To introduce our coverage of their World Trip starting in October, join deckhand Lisa and the crew of M/Y Sherakhan on their recent voyage to Antarctica! See girls in bikinis on ice, meet Leonard the Leopard Seal and follow the guests and crew as they crash their way through the Southern Ocean to the great white land of whales and penguins. Learn why not to use hair clippers at sea, how to drive a boat through an ice-field and why you might want to ninja-kick at a seal.
Sherakhan Antarctica Charter
12th – 27th February 2013
Leaving St. Maarten sometime early in January to head down South to pick up charter sounds like a typical yachting routine. Only this time down South isn’t to another port along the Caribbean island chain, but way down to the most southern tip of the world; ANTARCTICA. We as crew are excited, bragging to other ‘yachties’ about where we are going but, of course, we are also a tad bit nervous not knowing what to expect of this white continent, only knowing for sure that it will be very cold.
So off we went. We were able to use the time at sea to keep up with the maintenance of our yacht doing some sanding, varnishing, grinding, painting, the whole shebang to have everything looking great. We also kept ourselves in shape by doing aerobics on deck every other day. Sounds a bit crazy, especially doing that on a moving ship, but the challenge made it more interesting, if not hilarious. Had some encounters with the lovely smiling creatures of the sea, dolphins. No matter how many times you see them, it never gets old. We also had our ‘crossing the equator’ initiation/celebration. Did some silly things and ended it with a barbeque and a Jacuzzi party.
Though not part of the initiation, I still ended up with a bald head. Never use clippers on a moving ship, or have an inexperienced crew member operate one! She took a chunk out on the side of my head when the comb shifted off the clipper. So the best solution for this hick-up was to take it all off. Did I mention that I am a girl?
It took us 21 days from Simpson Bay, St. Maarten to Monte Video, Uruguay. We bunkered in Monte Video, but ended up anchoring up north from there in Punta del Este. Spent about two days there doing last minute shopping for the charter and for us crew - last minute purchases of thick socks and thermal underwear.
Off to the Falkland Islands we went and arrived after four days in Port Stanley. Day was gorgeous, clear and sunny, which we found out soon was somewhat of a rarity there. Rain and thick mist was more like it and it showed full on the next day.
Captain and I picked up our guests at the army base of the island. The drive over was almost an hour through a landscape of nothingness. Some farm houses here and there (there are a lot of sheep! A lot!!) The taxi bus driver was a funny cheeky English gentleman who shared many stories of the island and its background, the spat between the Brits and Argentineans, and that the local Gynecologist is 96 years old.
The Army base houses almost as many people as the whole of the island’s population. I felt right in place there with my G.I. Jane haircut. We got our guests off their private jet into the not so fancy vehicles and transported them to the ship where we motored off almost immediately into the vanishing fog.
Four days of being underway took a bit of a toll on our guests since we were rolling side to side for most of it. We did manage an Abandon Ship drill underway with all of our 21 crew and 24 guests. It went quite smoothly! Had an Immersion Suit donning competition between crew and guests. Bit embarrassed to say that the guests won.
As we neared South George Island we were greeted by curious fur seals swimming along the boat, penguins popping up their heads eyeing us, and saw fountains of water being spouted out through blowholes of lazy cruising whales. What a welcome committee!
Our first anchorage was at Elshul Bay where awaiting us was the ship Hanse Explorer, our partner for the rest of our voyage. We have private guests on board along with camera and film crew documenting this journey. We’ve got some pretty big names in that field on board and they are just fascinating people. Just as intriguing are the people from Water Proof Expeditions with the expedition leaders, marine biologists and other specialized people in the field of Polar Regions.
After dropping our anchor we finally got into action and lowered our tenders and zodiac, filled them up with gear and people and headed to shore for our first beach landing. Before we even reached the beach we heard and smelled(!) the King Penguins and saw the overly enthusiastic Fur Seals move and swim about.
We were there in the time when the King Penguins and seals are molting, which means transitioning into the next stage after chick and puppy hood. The molting penguins look a bit weird with their brownish feathery fluff that slowly sheds before they get their sleek tuxedo suits with their yellow bib. Obviously the fluff doesn’t shed in a way that looks suave or cool. Instead it’s in awkward patches that makes them look really funny or just plain odd. Some are luckier than others in their transition I guess, but I swear that the unlucky ones do look a bit uncomfortable and embarrassed.
