Boats and Ice

Until a few years ago the mention of the word ‘cruise’ would have sent me into mild panic – the idea of being trapped with several thousand other people interested only in the theatre shows, bar or dining rooms sent a cold shudder up my spine. And the only time you get let off the boat is to mill around an over-crowded resort with the same several thousand people.

There are other cruises where the tone is very different – expedition cruises.  The emphasis on these trips is on the “expedition” bit rather than the “cruise” bit.  The boats are small, the itinerary is often vague, the meal times subject to change and dressing for dinner might involve finding a clean T-shirt – and you are very likely to get tannoyed out of your bed in the middle of the night too.

I’ve been on four “small boat” trips in recent years.  Three of these fall into the ‘expedition cruise’ category and a fourth trip, along the Norwegian coast which although it followed a rigid timetable had lots of the other elements of expedition cruising.  In this post I’ll say a little about each voyage – there will be a further post about each over the next few weeks. In addition to involving small boats, the other thing all the trip had in common was snow and ice.

The first trip was on MS Fram with Hurtigruten.  Hurtigruten are best known for voyages up the Norwegian coast, but they also run voyages in the Arctic in the northern summer, and in the Antarctic in the southern summer.   The MS Fram was purpose built for polar tourism, and although it can carry close to 400 passengers, in polar regions it usually sails with a maximum of 200.  This means lots of space on deck, and plenty of chances to get ashore.  My trip on the Fram started in Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina, and then headed due south to the Antarctic Peninsula.  We signed up for what the guidebooks call the ‘classic’ Antarctic Peninsula itinerary.  This is an 8-day/7-night trip from Ushuaia – with the intention of getting across the Drake Passage as quickly as possible and spending most of the time on the peninsula.  MS Fram is probably the ideal boat for a first trip across the Drake Passage – it’s very fast and it’s very stable.  If you’re lucky, the seasickness ‘on the Drake’ won’t be too bad, and even if it is, it’ll only take about 36 hours to get across to the relative shelter of the South Shetland Islands. Once across the passage the expedition crew will figure out a suitable itinerary probably taking in about 6 or 8 of the 25 or 30 regularly used landing sites either in the South Shetlands or on the peninsula itself.  The time you get ashore at each of the possible landing sites will be depend on the weather and also on how many fellow passengers you have.  While the Fram is an ideal ship for crossing the Drake Passage, it’s one downside, once you’re across the Passage, is that the boat is likely to have close to 200 passengers on board.  Under the terms of the IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) Charter – the ground rules for all the ships operating in Antarctic waters – ships are only allowed to put 100 passengers ashore at a time. If you are on a really small ship, this means that everyone can get ashore for the full time available for the landing. On a bigger ship, like the Fram, this means that shore time needs to be limited to ensure that everyone gets time ashore at each landing site.  I’ll say more about the landing sites in the next post, and say something about the wildlife at each location too.


My second expedition voyage was to the far north.  I spent a fantastic eight days cruising around Svalbard on a converted Russian spy ship.  The “Akademik Sergey Vavilov” was built for the Russian Academy of Science in the 1980’s as a “hydrographic research” ship and is now run by Quark Expeditions.  It’s a small ship, carrying just over 100 passengers, and is ideal for wildlife watching. It was designed to run very quietly for its “hydrographic research” which makes it perfect for stalking wildlife. I joined a trip in June 2010 where the boat been chartered by Exodus as a photographic charter searching for polar bears.  We joined the ship in Longyearbyen and then spent the next seven days searching for (and finding) polar bears, walruses and huge numbers of sea birds.  We spent many hours exploring small fjords in inflatable boats getting amazingly close to polar bears.  One real bonus on a trip to the High Arctic in  summer is that it doesn’t get dark – the downside of having fantastic scenery and wildlife to photograph 24 hours a day, is that after a few days sleep deprivation kicks in.  Another bonus of a summer trip to Svalbard is that the weather is likely to be pretty good, and there isn’t a reach of exposed sea to cross before the wildlife appears, unlike the Drake Passage which always seems to do its best to protect Antarctica from visitors.  I wrote a blog post about Svalbard at the time of the trip, and I’ll be adding another post as part of this series.

After visiting the far north, it seemed obvious that the next trip should be back to the south.  When I came back from the Fram trip I looked at the brochures to try and find my next southern voyage should be.  I had done a land-based trip to the Falkland Islands but the landmark location I needed to add to my collection was South Georgia.  Several operators offer trips that take in the Falklands and the Peninsula along with South Georgia – but although these trips were attractive, they all involved a lot of sea time and limited time at each location.  Eventually I came across a trip operated by a Dutch-based company called Oceanwide Expeditions, who were proposing a 14 night trip from Stanley in the Falkland Islands, spending 8 or 9 days around South Georgia.  All the other itineraries offered 2 or 3 days there, so the much longer time on site was a real attraction.  The Plancius was originally built for the Dutch Navy, but was converted to become a tourist boat a few years ago.  Having sailed from Stanley, the Plancius headed east across the Scotia Sea for 72 hours crossing the Antarctic Convergence, the line in the ocean where the Antarctic starts – in biological and climatic terms at least, until it reached the western tip of South Georgia.  The Scotia Sea isn’t quite the same challenge as the Drake Passage, but it is definitely enough to make carrying soup across the dining room interesting at times.  The next eight days were mostly spent ashore amongst huge numbers of penguins and seals, and at sea in the company of killer whales.  On the Antarctic Peninsula there are usually several other tourist ships around, and one of the skills of the expedition organisers is to ensure that two ships don’t plan to use the same landing site.  In South Georgia there are rarely other ships around, so the chances of meeting another group is pretty limited – this just adds to the sense of isolation of the island. The biggest challenge around any landing in South Georgia is likely to be the weather which can change very quickly.  We were incredibly lucky in only missing out on a couple of landing attempts over the whole visit.   My blog post from late 2011 gives a flavour of the trip, and I’ll saying more about the various landing sites in a later post.

My fourth trip, and most recent trip, was a little different.  It was back with Hurtigruten, but this time doing what they are best known for, i.e. hauling up and down the Norwegian coast.  On this route Hurtigruten run some very big boats, but I opted for MS Lofoten, one of the smallest and oldest boats in the fleet.  This ship was built in 1964 and still, the crew proudly say, has the original engine.  The newer boats in the fleet ripple with modern technology but the Lofoten has classic charm and lots of wood.  I joined the boat in Bergen then spent the next six days sailing north to Kirkenes, before turning round and heading back down to Svolvaer in the Lofoten Islands.  In the summer the sun rarely dips below the horizon and gives endless photographic opportunities, but in February the nights are long and dark.  However, if you get lucky, the deck of a Hurtigruten boat can be the perfect place to watch the Northern Lights.  The Coastal Voyage doesn’t have the unpredictability, in terms of schedules, of the other trips, it does however have the informality of an expedition cruise, with the crew always being ready and willing to point out the landmarks as you sail past them, and to organise excursions at lots of the ports of call. The other attraction is the ever changing group of passengers.  For many Norwegians  who live along the coast, this is the way to travel, and they hop on and off the boat as we do trains.

Over the next few weeks, I’m planning to say a bit more about each of these voyages.  They all provide a wonderful way to get close to the landscape and wildlife in some very remote places, and to do so at a sensible place.  In almost every case these ships allow travellers to get to places than just can’t be reached in any other way.

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