Leaving the Ice
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Saturday, January 24, 2015
Six beautiful days in Antarctica, and eight wonderful days aboard Hurtigruten’s FRAM. That’s what Saturday, January 24, 2015 was shaping up to be: the continuation of a grand adventure in the tradition of Polar Explorers like Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.
This morning, we once again set out aboard Hurtigruten’s Polarcirkel boats for another day of adventures ashore, this time on Petermann Island. English-speaking guests would pronounce it exactly as it sounds, but the Island is named after German geographer August Petermann. If you want to impress people, pronounce ‘Petermann’ as “Pietermannn” and you’ll do just fine.
Atmospheric conditions on Petermann Island this morning were positively brooding. Light snow swirled about from dark clouds heavy with contrast when compared with the bright-white snow on the ground. Aside from the howling wind that whipped at our faces and tugged at stray hairs not covered by our hats, not a sound could be heard. Once again, it was as if nature had turned down her own soundtrack, leaving a space-like vacuum in place.
Although there’s not much here other than a small Argentinian refuge hut and, as always, plenty of Gentoo penguins, Petermann Island speaks of sadness. A large cross is situated just past the refuge hut; the last reminder of three men from the British base Faraday who had sought refuge here, but were lost trying to return to their base after a climbing expedition in 1982.
The list of those who have lost their lives in Antarctica grows seemingly by the day. It certainly gives you pause for reflection as you step through the snow in search of photographs of penguins and other objects of beauty. Life is fleeting, and nowhere is that more shockingly apparent than here in Antarctica.
This afternoon, we had the chance to observe what life is like in Antarctica, at least for the handful of people who work at the Vernadskiy Base, a Ukrainian research base that is manned year-round and even includes a post office.
Vernadskiy used to be the Faraday Base until 1996, when control was passed over from the British to the Ukrainians. The base was renamed Vernadskiy, and staff at the base are thrilled to give tours to arriving guests like those of us on the FRAM this afternoon. They even have a bar serving up what is reported to be the best Vodka in Antarctica. That in itself isn’t tough to achieve, but it’s noteworthy because the Vodka is made on-site and mixed with honey and almond oil. If you have a nut allergy like me, beware: I narrowly avoided downing this, and only asked what was in it because it smelled sweeter than normal.
Going to Vernadskiy was a real treat for guests. The Expedition Team also seemed excited; this was the first voyage of the season that FRAM was making to have called here.
The evening, though, marked an unfortunate shift in our expedition.
In contrast with our dark, gloomy morning, the hours leading up to dinner today were positively spectacular, with vibrant rays of sunlight illuminating the large icebergs that surrounded our port and starboard sides. The wind out on deck was strong and cold, but guests, buoyed by the sunlight and the strong Ukrainian moonshine, were in good spirits. Everyone was looking forward to our last day in Antarctica tomorrow, and our arrival on Peterman Island tonight to drop off the second group of campers.
Except there was one problem: Peterman Island was only a handful of nautical miles away. As I stood on deck photographing FRAM’s wake, it occurred to me that we must be making between 12 and 14 knots – far faster than we should have been going. We were, at this point, coming to the end of our little “iceberg alley” – and only the vast expanse of ocean could be seen ahead.
Sure enough, an announcement over the ship’s public address system summoned everyone to the Observation Lounge on Deck 7 for an important meeting from the Captain. Once there, Captain Arild Harvik delivered the crushing blow: we were sailing out of Antarctica and would be returning to Ushuaia a full day and a half early. One of our fellow guests had developed a serious medical condition that required immediate treatment in Ushuaia and, out of an abundance of caution, FRAM was turning around and heading back towards the Drake Passage.
Most guests – particularly those susceptible to seasickness – had discovered this already. As Captain Harvik spoke, guests were already rushing for the sickness bags as FRAM plowed her way through the heaviest swells we’d seen in nearly a week. What’s worse that discovering your Antarctic trip has ended? Doing it in a room full of people who are violently throwing up around you.
Now, I applaud Captain Harvik’s decision – he had no other choice, and the safety of his guests is both his and Hurtigruten’s primary concern. Both he and Hurtigruten absolutely made the right call. What concerned me, though, was how the entire affair was handled.
Guests were told that missing one day was ‘not a big deal’, and essentially given the line that they should ‘get over it.’ But this isn’t a weeklong cruise to the Caribbean; for many, this is a trip of a lifetime. One guest stood up and was visibly angry that we were diverting. She questioned why we’d even filled in (and had to have a doctor-certified) health assessment letter in the first place. Though well-meaning, she phrased her question inelegantly and the other guests turned on her. The mood in the room soured noticeably. Some guests demanded to know about compensation; the question was brushed aside as if it had never been asked. Vague answers were given about what, if anything, we would be doing on our unexpected day in Ushuaia. The Captain thanked everyone for their understanding, and made his exit.
With Captain Harvik gone, the entire room began to talk amongst themselves as to the diversion, the condition of our fellow guest, and what would be done about our day in Ushuaia. With a presentation previously scheduled to be held in the lounge, guests were told that if they wanted to talk amongst themselves, they should do so somewhere else. It’s quite the statement, considering that the Observation Lounge is the only social gathering hub aboard the entire ship that has a bar. The lounge fell silent. It was as if it was filled not with adults, but little kids who have been scolded.
This has been a beautiful voyage aboard a lovely ship. I’ve loved every second of it, and I know I will continue to enjoy myself onboard. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But this evening, cracks began to open up. It’s sad to see a great cruise product mired by insensitivity.
Tonight, as we make our way back across the choppy seas of the Drake Passage, bound for Ushuaia, one guest boarding the elevator with her husband summed up everyone’s feelings, vocalizing it for those of us already waiting in the car.
“I guess it’s over.”
Our full journey:
Hurtigruten's FRAM, Antarctica
|January 15, 2015||Buenos Aires, Argentina|
|January 16||Buenos Aires - Ushuaia, Argentina|
|January 17||Crossing the Drake Passage|
|January 18||Crossing the Drake Passage|
|January 19||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 20||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 21||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 22||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 23||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 24||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 25||Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula|
|January 26||Crossing the Drake Passage|
|January 27||Crossing the Drake Passage|
|January 28||Ushuaia - Buenos Aires|
|January 29, 2015||Buenos Aires, Argentina|