The seals on the other hand have it physically much easier. They just look super cute in all stages. That being said, before our arrival we had a presentation by one of the expedition leaders about this trip. We were given important information about the places we visit and how to preserve, treat and respect every aspect of it. Their slogan being: “Do not leave anything but footprints. Do not take anything but memories.” One thing they showed and told us about that really made an impression on me was what could happen if you get bitten by a Fur Seal. Fur Seals have some really crazy potent saliva that the human body does not respond well to. Picture one showed a hand with swollen and bruised like fingers after being bitten. Not too bad. Picture two, however, showed the same hand with those same fingers and the flesh is completed rotted away and you see the bone of the phalanges. Gross; now this image is imprinted in my brain forever.
Anyway, going back to our first landing on the beach covered with King Penguins and Fur Seals. We beached the tender, got the people and all the gear out and, there you are, standing on this beach, in the southern hemisphere, in the most southern spot, dressed not to impress, looking around like “holy crap, this is awesome!” Those seals looked pretty damn cute from up close. Those big goo-goo eyes, and those silly little ears, and their cute clumsy mannerisms. I forgot all about those fingers and started talking to them like they were cute cuddly puppies. That soon changed when I got too close and that “cute cuddly puppy” started growling/breathing heavily and making a sort of whimpering noise and coming after me. I ran and screamed like a sissy girl and hid behind my boss, which by the way is the last thing you should do, run away (hiding behind the boss is always good though, in any situation). Instead, which they taught us at the presentation, you have to make yourself big and grab two stones and bang them together to scare them off. Besides, they weren’t really that anxious to get you, I realized after a few encounters, they just want to scare you off too. After this day I was relaying back to one of the expedition leaders how amazing the day was. She looked at me with this smile and said: “This is nothing, it only gets better and better. “
Following day we anchored at a different location between two landing spots planned for that day. First up was Salisbury Plain, where the first landing spot was tucked within a small cove where we had to zig zag thru thick kelp to get the tender on the beach. .
Another cozy spot with King Penguins and Fur Seals. Now, by this time, I felt a lot more comfortable hanging among these creatures. Have my trusty iPhone in hand snapping pictures nonstop. You have in mind that you want to show home all about this amazing, cool journey. But then you come to realize that pictures don’t really do it justice. You can’t ‘snap’ the actual full on experience. Yes, somewhat of the sight, but not the sounds, or smells, or the feeling it gave you at that moment where you are standing and looking around taking it all in. That will forever be special and yours alone.
It’s obvious that I am enthralled with the animals, but am just as impressed with the nature. Icebergs, glaciers, growlers, bergy its, funny grassy looking bits which I don’t know the official name of. You’ve probably seen an iceberg on TV, or a poster, or wherever; well it looks exactly like that in real life too. Actually, in real life they look faker! I swear they look like plastic, especially when the sunlight hits it in a certain way, and each has a total different shape from one another. Some have a bluish glow to it, and some have their own patterns, all unique.
Second landing spot of that day was at Prion Island. Here again seals and penguins, now introduced to another type of penguin, the Gentoos, but also other bird species, some Albatrosses and Petrels. There are quite a few different types of each bird species, and learned that day how to differentiate Albatrosses from Petrels. Albatrosses have two tubes on their beak, Petrels only one. I was looking at a huge Albatross, and was told their wingspan can be up to three meters, and this particular one had these icy light blue eyes, really cool. On this island I got the chance to walk up the hill and see the view above over the other side of the island. The light, the dark, the ice, the earth, the sea, the sky, the clouds. I can’t describe in full the contrast and combination of colors and shapes of these elements . Again, mine alone.
Next day we made a stop in Grytviken which was originally a Norwegian sealing and whaling station that was abandoned in 1965. We had customs on board (yes, some people actually live there) and had some guests check out the sites. Not much to see but they do have a church, a museum, skeletal remains of the whaling stations of back in the day, abandoned ships lie sunken alongside old wharves, and a tiny cemetery with the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton, a famous polar explorer who died in 1922. I’m not going into more detail about him; Google it. But apparently every year about a couple thousand tourists visit this place and have a drink at his grave site and pour some over his grave. Cheers.
