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Soleal cruise to Antarctica and the Weddell Sea

Sunset and icebergs in the Weddell Sea. The Small Cruise Ship Collection

One extraordinary day in the Weddell Sea

All images were taken by Powell Ettinger in January 2019 - To see more images and full size versions of these images, click here.

I travelled on Ponant's Emblematic Antarctica cruise - Click here to see these cruises.

Otto Nordenskjöld, Sweden’s Ernest Shackleton, led a Swedish  expedition to Antarctica from 1901 - 1904. They sailed from Gothenburg to Antarctica in the 42 metre long steam powered wooden barque names Antarctic. They reached Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea where they spent 2 winters living in a small ( 6x8 metre) wooden hut. The Antarctic sunk and the crew wintered on a different island, before they were eventually all rescued by the Argentine Government.

We sailed to Snow Hill Island and back in 10 days from Ushuaia on the luxurious French registered Le Soleal. Le Soleal is almost exactly 100 metres longer than Antarctic and carries around 200 people in great comfort to Antarctica. Le Soleal is absolute proof that you don’t have to forego life’s creature comforts to visit some of the most remote corners of the earth. Le Soleal coped admirably with the 5 metre seas we experienced crossing the Drake Passage, and she is one of the faster ships that cruises in Antarctica so she spends less time crossing the Drake than many others. 

James Ross Island in the Weddell Sea. Ponant Antarctic cruise with The Small Cruise Ship CollectionDoes size matter?
Most sites in Antarctica restrict the number of passengers allowed ashore to 100 at a time, so many people who travel there will only look at ships that carry 100 passengers of fewer. There were around 200 passengers and we made as many landings as any other ship. In general most passengers were ashore for an hour at each landing, and that was enough for many passengers. If the weather isn’t great, visibility poor, and the temperature below zero, an hour was plenty for many passengers. Read the pros and cons of different size vessels in Antarctica.

The Weddell Sea
I woke up needing a wee, it's an age thing, the clock said 03.15 and as Imade my way back to my bed I glanced out of the window to see the dawn reflecting off the mountains on the Weddell Sea side of the Antarctic Peninsula. And that was it with sleep - I was entranced for the next 20 hours, sleep never even a thought. Emperor penguins (and Adelie), leopard seals, Orca and Humpback, Snow Hill Island and Nordeskjold’s historic hut Cockburn Island, vast tabular icebergs, champagne on an ice floe, a captain needing to practice his ice-breaking technique, Orca and seals hunting penguins and an extraordinary Weddell Sea Sunset. And the chairman of a very large British Institution storming the bridge in his Polar bear pyjamas, more of that later.

Very very few ships cruise the Weddell Sea, and only a small percentage of them reach the almost legendary Snow Hill Island with its Emperor Penguin Colony and the historical hut left over from Nordenskiöld 1902 Antarctic Expedition. In fact when we left Ushuaia on the luxurious Le Soleal there had been no mention of Snow Hill Island - It wasn’t on the itinerary, and hadn’t been mentioned in any of the on board briefings as we received daily as we crossed the Drake Passage and visited Neko Harbour, Paradise Bay, Wilhelmina Bay, Damoy Point (Port Lockroy), The Lemaire Channel & The Gerlache Strait. Each of these would be worth the trip on its own.

Base Brown in Paradise Bay. The Small Ship CollectionNeko Harbour, a small bay with a narrow entrance surrounded by massive glaciers and pointy mountains, and filled with ice floes, Humpback whales and penguins.

Paradise Bay, home of the Argentine Base ‘Brown’, a hotspot for Humpbacks, leopard and crabeater seals, and the site of a breeding colony of Antarctic shags.

Wilhelmina Bay. Known to some as ‘Whale-mina Bay’ due its popularity with Humpbacks. The bay is fed by several large glaciers so is ice-packed and is a great place to spot seals, and is a also a good place to see glaciers calving. We saw the largest calving anyone on board had ever seen - Remarkably spectacular, and a little worrying - Not from an immediate safety point of view, but from a global warming perspective.

