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Scouting in Antarctica: How Silversea Finds New Landing Spots

U.K. Executive Editor
Adam Coulter

Mar 13, 2023

Read time
7 min read

Sponsored by Silversea

In January of this year a 15-person Scouting Team, led by Stefan Kredel, Silversea's Senior Director Expedition Product and Itinerary Development, set sail for parts of Antarctica that few -- if any -- people had visited before.

Traveling on a dedicated research and expedition vessel, Betanzos, carrying two helicopters, the team went further south than most expedition ships ever venture. Over the course of 12 days, the ship visited areas which are literally uncharted -- islands, beaches and outcrops, which may have been seen by people, but don't appear on any map.

Their aim: to find new landing sites for the line's three expedition ships -- Silver Endeavour, Silver Cloud and Silver Wind -- that ply the waters in this part of the world.

But why is Silversea doing this? And what did they find on their mission?

We caught up with Kredel, who has visited Antarctica on and off every year since 1998, and Conrad Combrink, senior vice president Expeditions, Destination and Itinerary Management, to find out what a scouting mission entails.

Antarctica is Vast -- Yet Most Ships Stick to the Same Spots

Antarctica is vast, but most cruise ships ply the same relatively small area – the Gerlache Strait – a relatively small body of water separating the Antarctic Peninsula from its islands, calling on many of the same landing spots.

And with so many new expedition ships heading to the White Continent (there were 30 last season, carrying 100,000 passengers, compared to five ships carrying 9,000 passengers in 1995), finding new landing spots within this area is crucial. It's not just about the number of ships coming here – the biggest concern (as anyone who has been to Antarctica knows) is the weather – which can change in a heartbeat, so rather than skip a landing spot, Silversea can press on to an alternative site.

"Where we spend most of our time, the Gerlache Strait, where the majority of ships go, we wanted to find sites within that geographical location so we can have alternatives within the most popular area of the peninsula," Combrink explained.

Just as important, Combrink says, "is to find new sites going into a completely new area that we usually cruise by."

Silversea identified four areas: the South Shetland Islands, which includes King George Island, where the Antarctica Bridge flights come in to; the Gerlache Strait area, the most popular cruising spot for expedition vessels, and which includes Neko Harbour, Couverville and anything north of the Lemaire Channel, where Silver Endeavour was christened in November. The third area was between Antarctica Sound, going in to the Gerlache Strait; the fourth is south of the Lemaire Channel toward Crystal Sound and on to Marguerite Bay.

Part of the thinking behind going further south is because of the capabilities of Silver Endeavour, Combrink tells us. "That's an area where we generally don't operate much and of course with Endeavour and her phenomenal ice class we thought let's look where the Endeavour can go.

"Let's look at places that are specific to the Endeavour and we put Endeavour on those itineraries."

A Team of Experts is Essential

Combrink had to pull out of the mission at the last minute, asking Kredel to step in and lead for him.

Kredel (pictured left, with Bill Davis, also part of the Scouting Team), a German national, has been a lecturer and an expedition leader on cruises since 1998, and is currently in charge of expeditions and overseeing planning for new routes, destinations and experiences for Silversea. He's hugely qualified, having traversed the North West passage six times and Antarctica more than 100 times over the past 25 years.

He explains how important it is to get the right mix of people together for a scouting mission like this one:

"We had a very good mixture of people from the office, but also people who work on the expedition vessels, including one of our captains [Freddie Ligthelm, part of the crew that found Shackleton's Endurance on March 9, last year]," Kredel explains.

"This was important as he was on the bridge and when we find what we think is a great landing site we also want the captain to feel comfortable to bring our ships there. So it's not just about finding a good landing site for the guest experience, but also finding a place that's safe for our ships to approach and obviously only a nautical person can verify that.

"And with Freddie it shows we have a captain with the spirit and passion for expedition cruising, which you need for this kind of mission."

Sailing Into the Unknown

This January, Stefan explains, the ice conditions were good, but as anyone who has been to Antarctica knows full well – these can change in a heartbeat.

The perfect landing spot, Kredel explains, has to tick a number of boxes, including: wildlife, such as a penguin colony or seal haul outs; beautiful scenery; and a rocky coastline so that expedition team members can create landing spots. The ideal landing is sheltered and near enough for the ship so that the Zodiac rides are pretty swift.

"We came up with a long list and we had a map with a lot of dots where we said: 'That is of potential interest'," Kredel tells us. "The next level was to look at sea charts and see whether our ships would actually be able to go more or less close by – it doesn't matter if I have a brilliant area but the ships have to stay 10 nautical miles away."

What helped this mission was that that the captain of the Betanzos has worked in Antarctica for many years, and he already knew a number of potential places. Says Kredel, "I'm not saying we were necessarily the first human beings stepping there, but we were definitely in areas where there was very little record about it."

Using forward sonar – so the Captain could see exactly what was ahead of him – the ship headed deeper and deeper south – to areas where few, if any, people had been before.

The Majority of Antarctica is Uncharted

Kredel tells me that the further south you go in Crystal Sound and Marguerite Bay, there are only certain corridors charted and if you go a little bit left or a little bit right it's uncharted because there is no commercial interest.

The team then discussed with the captain our four target areas – and whether the weather would play ball:

"Because as you know the weather is the biggest issue for us," he explains. "Weather for us is wind and waves – the two W's – because that's the limiting factor where we can operate."

The weather did not play ball in the northwestern stretch of the peninsula, where the fog set in, but the team did find a couple of new spots.

However, in the southern part in the Crystal Sound area it was different story, the weather stayed fine and the team could deploy the helicopters on scouting missions to find some potential new spots:

"I went on the first flight out. We make sure we have a different set of people on each fight to ensure a mix of knowledge and experience" said Kredel.

"On the helicopter flight it's important that once you are in the air you know which island is below you, because once you identify an island you have to put it on the map and say: 'That was the island we just saw'.

The problem is a lot of those small islands are totally covered by ice, and there is nowhere where you could do a landing because there are no rocks, so the team discuss the potential of specific spots – while in the air and then back on the ship, before setting off the following day on Zodiacs to make landing reports.

The Scouting Team Wrote 50 Reports on Potential New Spots and Activities

In total, the team made as many as four landings a day over the 12-day period, and wrote 50 reports on hiking, landing, kayaking and Zodiac cruising. They didn't make it to Marguerite Bay (it was blocked by ice) and yet Kredel feels the mission was a success: "We had more places on the list than we could achieve in even the best conditions, so that was calculated. We managed a little bit more than we hoped, and that was a lot.

"Marguerite Bay would have been nice to have, but we'd rather skip that as we don't really go too often anyway."

Kredel described it as a "privilege" Combrink asked him to lead the mission:

"It was very special to have the opportunity to do this. I've been to many places in Antarctica by working for other companies, but we tend to go to the same places.

"So to have the chance to go to totally new places, it was a real honor and a privilege."

Expedition Teams Share Their Finding With Other Operators

And here's something interesting: Expedition team scouts record their findings and then pass them on to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators who then share them with the rest of the lines that operate in Antarctica to help them with their own scouting missions, as Combrink explains:

"It's not just us, it's about the greater good of Antarctic tourism, making sure that Antarctic tourism is sustainable and that was a big part of the Scouting Mission," he says.

There's a greater good in play here, to allow for the continued sustainability of Antarctica tourism:

"We must make we spread out the landing sites, so there are enough places for everyone to go."

He adds: "Antarctica is vast, the area that we visited is huge, but … we all go to the same places again and again."

Updated March 13, 2023
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