Silversea - Silver Cloud
Ushuaia to Cape Town
January 19 - March 20, 2018
This is a bit of an experiment to create this webpage as an on-going account of my voyages. I hope and plan to add to it if and when I can. So, far you can use these links to skip Voyage 2 and Voyage 3
My journey will be 64 days - including 5 voyages on Silver Cloud - 4 x 10 day voyages to the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, followed by a 21 day Cape-to-Cape trip trans-Atlantic - Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope.
Day 1 of journey – Tuesday January 16, 2018
My transfer driver is waiting (well done Silversea). The third thing I notice is that my Spanish is going to be adequate but no more. I am able to converse with Angel, the driver, but his rapid-fire descriptions often leave me saying No comprendo and asking him to speak more slowly. I do manage to understand that he is taking a route through the central city, as we have plenty of time and he wants to show me some sights. The first impression of a clean modern city continues, with the usual construction projects (including a tunnel to get trucks off the street). The traffic is not heavy, nary a horn is honked, and we pass easily through the central business district. At the domestic airport, he insists on taking me to check in, even though I ask to be dropped at the terminal. So we park and he helps me with my bags, operates the check-in kiosk, stays with me to check the bags, and shows me the way to the gate. While waiting to check-in I discretely ask if I should tip him, but am told no, there is no tipping in Argentina, this is just part of the service (well done Angel).
The domestic terminal is as clean, uncrowded and unhurried as everywhere else is. I have a good burger and a mediocre beer at the Hard Rock Café for ~$US17, and head to the gate to catch the flight to Ushuaia.
I have intentionally selected a window seat for the flight – but didn’t consider that the Andes are to the west and I look east. No matter, I sleep most of the way, and when I look out there is either a sea of clouds or a sea of sea. As we approach we cross the sea of land that is the southern Patagonian plains, until we reach Tierra Del Fuego, the southern tip of the Andes and the Beagle Channel. I see 2 cruise ships coming and going. Exciting. My driver, Julio, meets me (well done Silversea) and on the way to the Antarctic Hostel we pass the port with more cruise ships. More exciting. I am glad of a shower and free Wifi. More on that after a horizontal sleep.
Today’s fun fact: Nearly 70% of all the meteorites ever discovered on earth have been found in Antarctica.
Welcome to Ushuaia sign, Cruise ships at the wharf.
I had visited in Ushuaia in 1991 at the tail end of a 3 month journey through South America. I have no firm recollections of that visit except of the dramatic setting of the town and the beaver dams in the adjacent National Park. I don’t think I even checked out the possibility of cruising to Antarctica, though I am sure that it would have been possible.
My impression this time is still favourable – but Ushuaia is more like the Argentina I expected - a bit less clean and modern and more cobbled together. On the other hand this is really what one should expect from the city del fin del mundo (at the end of the world) in any country.
The hostel is basic but comfortable. It has the advantage of a bar at the reception desk – including a decent local whisky for $US4 for a double. I slept well.
The prices vary, but seem high to me. The guidebook says that Ushuaia is one of the most expensive places in Argentina, which makes sense given the isolation. Inflation has been rampant and things have changed fast – the guidebook published in 2012 quotes 125 pesos for a double room at the Hostel, and mine is 1600 (about $US80). Even a dorm room is $US21. Dinners seem to run about $US20 on restaurant menus. I stop by the local supermarket and pick up lunch and dinner makings. I don’t fancy eating alone, and when in hostel-land do as the hostellers do.
It is meant to rain in the afternoon so I start fairly early. I find the small museum of local culture I seek, but a local tells me it has been closed for 2 years. So I head into town to check the port - full of cruise ships, check the shops - full or trinkets, send a postcard, and visit a couple of museums. The highlight is the Museo Maritime which is on the naval base, but has a wide variety of exhibits, including some nice art in the attached gallery. The sections on the indigenous people, and an very impressive collection of ship models are the best parts. The museum started life as a prison, which makes for a collection of small exhibits – one in each former cell. Quirky and interesting.
After the supermarket and lunch the rain is still not looking likely, so I walk back downtown to get more fresh air and exercise. I need all I can get.
Today’s fun fact: the Spanish word for fox is zorro. Makes sense, but why didn’t they ever tell us that about the masked man? Or, perhaps they did and I have forgotten.
