By: Marcie Dasher, CTA and Senior Travel Consultant
Wow! I just knew this Antarctica expedition cruise with Ponant was going to be the trip of a lifetime filled with surprises and wonders I couldn’t even imagine or anticipate, and boy was I right! This was my first expedition cruise and it will not be my last.
It was so exciting when we heard announcements from the Captain about unscheduled landings, or we were sailing in a different direction because there was a plethora of whales or dolphin to spot. I just loved that feeling of being on a large private yacht in the hands of a capable crew, our experienced Captain and Expedition leader, and his expert Naturalist team.
This trip was filled with the unexpected, including a turn of events even before our actual cruise began. At first, this appeared to be a bit of a problem, but as circumstances unfolded it turned into such a blessing. When traveling, it’s important to remember to be flexible. The day we flew from Houston to Buenos Aires I was informed by email that our embarkation port changed – to another whole country on the other side of the South American continent! We were informed now we are flying to Santiago, then Concepcion and embarking from Talcahuano, Chile. I saw getting another stamp on my passport as a little perk and was now visiting a new country I hadn’t planned. Ponant included the domestic flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina as part of the cruise package and of course they took care of the change in flights to another city. I was also glad I had opted to go to Buenos Aires a couple of days early, so had time to enjoy the city before the cruise.
Our ship had been dry docked due to a previous incident a month prior to our sailing. She was just becoming available and passing inspections as guests were flying into Argentina from all over the world and this situation was unbeknownst to a good many of us. I am mentioning this as a reminder that the best-laid plans can change at a moment’s notice for so many reasons, mostly out of our control. However, you never know the real outcome until you experience and just get through it. Of course, this was the big topic of conversation and concern which dominated the trip at first. In Concepcion, Ponant obtained and paid for our hotel, which I can’t imagine was an easy feat to find last minute lodging in a small town, for two hundred people at Christmas time. They also paid for food, and even the bar bill as we waited for news of when we would be departing. They also organized day excursions to keep us entertained and occupied while waiting for clearance.
The Captain, Le Soleal Hotel (ship) Manager and Guest Relations Manager all came to our hotel to avail themselves to guest’s questions and concerns. Yes, it was a bit unsettling and many contemplated whether we would be going at all, and some guests even decided to leave and fly back to their home in France. They made that decision too early and really missed out on a truly spectacular trip. After a day and a half of uncertainty we finally made our way to our beautiful vessel and new home for the next 17 days.
As it turns out, we reaped more than our share of rewards from this somewhat rocky start and change of itinerary. In addition to generous compensation from Ponant for the extra sea days and missed ports, the biggest reward to me was from Mother Nature. The weather turned out to actually favor us the entire time we sailed! The wind was behind us the whole time making for some of the best sailing weather we could wish for, especially in the notorious Drake Passage. It was slightly stormy around the Horn but for the most part we experienced smooth sailing, gorgeous weather and sunshine and therefore spectacular landings, and that is something that can’t be planned or purchased!
This was not the case for some other ships sailing at the same time from where we were originally supposed to embark out of Ushuaia. When I returned home I was indeed told by other clients and guests that another ship which departed from Ushuaia, our original port, experienced such harsh weather and choppy seas that guests had to stay in their cabins for 2 days! I have heard this is always a very real possibility when crossing the tumultuous Drake. We, on the other hand, coming in from the opposite direction due to the seemingly unfortunate turn of events, actually experienced more of a Drake Lake, not Drake Shake as they say. In case you haven’t heard about the Drake passage, it’s the point where the Pacific, Atlantic, and Southern oceans all converge and can be treacherous to say the least and has been the subject of many perilous explorations.
After 2 days at sea sailing down the coast of Chile, we experienced our first wildlife sightings! We were awakened early morning by an announcement from the Captain to come view these Right Whale Dolphin who were in droves all along the ship porpoising through the water all along the starboard side of the ship. There were just so many! What a lovely beginning to the day. Ponant is a French luxury cruise line and announcements are always in both French and English, I got such a kick out of hearing the Captain and his thick French accent.
The extra days at sea did cause us to miss landings in South Georgia, but after expert assessment by the Captain and Expedition leader they concluded for the best expedition experience all around, it was just too far to sail down there now and to the Falklands and also get to spend enough time in Antarctica which of course was the primary reason for the cruise. They assessed the weather conditions and forecasts as well as the timing of wildlife migrations etc. As you will see, we were not short changed.
Later this afternoon more wild life, Sperm Whales! This was our first whale sighting and the only place we will see Sperm Whale for the entire trip.
