Humboldt Director Simon was lucky enough to experience a bucket-list luxury Antarctic cruise with Silversea this winter. From stunning wildlife encounters, breath-taking polar scenery and the once in a lifetime opportunity to leap into the Southern Ocean, this is Simon’s account of his incredible 10-day journey.
I was lucky enough to be invited by Silversea Cruises to enjoy a 10-day cruise on their exquisite vessel, The Silver Cloud, to a real bucket-list destination: Antarctica. Silversea are the leaders in the luxury cruise market and offer a range of worldwide cruises, including a number of high-end expedition cruises to Antarctica.
The Silver Cloud is a relatively small vessel in the realm of worldwide cruising, but a mid-sized vessel when it comes to expedition cruises. I was interested to see how the cruise would logistically work, particularly the zodiac landings, as The Silver Cloud holds 244 people and only 100 people at any one time can land on the ice in Antarctica due the strict regulations.
Day 1: Boarding the Cruise
My day began with a flight to Ushuaia, the southern-most city in the world and the starting point for the majority of cruises to Antarctica. On arrival, a number of Silversea representatives were waiting at the airport. I handed over my luggage which was taken to the cruise ship and placed in my cabin for when I arrived. I was directed to one of the six buses waiting which was to take us to the cruise but first we headed slightly out of Ushuaia to a restaurant for a delicious lamb barbecue, followed by a brief tour of Ushuaia before it was time to board The Silver Cloud.
I was shown to my cabin and shortly afterwards introduced to my personal butler, Reynaldo. All Silversea cruises feature a butler service across all standards of suite (the ships are suite-only vessels). I was staying in a Veranda Suite, the second suite category on board. It is a spacious cabin complete with a private bathroom, a walk-in wardrobe, a king-size bed and a separate living space with a comfortable sofa and a large television with an extensive movie library and even some live TV stations pre-loaded. A bottle of champagne was waiting for me on arrival and the minibar is stocked to your own requirements. All drinks are included. The veranda features a couple of chairs and a table for you to relax outside and hopefully observe a passing whale during the voyage.
As with all expedition cruises, the first activity is a safety briefing held in the Panoramic Lounge of the ship, followed shortly after by a presentation by the crew in the Explorers’ Lounge where we were introduced to the key members of the crew plus the all-important expedition team. During the meeting we were briefed on the next couple of days ahead as we sailed south, heading towards the notorious Drake Passage, one of the roughest stretches of ocean in the world. The forecast was for 60 knot winds and 7-metre waves overnight, so the decision was taken to drop anchor just before the Drake Passage and confront the bad weather in the morning to allow for a good first night’s sleep.
On the first night I opted to have room service, which is available 24 hours a day at no extra cost. There are four restaurants on board, the main restaurant on Deck 4, La Terrazza on Deck 7, Hot Rocks on Deck 8 and La Dame on Deck 4. I’ll aim to try out all four during my time on board!
Day 2: Crossing the Drake Passage
We had anchored just north of Cape Horn for the evening which made for a comfortable night. I’d ordered breakfast to be delivered to my room at 8:30 so prior to that I made use of the fitness room for a quick workout. The fitness studio offers various classes plus a number of running and cycling machines and weights.
This morning was one of practicality whereby all guests had to have their boots tagged so that they are easily identified. Most people on board The Silver Cloud rent boots through Silversea’s Ship to Shore outfitting system so there are over 200 identical pairs of boots on board. I’d brought my own boots and that is an option if you prefer to make sure your boots are the right fit and comfortable prior to travel. There was also the chance to swap the complimentary Silversea parka for a better fit if required. Mine was a size too big.
The days at sea are a time to relax. There are games on board, some limited entertainment and various lectures. Plus, it is a time to look for wildlife off the boat. It gave me a chance to do some ironing of my shirts. The butler can take care of your laundry for a price but there is also a small self-service laundry with washer/dryers and an iron.
It is commonly said that the Drake Passage is either calm (the Drake Lake) or rough (the Drake Shake), with not much in between. Today we were to experience the Drake Shake. The Silver Cloud is a relatively large ship for an expedition vessel so waves up to 3 metres are hardly felt. Today though the Drake offered up 7-metre waves and 50 knot winds, and the shake was notably confining many passengers to their cabin.