The sky is grey and the ground wet when I wake, so spend the morning and early afternoon talking to myself. That is, preparing and practicing my talks. I finish a new one on the Antarctic Treaty System.
The afternoon is sunny, so I head up the hill for exercise and to try to get a view over the town with the sun at my back. No matter how many times I go “just that little bit higher” a photogenic view fails to appear. So, back down the hill to check for cruise ship activity. The ones from yesterday have sailed, but no Silver Cloud yet. So I return to the hostel to read my book and enjoy a pleasant local brew – Beagle IPA (called ee-pa in local-speak).
Around 19:00 I get an email from my friend Hanne who is aboard Silver Cloud. They are nearing port and she suggests meeting for dinner at 20:30. They are held up by winds, but I get to watch her dock and we, and a bunch of other expedition staff head to the buzzing Dublin pub for a catch-up and chance to get acquainted. They are a fun a varied crew – as you would expect. I leave at midnight.
Today’s fun fact: 100 trillion neutrinos go through your body each second (from my talk on Antarctic astronomy).
The bus picks me up at 07:45 – feeling, and looking, a bit seedy form the late might and early wakeup call. We arrive at the ship just as the PAX are coming off. I get another chance to catch up with Hanne, before walking up the gangway and aboard.
Let me say that again – WOW!!
Silver Cloud is amazing. All gleaming chrome, leather seats, plush carpeting, and so on. I go to the HR office to get registered, then to the Expedition office to get my room, er, cabin, er, suite key. Actually mine is more like a cabin (number 405 – on the starboard side very near the bow) – but I have already learned to always talk to the PAX about their suites. After getting my uniform I go with the other newbies for a ship tour – including the crew mess and other crew areas, but also the incredible lecture theatre, the 4 restaurants, including the outdoor café beside the heated swimming pool with 2 spa pools, the gym, the photo studio, the several bars, the 2 libraries, the 16 zodiacs, the observation lounge, the “humidor” for cigars and fine spirits, and so on.
Did I say – WOW!!
The PAX board in the afternoon and we help to welcome them. At 17:00 the official lifeboat drill take place, followed by an introduction in the theatre from the Expedition Leader (EL), Kara, and a staff meeting. Then dinner with my new crewmates (and soon friends I hope). I already know all their names.
We cast off at 20:00 and are currently cruising toward the Drake Passage – where the forecast is not dire – but also not benign.
Today’s fun fact: If you need to jump into the water in your lifejacket, you should hold your nose.
Day 5 – Voyage 1 Day 2
We cross the Drake Passage in a moderate swell. It is like being rocked in your cradle (do babies ever get motion sick?), with a bit of banging as the bow breaks through the bigger waves. I sleep well all things considered, and feel pretty good when I get coffee to start the day. I had been told yesterday that I would give my first talk at 17:30 today, so I do some prep. However, when I sit to read and review, with the knowledge that a full day of indoor training and briefings awaits, I break down and take an anti-nausea pill. It works, with no noticeable side effects, and I feel fine all day. I get safety training, and attend 2 lectures – birds and photography, and the kayak programme introduction. After lunch (sushi, sashimi, lovely salads, smoked salmon, and other goodies) is a mandatory briefing on required behaviour for visitors to Antarctica (e.g. the “5 meter rule” on approaching wildlife), checking PAX gear for biosecurity (checking for seeds, etc. in clothing), and my talk.
The talk is Antarctica Unveiled about the early exploration of the southern seas up to the 1890s – Cook, d’Urville, Ross and more. It is fairly well attended, perhaps 80-100. I use the headset microphone and it goes well. Afterward several PAX and one staff member come up, thank me, and tell me how much they liked it. Several ask if I will be doing more!! I send them to the EL to make their requests.
Immediately following is the Captain’s welcome cocktail party – the first coat-and-tie required event. It only lasts 45 minutes, is quite casual, and is a good chance to sit and chat with PAX.
We are running at full speed to stay ahead of the weather, and, as a result are a full day ahead of schedule. So, I need to be in full gear prepared for our first landing at 07:15 tomorrow. I will be in the shore party.
The pace is full on – which is great. So far this trip is exceeding my expectations as an “expedition” and also as a luxury cruise.