Port Lockroy, site of a British base replete with post office, supermarket and thousands of penguins. You will often see expedition yachts moored here.

The Lemaire Channel. Bounded by steep cliffs and often filled with icebergs, this is one of the most popular sites to visit for small cruise ships. 

The dawn light on the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula drew me out onto my balcony, but, unsurprisingly, dawn in the Antarctic requires more clothing than pyjamas and a towel robe, so I quickly retreated and dressed suitably. Back out on the balcony as we cruised steadily south past ice floes dotted with numerous penguins and occasional seals, I could see the very distinctive shape of Cockburn Island, a 1500 foot high pyramid shaped peak first discovered by James Ross, in the distance. This is a region of vast tabular icebergs, sea ice and huge ice floes with a backdrop of mountains and glaciers, and is inaccessible 95% or more of the time.  

Cockburn Island, Weddell Sea. The Small Cruise Ship Collection.Cockburn Island lies a little to the north of Snow Hill Island and provides a dramatic target for ships hoping to reach Snow Hill. As we cruised south the bergs grew bigger and more numerous, a few Humpbacks cruised past and almost every ice floe had penguins, seals and sometimes both, basking as though on a beach in Barbados. We nuzzled gently (No mean feat in a 140 metre long ship) up to the ice-pack, where 2 emperor penguins were sliding and sledging around. 99% of visitors to Antarctica visit the Antarctic Peninsula, and 97% of those just visit the western side of the peninsula, where you will see chinstrap, gentoo and adelie penguins, but no emperors. The emperor penguin can be found all around Antarctica, but visitors to the western side of the peninsula will miss out as only on the eastern side of the peninsula do you have a chance to spot this majestic bird, Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea being their most northerly nesting site.

Emperor penguins in the Wedell Sea. The Small Cruise Ship CollectionHaving watched the emperors and ½ dozen adelie penguins for 45 minutes, we carefully made our way first towards Cockburn Island before diverting a little southwest to Snow Hill, weaving through the ice while taking in the ever changing breathtaking scenery. Snow Hill is very rarely visited due to the ice-conditions in the Weddell Sea. It was only 1-2 days before we headed into the Weddell Sea that the captain heard that the ice conditions were favourable, so he decided to change the proposed itinerary (Antarctic itineraries are often little more than proposals) and head to the eastern side of the peninsula. Snow Hill Island, at least where we landed, was not snow covered and Nordenskjöld’s hut is perched on a rise next to a stream and with a backdrop of a cliff. The hut is currently closed for restoration, but you can stand outside and wonder at the men who spent 2 years here. 

Big boys toys!
We headed back from Snow Hill to the ship, and started navigating through the ice towards Cockburn Island. After a little while it became apparent that the ship was going round in circles - We were wondering if the ice had closed in behind us and we were about to spend 2 years living on Snow Hill before our rescue (We could have survived on wine and cheese). However it turned out that our captain will take over as captain of a Ponant’s new ice-breaker, and he was looking for a suitable patch of sea ice to practice on. After a short reconnaissance we headed into some sea ice slowly, and although Le Soleal is not an icebreaker she is rated as ice class 1C so is designed for use in light ice. We pushed slowly and steadily through the ice which provided fun for everyone on board, before breaking out into open water again. 

The captain, who is one of the most experienced small ship captains in the world (and a holder of the Legion D’Honneur for his part in the kidnap and release of a vessel by Somali Pirates) has since been to Finland to take part in an Ice-breaker course - Who knew such things existed - The very biggest toys!

On the ice floe with Cockburn Island in the background. Ponant Antarctic Cruise on Le SolealVive la Difference
Our next port of call was a large flat ice-floe. We again nuzzled up carefully to the ice, but this time the zodiacs were unloaded for a short hop onto the ice, where the crew had set up a champagne bar! So we spent an hour on the ice with the backdrop of Cockburn Island in one direction, Snow Hill Island in another and James Ross Island behind us!