Our Expedition Leader was John Frick, who turns out to be someone quite well known and experienced in the industry, he has been to Antarctica 106 times! He knew very well how to find the most promising landing sites which offered the best chance to experience the most wildlife, while still leaving enough time to sail Antarctica. We saw every kind of penguin there is including the King, only exception being the Emperor which we would not have seen anyway as they are thousands of miles away deep into the Antarctic continent where no tourists ever venture.
In the meantime during sea days, we enjoyed our ship, the spa, attending enriching lectures, making many new friends, seriously delicious French and Continental cuisine and of course the bar! Espresso Martinis first and Champagne all day were my go to beverages for most of the trip.
Christmas Eve we were gifted with a beautiful double rainbow!
I’ve never been on a vacation for this long, 21 days all together, it was such a privilege and treat. Packing was a concern, it’s summer in South America in December but I was also going to the Antarctica! Some light clothes for the more summery days in Buenos Aires, ski pants or light wind and water proof pants are a requirement. A lighter water proof wind breaker jacket would be handy as there were warmer days in Falklands for example that did not really require the heavy parka. Waterproof pants and jacket are required as water is sometimes splashing a bit on Zodiacs and it can also be colder and windier when riding to the landing spots We also wear life jackets so that is an additional layer. Add some dressier attire for a few formal nights and then just normal clothes, light sweaters and jeans, comfortable athletic leisure type wear/track suites or velour hoodie is plenty. This ship is of course climate controlled so no need to for much heavy winter weather clothing, just wear hooded jacket, or parka outside on deck.
On board we attended lectures on numerous topics, from learning about the first explorers to Antarctica, how they had to pack for the weather, type of food and provisions they brought was so interesting, to the various wildlife, ice and even clouds we would be seeing. I so appreciate those early, daring explorers who went before us, it’s difficult to comprehend the hardships they went through. Now we get to enjoy safely traveling in warmth and luxury through what was once such a harrowing, life threatening journey. The lectures were given in groups by language so in English and typically separately in French, and there was also a group of guests from Taiwan so usually there was a translator off to the side of the auditorium quietly interpreting the English lectures into Chinese through a microphone and headset. Once the Zodiac landings started we were grouped by language as well, about 8-10 guests at one time per Zodiac. Only 100 people are allowed on Antarctica at any given time, including other visitors from other cruise lines and tour companies, we never really had more than about 3 groups out at once it seems.
Falkland Islands, look at that sparkling water!
Land at last! The water is spectacular and the weather was so warm I took off my parka.
It’s wonderful to see the penguins in their natural habitat and I’ve never seen albatross or giant petrels before. I can watch penguins for hours they are so cute how they walk and interact.
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I hadn’t studied all the varieties of penguins and Antarctic birds before but through the lectures onboard and seeing them in real life I find them fascinating. Did you know the Wandering Albatross as well as most penguins mate for life? The albatross have the largest wingspan of any bird on the planet and they can glide and soar the sky without flapping their wings for several hours at a time, and can even sleep while flying. This makes flying so efficient they use less energy than when sitting on a nest!
When courting, the male performs a mating dance, spreading his wings, waving his head around and tapping his bill against the female while braying. They appear to be kissing with their bills. They mate for life and breed every 2 years. Mating season starts in early November and the female will lay 1 egg sometime between mid December and early January which is when I was there. I did not get to witness their mating ritual ,but did get to see many new chicks and nests with moms incubating their eggs, which takes about 11 weeks, and the parents take turns incubating. Actually, once the chick is born, the parents also take turns hunting and remaining to care for the offspring until eventually both parents leave to hunt, and expanding the time between visits back to the nest.
Most penguins are primarily monogamous except for the Emperors which are “serially” monogamous meaning they partner with one mate for a season instead of for life. It’s amazing to me these birds can circumnavigate the Southern ocean and come back to find their mate year after year.
The British introduced sheep and various flora to the islands which are not indigenous to the area. It was quite strange to see English looking countryside with sheep grazing fields and hillsides alongside penguins waddling and hopping about. That caused so many ecological ramifications on Falklands, it was strongly emphasized how vital it is not to contaminate Antarctica with any species of plant or animals which are not indigenous as it can cause havoc and disease to the pristine continent.
Prior to our next stop which was the beginning of finally reaching Antarctica, we were required to vacuum our parkas, hats and gloves after our last visit to the Falklands. We also wash, scrub and rinse our boots after every outing before entering the ship again. Tourism is growing and Ponant and all the guides, researchers and anyone allowed to visit take very seriously the mission to protect Antarctic life. The parkas and boots are provided by Ponant by the way, and guests get to keep the parkas!