Today’s fun fact: many sea birds have a gland over their eyes that extracts the salt from their blood so they can expel it through their noses.
I wake at 03:30 and think that we must be at anchor already as it is so smooth. A look out the window shows that we are still moving, but at in very calm water, and across the Passage. From then I sleep only fitfully as my mind is racing.
finds me dressing in waders ready to
join the shore party as part of our landing in the Aitcho Islands. The
is a doddle in very little swell on a sandy beach. I help to steady the
as PAX disembark (I am supposed to say “guests” – but I’m not sure how
paying over $US1000/day is a “guest”).
Luckily, it ends with a lively and laugh filled discussion with several colleagues over a couple of whiskeys at the bar after dinner.
Today’s fun fact: The name of the Aitcho Islands is not Spanish or Japanese, but rather is derived from the British Hydrographic Office (HO) for which they were named in the 1930’s by a British surveying team.
The morning landing is canceled due to sea ice blocking the landing site. So, we steam a little further on and do a zodiac cruise in Kinnes Cove of Joinville Island. Conditions are great – cloudy but little wind. The overcast conditions really bring out the blue colour of the icebergs. We cruise along the rocky shore backed by steep, snow covered slopes. A large Adelie penguin colony is here, and we have fun watching them toboggan down the slopes and dive into the sea for their daily swim. They then need to make the huge trek back to their nests which can be very high up the slopes. The chicks are just getting big enough to form crèches, so there are many adults swimming around the boat with their delightful antics and “porposing” travel (the fastest method for them – with little jumps through the air every few meters/yards).
One of my best ever zodiac cruises.
While waiting for the zodiacs to be lowered, my driver, Katya, gives me an introduction to zodiac driving and I takes a few turns around the area. This is a start toward driver training at least.
The afternoon is spent in the observation lounge helping people spot whales and seals, and understand the icebergs all around us. In the end I go to my cabin to fetch my map of the area and binoculars, and to the bridge to see where we are. There are no maps of any sort available on this expedition – despite having video screens everywhere (including every suite and most common areas) that could easily display real-time charts. Some PAX have also noted this deficiency, so I encourage them to note this in their feedback form.
Today’s fun fact: Adelie penguins were named by Dumont d’Urville after his wife. Which might not have pleased her entirely if she ever smelled an Adelie colony.
For a video clip of the Adelies in the water click here
Day 8 – Voyage 1 Day 5
The morning landing is at Mikkelson Harbor, which was used as an anchorage for whaling ships in the early 1900’s. Because they took only the blubber at that time and discarded the carcases, the beach is covered in whale bones. A sad sight. There is also yet another Gentoo penguin colony and some hauled out Weddell seals. Some of the seals are vocalizing – which I have never heard before except in recordings. They make a quite ethereal and spacey sound (see: Weddell seal sounds). Not at all what you might expect by looking at them. Nice.
In the afternoon I stay aboard while the PAX and staff take a zodiac cruise. As the PAX are split in 2, I give the same talk twice – to the half that are not cruising. This one is The Heroic Age on the Peninsula – and is well received. By talking to the staff I have learned that I will be lucky to get another talk – as there are plenty of other who are eager to give talks too. I am learning for next cruise that I should select my best 2 or 3 talks rather than starting at the beginning – as not all of them will be delivered.
I am rostered on to eat with the guests in the main dining room. There is lively conversation at the table, and the food is very good – I have crab cakes, carrot and coriander soup, Arctic char, and chocolate, coffee and pistachio gelato. The staff here are trained to never let a wine glass get empty.
Today’s fun fact: Bowhead whales are the earth’s longest lived mammals. Individuals have been caught with ivory harpoon heads from the 1700’s embedded in their blubber. They can live to over 200 years of age.
We get a bit of a sleep-in as the morning transit of the Lemaire Channel doesn’t start until 09:30. Despite the low cloud, the narrow fjord between glaciated cliffs is truly spectacular. Many seals, including leopard seals, are sighted – and some whales too. Sorry no pictures as I expect to be back here again - and was enjoying a camera free day.