The bad weather is loved by sea birds and so for the hardy photographer it is a great time to head onto the deck or observation lounge to look for birdlife such as albatrosses and petrels. Silversea Expedition staff are on deck during this time to point out and identify wildlife for you.
The rough sea continued for most of the day and for much of the night too, but better weather was predicted for tomorrow.
Day 3: Crossing the Drake Passage
The sea was very different this morning and very flat. The Drake Shake had become the Drake Lake. The Silver Cloud is a fast expedition ship, so we had made great time and were due to get our first sighting of Antarctica this evening.
Today was a second day of lectures and briefings with a focus on the days ahead. There was a chance to sign up for sea kayaking followed by a mandatory briefing about zodiac trips and the rules which all visitors have to follow when reaching Antarctica, as imposed by IAATO (the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators).
For the zodiac trips we had been split into six groups, with about 40 people in each group. In Antarctica a maximum of 100 people are allowed at any one time on a landing site. The groups all had to have their outer layers of clothing which they had brought from home checked for biosecurity. Invasive animal and plant species pose a very real threat to Antarctica’s vulnerable environment, so it is important not to bring any foreign organic material or diseases.
There was a lot of excitement in the early afternoon when the first whale sighting took place with three fin whales being sighted off the port side of The Silver Cloud. The ship was brought almost to a complete stop to enable us to take photos and for the first time, passengers were able to head out onto the bow of the ship on Deck 5 to gain a great vantage point.
After a couple of days of room service, tonight I tried the first restaurant, the main restaurant in the ship. The main restaurant on board The Silver Cloud serves a varied a-la-carte menu and is the only restaurant on board which does not require reservations. I opted for a foie gras starter, followed by a giant prawn curry and finished with cheese and biscuits.
Upon returning to my cabin, the nightly turn down service had happened, with chocolates left out on the bed. As I looked out of the cabin window, Antarctica finally appeared. A somewhat ethereal scene in the fading light, it was simply beautiful, complemented by hundreds of penguins leaping out of the water in unison.
I can’t wait until the morning light.
Day 4: Hope Bay & Brown Bluff
The Silver Cloud anchored this morning at 6:30am just off Hope Bay. As I drew back the curtains of my cabin, the only word was ‘wow!’ We had properly arrived. There were icebergs and penguins everywhere you looked, and I could not wait to get out there.
My zodiac group was one of the first to head out today and after getting suitably wrapped up in my complimentary Silversea parka, I headed to the mud room to don my wellington boots and be assigned to a zodiac. There were ten of us in the zodiac but if you wanted a more private experience then it was possible to book a zodiac privately, at an additional charge.
Almost immediately we were lucky enough to spot a leopard seal, the apex predator in Antarctica and the main danger to penguins. Sightings of leopard seals are relatively rare and so it particularly excited our onboard videographer Thomas who described it as the best sighting he had seen in three months. The leopard seal hung around the zodiacs for almost an hour, bobbing up and down in the water and swimming under and around the zodiacs enabling us to get some great photos. Adelie penguins were positioning through the water and back onto the guano covered rocks, jumping in and out on fishing trips for their young. The size of the colonies was staggering.
We were back on board by 9 o’clock as other groups headed out and by 11, The Silver Cloud was sailing south to Brown Bluff. Brown Bluff is a well-recognised birding site due to the large colonies of Adelie and Gentoo penguins which exist on the beach. This was our first sortie onto Antarctica proper and the first time we put foot on land. The beach at Brown Bluff is backed by a steep escarpment and the stony beach is home to thousands of penguins which mainly gather at the far end of the beach. Here, parents and their chicks huddled together with the chicks making incessant demands for food. It is a great spot to see penguins feeding each other up close.
It was a fabulous first day in Antarctica and the anticipation for the next day’s adventure is huge.
Day 5: Paradise Bay & Brown Station
Through the night we sailed south along the Antarctic Peninsula and the journey continued in the morning as we travelled through one of the most picturesque parts of our trip. The Silver Cloud cruised through the beautiful Gerlache Strait and the Erreara Channel.