December 30 -Turret Point, King George Island is the first official stop in Antarctica. The South Shetland Islands are considered part of Antarctica though not actually the continent. While we could see ice in the distance this island was rocky and brown and filled with birds, penguins, seals and sea lions. Our zodiac ride was a bit choppy and it was a challenge to get off and on to the little boat but so worth it. It’s exciting we are getting so close to the ice now.
Most of the time dress onboard was casual but there were a few occasions to dress up more formally for those who wanted to change from sweat pants, jeans and ski pants. The Captains dinner, Officers white party, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Farewell evening all provided opportunities for more celebratory attire should you want to, but many guests chose to be more relaxed.
We celebrated Chritsmas Eve with special dinners and shows
December 31, 2018. Quick unscheduled landing this morning at Paulet Island! Before we the guests get to go, the Naturalists check out the landing spot and flag where were can walk and explore.
Sailing around and to the icebergs is what I was really looking forward to. It feels so ethereal. Remote, forbidden and majestic. What a privilege to see and be a part of these spectacular expeditions. We trekked the mountains of ice looking like little red penguins from the distance. Viewing hidden lakes, and colonies upon colonies of penguins.
Riding in the zodiacs themselves was fun to me, I enjoyed being on the motorized rafts so close to the water and would always joke with the pilot guide asking if we could you just keep going and sail around to enjoy the scenery as we were to about get back to the ship. Today was one occasion while leaving Paulet when we actually couldn’t get off the zodiac and back onboard for a good 15 minutes or more as the water was getting so choppy we couldn’t maneuver close enough to the ship. We just went around in kind of a large circle and back and forth waiting for the waves to die down, the ship even would try to reposition to a little calmer area and we attempted to get off the raft on onto the ship more than a few times before we were successful. We could see so many people standing at the stern watching. I was never scared and it made for an exciting memory but some fellow mates were a bit more nervous than me and starting to get seasick, they were more than relieved when we made it back on board. Needless to say the next groups scheduled were cancelled, however the guides made sure they were given a special private tour on another day to make up for it.
After that fun detour we continue to sail and be amazed by the show outside.
What a great start to the new year! In the bridge with our Captain Patrick Marchesseau. GOOGLE him, he’s pretty famous and for good reason!! Today he’s taken us into Wilhelmina Bay as far as possible to “kiss” the bay, going into the sea ice. That was pretty cool on its own, I hadn’t heard of that before and it is stunning to see. However, the next thing I know the Naturalists went out to explore a bit, and now waiting for them to come back and report whether we could go out on Zodiacs and experience the sea ice! Excitedly waiting in this gorgeous place is amazing and a definitive Expedition experience! Unscheduled landings are so exciting and such a huge benefit of expedition cruises! Just thrilled with John Frick our Expedition Leader and Patrick Marchesseau our Captain, who have made this trip truly exceptional.
Sailing through LeMaire Channel was a main highlight. It’s one of the most gorgeous, scenic locations of the whole trip, I was so in awe. The sun was still out at midnight and we didn’t want to go to bed it was just so breathtakingly beautiful. We and our group of friends were in the aft lounge watching the stunning views and just couldn’t get enough. Of course we were scheduled in the first group the next morning for our zodiac ride around the icebergs, my most anticipated excursion. It just happened to be the first VERY early morning ride at 6AM! We were so excited by the LeMaire channel no one wanted to go to bed, so we just had to force ourselves finally around 1am or so, as we knew we had a spectacular wake up call in just a few hours.
I did get some photos while on our morning ride, but it was so serene and majestic I just wanted to absorb the peaceful magnificence and not fiddle with my camera. Very early morning, so tranquil, it felt sacred to experience this part of our planet, I just felt such reverence.
Photos to me really tell the story of this trip the best
On our last night we arrived in Ushuaia late, at about 9pm and guests were allowed the chance to get off the ship for a few hours and go into town for those of us who opted to do so. It was dark by the time we got off the ship so we didn’t wander far. Although we already had dinner our friends were determined to walk to a local restaurant enjoy some fresh crab and lobster Ushuaia is known for and had a lovely last night.
We made such great friends, bonding over the some of the most glorious, unique scenery in the world, enjoyed some of the best cuisine and service I’ve experience on a cruise, and sailed and walked on a part of this planet most people will never get to. It’s almost like going to Mars it’s so inaccessible and otherworldly. This Antarctica expedition cruise with Ponant will forever be in my heart as the best vacation adventures of my life and I am eternally grateful.
CTA and Senior Travel Consultant
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