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Peter Shanks has been in the cruise industry for many years including 15 years with Cunard Line, latterly as President. For the last five years Peter has been spearheading Silversea’s growth in the U.K. as Managing Director for U.K., Ireland, Middle East. He is based in London. Here is Peter’s journey to Antarctica.
Antarctica is a very long way away – at the bottom of the world. But when I read Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton’s book South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914-1917, I knew I had to travel there. For my last five years at Silversea, I have worked hard to convince others to go and with some success. But now with the launch of Silver Endeavour – it was my time. This was my chance to visit Antarctica. It would not be a normal voyage. We were taking 100 of Silversea’s travel agent partners and journalists from around the world to experience and christen our beautiful new Silver Endeavour.
I had been very busy at work and at home (and beyond), recovering from a recent hip replacement, and becoming a proud grandfather for the first time just a few weeks ago. So I did not really concentrate on what lay ahead until I set off on the rather long journey to join the ship in Puerto Williams in Chile. That is the new base for some of our Antarctica expeditions.
On this cruise, the first for Silver Endeavour, we were having a hybrid experience. We would join the ship at Chile’s Puerto Williams and make the crossing through the Drake Passage, which separates South America from Antarctica. On our homeward trek, we’d get a bit of the Antarctica Bridge experience, flying directly from King George Island back to Chile. (Typically, Silversea’s Antarctic expedition cruises either travel roundtrip from Puerto Williams, via the Drake, or fly from Punta Arenas to the continent).
But first: We flew from London to Santiago, for an overnight stay there, where we were introduced to some of the unique vagaries of an Antarctic expedition and had a chance to explore and relax. The next morning, we boarded our new exclusive Silversea business class configured flight with Antarctica Airways for the flight from Santiago down to Puerto Williams.
It is a special flight. There’s plenty of room, with seats configured in a European business class style so there are no middle seats. We were served a Silversea menu that, in collaboration with Chilean chefs, focused on the cuisine of the country. In this case, I washed down a delicious warm stew with a local beer or glass of Chilean wine. There even was a specially created Silversea entertainment system for the seatback televisions.
After two hours, as we descended towards the remote airfield, we caught sight of Silver Endeavour for the first time, docked just a few hundred yards from the runway. She looked great – a fine and sturdy ship. I say sturdy with some relief as much of the talk on the flight was around the famously mercurial Drake Passage that lay ahead – would it be the ‘Drake Shake’ or the ‘Drake Lake’.
First we attended a lovely ceremony in Chile’s Puerto Williams, Silversea’s primary Antarctica port city, with local dignitaries to bless the ship prior to her first voyage. It was a chance to meet locals, hear from Captain Niklas Peterstam and get introduced to Silver Endeavour’s godmother, Felicity Aston, who would be travelling with us and christening the ship in Antarctica. Aston was chosen because she is a true explorer– and the first woman to ever ski across Antarctica.
Then we all boarded Silver Endeavour, quickly dropping our belongings and heading to the Explorer Lounge for the safety drill and our first briefing from our Marieke Egan, our expedition leader. Soon after we weighed anchor and the journey began as we headed out into the famous Drake Passage.
This was a rare crossing for Silver Endeavour. For most of the season, the ship will be operating our Antarctica Bridge sailings where we fly guests directly to and from King George Island in the Antarctic Peninsula – a smooth two hour flight from Punta Arenas. This itinerary avoids the time consuming two day crossing (at each end of the trip), which is what both Silver Wind and Silver Cloud do on their sailings.
Love it, hate it or fear it – it’s legendary and the fact that you have crossed will give you both kudos and a great dinner party story. It can be a smooth crossing or a hairy crossing (or even a bit of both!) – and more likely towards the hairy experience. It normally takes two days. We were all talking about what we were in for as we set sail – a mixture of trepidation and excitement and much talk of patches and sea sickness pills. Many had downloaded the windy.com app, which told me to expect winds of up to 45 knots and waves of up to 18 feet. Well – it turned out to be average winds of 35-40 knots and seas of between 5 and 6 metres. I am very relieved to report that Silver Endeavour handled it magnificently.
We arrived in the South Shetland Islands early after just a day and a half – and had time for an unexpected landing that afternoon. Yes we all took a pill or a patch and yes the ship moved but almost everybody made dinner and very few took refuge in their suites. And we did it! It was a true adventure in one of the most remote oceans and now we had arrived in a very special place that promised more adventures.
Before I describe the incredible experience that lay ahead – a little bit about the ship, which is just over a year old. She was actually designed for Crystal Cruises and was acquired by Silversea in summer 2022. Silver Endeavour is of a very high and luxurious specification – very similar to the rest of our fleet. The suites are lovely with plenty of space, a very comfortable bed, lots of room for all your clothes and expedition gear, an excellent bathroom and shower, and a good size balcony. And of course, in true Silversea fashion, there is a butler to take care of your every need.