Our last stop of South Georgia was at St. Andrews Bay. The promise of it only getting better and better was being fulfilled. This place was a huge area with hundreds of thousands of King Penguins, all of them in different stages of molting. These penguins are shy when you walk up to them; they try and waddle off as quick as possible, tripping over their flippers. But if you stand or sit still, they become very inquisitive and come quite close to you. Did you know they have a keen sense of smell? Which is ironic because their poop smells the worst. At one point I stood on a hill overlooking the sea of penguins, I felt like a rock star on stage with all these penguins cheering me on, it was so loud and thrilling.
Of course along with the many penguins there were the Fur Seals, and this time we had some Elephant Seals to the mix. They were tanning on the beach doing not much else. They were huge, just a blubbery mass, and these weren’t even fully grown seals yet. And without trunk - they only get their ‘trunk’ (hence the name)after they are 7 or 8 years old. I observed two of them launch their upper bodies off the ground and just drop again banging against each other making these disturbing loud burping and farting noises, only to drop back down and go back to sleep. This took maybe 20 seconds. I guess I would be exhausted too after lifting all of that weight.
At this site a lot of action was going on with the camera team. Working together with the crew of Hanse Explorer, assisting with carrying and set ups, we got a firsthand look at the process of their artistic endeavors. Me and another crew mate did a lot of walking up and down the beach and inland through fresh water streams coming from the glaciers. Somehow at this location the Fur Seals were a tad more aggressive than the previous ones. We had to walk through mine fields of seals. Smacking stones together didn’t do a damn thing with scaring them off; instead we had to be creative and come up with many different approaches to try and survive the attacks. One approach, which I think we used the most, was what I like to call the “Kung-Fu Ninja style”. This is where we would wildly kick in the air screaming weird guttural noises. That one worked sometimes, it stunned them for a moment, kind of looked at you like you were completely bonkers which, to be fair, was a total accurate observation. Kicking sand in the face was also a good one, but not enough when you are surrounded by more than three. Wearing the water proof suites with massive boots is quite heavy, doesn’t really give you the quick agile ability to kick sand in all different directions. And sometimes when you really had enough and were feeling cold and just didn’t give a hoot anymore, you just walk straight up to them. Confidence and no fear is a good weapon. I still think they are super cute though, what can I say, I’m a sucker for goo-goo eyes.
This whole charter is so not like any charters that we are used to. First off, location being the obvious one, but the people we have onboard is another. No offense to previous guests we’ve had, but to be among photographers, film crew, animal and nature lovers, and people trying to make a difference by bringing awareness through their passion and work absolutely blows my mind. Celebrities just don’t compare to these guys so my crush totally lies with them.
So, after spending two days at St. Andrews Bay we picked up anchor and set course to the Antarctic Peninsula. We were pitching all the way there, which took us four days and then some. We became a ghost ship, you would not have thought we had 45 people on board. Guests mostly slept, watched movies, slept some more, ate, and of course slept. Us outside crew couldn’t really go on deck to get work done, so engine room got some extra TLC. We’ve dodged some icebergs along the way (I love you radar) and got a presentation on Antarctica and what we will be able to see there and some in depth info about the species and ecosystem. I will be on the lookout for the Crab Eater, Weddle, and Leopard Seals. We are also hopeful for some whales, especially the Orcas.
I got an assignment during the crossing to interview two of the guests on board, Paul Nicklen and Shaun Powell. Paul is a noted wild life photographer and Shaun is a wild life biologist, both on board as expedition guides. This interview is not for launching any one’s career (neither theirs nor mine) but just for fun and some laughs. I came up with some silly questions along with some more serious ones for I was just very curious about these guys. I was so excited and giddy to do this assignment that it ended up tainting my nerves. But, when I finally sat down with them to go over my questions, I soon relaxed and had a ball.