The show is outside
As we headed north again in the late afternoon the ever changing views of the ice bergs, ice floes, snow clad mountains and glaciers set against the striking blue sea and sky, all the while dotted with penguins, seals &  Humpback whales made it almost impossible to head inside. The captain was repeatedly making his favourite announcement - “At ze moment ze show is outside!” - and it was. As the sun began to set we were provided with a new kind of spectacle - a deeply orange Antarctic sunset - Wow!

Orca circling a small berg where a lone penguins is sheltaering. The Small Cruise Ship Collection.Polar bear pyjamas storm the bridge!
The sun inched behind a volcano shaped hill…………  (see below image)Giving the impression of a massive and perfectly formed eruption. The temperature began to plummet and most passengers headed inside - But not your intrepid reporter. I had been up by this stage for around 19 hours after only a few hours sleep, had a large lunch, a glass of champagne in the afternoon and been on my feet almost all day, but i could not pull myself away from the extraordinary sights of the sunset over the Weddell Sea. The vessel did an abrupt about turn, and the captain announced that some orca had been spotted so I was soon joined on the observation deck by many more passengers, with one notable exception. One of my fellow passengers, the chairman of a large British Institution, had already retired to bed, only to be woken by the captain announcing that once again ‘The Show is outside’. 

Having been woken from his slumbers on more than one occasion the chairman had had enough of being woken by the captain’s announcements, so he stormed along to the bridge sporting his Polar bear pyjamas (Le Soleal has an open bridge policy, you can join the captain and the officers at any time) to voice his displeasure. The captain, who 10 years previously had faced down highly armed Somali Pirates, gave a little shrug of his shoulders and carried on studying the circling orca.

The photos don’t do the situation justice - it was 23.00 hours and nearly dark. A single penguin on a small iceberg, with 3-4 orca swimming lazily in circles around. The orca didn’t give it the full ‘Attenborough’ and wash the penguin off the berg, they just swam lazily around for 20 minutes before disappearing into the gathering murk.

Weddell Sea on Ponant's Le Soleal. The Small Cruise Ship Collection

Emblematic Antarctica & Weddell Sea cruise Map. The Small Cruise Ship CollectionWhy sleep?
Just to emphasize, this article is almost all about 1 day of this cruise. From the moment when I woke at 03.15 to the moment I gave up on the orca in the gloom was around 20 hours. I had had only 3 hours sleep the previous night yet bizarrely I could not get to sleep. I kept running over the day in my mind and new things kept popping in; The bright red stripe across an ice floe where a leopard seal was chewing on a penguin; the vast tabular icebergs several miles long and 4 stories high - meaning there was probably another 12 stories beneath the surface!; The Emperor penguins sledging across the ice; Paulet Island, where the crew of the Antarctic took shelter for a winter when the vessel perished; Sitting outside for a BBQ lunch as we cruised through the Weddell Sea; Endless sea ice; huge ice shelves; vast, vast landscapes of blue and white; Silence; Swedish explorers, when men were men; And most of all, what an incredible place, and how we must protect it. 

We stopped on Deception Island, a vast flooded caldera of a non-dormant volcano that provides a perfect harbour, and Elephant Point, a haul out for elephant seals, a nesting site for giant petrels and home to gentoo and chinstrap penguins. Both sites would have been fantastic if we had visited on the way south, but after the extraordinary day in the Weddell Sea it was a bit after the lord mayors show. 

I have many memories of my cruise: the first iceberg; the first landing; the waves washing across our balcony in the Drake Passage; the food on board (The 4 kgs I put on during the trip a reflection on the fantastic food and wine available); Humpbacks feeding just yards from a towering glacier; the vast glacier calving; penguins and many more. But over arching them all, that one day in the Weddell Sea.

Weddell Sea sunset from Le Soleal. Antarctic Ponant Cruise. P Ettinger