip.
You’ll see staked flags marking the trails. The expedition leaders came out earlier to mark trails that will take you to penguin rookeries and other sites – and keep you out of any crevasses. Always stay five meters away from the wildlife, and give penguins the right of way. You’ll see what is called the “Penguin Highway,” where these comical creatures have padded a path between the shore and their nests. Allow them safe passage.
It’s okay to lay on your belly to photograph the penguins, provided that you’re five meters away and not blocking the Penguin Highway. That’s exactly what I did to get the video below.
Comical chinstrap penguins are sometimes referred to as bobbies because their markings look similar to those of British cops wearing their custodian helmets with straps. I, however, think of chinstraps penguins as Charlie Chaplin characters. Waddle, waddle, hop. They make me smile.
Weddell Seal, Wait For That Cute Yawn
Tuckered from diving. Weddell seals can dive as deep as 2,000 feet below the frigid Antarctic waters and stay submerged for 45 minutes while foraging for food. This one is taking a well-deserved nap.
Mother Seal & Baby Cub
Even expedition leaders said this was a rare site, a mother seal nursing her pup. Among the advantages of cruising Antarctica in November, early spring down here, are experience like this one.
As with any main course, there are conversations around the table, so I turn now to my traveling companion Tamera Trexler, who gives the female perspective about our Antarctic voyage. Let’s listen to Tamera for a few minutes.
She tells us that the first female to set foot on Antarctica was the Danish explorer Caroline Mikkelsen. She made her mark in history in 1935. In the decades since, women explorers followed in Mikkelsen’s footsteps, although the White Continent was primarily a man’s world.
Times have changed. On the Silver Cloud, more than half of the 23 members on expedition team were women. Their roles included Zodiac piloting, kayak guiding, naturalists, marine biologists, anthropologists, multi-linguists and historians. They are indeed a remarkable group of women, and when they are not guiding and supporting the Antarctic excursions they are guiding ecotours; acting as first mates on sailing yachts; pursuing higher education degrees; whitewater rafting; leading “swim with whales” tours; diving instructors; deckhands; traveling the world; marine conservationists; North Pole dog sledding; climbing; working on barrier reefs; researching; glacier walking; first aid instructors; educating youth in developing countries; restoring habitats; and helping others. To be in the company of these women and to share an expedition cruise to Antarctica with them was one of the highlights. These women are truly inspiring.
I admired all the expedition team members, men and women. To spend 12 days on an expedition cruise with them was such an incredible experience. In talking with them, I learned so much on ship and shore as well as during their lectures and dining with them. They all took time to answer questions, educate, share their research and adventures, and their passion for the natural world.
Tamera will have more to say about the expedition team and about solo female travelers on expedition cruises in a future post. For now, I’m going to leave you with a slideshow of our first day ashore, at Half Moon Island. Next week, I’ll share a bit more about our main course, because like any good meal, Antarctica is a filling and immensely satisfying one.