Antarctica truly is the last frontier. The lure of the White Continent has called to explorers and adventurers; whalers and furriers; scientists and conservationists.
During the past thirty years tourists have also ventured beyond the notorious Drake Passage to explore Antarctica with its smoldering volcanic beaches, islands filled with squawking penguins and magnificent blue tabular icebergs. Most of those tourists arrived by ship. Due to the increase in ships of various size and shape, and the environmental threat they pose, in 2011 the Antarctica Treaty Organization started to regulate tourism by prohibiting in Antarctic waters any ship that burns “heavy fuel.” (See my blogs of 2010-07-30 No more big ships in Antarctica after August 2011 and 2010-02-20 Antarctica tightens restrictions on cruise ships.)
The new regulation excluded all but small, expeditionary-type vessels and larger ships that can burn lighter, cleaner fuel. In response to the demand for Antarctic itineraries Crystal Symphony will be returning to Antarctica in 2013/2014, as will Azamara Quest, Holland America’s Prinsendam, Princess’s Star Princess, and last but not least, the Seabourn Quest will make its inaugural cruise. Though most of the larger ships will do only “scenic sailing” (no landings allowed for ship carrying over 400 passengers) Crystal does advertise that it includes “a boots on the ground experience” which looks to be a flight and landing.
While onboard the Crystal Symphony I had the opportunity to ask Captain Egil Giske how the Symphony will comply with the new environmental regulations. He explained that the new Antarctic requirements are exactly the same as those imposed upon ships in the State of California. I had a chance to look into those requirements and it looks like the switch to a lighter, cleaner, more eco-friendly fuel requires no alteration to the engine department however it is more expensive. According to the number of ships back in the market looks like the cost of the expense can be off-set by the demand for the destination.
I have not heard of any immediate plans for Regent’s return to Antarctica but all I can is, I’m ready!
One would not usually associate drought conditions with the rainforest but it does happen. In the past decade The Amazon has been hit hard by two years of devastating drought conditions in 2005 and 2010. Not only did smaller tributaries dry up stranding isolated villages but dry conditions were responsible for some of the largest forest fires ever recorded. The photos are of Boca de Valeria in February 2011 and ten months later in December 2011.
We will hope that this year’s rainy season is plentiful and river levels are restored to normal levels.
This was a bitter-sweet year for the cruise industry, effective August 2011 ships that burn heavy-fuel will no longer to allowed in Antarctic waters; that restriction applies to the Seven Seas Mariner. After a less than fulfilling attempt last year, we were very anxious and hopeful at the same time that this year would be better. We had stormy seas leaving Valparaiso, Chile. We slipped into the shelter of Gulf of Ancud for a beautiful day in Puerto Montt where we were docked - first time in many years. In port with us was The World; many friends now work there and I was told they, with only 250 passengers on-board, were allowed to lower zodiacs which gave them the chance to float among pods of killer whales and go ashore to see the penguins and seals. Not only that they stayed in Antarctica for one full month! We had a great day in Laguna San Rafael where even I was awed by a huge serac that calved off the glacier and nearly swamped our catamaran with it’s wave. Continuing through Chile, we entered the southern portion of the Inside Passage via the Gulf of Penas where we saw the Tempanos Glacier in Iceberg Sound and Skua Glacier in Amalia Sound the following day. Skua Glacier was fascinating; a large portion of the right flank of the glacier was gone. A small cove has been created where the sea flooded in leaving only a crescent shaped ridge of ice along the perimeter. One of our guests Mike Gittings, took a look online and saw that Google Earth still showed the glacier extending far out into the water, so this event happened recently. Just goes to show you never know what you are going to see when it comes to Mother Nature. In Punta Arenas, Chile we picked-up our Ice Captain Goran Blumqvist. Next day we cruised past the Avenue of the Glacier in Chile before crossing into the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia. We had a meeting to look at the weather forecasts and discuss our options. Given how temperamental the weather is in Antarctica it is hard to make any predictions but as of that morning things looked good. When we sailed that evening it was under clear skies and calm seas. Crossing the Drake Passage we experienced Drake’s Lake! Not bad at all. Day One, we arrived at Deception Island in the South Shetlands; we had perfect visibility at Neptune’s Bellows, the entrance to Port Foster, the bay that sits atop the caldera of an active volcano. Given we were not going to go in as recently another ship went aground on a heretofore uncharted rock (it is an active volcanic area after all…) the Captain chose to take advantage of the good weather and head south for Paradise Bay. No sooner did we leave we sailed into dense fog and we were required to reduce our speed. However, every so often the fog would clear and the ice covered islands around the Antarctic Peninsula would show through. At one point we did see an Antarctic fur seal, gentoo