Amazing Antarctica Adventure: Minerva Cruise Review by dileep

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Amazing Antarctica Adventure

Sail Date: January 2010
Destination: South America
Embarkation: Ushuaia
04 January 2010

The day started out cloudy and it looked like it might rain. We decided against taking a 2-hour Beagle Channel cruise (which we had already experienced 4 years ago) and just walked the town, buying and sending postcards, and buying some sundries that we had forgotten to pack.

We ran into several people walking around in their red Minerva parkas. They all assured us that they had a great time. Some comments: "Put your wallet away. You will not need it." "If I could think of something to criticize, I would have a hard time" "Even the food was excellent" We had a quick lunch at our favorite seafood restaurant, Tante Nina's, before returning to our hotel to pick up our luggage and head to the port.

At 4 pm we boarded the Minerva for our cruise after pushing our luggage down the pier in strong wind. There was a short supply of convertor plugs from the square British sockets to the more standard European socket., but the electrician fixed me up More so I could plug my CPAP machine bedside and have a socket by the desk for the frequent recharging of camera batteries, which did surprisingly well in the cold weather. We sailed away at 6:30 pm. The welcome reception was at 7 pm after the muster drill. The adventure had begun.

General Impressions

The Minerva is owned by Swan Hellenic, but the staff is provided by Abercrombie & Kent. Each company is responsible for filling half the cabins. Due to the economy, the fares were heavily discounted and the single supplement was eliminated. The passengers came from the UK (85), USA (85) with the rest from Canada, Australia, Ireland, South Africa, Hong Kong and other countries. The February bookings were cancelled and passengers moved to other sailings because A&K could not guarantee that they could fill their half of the cabins. A German travel company chartered the Minerva for 3 cruises in February with a plan to fill all 360 passenger slots. Given that only 100 passengers are allowed on land at any time and the limited number of zodiacs, I wonder how the excursions will work!

Everything was included in the cruise price. We wondered if the free alcohol would be some cheap stuff. Not so! There were 4 single malt scotches offered including Glenfiddich and Bowmore, Tanqueray, Beefeater and Gordon's Gin, Grey Goose, Absolut, Chopin and Absolut vodka. For blended whisky fans Chivas Regal and Johnny Walker Black were also on the free list. A different red and white wine from Chile, Argentina, France, Italy, South Africa or Australia was featured each day at lunch and dinner. The Wheeler Bar for casual and Shackleton's Bar with a pianist were popular.

Meals were served either buffet style in the Veranda restaurant or the Main Dining room with exactly the same menu. The Verandah always had an Indian Curry and papadum at lunch time. Overall the quality of the food was very good. The service in both restaurants was excellent. Eggs were cooked to order at breakfast. Self Service tea and coffee were available 24 hours in the Verandah, including and a self service expresso machine. Special barbecues were set up on the deck on the warmer days. There was Hot Bouillon at 11 am and Afternoon Tea at 4 pm.

Two washers and dryers were available for free. We were given red parkas to keep and they did keep us warm and dry. We also received water resistant backpacks which were very handy for carrying camera equipment off ship. Wellington boots were issued for use during the cruise.

The Enrichment Lectures were provided 3 times a day on Sea days and less frequently on other days in the Darwin Lounge. The lecture staff was highly qualified. The historian, Dr John Dudeney OBE, had spent several years working for the British Antarctic Survey before retiring in 2006 as Deputy Director. Our Expedtion Leader, Dr Marco Favero of the University of Mar del Plata brought an infectious enthusiasm to the program. Everything was "very very nice" and he always had a Plan A. His wife, Dr Patricia Silva, another veteran of Antarctic Research Expeditions, lectured about the various birds including penguins.