The sailing through the strait was spectacular and we encountered a number of humpback whales, numerous penguins plus a leopard seal lazing on a chunk of floating ice and happily posing for the cameras as everyone headed to the bow of the ship on Deck 5 for close up views.
In the afternoon The Silver Cloud anchored in Paradise Bay, just off Brown Station, an Argentine scientific base. Here we boarded zodiacs to head to the station for a wet landing. There were lots of Gentoo penguins surrounding the station, but our visit was designed for us to climb the steep hill behind the station. It was about a 10-minute walk up freshly fallen snow to the rocky outcrop at the top of the hill from where panoramic views were offered over Paradise Bay, full of glaciers and mountains. Only a small percentage of the group could manage the climb, which was steep and icy in parts.
After the climb, we boarded the zodiacs again to explore the nearby area. For an animal which is considered hard to find, we kept seeing leopard seals and were treated to a close-up view of one floating on an iceberg which the group of kayakers could get very close to.
In the evening, there was much excitement on The Silver Cloud as five killer whales (orcas) were spotted alongside a humpback whale. The captain kindly brought the ship to a halt and opened the bow deck so we could get outside and in an optimum position for photos.
Day 6: Port Charcot & Petermann Island
Overnight we had sailed to Port Charcot, named after the famous French commandant and explorer. Due to the geography of Port Charcot, it is also known as the glacier graveyard as the bay is home to lots of icebergs which wash up here and the sight is spectacular. There were icebergs of all shapes and sizes, countless penguins jumping in and out of the water plus our first encounter with crab-eater seals and Weddell seals. It was visually stunning.
When we were back on the ship it was a quick turnaround for those hardy or foolish enough to have signed up to do the Polar Plunge. This involves jumping off the ship into the icy Antarctic waters and getting out as quickly as possible after a short sharp shock to the system. About a quarter of the boat had signed up to do it. After an obligatory shot of rum, I was soon stripped to my swimming shorts, with a rope tied round my waist then in 3, 2, 1 we jumped off the ship in pairs. The water temperature was surprisingly acceptable – just at freezing point. My spectacular jump into the water turned more into a flop and I was grateful for another shot of rum as we all came out of the water, eager to get into a warm shower.
In the afternoon our visit was to Petermann Island. The island is home to a good-sized colony of both Gentoo and Adelie penguins. It was also the first and only sighting I had of a chinstrap penguin which was very photogenic and happy to pose for me. The Gentoo and Adelie penguins had a number of chicks with them, some which were very small and hopefully will survive the winter. It was fun to watch the older chicks pester their parents for food, chasing the adults around the colony in comical fashion.
Petermann island is also home to a wonderful viewpoint after a short climb to a cliff which overhangs the ocean and offers wonderful views of icebergs. The turquoise pool of water contained in one of the icebergs was an incredible colour.
The journey tonight was to take us hopefully through the Lemaire Channel, one of the most eye-catching parts of the Antarctic peninsula. The Silver Cloud is a 1C ice-class vessel so it is suitable for the Antarctic but may struggle with heavy sea ice. We were grateful therefore that another ship had navigated the channel just before us and disturbed some of the larger pieces of ice. Often, the Lemaire Channel is closed to boats due to the ice build-up. The captain once again opened the bow enabling fabulous photo opportunities until the strength of the wind determined that we had to move back inside.
That evening I ate at the La Terrazza restaurant which serves delicious Italian food. I had eaten there a few times for lunch and dinner was equally excellent with traditional Italian courses. Silversea, after all, is an Italian company at heart.
Day 7: Neko Harbour & Cuverville
Thomas, the onboard videographer, had suggested that I stay up overnight to sail through the Lemaire Channel, but bed was calling. In hindsight I should have stayed awake as in the morning we arrived into Neko Harbour, which was my favourite morning arrival so far. A truly amazing harbour surrounded by glaciers and mountains and lots of floating icebergs. The light in the morning was beautiful. We took zodiacs to a beach in the harbour where there were a number of Gentoo penguins and a good climb up to get to a viewpoint for a close-up of the glaciers. The glaciers at Neko Harbour are renowned for carving large chunks off the ice which often cause tsunamis which will wash out the beach, so the expedition staff had to be on a constant lookout for ice breaking off.
