A New Wave

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A new wave

Modern expedition vessels in Antarctica

ISSUE 47, 2012 $12.50


South Africa, Blanket Bay NZ, The BMW M5, northeast India



a new wave Today’s state-of-the-art expedition vessels are transforming both the experience and expectations of modern Antarctic adventurers. Story and photos Roderick Eime



Previous page Lone Adelie penguin on an iceberg with the brand new expedition vessel, L’Austral in background. Above The former British base at Port Lockroy, abandoned in 1962 and restored in 1996, is now a ‘living museum’ and the most visited site on the entire peninsula.



“It was on January 11—a beautiful, calm day of sunshine—that I set out over a good surface with a slight down grade. From the start my feet felt lumpy and sore. They had become so painful after a mile of walking that I decided to make an examination of them on the spot, sitting in the sun on the sledge. The sight of my feet gave me quite a shock, for the thickened skin of the soles had separated in each case as a complete layer, and abundant watery fluid had escaped into the socks. The new skin underneath was very much abraded and raw.” – Sir Douglas Mawson, The Home of the Blizzard, 1914. It was with some measure of guilt that I surveyed my perfect surroundings. The sun bore down on me with a calming warmth as the little Gentoo penguins scampered about, screeching noisily, playing pebble tag in their rookery. I sat on a comfortable rock and took off my heavy jacket, took a breath and just sat for a moment. Here in glorious and prophetically named Paradise Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula, it seemed a world away from the privations and hardships endured by the great polar explorers like Mawson, Shackleton, Wilkins and Scott of whom I’d read so much. Even though I was within their realm, it was still impossible to imagine myself in their circumstances, struggling to survive against the elements in this unforgiving environment. Just moments before the Zodiac had motored up to the rocky shore and a dozen of us had climbed out in our gaudy GORETEX regalia and immediately primed our cameras to capture the scene. Barely a hint of breeze, it was just the strong aroma of penguin guano and the few chunks of ice floating in the bay that confirmed our location. For the best part of the last two decades, regular people like myself have sallied south aboard one type of vessel or another to relive, after a fashion, those great journeys of the so-called ‘Heroic Era’ of Antarctic exploration a century ago. Now our presence seemed almost an insult to their legacy, for I knew that within the hour, I’d be back aboard L’Austral sipping a hot chocolate and preparing for a steaming shower before my lavish degustation dinner. Up until only a few years ago, most visitors to Antarctica travelled aboard one of the trusty, repurposed Russian oceanographic vessels. Rugged and reliable, certainly. Luxury

not. Now this new wave of expedition vessels has transformed both the experience and the expectations of modern Antarctic adventurers. Enter Compagnie du Ponant (or just Ponant) and its new generation boutique cruise ships and you have a whole new genre of adventure cruising. Ponant has been around since 1986 specialising in small ship, niche and sophisticated cruise products. Its first vessel, Le Ponant, is a gorgeous 64-passenger, three-masted sailing ship in the mould of Star Clipper or Windstar. An expedition ship, the 1974-built Le Diamant, was added in 2004 but is now sold (along with Le Levant) to make way for a trio of state-of-the-art vessels. Le Boreal was launched in May 2010, L’Austral just last June and la troisième will launch in mid-2013. “When we started the company in 1986 we wanted to re-raise the French flag in the cruise industry,” said Captain Jean-Philippe Lemaire, master of L’Austral and one of the founding team of Compagnie du Ponant, “we wanted to use small niche vessels with much conviviality on board targeted to high class passengers.” Technically, the vessels are a wonder. Sitting on the back deck one sunny afternoon, I watched the massive 142m, 10,000 ton ship slalom through the ice field like an oversized runabout. There are two restaurants, both offering dining in a single seating. The larger, Restaurant Le Coromandel, is free seating, fine dining and a la carte, while the smaller, Restaurant Le Rodrigues, up on Deck 6 requires bookings but is a more casual setting. House wine is included in both. The cuisine is generally of high quality, if a little inconsistent. Nevertheless, her chefs easily surpass the majority of vessels operating in the region. Staterooms and suites are all fitted with flatscreen TV coupled to an inflight-style entertainment system. To emphasise the point, staterooms on Deck 6 also enjoy a butler service and every two of three cabins, shipwide, have private balconies. There’s a big gym, oh-so-swish Sothy spa, a kids club, wheelchair access throughout, plush observation lounge bar/library, pool and satellite Wi-Fi internet access.

Inflatable Zodiac runabouts are the favoured transport by all Antarctic and expedition operators. Almost indestructible, they are comfortable and easy to handle.



OPPOSITE Ponant vessel, L’Austral, near Paradise Bay, Antarctic Peninsula. The ship can stay stationary by using satellite “anchoring”, hence no need to drop a heavy anchor. ABOVE Seal basks in the sunshine as Zodiacs from L’Austral tour Foyn Harbour.



Zodiac operations, like most vessels in this category, take place from an easily accessible transom at the stern. Safety procedures are well reinforced and there is always plenty of staff on hand to assist passengers in and out of the rigid inflatable Zodiacs which carry up 12 passengers. At this, the softer end, of soft adventure cruising, some of the activities would be seen as over-cautious when compared to the slightly harder edged, traditional vessels like the former Soviet ones that pioneered this modern age of expedition cruising. Consequently, some of the lectures and enrichment tend to be cursory as the expedition staff try to find a balance for the broad audience across three languages. While the official ship’s language is French, English is widely and fluently spoken by all frontline staff. There is some concession too for German and Spanish, but it remains to be seen how the team will cope with the growing number of Chinese finding their way aboard. This unapologetically hedonistic yacht was certainly designed to spend the majority of her time loafing seductively in the Med or Caribbean and her presence in these hallowed waters will raise the eyebrows of the diehard polar expeditioners. It is certainly a surreal contrast to be cavorting with Adelies at 5pm, surveying a 4-course degustation dinner at 7pm and, with a tummy full of French plonk, flopping into the theatre at 9pm to watch the titillating floor show. Mercifully, L’Austral does not have a casino. Compared to those faded, sepia photographs of the hardy explorers, holed up in their winter quarters, bashing out a tune on the mouth organ and accordion, the relative excess of Les Folies Ponant does little to recreate the heroic era of Antarctic exploration. Nevertheless, le trio du Ponant open the remote regions of the planet for anyone with the desire and wherewithal, regardless of environmental awareness. I suppose that is truly ‘liberté, égalité et fraternité’.



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