So back to my actual job, I did the 12 to 4am watches together with the second mate, and one morning was the most exciting one I’ve ever had in my yachting career. When I came on the bridge at 11:45pm, the Captain, who was on watch at that time, was wide eyed and excited warning us to be 120% alert with all the ice around us. The radar was showing quite a lot on screen, and within the hour it was covered fully in green. Our search light was reflecting on all the floating ice surrounding us. We called Boss man to the bridge feeling a bit nervous and on the edges of our seats with all the ice surrounding and enclosing us. We had to reduce the speed significantly and at times use the bow thrusters to manoeuver around, between, and through the icy bits. Some brushed against the hull making loud scraping noises.
The sea was flat, but the wind carried the Antarctic chill. I spent a lot of time on the foredeck with my camera and binoculars, stunned with the icy sea landscape around me. It was so quiet, just the sound of the water licking the edges of the growlers and bergy bits, and the breathing sound of what I can only guess as sea mammals surfacing and diving under water. The second mate pictured the scene of the Titanic; I had a different movie in mind, that of the first of the “Pirates of the Caribbean”. The scene in the beginning when Miss Swan is a young girl sailing from England to the Caribbean and they come across a wreckage of a ship. The scene is foggy and the water is still and the pieces of the wreck are floating by creating this eerie, mysterious vibe. At about 5.30am we finally broke free of the maze of ice and gunned the engines to full 12 knots to try and make up for lost time. Still buzzing with adrenaline, I finally went to bed.
We made it to Antarctica! To Antarctic Sound to be precise. We cruised along the coast of tall snowy mountains, spotting seals, penguins and whales among and on the icebergs in the bay. It was late afternoon and the sun was positioned low casting its light on the bergs emphasizing its colours other than the obvious white. You’d never expect to see blues, pinks, purples, greens, and even grays displayed on these white floating objects. The way I feel I can accurately describe it is that these ice bergs had their own auras. After feasting our eyes, we carried on to our next stop where we would drop our anchor.
Cierva Cove was our first spot. We started our day off doing a whale watching tour with both tenders. We were in luck, there were three Humpback Whales feeding on krill oblivious to our presence. Many times they surfaced close to the tenders which created the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of guest and crew alike. We also arranged for the guests to have a visit at the Argentinean Base named Primavera. We brought them wine as a friendly gesture, which they appreciated, but they asked if they could have coffee instead since they ran out. That of course was not a problem. Another mission of the day was to find ourselves some bad ass Leopard Seals. As the day went on, the wind was blowing the brash ice into the bay, trapping it, creating a field of floating ice chunks. I had to trudge through with the tender testing it on its icebreaking skills. It was worth it because we found quite a few Leopard Seals lazing about on some plateaux of ice. Leopard seals are easy to recognize by their face. Their shape from head to body is serpent like and they have this weird cheeky permanent grin on their face, like the Joker from Batman. These seals are the only seals down below here that snack on penguins. We witnessed a few calvings, which is the breaking off of ice bits from the face of an iceberg. The echoing sound in the cove was fooling at times, not sure where to look to spot the actual process.
By the next early morning we were cruising through the Lemaire Channel in between high snowy peaked mountains that were partially covered by fog, slowly burning away by the warming sun. Most of us spent time on the foredeck looking around. The sea was flat, the mountains tall, the channel narrow, the fog low and thick. To top it off we were graced by the presence of some curious Minke Whales. I caught one of the Minke Whales on camera swimming past the bow just below the surface.
We arrived at our destination and dropped anchor between Booth Island and Pleneau Island. Now this was a sight to behold. The film crew had a long busy day scheduled and we had our guests to entertain, which wasn’t a hard task to do. All the icebergs within this area had everyone taken. It was like being at an art sculpture exhibition. Icebergs of all shapes and sizes, and with hues of blue and white. We tendered along an iceberg that had an arch so big, Sherakhan could almost pass through it. There were icebergs with natural pools on them, with gaping holes, and shapes like pillars, spires and other dramatic forms. We brought our guests to shore to have a hike up the hill and enjoy the panoramic view of the iceberg arena. We had to cut the day short due to regulations for overnight anchoring and the amount of boats allowed to be there at once in that area. But we would return the next day.
