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 five-course dining experience is about to come to an end, my friend. I hope you’re as satiated as I am on the delicious morsels that have been set before us. Silversea sure serves up a good meal. After our time here at the table, however, it would be sad to rise and part ways so suddenly. May I suggest a cheese plate so that we can sit a bit longer? And as with any good cheese plate, of course, we need a glass of port wine. Waiter.
When I last left you we were about to cross the Drake Passage, for the second time. The first time got us to Antarctica. Now it was time to return to South America for our flights home. Would the Drake be kinder to us on the way back? I asked this question just as we were finishing our last course. The answer: not so much. The Drake churned, turned, tossed and kicked like an angry child. One bumpy ride is a right of passage. But two. I’m beginning to feel like the late Rodney Dangerfield, “I don’t get no respect.”
Let’s take just a moment to reflect on Dangerfield. I was nine years old when the comedian was a last-minute replacement for another act on The Ed Sullivan Show. Oh yes, we all remember Ed, don’t we? The year was 1967, and the then-unknown Dangerfield was a surprise hit. He returned to make frequent appearances on the show as well as The Dean Martin Show and The Tonight Show. One of Dangerfield’s jokes spawned a phrase that he was identified with for decades to follow. “I walked into a bar the other day and ordered a drink,” the comedian said. “The bartender says, ‘I can’t serve you.” I said, ‘Why not? I’m over 21.” He said, ‘You’re just too ugly.’ I said as always, ‘Boy I tell you, I get no respect around here.'”
Our Drake Passage crossing back to Ushuaia was just as bumpy as the ride down. The motion didn’t keep us from getting out and enjoying the ship, though. Tamera spent 90 minutes learning Adobe Lightroom during a one-on-one class with an instructor at Silversea’s new “My Photo Academy.” Afterward we went out on deck to put the cameras to work.
The seabirds were out in full force – albatross, skuas, petrels and the like – and quite a few of us were trying to train our cameras on the gliding birds, not an easy task on a moving ship. A mobility-impaired English man had perched his chair on the deck. He was enthralled with the birds. A few days ago, he had slipped and fallen when he landed his cane on ice, just outside the Panorama Lounge. I, and others, rushed out to help him. We got him back in the lounge and seated by a window. All he cared for, this gentle soul of a man, was to see the birds. I felt for him and asked if he would like for us to set him up on the outer deck. He wanted it, I could tell, but said he was fine, content to sit near a window where he could watch his birds.
There are two things worth noting in the preceding story. One is that the mobility impaired can cruise to Antarctica. I once traveled to the White Continent with two women in wheelchairs. They were traveling independently, both with their husbands. While they weren’t able to go ashore, they were able to do Zodiac tours. I’ve included a photo from that trip below because I will never forget the joy in their faces. The woman giving the thumbs up was a professional athlete who was paralyzed after a botched operation. She truly was an inspiration. I think of her whenever I am prone to self-pity.
On the way back, we also had the chance to get to know a few members of the expedition team. They are fascinating bunch. Karolina Karas, originally from Poland and living in Norway, works with sled dogs. She led an expedition to the North Pole in 2009. She works as a dog sled and snowmobile guide during the winter and mountain guide during the summers. When I approached Karolina for the first time, we had a mutual bond: our height. I am 6’5″. She’s over 6 feet tall. “When a short person asks you if you played basketball, do you know how you should respond?” she said to me. “Ask them if they played mini-golf.”
Since the age of three, Federico Beaudoin has been around animals and those who work with and care for them. While crossing the Drake, Federico spent time with us sharing his photos, videos, passion and stories about the work he does, which is capturing, tagging, measuring, weighing and studying seals. His father was a veterinarian at a zoo. Following in his dad’s footsteps, Federico studied biology and zoology at La Plata University in Buenos Aires. He has conducted seal research with the Instituto Antártico Argentino. His main focus is the appropriately named Leopard Seal – a hunter, a very large hunter.