and chinstrap penguins, skuas and some petrels resting together on the ledge of an old worn down iceberg - the perfect Antarctic photo for those fast enough to capture it. We made it to Paradise Bay at dusk. We were greeted on the radio by the Chilean research base, not knowing we were too big to land boats, they invited us over for supper! Can you believe it? We slipped slowly through the bergs in the bay as the ice on the mountaintops turned pink and lilac with the setting sun. Our intention was to stay the night in the bay. Day Two, as it does, the weather turned and we were forced to wait outside on the Gerlache Strait. Next morning we awoke to 4 inches of snow on deck and high winds. That morning was particularly chilly for me - several days earlier the glass in the sliding door of a guest cabin broke - my cabin was one of the few that matched the needed glass. So my glass door was used to replace their door and in place of my door a single-ply piece of plywood was installed. I don’t think anyone was thinking about it getting cold in Antarctica when they gave me the uninsulated plywood. Well, that morning I awoke and not only could I see my breath in my cabin (with the heat on full blast!) there was frost on my plywood door. All I could think about was how on earth the early explorers stayed down in Antarctica in ill-fitted, drafty, wooden boats or thin tents without Gortex and all the other modern conveniences. We headed for were on our Half-moon Island which we reached by late afternoon. The island in known for its huge colony of chinstrap penguins which normally are clearly visible from ship. The wind raged on and the penguins were no where to be seen; with binoculars you could find a few but not many. The bright red-orange Argentine navy base was about the only thing seen well on the rocky little island. Happy for the company the ten men stationed there invited us over for a visit but we had to respectfully decline. Captain then said we would set-off full speed for Elephant Island adding four destinations to our otherwise three-destination itinerary. Day Three, we awoke in front of imposing Elephant Island which was covered by substantially move ice and snow than we had experienced last year. After viewing from afar the narrow, rocky beach front that could have been one of the many landing sites assessed by the Shackleton Expedition, we left by late morning for the The Falkland Islands. Last year our cruise was dogged by high winds, rough seas and huge — HUGE! — tabular icebergs. This year the seas were relatively calm, the skies opened several times to reveal the breathtaking landscape, we saw whales, seals, penguins and sea birds. Though we saw ice, we did not see any magnificent tabular icebergs this time - for so, the only disappointment. All in all, the weather did cooperate and we were able to take full advantage squeezing in more than we had hoped to see. For those whose appetite for Antarctica has just been whet and you now want more, or for those who have not yet been and dream of the day, I wholeheartedly encourage to look into one of the small expeditionary ships that will still operate. Companies include National Geographic/Linblad, Quark Expeditions, Orion Expeditions and Polar Cruises. I have even heard that Azamara is retrofitting a ship to comply with the new environmental regulations. There is no place like Antarctica. You’ve gotta go!
The long awaited decision has been made, starting August 2011 ships burning heavy fuel will no longer be allowed in Antarctic waters. This ban will affect most cruise ships in Antarctica; and all cruise ship carrying more than 500 passengers.
Heavy fuel is the sludgy dregs that remain after diesel is refined. It burns less efficiently than pure diesel or gasoline and produces pollutants harmful to the fragile Antarctic ecosystem. Large cruise ships are built to use heavy fuel as it is less expensive than pure diesel or gasoline. Investment in conversion to lighter fuels would be prohibitive due to the high cost and the limited season – some ships call on Antarctica only once a year. The decision to ban ships carrying heavy fuel was made by the International Maritime Organization citing environmental factors. The decision will affect Princess, Holland-America, and Regent. Small expeditionary ships that burn a mixture of diesel, gasoline and oil will still operate. Steve Wellmeier, Executive Director of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators said in a statement to the press, “Largely, it will be the large cruise-only vessels that are affected, rather than the smaller expedition ships that most people think of as Antarctic cruising.”
Though the ban will reduce the numbers of visitors arriving by cruise ship from over 15,000 to 6,000, environmentalists are not convinced the White Continent is sufficiently protected. Small ships do burn cleaner fuel but their smaller passenger load requires more departures to move the same amount of people that would arrive on one large ship thereby contributing more pollutants to the environment albeit cleaner pollutants. The other factor of small ships is a double-edged sword — landings. Ships carrying more than 400 passengers have never been allowed to lower boats of any kind, no guests ever went ashore. Small ships do lower landing craft; trips by zodiac including shore landings where guests can walk among thousands of penguins or bath in beach-side thermal pools are a major selling point of these cruises. Biologists do not know what affect this human contact is having on the wildlife and the fragile ecology.