So, after leaving behind the beautiful area, we made a stop in civilization in Port Lockroy, a British base. Picture a big rock with a couple of cabins on it, housing at that time two people, and with about 1000 Chinstrap Penguins. We had our passports stamped and a bit of a look around in their museum and gift shop. While our guests were ashore, the crew onboard were setting up a barbeque on the top deck. I thought it was madness to have a meal in the freezing cold, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. We had our chef clad in foul weather gear behind the grill and all the guests wrapped in extra blankets sitting at the tables drinking homemade gluhwein and enjoying the sun setting behind the Antarctic mountains.
We had the Jacuzzi filled up and the temperature set to maximum. The kids and some adults dared to have a splash about while the music blasted, creating a tropical atmosphere.
Next early morning, we picked up the anchors to make a morning cruise through some narrow channels to look for Orcas and to eventually end up at our same spot as the day before at Pleneau Island. No Orcas, but some Humpbacks and quite a few Minke Whales graced us with their presence. Over the PA system from the bridge it was announced where spouts from the water’s surface were spotted. People were running port to starboard, forward to aft, cameras of all sizes and makes in hand. That made for an entertaining sight for us on the bridge.
Soon after noon time we arrived again at the lovely iceberg garden. This time we had the groups more divided, each with their own mission for the day. I ended up in a tender with my fellow female deckie to take about five guests along for a more intimate and more relaxed tour among the ice sculptures. The first mate and his girlfriend were in the other tender standing by for the main charter guests, the second mate took the Mexican filming crew in the Zodiac for a tour, and some went along with Hanse Explorer Zodiacs, tagging along with Mr. Colbert’s filming crew. We got to take a better and closer look at all the ice creations. The arch we had seen the day before had collapsed. Imagine that, one day it was there high and mighty, the next in ruins, not recognizable, taken up a whole other design. I always have my trusted iPhone in my pocket so I can just whip it out and take a snap shot of anything, but it also came in handy when one of the guests mentioned a song very appropriate for our tender journey. The oh-so-wrong-that-it’s-good 90’s number one hit wonder: “Ice ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice.
As we were jamming along, we were coming near an iceberg when we spotted a Leopard Seal dozing on a piece of ice. Soon, as our eyes were trained on that spot, we saw another Leopard Seal, bobbing its head out of the water trying to catch a glimpse of the lady on ice. We moved closer with the tender when the seal in the water disappeared, only to surprise us when he resurfaced just next to our tender. Much to all of our glee, this guy started playing with us. Whenever we moved forward, he followed. Apparently they like the propellers back wash tickling their whiskers. He stayed with us a long time. Swimming next to and behind the tender making gliding and somersaulting movements, nipping here and there on the tender’s tubes. We felt such a bond with this guy that we named him - one of the guests came up with the brilliant name: Leonard the Leopard Seal. During the course of the day we had two more encounters with Leopard Seals putting up a show for us (and the tender). We are not sure if it was Leonard, doesn’t really matter; from now on all Leopard seals will be named Leonard. Boss took some of our stewardesses and chief steward to pose by the ice in bikinis. Not to worry, chief steward kept his clothes on. One of the Leonard’s had a good eye, he immediately showed up when the girls got out of the Zodiac onto the ice. The gentleman that Leonard was, he stayed in the water. And when we cruised by in the tender he soon took interest in us, much to the girls’ relief.
In the sun’s light, changing position as the day went by, it made for so many different kinds of sights. At one point I thought I saw something that looked like a piece of a plastic bag swivel thru the air, slowly reaching the water. I got worried thinking about pollution, and dying animals from ingesting man made crap, and how careless someone could be; it’s almost like damnation over here to be so lax. I figured out soon after what it really was. While hovering on one spot, so the people could take their picture of this one ice bit, I looked up at this pillar of ice that was blocking the ball of sun, I saw thin chips of shaved ice being blown off of the top. It was such a magical sight, like sparkles or glitter raining down in slow motion. A total fairy tale scene. All that was missing was a queen sitting on an ice throne wearing a dress made out of kelp.