Other speakers covered geology, whales, seals and other animal life. All the zodiac drivers were well trained and experienced naturalists and drove the zodiacs expertly even when the wind and waves picked up. The only disappointment was the photo coach whose advise was not very helpful ("you don't need a UV filter" and "store RAW files if your camera supports it") and the only post processing tool he was familiar with was Adobe Lightroom on MAC {"have never used a PC") and the Geology expert had good information but this delivery was extremely dull.

The ship was very comfortable and the small size made it easy to get anywhere quickly. After we left the Falklands, Captain John Moulds (who could be a stand up comedian) opened up the bridge and that was a special treat for us for the rest of the cruise. Surprisingly, a small minority took advantage of this special privilege.

Dress was very casual and even on the two Captain's suits or smart casual was the norm.

We were divided into 2 groups - Discovery group (red dots) and the Endurance group (green dots) seemed to be designated based on whether we booked with A&K or Swan Hellenic. We took turns going first with each group starting first on each new day, and the group that went first in the morning went second in the afternoon. Zodiac ides were typically an hour or so long. Handings were one and a half to 2 hours long. At Grytviken, we were all allowed to go ashore at the same time and the South Georgia Post office came on board to sell cards, stamps, and first day covers. Russ Manning, a veteran of Antartic expeditions, who shared his experiences during his winter stay in South Orkney islands, took on the tough task of taking our postcards by zodiac to the Port Lockroy Station to me mailed with an Antartica post mark.

The staff that got us into and out of the zodiacs on the gangway was superb and ensured our safety. Cruise Director Jannie Cloete and his team made sure that everything went smoothly and it was all well organized. There were several opportunities to see petrels, albatross and other birds at sea, but the highlight was the multiple opportunities to see Fin and Humpback whales at close proximity. Seeing seals and penguins on floating ice was exciting too.

We were lucky enough to be invited to the Captain's Table for dinner on our last sea day. He said that we had the smoothest seas he had seen in years but also the most precipitation. Thee temperature ranged between 33 and 45 degrees most of the days, except early morning on the deck. All in all, it was a fantastic and intense adventure. No words can truly describe what we experienced. It is indeed unfortunate that the Minerva will not be returning to Antarctica next season.

06 January 2010: Falkland Islands

There were a multitude of complimentary organized tours for us to choose from the Stanley. We took the 30 minute bus ride followed by a rough 4x4 Land Rover ride to Bluff Cove where we saw Gentoo penguins with a handful of King penguins, including 3 who were standing still incubating their eggs. After cake and tea we headed back to the ship before shuttling to Port Stanley for some Fish & Chips at the Brasserie. We walked to the Museum which was disappointing but the Brits probably found it more interesting. A quick stop at the Post Office yielded some Penguin and Albatross First Day Covers. I paid with crisp US$ bills (the banks their will not allow businesses to turn in torn or ratty bills) and got change back in Falkland coins (same value as UK Pounds but minted differently)!

The Minerva moved position from the pier at 4 pm to the outer harbor where she carefully tied up to a fueling tanker aka bunkering ship. About 6 hours later, we were ready for the 750 nautical mile 2-day cruise to South Georgia.

09 - 11 January: South Georgia

Nothing is certain in the Southern Seas. The weather can change quickly and plans need to be dynamic. On the first day, the first group went out for a zodiac ride with reasonable but as they returned the snow started to fall. Our group encountered snow and higher waves and wind that made photography difficult, but the Macaroni Penguins were a sight to behold. As the weather worsened, plans to visit Right Whale Bay were scrapped and we went to Fortuna Bay (originally planned for the next morning) where there is a huge King Penguin colony.

The second day started with a landing at Stromness, the site of a former whaling station that Shackleton finally made contact with the outside world after his 16-month ordeal in the pack ice! We landed on a dark shingle beach that was coated with male fur seals guarding their territories, and tiny dark brown pups that were busy exploring their new world, at least when they could tear themselves away from their busy schedule of napping. A herd of reindeer grazed on the grassy floodplain, while Antarctic terns made use of the gravel areas between stream channels as nesting sites. In the afternoon, we landed on a beach just below the Grytviken cemetery where Shackleton's grave is located, along with those of many whalers who lost their lives in the pursuit of whale oil. We wandered past snoring elephant seals, aggressive fur seals and fearless king penguins en route to the remains of the whaling station. Rusty storage tanks, dilapidated whale catcher boats and old industrial machinery lay in disarray everywhere.