In the end, this ban is all about safety. Were a large ship to spill heavy fuel in Antarctica the effects would be catastrophic. Isolation and climatic extremes would make clean-up equipment hard to find and clean-up efforts even harder to implement. The fact is large cruise ships are more vulnerable, their hulls have been built for the Caribbean not Antarctica. Unlike small ships, they are not ice hardened nor do they carry survival suits, those bright red-orange, insulated and weatherproof jacket/suits seen in photos of Antarctic expeditions. Survival suits are warm and easily detected in case of emergency. As someone who has sailed around South America 37 times, I know that every cruise has passengers who come unprepared for the cold weather including Antarctica.
The Antarctic experience is like no other in the world and I hope everyone who wants to go will get the chance. It looks like the best way to keep that option available will be smaller ships with better prepared guests on ice hardened ships, burning more environmentally friendly fuel while visiting more regulated regions.
Now you are probably thinking - is this a joke? The answer is no. My Alaska correspondent - Dr. Charles Iliff - keeps me up to date with everything newsy going on in Southeast from the sublime to the ridiculous. As many of you know, several cruise lines have pulled out of Alaska effective this summer due to a high head tax and strict environmental regulations. Many ships have been redeployed to Mexico and the Caribbean where there is no head-tax or environmental concerns. These regulations which require ships to conform to costly standards for waste water treatments do not apply to - you got it - submersible craft! According to Buckwheat Donahue, Skagway Director of Tourism, a local tour operator has partnered with the Russian navy to bring Soviet-era submarines to Alaska where they will operate tours in Upper Lynn Canal. The subs will undergo a cosmetic upgrade including replacing the Soviet flag with an Alaskan flag. The subs will travel below the silted water of the fjord allowing visitors to see the unique life of the deepest fjord in the world. The local activist group, People Outraged Over Progress, (yes, POOP — I know, only in Alaska) want to close the loop-hole in the waste water regulation but so far service is still scheduled to begin this summer 2010.
You know those moose nuggets sold as gags in souvenir stores throughout Alaska? Well, it may be they could be worth something! According to scientists studying the droppings trace amounts of 24 K gold has been recovered. They estimate that 4,372 moose nuggets yield 1 troy ounce of gold. Consequently, moose turd mining has become quite popular. Experts say that freshness and location do not affect quality.
Finally, last week the Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Sitka was happy to announce that four eagles that had been rescued and rehabilitated have been released. That’s good news!
The excitement mounted as we made our way into the port of Ushuaia. The wind blew a cold, stiff breeze from the south that put everyone in the Antarctic mood; everyone but the passengers on the Celebrity Infinity that was back in port after an aborted attempt at the same itinerary as ours. They said they hit bad weather and had to turn back. This was not their only missed port and the passengers were “mutinous” as one person put it. They were going to follow us out that afternoon and try again.
Those guests that did not bring adequate clothing shopped for hats, gloves and yes, long underwear. I can see now why the economy in Ushuaia is booming.
In Ushuaia, Capt. Goran Blomqvist joined the ship as the official Ice Pilot. He was captain aboard the Marco Polo for many years and knows the area intimately. A no-nonsense Swede, he was an imposing figure on the bridge.
Day One – Drake Passage
Ah, the Drake Passage lived up to its reputation – it was awful. The moment we left the Beagle Channel we were hit by a wall of wind. Though there was momentary hope that we would have been able to do Cape Horn en route to the Antarctica Peninsula, it was obvious that was not going to happen as the seas were against us. We tossed about all night and day in gales that reached 75 mph (Category 1 - hurricane strength.) The open decks were closed and the outside doors were barred shut. It certainly made us appreciate the fortitude of the early explorers who ventured into similar conditions in small, wooden sailing ships.
As part of our requirements by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) and the Antarctic Treaty, I gave the guests their briefing on the official Visitor’s Guidelines along with an explanation of our intended itinerary. As this was our first time in Antarctic waters the officers on the bridge contacted all others vessels in the area to let them know our proposed course and ask for any relevant information on conditions.