The afternoon landing was to be at Port Circumcision – so named by the French explorer Charcot when he discovered it on January 1 – the Catholic feast of the Circumcision of Christ. I covered Charcot in yesterday’s talks – and he had wintered over in this small bay in 1909 in his ship the Porquis Pas (Why Not). It is canceled due to high winds and drifting ice bergs.
Plan B is lectures for the PAX – penguins by Scott and seals by Carmen. Both are good. The Antarctic weather continues all afternoon. Bad for the PAX but pleasant downtime for me and other staff members.
Day 10 - Voyage 1 Day 7
We start the morning in Paradise - Paradise Bay that is - with a nice zodiac cruise past the Argentine research station, Brown Base, many sleepy crabeater seals, nesting blue-eyed shags (cormorants) and an impressive glacier face.
The afternoon at landing at Neko Harbor is accompanied by gently falling giant snowflakes and no wind. Very nice. The main drawcard are a Gentoo colony and a gentle climb for an overlook of a massive glacier.
Day 11 - Voyage 1 Day 8
The most commonly visited site in this region is Deception Island - where we have our morning landing. The island is a giant volcanic caldera with only a narrow gap - Neptune's Bellows - to enter the circular harbour in the crater. There are hot sands on the shore, which is steaming, and many PAX and crew opt for a Polar Plunge. I decline. Some Chinstrap penguins must have signed up for the alternative "Steambath Challenge" as a few small groups have come out of the freezing sea to stand in the steam on the hot beach.
Whalers Bay is a historic site with the remains of a whaling station which was active from 1912 to 1931. The remains of a British base from WW2 are also here - Base B was built in 1944 as a way to check on German submarines and other activity in the area, and was used as a scientific station until 1969 when a volcanic lahar (ice and mud flow) wiped the place out.
All that and a sleepy fur seal too.
The afternoon landing at Half Moon Island takes place in glorious sunshine - our first of the trip. As well as a very nice Chinstrap colony, it gives us a chance to visit the Argentine Camara Base - where 15 men and 2 women are spending 3 months doing maintenance and preserving Argentina's presence in the region. A Columbian naval vessel is at anchor, as Columbia is looking for a site to establish an Antarctic base of their own.
With the landings done we head north for Ushuaia. The Drake Passage is benign. After drinks with some PAX in the bar I retire for a well earned sleep in.
Today's fun fact: The Columbian vessel is also hosting an expedition sponsored by Red Bull (to help cover costs). They have been filming 2 divers. The man dives off of cliffs into the sea - up to 30metres/100feet. The woman free dives under icebergs - a real Polar Plunge. She reportedly said that the cold wasn't too bad, but it did "make my cheeks tingle".
Day 12 - Voyage 1 Day 9
On this sea day I learn
that I will give a third talk tomorrow, so spend some time in prep, and
some time on desk duty. Otherwise the day is free to attend lectures by
other staff. Some are excellent, some not so much. The Passage remains
On this sea day I learn that I will give a third talk tomorrow, so spend some time in prep, and some time on desk duty. Otherwise the day is free to attend lectures by other staff. Some are excellent, some not so much. The Passage remains benign.
The Captain's farewell cocktail party is my second required coat-and-tie event. It
is short. The highlight is getting all the available non-Expedition
staff on stage - to very warm applause. Their work is
The Captain's farewell cocktail party is my second required coat-and-tie event. It
is short. The highlight is getting all the available non-Expedition
staff on stage - to very warm applause. Their work is
Today’s fun fact: Cape Horn is not named due to its resemblance to an animal horn. It was named by the first expedition to round it – under the command of the Dutchman, Willem Schouten. It is named after his ship, Hoorn, which had recently been destroyed by fire. The Hoorn was itself named after his home town in Holland.
Day 13 - Voyage 1 Day 10
The view out the window in the morning is of land as we approach Tierra Del Fuego. The sea remains exceptionally calm. My morning talk is The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-17 - Shackleton's Heroic Failure. It covers the well known sinking of the Endurance - but also lesser known aspects of the expedition. It is well received.
I spend time on deck in the sun and the cool wind watching the albatrosses and other sea birds. Most enjoyable. I have spent little time on deck this voyage, and resolve to do more next trip.
The video of the expedition prepared by the staff photographer is shown to many ohs and ahs. He has done a nice job. At 15:00 we pull into Ushuaia and many PAX and staff go ashore. I remain aboard as there is a minimum required to be on the ship, and I am not hankering to go back the the Dublin Pub.
