February 2, 2020, in a fog bank off of Antarctic Sound.
Someone cried out. “A cruise ship! What’s cruise ship doing here?” Of course, we all laughed because we’re ON a cruise ship, it’s just that you don’t expect to see other cruise ships in Antarctica. But there are 9 cruise ships within 20 nautical miles of us according to my navigation app and we’ve seen at least 4 of them today. In fact, we had to stay in position while another ship cleared a strait we were to take in the other direction.
But the mystique of Antarctic travel can breed the fiction of being alone. This part of our cruise is branded as an “expedition” and we have an “expedition leader” Dr. Peter Cary (who was also on Prinsendam 5 years ago.) He leads the “expedition team” which includes Peter, a zoologist, Jason Kelley, a geologist and Gabriela Roldan, an expert in the humans’ relationship with the Antarctic. Perhaps expedition is the wrong word for Holland America to use. Seminar would be more apt. The lectures by the three are engaging, explaining the history of Antarctic treaties, the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, why Antarctica is much colder than regions at similar latitudes in the North (like where I live), how glaciers form and Antarctic sea birds. The commentaries on the public address by the team add to our understanding of what we’re seeing. We even got a “textbook” co-written by the team leader. (Who, by the way, is a University of Alaska alumnus.) But seminar does not have the same panache as expedition. So, expedition it is.
This expedition even has a “base camp” the cushiest base camp imaginable. It’s located in the Crow’s Nest bar, the observation lounge in front of the ship where the expedition team takes questions, does a debrief and in the evening tells travelers’ tales, kind of like a campfire with alcohol. (These sessions were a particular favorite for me. I love good stories well told.)
But this is one expedition where, between watching whales and penguins or exploring glaciers from the comfort of a ship, you can have song and dance man entertain you with the music of Cole Porter in the style of Frank Sinatra, dance to one of two combos or enjoy a gourmet meal where some of the dishes have expedition type names, names like “pemmican,” which In this case is an appetizer of thin sliced prostitute (ok, auto correct did this to me and I decided to leave it, but you know what I mean, prochutte.) with dried fruits. I’ve had the real thing and it’s nothing like this. And this is nothing like the expeditions from the heroic age we honor except that we are subject to the weather. The sojourn into Antarctic Sound to see the huge icebergs that have broken off the Larsen ice shelf was scrubbed because of 200-meter visibility.
Some of our shipmates have their own stories to add. A few have worked in Antarctica in the past and one is disappointed because Palmer Station canceled our call for fear of the COVID-19 Virus spreading to the isolated station. (There is none on the ship that I’m aware of, we got on before it started, but an abundance of caution…) Some of the folks who have adventured in Antarctica before now use walkers or other mobility devices. This is a wonderful way for them to recapture some old memories and build new ones.
Crew members from Indonesia and the Philippines take time off from duties to watch a whale breach, penguins swim or a seal haul out on an iceberg. Passengers make space on the rail so they can take pictures to send home via their cell phones. Their time is limited, we have all day. One of the ship’s photographers from South Africa is bundled up with a scarf and stocking cap. She is excited. She has never seen snow before.
In a way this is a fantasy expedition where we can imagine ourselves in the footsteps of Shackleton. Okay we were not icebound for a year and stranded on Elephant Island, but we were prevented from going where we wanted by ice, is that good enough. We had to scrub our visit to Antarctic sound because of fog and ice, does that count? Only in my vivid imagination. On Thursday we cruised past a penguin rookery on Deception Island, so named because it looks like there is passage through the island but it’s really the entrance to the caldera of a still active (but not presently active) volcano, a dead end On this cruise we can deceive ourselves into thinking we’re Antarctic explorers. It’s a wonderful deception.