Fiona’s trip report
“My recent journey from the Cape Verde Islands to the Canary Islands aboard the 114 passenger adventure voyage ship Sea Spirit took the form of a ‘seminar at sea’, and what a fascinating one it was! During my three days, on what would traditionally be a repositioning voyage, I learned a great deal about the finer points of polar expedition voyaging, immersing myself in the discussions about the many opportunities a polar voyage presents.
My experience has inspired me to share some of this wisdom with clients, especially those new to polar travel, so you can get the best from an Antarctic or Arctic voyage. To this end I’ve included my jottings and suggestions here. Our annual polar travel brochure gives an overview of the itinerary options, but hopefully this will give some more ‘behind the scenes’ detail on what you might expect to see and do in the various regions together with general facts and tips – in the hope you might join Sea Spirit or 50 Years of Victory on an adventure of a lifetime!
Classic Antarctica voyages
At a couple of weeks this is the shortest possible voyage, enabling you to set foot on the Antarctica Continent with opportunities to see several species of penguin, seals and whales.
Falklands, South Georgia, Antarctic Peninsula voyages
These are for those with more available time (as it will be around three weeks) or if you’re only planning to go South once and wanting to see it all! You are adding the incredible history of the whaling industry and the enduring story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s heroic escape from Elephant Island (28 men stranded beyond all hope) and the rescue of his entire crew after the sinking of the Endurance. King penguins in their thousands and the unforgettable albatross with their unreal wingspan are two big draws of this voyage as well as the four species of penguins in the Falkland Islands. Not to mention the unique atmosphere that comes with such a remote yet inhabited islands.
- Don’t let crossing the infamous 580 nautical mile Drake Passage put you off. Aim to arrive in Ushuaia a day or so early, as jetlag is often a companion to seasickness
- Try the special ‘behind the ear’ patches which are a great way to fight seasickness
- Visit early season October to November for great photography and pristine landing sites (though the weather can be rougher)
- Bear in mind the ship monitors the weather and if the crossing is too rough, the captain will delay sailing and find alternative landings to avoid the worst of the weather
- October to November is the time for penguins courting and nest building. You’ll see King Penguin checks and elephant seals pups on South Georgia.
- December to January sees penguin chicks hatching and humpback whales arriving from tropical waters. Seal sightings are common.
- February to March is the peak of the whale season and King Penguins on South Georgia are at their most impressive. A good season for photographers as the sun is low in the sky.
- Camping here is uniquely done in bivvy bags rather than in tents. Sleeping bags go to minus 18 degrees C
- All equipment is provided. You are toasty and warm while experiencing the incredible night sky from a safe distance, or hearing the blow of a whale, the calving of a glacier or the paddling by an inquisitive penguin
- If you want to go kayaking, you’ll need to have had some previous experience so they don’t have to teach you. All double kayaks, eight for the Arctic and 16 for the Antarctic. There is a safety Zodiac driver and guides, one in the Arctic, two for the Antarctic. Dry suits are provided. Sign up prior to the voyage. Usually you will get four to six kayak forays in the Antarctic, a couple in South Georgia and six in the Arctic.
Those looking for enduring landscapes and the wow factor need look no further than Greenland.
Here you will find towering mountains and glaciers, extraordinarily remote communities, musk oxen, whales, and arctic foxes. And you’ll be best placed to see the Northern Lights on late season voyages.
- Short of time – head to spectacular iceberg-strewn West Greenland with voyages of eight to nine days on the ship.
- Serious hikers should head for East Greenland and the chance to get close to musk oxen on the tundra.
Closest to home, I’m really excited about a new voyage in May 2019 which starts in Devon!
Boarding the ship in Plymouth you call in at Tresco and its fabulous gardens, see the extraordinary birdlife of Skellig on South Coast of Ireland, cross back to the north coast of Wales for Snowdonia National Park and then Giant Causeway of West Ireland. Then it’s north to see medieval abbeys, sacred sites and the coves of Iona, Staffa and UNESCO heritage-protected St Kilda. The latter is a complicated place to reach so this is a huge bonus before heading north to Kirkwall, the Orkneys and Fair Isle for amazing heritage, marine and bird life, standing stones, Druid history and, of course, whiskey! The voyage ends in Edinburgh.
For most, you’ll start in the Arctic with a visit to Spitsbergen, located north of Norway, east of Greenland between 74 C and 81 C North. This is one of the best places in the world to encounter polar bears and a lot can be achieved in a 9-10 day trip. You’ll be sure to see walrus, seals, arctic reindeer, whales and a profusion of birds, but there are one or two other surprises too. Look out for abandoned Russian mining settlements at Barentsburg, Pyramiden and Smeerenburg and Norwegian whalers’ graves on the north coast.
- You’ll generally sail to the ice edge of the most northerly point of your trip – the location of this varies hugely year on year
- As well as guided serious hikes and gentle ambles, Sea Spirit offers free roaming at some sites
- You can bring walking boots but the rubber ‘muck boots’ provided are great for walking in so separate boots aren’t really necessary.
Franz Josef Land
My final word on the Arctic is Franz Josef Land – without a doubt one of the pinnacles of travel to the Arctic, and Sea Spirit has the distinction of being the only ship to secure permits to visit this mysterious Russian outpost of the High Arctic from Svalbard, thereby cutting the traditional sailing time to the islands from three to one and a half days from the nearest port.
This is the last stop before the North Pole and as such presents a unique array of treasures – it has 191 uninhabited islands where you’ll encounter 24 hours of daylight – and it’s the number one place in the Arctic to see polar bears and walrus. You’ll also see historic sites of the great age of polar discovery, the unique geological formation of Champ Island, the moon-like landscape and the open air museum that is the abandoned Russian Sedor station from 1914. Finally you’ll hear a lot about the perils of Nansen’s 1896 failed voyage attempt at the North Pole which ended up here.
- You’ll need a Russian visa but we’ll help you with the necessary paperwork and the ship will smooth the path with the authorities if need be
- You could also visit this as part of a North Pole Voyage on 50 Years of Victory
- This is a unique Russian-controlled National Park, and as such, six rangers will come aboard to see you safe and sound.
Heading North of North!
The North Pole is often misconstrued as a ‘bucket trip’ voyage and completely underestimated. You are on a nuclear icebreaker (50 Years of Victory) and this spine-tingling experience starts with the extraordinary atmosphere of the sealed nuclear facility of Murmansk – you have very special permission to be here! The next seven days are full of the awe and wonder of travelling on this huge and powerful ship, where hours can be spent at the bow watching the three metre thick ice crushed like a knife through butter or parked up for an incredible encounter with the king of the Arctic.
North Pole Day at 90 degrees North is unforgettable. There are overflights, celebrations, ceremonies and usually a BBQ on the ice, and eight to 10 hours are spent here before heading south, all the while in 24 hours of daylight. The added bonus is a couple of days in equally magical and unique Franz Josef Land on the way back, where the magnificent ship can reach right up to glacier faces.
This is an intensely emotional trip and the ship itself is totally unique. It will give you goose-bumps just to look at it!
- The best thing is there’s no seasickness on board as the ship is so massive and stable
- The polar bear encounters will be quite something – in many cases they come right up to the ship on the ice edge and have been known to spend one or two hours close by.
- If you stand in the bow at any stage of the voyage you are the most northerly person on the planet!
I came away from this seminar feeling very personally connected to Sea Spirit, 50 Years of Victory and just some of the very special staff and with the North Pole very firmly established as a place I must visit in my lifetime.