Ocean Endeavour (Quark Expeditions) Cruise Review by drlorimom
- Sail Date: January 2018
- Destination: Antarctica
I was on the Quark Ocean Endeavor’s very disappointing 20-day expedition, “Antarctica East & West: The Peninsula in Depth” Jan. 24- Feb. 13, 2018. What was delivered, in terms of locations visited, only remotely reflected what was marketed & sold (at high cost!).
On Day 1 passengers met Quark in Buenos Aires, spent a night in hotel, and flew to Ushuaia for embarkation. This part was efficiently run and there was excitement in the air as we passengers met one another and anticipated great times ahead. There was some time to explore the small town on this day; and upon return after the cruise 19 days later we could explore beautiful Patagonia as part of a tour.
The advertised itinerary (aside from Buenos Aires & crossing Drake Passage twice) was: Day 5: Elephant Island; Day 6-8: Weddell Sea; Day 9-15: Antarctic Peninsula and Antarctic Circle; Day 16-17: Shetland Islands.
Instead Quark provided: a view of Elephant Island from the ship (Day 5); ten days in Weddell Sea (Days 6-15), the vast majority surrounded by impenetrable ice; and a very busy two days on the western side of the peninsula trying to make up for lost time (days 16 & 17). Most passengers (like me) had chosen this trip in order to see "the peninsula in depth" as advertised; but that was not delivered.
No Antarctic Circle. No Shetland Islands. (No Lemaire Channel, Damoy Point, Danco Island, Enterprise Island, Melchior Islands, Neko Harbour, Petermann Island, Port Lockroy, Waterboat Point, Brown Bluff,… or any of the many other enticements listed in the pre-booking documents). Although Elephant Island was listed in the itinerary as “the first land you’ll visit”, there was no landing. It was only after we couldn’t land that it was explained that boats rarely land there. I can appreciate how weather, including fog as in this case, can alter plans; but the HIGH UNlikelihood of a landing was NOT revealed prior to boarding the ship.
On Day 6 after two very enjoyable zodiac trips, the ship’s passage to Paulet Island was blocked by impassable sea ice. Expedition staff members were highly motivated to maximize time on the east side, as only one person on the ships’s staff had visited that side of the peninsula before. The decision was made to travel an extra ~120 nautical miles around the northern islands and tip of the peninsula to the west side and RE-ENTER the icy, eastern side via the Antarctic Sound to access Paulet Island on Day 7. We were subsequently completely surrounded by the previously encountered ice, and stranded in the area.
At this point, it became a waiting-and-hoping game. We were COMPLETELY at the mercy of Mother Nature to sweep in with a strong windstorm to push out the ice so that we could carry on. There were NO other ships in the area, NO icebreakers, NO rescue helicopters…just our ship w/199 passengers & ~150 staff/crew.
While the expedition staff searched for things to fill our time, the ship’s crew was on High Alert: working double shifts (16-19 hrs); more than doubling of the number of crew on watch (fore & aft); navigation bridge was closed to guests; and the stressed ship’s captain was sleeping on a cot at the bridge (this information was not shared with passengers at the time but we learned later by talking with ship employees). There was a relatively small, shifting space of open water in which the ship’s crew would readjust our position so as to avoid hitting any of the enormous icebergs or rocky land in the area.
Many may consider that “an adventure". Some passengers on the ship were aware of what going on and were NOT amused: some were angry and some were very frightened. At the other extremes were the blissfully ignorant; and those hoping we would have to be airlifted by helicopter.
DO NOT be falsely reassured by Quark website & literature, touting reinforced hulls and icebreakers, which in fact, are NOT capable of navigating the ice that our ship encountered.
Furthermore, within the pre-boarding documents listed as FAQ, a rather upbeat, less-than-candid description is given regarding icebergs & icy conditions. “The Expedition Leader keeps well informed of the ice conditions through constant communication with other vessels, local communities, and the ship’s officers who consult ice charts provided by government agencies.” This is misleading, as well, particularly when referring to the eastern side of the Peninsula. There were no other vessels, local communities and realtime ice charts to consult. It was a guessing game. We were first waiting/hoping for a wind to take place on Sat., Feb. 3 (Day 11) that failed to materialize. The next great hope was for the following Tues. (Day 15), which, thankfully, came through, and the ship fled to the western side of the peninsula.