So as all good days must come to an end, this one sadly did too. But every last minute we spent there was filled with awesomeness. I was standing on the platform waiting for a Zodiac to drop off some gear just before our departure, and about three meters away from me this Minke whale surfaced, blowing out air. I nearly fell off the platform! First because it scared the crap out of me, (it was very unexpected) and secondly, I got so excited I was jumping up and down, squealing with delight. And if that wasn’t cool enough, while we were picking up the anchor I was on the fore deck and had my head and upper body squeezed between the stainless steel and the capping rail in order to report the anchor position through the VHF to the bridge. We noticed some whales again, left and right, and a whale passed right in front of the bow, just below the surface, right there under my dripping nose.
Off we went to our last landing destination in Half Moon Bay in the South Shetland Islands. To be completely honest it was quite blah. Compared to all we’ve been to and have seen, this was quite mundane and a bit of a downer. Very windy and cold, it was like a final reminder of where we were. There were some seals and penguins, and a wreckage of a small wooden boat on the beach without a story to it. Then it dawns on me that this is the end of the epic ‘Sherakhan does Antarctica’ journey. That we have to say good bye to the people we’ve spent 16 days with, sharing all these moments, making everlasting memories.
We motored through the night to get to King George island where the guests would disembark. A very busy place compared to the previous uninhabited locations we’ve been. Many bases of different nationalities, but mostly Chilean. In the early morning we loaded our tenders with the luggage and brought it to the beach where we off loaded it onto a piece of tarp laid out on the sand specially for the bags. A pickup truck with some Chilean guys came to gather it all up to bring to the plane. A Russian guy gave me a ride along so that I could stay with the luggage and keep an eye on it. This was not like any airport I’ve ever been to. No terminal or check in desks, just out in the open, dirt and gravel. I met the luggage, again laid out on a tarp on the ground (VIP service I tell you), and just stood there waiting. The chartered plane still had to land. I struck up a conversation with one of the Chilean guys, Martin, just talking about the weather (that seems like a universal icebreaker) I was already told that the guests would leave that day depending on the weather. This day was beautiful and Martin told me that this day was the 4th sunny day of the whole season, by now almost at an end. We were in luck then. Nearby there was one plane parked, Air Antarctica, and we were told that it came in early that morning to drop a group of people off to do a marathon. Then when they were done running, they would fly back to Chile the same day. Interesting…..
So, plane landed, refueled, luggage stowed away below, and the pickup truck did its rounds gathering the people from the beach and bringing them to the plane. I stood waiting outside the plane in my sexy foul weather gear outfit to see everyone off. I got hugs and kisses, and invites to visit. Now I was getting a little bit sad, is it really all over now? Yes it is. I got a ride with a Chilean ZZ Top look alike back to the beach where the first mate would pick me up. He spoke really good English and we had a nice chat. He told me he went skiing in Antarctica in the early 80’s and that it took him 90 something days. When I asked him how it was, he said: “Everything was just white, so very boring”. Brilliant answer, that cheered me right up.
Back on board all crew were getting the ship ready for departure and sea fastening every last bit of the boat, from the anchors to the coffee cups, everything! We were heading for the Falkland Islands, and to get there we would have to cross the notorious Drake Passage where in the midst of it I would be celebrating my 30th birthday.
We made it to the Falklands in one piece! Drake Passage was not so scary, quite tame compared to what we were expecting. None of us are complaining though! We are here for a week or so, getting ready for another crossing to destination yet unknown. Some of the crew is leaving from here to fly home for their holiday. I’m trying to finish up my story but have a hard time doing so. It does give me the opportunity to take my time and think back, reminisce, and relive the moments. I got to hang out with penguins, went into battle with ferocious Fur Seals, and witnessed weird Elephant Seal rituals. I got to do an interview with two funny, inspiring, and down to earth guys, who had the patience for an awestruck gal like me. I got to observe artists at work; from the tech guys to the models, to the master minds behind it all, to feel like being part of an incredible project. I got to visit an open air art exhibition with nature made sculptures. I got to name a seal and share my snot with a whale. I got to venture through ice with the ship and tender alike. I can say I spent my last two weeks of my 20’s in constant wide eyed amazement, in a white, cold, wet, beautiful paradise. I don’t know when or where we are off to next, but that is part of the yachting life. I know it will be another adventure, another story to write home about. Though Antarctica might be hard to top, I know whatever comes next will bring its own unique memorable moments.
Bosun, M/Y SHERAKHAN