Day 3 was supposed to start at 4 am with a landing at the picturesque beach in Gold Harbour, but the sea was too rough. The ship proceeded to the revised Plan A location at Royal Bay. The zodiacs went out to test the waters and it was decided that it was unsafe to land. The next Plan A took us to Larsen Harbour at the entrance to the picturesque Drygalski Fjord for an exquisite zodiac ride. The wind and swell were nearly non-existent once we got inside Larsen Harbour. Fur seals, king penguins and elephant seals peppered the rocky shoreline, while a group of Weddell seals were resting up on a snow bank. We even spotted the hard to find pipit. It was a gorgeous place, and drifting in the zodiac with the engine off was the perfect way to take it all in and view the reflections of the dramatic peaks in the calm water. Following the zodiac tour, Captain John Moulds took the Minerva far into Drygalski Fjord. Immense mountains rose vertically on either side of the ship surrounding the glassy pale blue water and bits of brash ice. Finally, we all converged on the Darwin Lounge for a very lively recap of our amazing adventure at South Georgia Island as we sailed into the Scotia Sea for the 2-day cruise to Antarctica.

12 -13 January 2010: Scotia Sea

The ship movement was so ever slight on a gorgeous flat calm sea, with bright sunlight flickering off the few ripples to be found on the sea surface. We got an extra hour sleep since had turned the clocks back an hour. The first afternoon, we came up upon a scattered group of fin whales, which are the second largest whales in the world. Late in the afternoon, Naturalist Russ Manning told us about his exciting experiences as a British Antarctic Survey base commander during his presentation, "Twenty years of living and working in Antarctica". Russ took us through a year in the life of someone working at an Antarctic base, providing us some real insight into what a challenging, but rewarding, experience it is to work in this part of the world.

On the second day, the atypical easterly winds continued in the morning after having increased somewhat during the night. The ride onboard the Minerva was still very comfortable, however, due to the fact that the wind and swell were coming from nearly behind the ship. After lunch, we spent some time watching the Minerva's approach to Elephant Island under stark windy conditions. The ship cruised between tiny Cornwallis Island and Cape Valentine, the first site that Ernest Shackleton and his men landed on before deciding to move west to the slightly more sheltered Point Wild during his fabled 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

14 - 17 January 2010: Antarctica

I woke up at 3:45 am on the 14th to see the sunrise and catch the Minerva's passage through the spectacular Antarctic Sound with massive tabular icebergs scattered in all directions, many of them passing very close by as the ship maneuvered around them. After a quick breakfast, we donned our cold weather gear and boarded the zodiacs for our first Antarctic landing on Devil Island, a small volcanic island located on the western edge of the Weddell Sea. We could see the spectacular cliffs at Cape Well-met on the zodiac ride ashore. From the landing, we walked along the beach and up to a large colony of Adelie penguins, the sound and smell of which dominated the scene. We saw so many nests without eggs or chicks, and were told that perhaps a late spring snow storm, had caused major nesting failure at this colony. The views out across the huge penguin colony and the iceberg-filled bay beyond were spectacular. Snow began to fall, a phenomenon we had grown very accustomed to on this trip. Next, Captain John Moulds brought the ship north into Duse Bay. The visibility was limited as we made our way into the bay, finally clearing enough to show that the Minerva had reached the fast ice stretching out away from the Antarctic continent. It was a sight to behold! Sea ice peppered with giant icebergs loomed ahead of the ship. Groups of Adelie penguins lounged on the ice edge, while crabeater seals dotted the bright white landscape further into the fast ice. Captain John Moulds pushed the bow of the ship right into the ice, its flat surface buckling under the force from the engines. During the late hours of the night, the Minerva lowered a zodiac (driven by Russ Manning, of course) to drop off fellow guests Wayne Trivelpiece and Jefferson Hinke from the Scripps Institute and their luggage at their research station on King George Island in the South Shetlands. Our second morning, the zodiacs landed in calm conditions on a cobble beach on Half Moon Island with several chinstrap penguins to greet us. We made our way up the hill to the chinstrap penguin colony, and then headed off to the left towards another remote beach and more penguins beyond. Most of the penguins had two small chicks that were peeking out from the safety of their parents' bodies.