Day Two – Our first proposed stop was Deception Island, a circular island that is the remnant of a volcanic caldera. We had hoped to enter into Port Foster, the sheltered bay in the middle of the island where you can see thousands of chinstrap penguins on the rocks and beaches steaming from geothermal springs. Unfortunately, the clouds were low and the wind was still very high; huge growlers (pieces of ice bergs) were bobbing up and down in the tumultuous sea like socks in a washer. I was on the bridge trying to find something to say, visibility was very bad. I could see growlers hurtling toward us at very high speed. Looming on the horizon we saw our first tabular icebergs – the huge, flat bergs that can be up to 180 miles long! Captain Blomqvist estimated that these were about two miles long. In the high seas waves crashed against their 200 foot walls forming arching waves of spray. Some waves were so high they crested over the top of these immense bergs. It was impressive. Unfortunately, the wind and waves kept us far from Deception Island. Though we were in the shelter of the Antarctic Peninsula to the east and the South Shetlands, including Deception Island, to the west, we were still being bounced around. I used the lack of visibility as a good time to invite everyone into the theater for a talk on the geologic make-up of Antarctica.
By late morning the decision was made to head north and motor until the afternoon when we would try Deception Island again. The weather in Antarctica changes by the hour. It was not inconceivable that by afternoon it would change in our favor, but it didn’t. With nothing to see and nowhere to go, the Captain Felice Patruno chose to wait out the evening outside of the South Shetlands where there was less threat of ice and see what the weather would be like in the morning.
Day Two – The weather did not improve. There was a low pressure right above us that Captain Blomqvist described as “unusually stubborn.” Normally it would have moved on by now, but it did not. We motored up and down the west coast of Livingston Island while Captain Patruno communicated with other ships in the area. The Star Princess went south to Paradise Bay, our next intended stop. She reported that she was going sideways more than straight ahead due to the wind and that she encountered a lot of ice. The decision was made that it would not be wise to attempt Paradise Bay or Half Moon Island, so we moved on to our designated alternative in the event no other destination could be reached – Elephant Island.
To appreciate our visit to Elephant Island it is important to know the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men. Elephant Island is the rocky outcrop that was where Shackleton and his 27 men made landfall after their ship The Endurance was crushed by pack ice. Though the men were happy to set foot on land after 497 days on the ice, Elephant Island was no paradise. Its steep hillsides are covered by glaciers that produce bitterly cold winds that rip across the narrow, rocky beaches. Twenty-two men stayed on the island for five months while Shackleton took the remaining five to seek help by sailing the 22 ½ foot lifeboat The James Caird across the north Weddell Sea to South Georgia Island, some 800 miles away! I wanted everyone to hear this story so we announced an impromptu lecture in the theater.
We passed Outlook Point, it was raining and snowing. We approached closer into the shelter of the bay and sat among towering tabular bergs. True to form, within minutes of being there strong winds blew in snow and sleet and just as quickly blew out the clouds to reveal magnificent, ice covered mountains. Snow swirled badly around the tops of the peaks like ghosts flying out of a haunted house. The clouds opened up to the east and Clarence Island miraculously appeared. Though it is twice as tall as Elephant Island it was completely hidden by the clouds. As the sun sank lower it cast an ever-changing palette of color on the ice covered mountains. It was so beautiful (and calm) the captain decided to stay the night in the shelter of Elephant, Cornwallis and Clarence Islands. It was beautiful.
Day three – The hope was that if the weather was good we could see the north side of Elephant Island, the place where Shackleton’s men made their five month camp. But, the weather predictably changed, this time for the worse. Our obstinate low pressure was joined by two other low pressures that guaranteed more of the same.
Since the low pressures would also bring rough seas, we used the time to proceed slowly toward The Falkland’s minimizing any onboard discomfort, as we had had enough, thank you very much. Our reduced speed allowed us to see a pod of humpback whales lunge feeding and four very curious fin whales. Fin whales are the second largest whale in the world next to blue whale and we estimated these guys were about 70 feet. One whale came us and looked at us, turned around and came back to look at us and them turned around to join his pod. It was the first time in all my years of whale watching that I have ever seen a whale look at us – that was pretty cool.
We had an easy crossing to The Falkland’s where we had a perfect day. Though I can understand the disappointment of not seeing all that we had hoped to see, our time near Elephant Island did give us a chance to have a real “Antarctic Experience.” We were able to stay long enough in one place to see the landscape is transformed morning till night by snow, wind, clouds and even an occasional burst of bright sunshine. For me those few hours transfixed on those islands was worth the trip.
Antarctica is not a country and therefore has no government to enforce laws. The continent contains the most pristine environment in the world making it the one place that would benefit most from enforceable regulation. In many ways it is similar to the Amazon, rich in resources scattered over thousands of miles of inhospitable land with no means of policing its vast area. Antarctica has only its Treaty to protect it, a continent larger than Australia.