Today's fun fact: A men's haircut in the spa/salon costs $US49 (ouch). I get a 20% discount so pay "only" $US29 (still ouch). But, I don't trust my Spanish, or the Ushuaia barbers, enough to risk it ashore, and I need to be tidy.
I write this voyage as one blog entry as we are visiting many of the same places, and the life of a staff member is too busy for daily logs and photo edits.
I use the day in port to buy a few supplies in Ushuaia and stretch my legs with a walk up the hill. Then back to the ship to help prepare for the new PAX and greet them. Our sailing is delayed for refueling to complete, and to let some nasty weather slide through the Drake Passage ahead of us. This works well and we have an exceptionally smooth crossing.
I again give a talk on the first sea day, this time a Place for Peace and Science? - The Antarctic Treaty System. It is well attended and received (only 2 people fell asleep).
We again reach our first landing in the morning of Day 3 - and it is again in the Aitcho Islands. But, the wind and swell are too strong to make the landing. We make up for it with some nice Humpback whale watching. The afternoon at Yankee Harbour is much nicer than my first visit - a longer walk, and many more fur seals. This group of PAX is relatively young and fit - and quite engaging and interested. I have already met an airline pilot and an Emmy award winner. They are all really enjoying themselves and are thus a pleasure to deal with.
The landing at Mikkelsen Harbour is a repeat of voyage 1 - with the chicks slightly bigger. I had missed the zodiac cruise of Cierva Cove the first time - and this time get to drive the zodiac for the photographer and videographer as part of my training. We cruise through some of the most beautiful and picturesque sculpted icebergs that I have ever seen. I don't fall overboard or crash the zodiac. I now have the technique - in gentle conditions at least - but need more practice and experience.
We cruise Paradise Bay - again beautiful - and visit at a Chilean base for the afternoon landing. It is in the middle of a large Gentoo colony. They open the station to show their living conditions - plus their small shop and museum. There are 12 men there - and they give us a very warm welcome.
Next morning is foggy for the cruise through the Lemaire Channel - it turns sunny for the afternoon landing at Petermann Island - which was blown out on voyage 1. I really like this place, smooth glaciated granite, dramatic mountain and iceberg scenery, a bit of history (it was the site of a winter base for Charcot in 1909), and yet another Gentoo colony.
We steam north through the night to attempt a landing at Brown Bluff. It isn't possible, and at the briefing Kara show worrying pictures for the Drake Passage forecast. We repeat the Kinnes Cove zodiac cruise from voyage 1 - it is almost as good - and decide to head north a day early. The PAX are happy with the decision (they applaud) as nobody wants to face the predicted 10-12 meter swells and 50 knot winds. We hope to beat it across.
I watch the Super Bowl with Ryun, the videographer. The streaming is not continuous, but adequate to follow the flow of the game. Great game. I know that many of my family are disappointed with the Pats' loss, but the 15 or so Eagles fans onboard are in party mode.
We beat the weather across the Passage and have a relatively smooth crossing. I give 2 talks, Ice and Sky - Looking Up and Down in Antarctica covering snippets of science on ice, atmospherics and astronomy, and The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-17 - Shackleton's Heroic Failure. Both are well received, especially the Shackleton talk which is a real hit. I expect to give it for both remaining voyages.
We pull into Ushuaia a day early and the PAX are provided with an optional tour to the local National Park. I go along to help out with counting noses when the buses reload, and so on. The local guide is good and the tour informative, but the National Park itself disappoints. I am intrigued to see the similarity with the NZ beech forest, the black neck swans, and the terminus of the Panamerican highway - but it is not as nice as I remember it from 1991. Oh well.
Back in Ushuaia for a leg stretch I walk past the Falkland/Malvinas war memorial. This is still a big deal here - with signs all over town claiming that the Malvinas are Argentinian. Several hundred Argentine soldiers died in the short war.
We get a change in crew at this change of passengers and a group photo of the Expedition Staff is taken.
Today's Fun Fact: The new Argentine banknotes feature animals instead of people. The 200 peso note (~$US10) features the Southern Right Whale and the 500 peso note the Jaguar. Nice.