Ship’s staff did their best to entertain guests while we were stuck in the Weddell Sea (Prince Gustav Channel/Ross Island area). At one point the plan was to take passengers by zodiac onto land to visit Czech researchers who happened to be nearby, but this was cancelled when ice rushed in and rendered passage impossible. The contingency plan (according to a staff member), if the ice would have moved in an hour later than it did (i.e., when passengers were already on land), was for passengers to overnight in sleeping bags with a day’s worth of provisions. (I wonder: Was any thought given to medical conditions/medications, obesity, and elderly status- all of which would have made it very uncomfortable, even dangerous for some guests?)
Antarctica itself is a magnificent, other-worldly place like nowhere else on Earth. I saw amazing scenery and fantastic wildlife (MANY penguins & other birds, and many whales) and created unforgettable memories (good & bad). A great deal of effort went into planning this “trip of a lifetime”. Ultimately, poor judgement was exercised on the part of the expedition leader (in this case, Solen Jensen, a nice fellow who is apparently very experienced in Polar travel…but not on the Eastern side of Antarctica). The heavy ice encountered was visible to everyone on the ship; yet the decision was made to go ~125nm out of our way to re-enter the icy conditions.
I spoke at length with several members of Quark administration and there has been no offer of compensation, apology, or admission of responsibility for this debacle. They do recommend that passengers bring “a measure of flexibility to the voyage” and emphasize that itineraries often change (website says “to others equally as interesting”…although that was obviously not true in this case!)
Quark staff and ship’s crew were very kind, courteous people and willing to mingle with guests; enthusiastic, with a love of adventure. Communication about wildlife sightings was excellent and most expedition staff exhibited great respect for the animals in their environment, with us as visitors/intruders. However, expedition staff’s level of experience and expertise varied greatly. While some were VERY capable and I would comfortably place my life in their hands, others left guests feeling uneasy and in search of someone more competent.
The ship, Ocean Endeavor, was not adequate for predictably navigating the intended course that was set out & sold to guests prior to the expedition. Aside from that, there were significant issues with temperature regulation within the guest cabins (some were very cold- mine was as low as 17C/63F the first time mechanic checked) and staff/crew did their best to address that problem; over days it was eventually satisfactorily resolved. The food was very good, and there were always healthy options available (plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, etc.). Other facilities on the ship (though not like what is available on typical cruise ships) were comfortable and served guests’ needs well enough. The fitness room is quite small but was usually not busy. The yoga classes were very popular. It's a fairly simple, low-frills ship, in terms of onboard amenities. The hotel staff was superb, although perhaps overburdened with responsibilities. The ship was nevertheless kept clean and the steward was always friendly and courteous. There was one home schooled child on the ship and the staff went out of their way to make it an enjoyable learning experience for him.
The ratings were a little challenging because of the extremely altered itinerary and the resultant fact that guests were left with a lot of unplanned time on board trying to come up with things to do (the outside deck for walking laps was very busy). The shore excursions that we did were generally excellent and well run (although the quality of guide varied tremendously; and that in turn influenced the zodiac experience).
Antarctica as a destination is absolutely phenomenal, but getting there & back comes at a cost. The risks involved are not explained up front. Indeed, I was unable to find a similar description anywhere either before or after taking this cruise. There are plenty of videos and descriptions of the Drake Passage, and I was able to mentally prepare for whatever that presented, prior to this expedition. On another website (TripAdvisor) where I posted a review after this cruise, previous visitors to Antarctica stated that one should expect this sort of experience when traveling to this remote part of the world, "It's an expedition" after all. Had I know in advance what this meant, I would not have chosen to go on this cruise. I have traveled fairly extensively and know that there's always a degree of unpredictability and that itineraries frequently change, weather can be awful, etc. Hopefully this review will help others to make a more informed choice.
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