I had signed up for kayaking in the afternoon at Cuverville Island which was our next stop. Sadly, the weather was on the turn and the glorious weather of the past few days was behind us. Strong 40 knot winds had put an end to the kayaking for the day so instead I boarded a zodiac for a trip to Cuverville Island. The zodiac trip was certainly the most exciting of the voyage as the winds had whipped up quite a swell and big waves which made getting into the zodiacs more precarious than usual. As we were about to depart, we were privileged to witness the sight of a humpback whale, no more than 20 metres in front of us, coming up for air and then diving down with its tail in a classic fluke. Sadly no one had their cameras out due to the waves hitting the zodiac, but it was quite a sight to behold. The zodiac ride was bumpy and took us to the island for a wet landing. The island was inhabited by thousands of Gentoo penguins and their chicks. There were a number of Skuas trying to snatch the chicks and it was amazing to see the adults fight them off.
The beach on Cuverville Island was also littered with numerous whale bones, a relic of when the whaling ships were prevalent in the area. The journey back to the ship was bouncy to say the least and we were regularly shocked by powerful waves. The expert expedition team guiding the zodiacs did a great job to get us all safely back to the boat.
Day 8: Deception Island
The strong winds would be ever present now until we reached Ushuaia and today, we headed to Deception Island. The island is so named as it was deceptive to the first visitors here as it is not in fact an island but the caldera of a still-active volcano. The caldera is of course flooded, and able to allow ships to sail into the middle through the narrow passage. We navigated through the entrance to the caldera in the early morning with plans to explore the now-abandoned whaling station and hike around the rim of the volcano.
As the first zodiac landed on the beach it was immediately called back. The wind had picked up dramatically to 60 knots meaning that the zodiac trips had become unsafe, in particular the process of getting in and out of the zodiacs as they bashed against the ship. It was disappointing but the sensible decision and after all we were on a polar expedition so not everything is ever expected to run exactly to plan.
The afternoon activities were also cancelled and with strong winds ahead, the captain decided to sail early for Ushuaia. I took the opportunity to spend the rest of the day in the excellent photo studio with the aim to edit over 3000 photos. The photo studio has six Apple Macs and six high-spec PCs, all with the most up to date versions of Photoshop and Lightroom plus other editing software.
The evening was to be a bumpy one at sea and I was woken at around 3am when the plates and cutlery from my room service dinner went flying across the cabin as we encountered big waves! Lesson learned – put those things on the floor overnight!
Day 9: Drake Passage
The rough seas and bad weather continued for most of the day, so I ensconced myself in the photo studio until the Captain’s dinner and cocktail party in the evening. As the cruise was an expedition, there was no need to dress up formally like on a traditional cruise. Smart casual was the order of the evening.
Day 10: Drake Passage
We had made great progress across the Drake Passage and after a final day in the photo studio I’d managed to edit all my photos just prior to our arrival into Ushuaia in the early evening. As we were docking in the port at Ushuaia, all passengers met for one final time in the Explorer Lounge for a recap of the expedition and to view the video which Thomas the videographer had been shooting and editing over the past 10 days. It was a wonderful 10-minute video capturing the highlights of the voyage and a copy of the video was provided to all guests on a USB stick, along with three short videos and 20 quality images of the trip taken by the onboard photographer.
Tonight, all luggage had to be packed and left outside the cabin for collection and to be taken ashore. The evening finished with a few drinks in Ushuaia with some of the Expedition crew who were happy for a chance to get off the cruise for a night.
See a video of my journey to Antarctica on our Youtube Channel – https://youtu.be/zzv0aO2D88E
Day 11: – Fly to Santiago
This morning the cruise ended, and we were taken to Ushuaia airport for a charter flight to Santiago prior to my flight back to the UK.
As a whole, the cruise on The Silver Cloud was excellent and surpassed all my expectations. Passengers were kept well informed by regular meetings and updates plus the Chronicles, which is a daily newsletter with all the daily timings and onboard activities which proves very useful. I perhaps did not take full advantage of the onboard facilities, but for me the ship was secondary to the nature. I never used the Zagara Spa, the Library, two of the restaurants and rarely visited the bars but still had a thoroughly enjoyable time when I felt I was constantly on the go.