Cruise ship arrivals to Antarctica have more than doubled in the past five years. The increase comes not just from more small expeditionary vessels but large cruise ships which account for the vast increase in annual visitors. Proponents of the big ships argue that they have less environmental impact because they carry more people per sailing thereby reducing the amount of pollution generated compared to the number of sailings required by a small ship to carry a similar number of people. Ships over 500 passengers are also prohibited from making landings.
Members of the Consultative Nations of the Antarctic Treaty are not convinced. They have grave concerns about larger ships in Antarctica. They say traditional cruise ships are not ice hardened, nor do they carry survival suits or gear onboard appropriate for the extreme weather were the ship to experience an emergency, and ships with external propulsion systems (azipods) are also more vulnerable to ice increasing the possibility of an accident. Were such an accident to happen the potential loss of life and environmental damage would be monumental.
This May, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) will meet to decide whether or not to prohibit cruise ships that burn heavy fuel from entering into Antarctic waters. That would eliminate all big ships and even some smaller ships as the burning of cleaner gas and diesel mixture would be too expensive. By approaching the issue this way, not only are heavy fuel pollutants eliminated but also the vessels that produce them along with all their inherent issues.
Going back to the opening remark, Antarctica is not a country and has no government to enforce laws. Participating member countries of the Antarctic Treaty uphold its guidelines; but they are only guidelines. Forty-seven countries have signed the treaty, but what about the rest of the non-member countries? Antarctica is like no other place on the planet and requires the cooperation of every country for its conservation and protection; I hope the international cruise industry agrees and will support whatever decision the IAATO makes in May.
Well the Cruiser Friendly Guide to Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula is a reality. The book is available online at shophollandamerica.com, amazon.com and cruiserfriendly.com. I am also very happy to report that it is now available on Kindle.
Starting in 2011, cruise ships carrying “heavy fuel” will not be permitted within the zone protected by the Antarctic Treaty which is everything south of 60 ̊ S latitude. That means that ships like the Seven Seas Mariner will be prohibited from even cruising through Antarctic waters. This action is the result of an increased number of “heavy fuel” cruise ships in the area and the mounting potential for adverse environmental and ecological impact. Heavy fuel is known to produce combustion related residue. The biggest culprit is sulfur. To conform to local regulations in many countries cruise lines are fitting their ships with state of the art “scrubbers.” Though these scrubbers minimize these emissions they are still more than can be absorbed by the Antarctic environment.
Antarctica is one of the last places on earth that is still relatively untouched by man. Due to the harsh nature of the environment man has had a limited presence on the Great White Continent. In Antarctica nature is balanced very delicately, one small alteration can have a deleterious down line effect. Ships carrying more than 500 passengers are automatically restricted to where they can go and are denied any small boat landings. Most of the larger ships are the same ones that carry “heavy fuel.”
It will be interesting to see what happens. Advocates of large ships in Antarctica say they can safely transport more people to the region with less environmental impact than the number of smaller ships it takes to transport a comparable amount. Those that are in favor of having only small ships in Antarctica say that the smaller size appeals to a more serious, expeditionary clientele that can better adhere to and control environmental and ecological concerns.
For years I have dreamed that one day cruise ships would focus on Southcentral Alaska. Looks like my dreams are coming true.
In 2010, Holland America’s flagship the Amsterdam will begin The Alaskan Adventurer itinerary, 14-day cruises round-trip from Seattle. The cruise will call upon Ketchikan, Tracy Arm, Juneau, Skagway, Sitka, Hubbard Glacier, Anchorage, Homer, Kodiak and Victoria B.C.!
In my opinion this cruise is great; it calls on the two best glaciers in the state - Sawyer and Hubbard; all the traditional ports - Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Sitka plus Alaska’s largest city - Anchorage; Alaska’s most popular art’s community - Homer; Alaska’s largest island and home of the largest bears in the world - Kodiak; and Canada’s charming garden city of Victoria. As an added bonus - while cruising up Cook Inlet to Anchorage guests will see the most active chain of volcanoes in the state including Mt. Redoubt which most recently erupted March 2009.
I am very happy to see that Holland America believes there is a market for a 14 day cruise to Alaska. Seven days is not enough. Those travelers who enjoy cruising to new and different places will not be disappointed. By venturing beyond the Inside Passage, the Alaskan Adventurer highlights the “real Alaska” - a more authentic aspect of the state. And the convenience of on and off in Seattle makes this cruise near perfect. Detractors point out that this cruise does take away from hotels stays and pre and post cruise excursions to places like Denali National Park - but for the sheer delight of cruising to Homer and Kodiak in addition to all the sights of Southeast Alaska - I still think it’s great!