The second largest Antarctic species of seal, after the southern elephant seal, the leopard seal’s only natural predator is the Orca. Leopard seals can be longer than 12 feet and weigh more than 1,200 pounds. They have sharp teeth and have been known to attack humans. In Alfred Lansing’s book Endurance, which depicts Ernest Shackleton’s remarkable survival story, one of the expedition members was being chased by a leopard seal said to be 12 feet long and 1,100 pounds. Another expedition member shot and killed the leopard seal.
Federico and his research team go out Zodiacs to search for ice-floes and ice-sheets where leopard seals often can be found resting after their hunts. The currents, waves, winds and rocking and rolling ice make this a treacherous undertaking – not to mention the perceived dangers of the leopard seal itself. Then they have to tag, weigh and gather other physical data about the leopard seal while balancing on ice in turbulent seas. Check out the video that Federico shared with us.
Federico described how he puts a syringe on a stick to get close enough to tranquilize the creature. He told us a fascinating story about one leopard seal that was anesthetized and went into a coma. So Federico used a zodiac pump to conduct CPR, pumping one breath every 30 seconds, for two hours until he was able to revive the seal.
Ever since then Federico now uses other approaches, rather than tranquilizing to be able to get close enough to the seal to gather his data. In the photo slideshow below, Federico can be seen using gentle touch, belly rubs, chin and whisker rubs and tickles on these seals. He laughs and says he “does not recommend trying this at home.” We were so impressed by his approach that we dubbed, “the leopard seal whisperer”
In addition to getting to see a fascinating destination, Antarctic cruisers also get to meet, and get to know, fascinating people. Karolina and Federico were only two of those who we got to spend a fair amount of time with. We enjoyed dinner with the expedition leader, Stefan, who I had cruised with once before in Greenland. Stefan has 20 years of experience in expedition cruising. Aside from his Germanic sense of humor (yes, the Germans have a sense of humor), Stefan is capable, knowledgeable and confidence-inspiring. You feel safe in his hands.
As you do in Captain Vincent Taillard’s hands. Originally from Nantes, France, the captain has been navigating ships for more than two decades. He’s faced seas much more dramatic than those we were cruising on the Drake. Captain Taillard was charming, approachable and despite Stefan’s proclamation that the French had no sense of humor, the captain was good for a laugh.
During the last hours of our cruise, we were transiting the Beagle Channel. It was good to see land and to be out on deck admiring the snow-capped mountains on either side of us. It was early spring in this part of the world.
Silver Cloud pulled alongside its dock in the late afternoon. We enjoyed one last cocktail in Dolce Vita and had a quick dinner in La Terrazza before heading out to explore Ushuaia. The city center was a short walk – and a much-appreciated one after two days at sea. We couldn’t resist having the world’s southernmost beer, as well as a mate and alfajor, Argentine variations on tea and cookies.
Ushuaia had the feel of a frontier town (and tourist trap – I was disheartened to find a Hard Rock Cafe). To arrive here by land would be an accomplishment, for sure, but to arrive by ship, well, it was a badge of honor. I can’t say that we felt like Shackleton. Our voyage, despite what the Drake threw at us, was a lavish affair, with tinkling glasses of champagne and the like. But we did feel like adventurers, walking the streets of Ushuaia with a sense of having been to a place that few others have been to. We were one with the White Continent and its strange, cute and exotic creatures.
We also became one with the crew. In my experience, nearly every cruise on a small ship is like this. There is a bonding that forms during two weeks at sea. Take a look at the photo below. You’ll see handshakes and hugs. An expedition cruise on a small ship amplifies the bonding. As someone who has been on about a dozen expedition cruises, I feel I can say that with some assurance and authority, We’ve all experienced something adventurous and astounding. How often do you see crew members rushing out on deck to take photos of landscapes and wildlife? In Antarctica, you see it a lot. In fact, remember Dominic, who I wrote about earlier? He was a waiter who skipped resting during his breaks to go ashore, such was the appeal of Antarctica. Today, he is a vital member of the expedition team. Yes, Antarctica changes everyone who visits its pristine shores.
That’s it, my friend. Our time together has come to an end – for now. We’ll share other meals together, and with any luck, they’ll be just as satisfying as this one was. Thank you for joining me. Until next time.