Central South AmericaExpedition Cruise Travel

Intimate Antarctic sailing on Silver Explorer

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A humpback whale surfaces in front of a Zodiac with Silver Explorer passengers just off Davis Island.
A humpback whale surfaces in front of a Zodiac with Silver Explorer passengers just off Davis Island. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

As the expedition cruise trend builds momentum, it's not surprising that a significant amount of the new tonnage is ending up in the Southern Ocean, sailing along the Antarctica peninsula and its islands.

Regardless of which ship a passenger chooses, they will see icebergs, penguins, whales and seals. All will ride Zodiacs, and many will have the option to kayak along the rugged coast and experience a "polar plunge" into frigid waters.

So how do various lines differentiate the experience?

Scenic offers a helicopter and submarine. Aurora organizes snorkeling in dry suits. Lindblad/National Geographic leans into its expedition roots. Atlas has scheduled a professional tennis match on the continent on a sailing hosted by John and Patrick McEnroe. (Rumors of an Antarctic Jimmy Buffett concert for Atlas guests are also circulating; talk about changes in latitude!)

One might expect that the expedition ship Silver Explorer -- built in 1989 and owned by Silversea Cruises since 2007 -- might have some challenges competing in a market dominated by newer ships with shiny bells and whistles and attention-getting special events.

But on a February sailing, I found it to be a perfect match for the destination, for several reasons.

Small matters

It's smaller than most competitors -- at 6,072 tons, it's about 25% smaller than the next smallest luxury ship, a third the size of most of its competitive set and a fifth the size of a few others. (Despite what seems like a flood of new ships in Antarctica, the total global luxury expedition market has only 2,850 total berths, about half the number of the recently inaugurated Wonder of the Seas.)

In an environment like Antarctica, where weather plays an outsize role in determining where ships call on any given day, that smaller size matters, allowing more options for landings if the weather isn't cooperating for planned stops. Two of the islands we called on were not only unplanned, they were never previously visited by the captain or expedition leader.

The small size makes a difference because there are limits on the number of people who can disembark at a landing site at any one time. The Silver Explorer doesn't have to split the passengers into shifts; I routinely stayed ashore for three to four hours at each stop.

There were also some "old school" luxury touches that Silversea maintains and that are, perhaps, especially welcome in Antarctica. Silversea Cruises chief commercial officer Barbara Muckermann said the line is one of the few with a butler assigned to every suite, which, she added, "makes a difference when you come back drenched and full of mud."

Or when returning from a polar plunge. In suites that have bathtubs, staff offered to have a hot bath drawn and a bottle of Champagne waiting for those willing to dive into 36-degree water.

Like many of the luxe vessels sailing around Antarctica, the staff/guest ratio is about 1:1. But the best-in-class ratio on the Explorer I most appreciated was its "experts"/guest ratio of 1:9. To get to Antarctica, one crosses the notoriously rough Drake Passage, and on those days, several lectures are planned. Those presentations were made by people who, when not aboard the Silver Explorer, are out conducting research on birds, whales, seals and ice. 

A Shackleton exploration

The speaker who really stole the show was Peter Damisch, an Ernest Shackleton buff who gave a two-part multimedia presentation about the explorer that had everyone on the edge of their seats. This was the week before Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, was finally found, more than 106 years after it sank. (How big a Shackleton buff was he? Damisch showed photos of his wedding, which he held at Shackleton's gravesite on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.)

Passion for lecture material was more the rule than the exception. The seal expert, Federico Beaudoin, had devised a way to "tag" ferocious leopard seals noninvasively, though it requires him to crawl on ice floes with them, calm them and paint an identifier with peroxide on the fur of their hindquarters. The whale expert, Toby Stephenson, engaged all the passengers in a project to help identify and track humpback whales by photographing their tail flukes.

"This is a safari at sea," Muckermann said with pride. "We are gimmick-free."

To Muckermann's point, cutting through the Antarctic waters is indeed akin to being in the African savannah. On 90-minute "Zodiac cruises," or even on relatively brief Zodiac transfers to land, we were likely to see whales and seals rise out of the water as they fed and hunted. Birdlife, too: penguins swimming, petrels skimming the surface and skuas wheeling overhead.

All the "experts" came ashore with us at every stop; no question about penguins, seals, birds or whales went unanswered.

An iceberg art gallery

The animal life is no less exciting for being ubiquitous, but what I hadn't expected was the beauty of the icebergs as we moved through them. One sees familiar shapes, similar to cloud-watching: A turtle. A foot, complete with toes. A mushroom. A cruise ship.

Some had lines forming patterns that could have been raked into a Zen garden, or featured slashes as if made by a samurai's sword. (Fun facts: The original definition of an iceberg, which has never been officially updated, is "at least the size of an English country cottage." The next size down is a "bergy bit," then comes a growler and, finally, brash ice.)

But perhaps the most exciting thing we saw from a Zodiac was the thunderous collapse of an ice cave into dozens of bergy bits and growlers.

The core Antarctic experience -- the animals, the birds, the ice -- is likely somewhat similar regardless of which ship you sail in Antarctica. I can't say I'd turn down a ride in a helicopter or sub, or a chance to watch a McEnroe brothers tennis match, but if an intimate (and luxurious) look at the continent, illuminated by passionate experts, is what floats your boat, the Silver Explorer still delivers. 

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