During the afternoon, we encountered a mother and calf pair of humpback whales just off of Deception Island, and went over for a closer look. The whales moved off, and Captain John Moulds proceeded to maneuver the Minerva through Neptune's Bellows and into the hidden central harbor of Deception Island, a dormant volcano approximately eight miles in diameter. We steamed further into the flooded volcano and anchored off Pendulum Cove. Widely regarded as the best swimming hole in the Antarctic, the geothermal heated waters at Pendulum Cove make it possible to bathe at the water's edge. Large clouds of steam were rising from the gravel shoreline, which was a deceptive sign for the bravely foolish like me attempting the "swim" today. The water was not warm at all, but I took the plunge and joined the exclusive HOT TUB CLUB! On Day 3, the zodiacs landed at the Argentine Almirante Brown station, which is situated on the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula in Paradise Bay. As our feet planted themselves firmly on the Antarctic continent itself, we had reached the milestone of having set foot on all seven continents. We found a very small breeding colony of gentoo penguins. Afterwards, we boarded the zodiacs for a tour of the bay. We saw a colony of blue-eyed shags, tending to their young perched on precipitous ledges high above us on a cliff face. Out in the bay, patches of brash ice and stunning icebergs were everywhere. We also came across a large glacier stretching all the way down to the water, and a "bar boat" which supplied us with Nicholas Feuillante champagne to toast our continental landing.

In the afternoon, we went to Cuverville Island to visit a gentoo penguin colony where there were lots of little chicks. We had an exciting zodiac ride back and got sprayed.

Under misty morning light on our last day in Antarctica, the Minerva approached the northern entrance to the legendary Lemaire Channel, aka "Kodak Alley" for its spectacular scenery. We saw the National Geographic Explorer in the area as they attempted to head south to Petermann Island. We reached Pleneau Island and Booth Island, which surround the dense collection of grounded icebergs appropriately named "Iceberg Graveyard". We boarded the zodiacs and meandered in and out of the maze of ice, where every imaginable shape of iceberg could be found. Windy conditions dominated the scene, with white caps and spray providing us with an appreciation for how harsh the conditions can be in the Antarctic, even in the height of the summer. We saw crabeater seals on floating ice. As the wind gusts began to top out over 50 knots the second group was lucky to get an abbreviated zodiac tour. We abandoned plans to visit Petermann Island in the afternoon due to the worsening weather conditions. Instead, The Captain took the ship north through the Gerlache Strait north towards Drake Passage. Expedition Leader Marco Favero announced that some humpback whales were sighted ahead and we headed up to the bridge for a closer view.

The next 2 days (Jan 18 and 19) saw up travel through "Drake Lake" passing within 7 miles of Cape Horn into the Beagle Channel and finally docking in Ushuaia around 8 pm on the 19th just in time for a fine crab dinner at Tante Nina's with some new found friends. The National Geographic Explorer pulled into port soon after us.

20 January 2010: Ushuaia We saw the Mare Australis, Corinthian II and the Akademic Sergey Vavilov pull into port and dock while we were having breakfast. We picked up our passports and Cruise DVD before we disembarked around 9 am. Russ Manning had our bags loaded onto a cart. It was a long push down the pier to the taxi stand. Less

Published 02/03/10

Cabin review: A54

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