I have only just discovered that the PAX are presented with a map of each voyage. Here is the one from voyage 1 - which may help with putting names to places.
The extra day in port is another good chance to stretch the legs with shore excursions. The port is busy with several cruise ships alongside.
Cloud and Ponant ship Le Soleal (~200 PAX each) dwarfed by Emerald Princess (>3000 PAX)
My fifth crossing of the Drake Passage is the roughest yet, but not at all threatening. Some PAX suffer, but most are fine. I am fine too. We squeeze in a landing at Aitcho as the wind is building. Both the Chinstrap and Gentoo chicks have doubled in size in the last 20 days. Some Chinstraps are starting to fledge (get their adult feathers) and looking ready to head to sea. The afternoon cruise included a very nice visit to a large pod of Orca (Killer whales) - over 30 of them.
Gentoo creche plus 2 adults (spot them?), Orcas with calf, Orcas
It is too windy for any further landings so we head across the Bransfield Straight in moderately rough conditions. I spend some time in the Observation Lounge on Deck 9 forward watching the interesting sea conditions. I notice a big set of breaking waves headed our way. They must be 8-10 meters - much bigger that anything else I had seen. The Cloud rides through them well - but rolls much more heavily than any previous time. This causes all the tables in the dining room to empty onto the floor, much breakage in the bars, some PAX to be tipped out of chairs, and a big cleanup effort for the crew. It is surprising that they were not better prepared, but the mix of luxury cruise and Antarctic expedition is still heavily weighted toward luxury for many of them as this is the Cloud's first season in the Antarctic.
The next morning we are able to make the landing at Brown Bluff that had been skipped the 2 previous trips - and it is a corker. Brilliant sunshine, no wind, colorful geology, masses of just fledging Adelie chicks running up and down the beach, a bay full of icebergs, topped off by a Leopard seal on the zodiac ride back to the ship. The Adelie chicks wear crazy punk "haircuts" as the last bit of their down is on top of their heads. Uproarious. The afternoon zodiac cruise is my third at Kinnes Cove. the dreary conditions and steep decline in Adelie numbers makes it ho-hum.
Katya on the beach, Adelie chicks with "punk haircuts", Brown Bluff rocks, Adelies on blue iceberg, resting leopard seal, leopard seal yawn (note feathers in seal poo by the seal)
The next morning we make my third landing at Mikkelsen Harbour. Also ho-hum. In the afternoon I am rostered aboard to give my Shackleton talk twice - once to each set of PAX who are not zodiac cruising. I goes well both times, but the second time I really nail it and there are many questions and a very appreciative audience. Dinner with PAX and staff is fun. One of the PAX had worked at Cape Canaveral during the Apollo program and has some great stories.
The next day is at Portal Point and Wilhelmina Bay - and penguin free! The morning landing is especially nice with a good climb up a snow slope, and a descent to reach a sheltered rocky point where I am posted - to explain the remnant foundations of a British Antarctic Survey hut. The foundations make excellent seats, and I have a peaceful and picturesque place to hang out - even with the PAX. the afternoon zodiac cruise is in sleety snow and features the rusting hulk of a whaling factory ship that caught fire and was wrecked in 1915.
Portal Point - Kayakers in front of ice berg, fur seal
Wilhelmina Bay - The Governoren wreck, Blue eyed shag, Weddell seal
The following morning is a second visit to the Chilean base at Paradise Bay, and the Gentoo colony. All good. Then on to cruise the Lemaire Channel - in the fog and cloud again for the third time - and then the Neumeyer Channel - with another good opportunity to indulge in monochrome landscape photography.
Monochrome mountainscapes - Neumeyer and Lemaire Channels including an abstract detail
Deception Island - crater at Telefon Beach, steaming sand at Pendulum Covehere.
The crossing is the roughest yet, but still not horrible - so the 40 or so PAX who attend my talk on Whaling - A Savage History give me a good response - and the Assistant Expedition Leader attends and tells me afterward that he really enjoyed it.
Today's Fun Fact: The milk from a Weddell seal is about 60-70% fat - and more like the consistency of soft butter than milk. The pups are born weighing ~40 kg/90 lbs and are weaned only 6 or 7 weeks later weighing ~110 kg/240 lbs. The femaile losses about half of her body weight during this period.