In terms of dining, what really impressed me was the sheer variety of venues on a ship that carries just 200 passengers! We have The Restaurant, which serves a’la carte breakfast, lunch and dinner, Il Terrazzino — a smaller sister to La Terrazza, Silversea’s popular Italian restaurant — and The Grill, around the glass-enclosed pool (yes, we have a pool). There’s also the famous La Dame, our elegant French boite. Our Arts Café is at the heart of the ship during the day and a place where many meet whilst waiting to be dispatched ashore or to have a hot chocolate or something stronger on their return from a landing or Zodiac trip. Arts Café is open all day from 6 a.m. – and you can always get a snack or an early morning coffee, and, later, afternoon tea and a tipple.
The Explorer’s Lounge and Observation Lounge – which has magnificent views high above the bow – are perfect venues in which to relax. Lecturers and briefings took place in the Explorer’s Lounge and the recap of every day’s activities (complete with videos) and a briefing for the next, were can’t-miss entertainment. Each night, before dinner, Marieke Egan, our expedition leader, updated us with weather maps, relayed conversations she had had with the captain and set out the plan for the day ahead. The briefing gives really detailed options on what you can do at each landing and there are also separate briefings for kayaking. When I say “plan” –- that often means plan A, B or even C. The weather can and very often does change fast in this part of the world. We managed two landings each day in the Peninsula – the Captain and Marieke worked their miracles and we were asked to do our bit and pray for good weather – a winning combination.
Ultimately, the aim is to provide two landings a day, plus, when conditions permit, Zodiac rides around icebergs to spot wildlife.
I must say at the outset it is very hard to describe this incredible place. On the second day we landed on the mainland – I had stepped now on all seven continents and that is a sense of achievement in itself. One small step for man – one giant leap for me and my fellow guests, as I stepped off the Zodiac to be met by inquisitive penguins. This wasn’t the only highlight of the day.
Early that morning I had come out on deck to witness giant icebergs and massive mountain peaks with a daunting amount of ice and snow. There is something very special about the light in Antarctica – and it definitely enhances your photography. The combination of the starkness of the terrain and the infused light (mostly because there are almost always some clouds in the sky to filter the sun) took my breath away.
There is a beauty, a solitude and a real sense of being so small in such an expanse in such a special and untouched part of the world. On first sight, it is a very emotional experience and to stand and let it soak in is something you have to do several times each day – you have to pinch yourself to believe what you are seeing. I have watched many David Attenborough documentaries, but now I had the privilege to experience it for myself and indeed, it was magical.
For the next few days we were surrounded by sights that changed as often as the weather. Silver Endeavour traversed narrow channels and often sailed past packed ice or enormous icebergs several times larger than the vessel itself!
On Silver Endeavour there are many spacious outside deck spaces (Deck 6, at the bow, has a whirlpool and Deck nine, the ship’s highest deck, has a track for jogging or walking and lots of comfortable seating) and at any time you can walk right up to the bow of the ship and chat to one of the expedition team who are always ready with their knowledge of wildlife, geology and history.
On several occasions we heard the call that there were whales off the bow and we would jump into our parkas and boots and dash outside. There is something very emotional in watching humpback whales breach next to the ship – seeing their iconic tails rise and then fall as they dipped below the water. We are visiting their home.
We were all split into four colour groups – with a very democratic approach as to who goes ashore first each day – but it does not take long as each group is only about 15 minutes apart. We gather in the mudroom – where the high-quality boots that are lent to us and the waterproof trousers and thick parka (loved the lining that you could remove when you got warm) that are gifted to all guests. And we never went off the ship without a lifejacket. Every suite has a locker in the boot room where you can keep your shoes, and your boots are hung next to your locker; a nice touch is that they have little whirring heaters so they can dry the boots automatically.
All environmental precautions are considered critical to our adventure. Everybody is individually checked, then you walk through a disinfectant tray to make sure you take nothing ashore and then it’s into the Zodiac. Getting in and out of the Zodiacs is done very carefully and safely with many hands to guide you – everybody soon got the hang of Zodiac landings.
On your Zodiac ride, piloted by a member of the expedition team, you’d get information about what to expect on the landing. Typically, they would head out first thing and stamped down, in the snow, different paths that are marked with red flags. They’ve carved stairs out of ice and snow that often are part of getting onto the islands.
And then you are free to be the Antarctic explorer you have always wanted to be.
Normally for each landing, you get a couple of hours to wander around, take photos, marvel at the penguins’ shenanigans, spot an occasional elephant seal, and just take in and marvel at your surroundings. At the end of each day – and it stayed light until almost midnight – I managed to find time to remind myself it was “Beer-o-Clock” and take a moment to gaze from the deck or my balcony and just take in and reflect what a remarkable experience the day had delivered in this daunting, beautiful and very special place.
They deserve a paragraph of their own. I loved the penguins; I could and did watch them for hours. We saw many types of penguin – Gentoo, Chinstraps and Adelie. They wander about, stand in groups, walk up and down – and yes we did see them and, well, I am not sure of the appropriate term – but maybe “making babies” will best describe it. They had no shame – and no idea they were on camera. We kept a respectful distance. As this was November and very early in the mating season, most of the penguins we saw were together in big groups waiting for the snow and ice to melt so they could build their nests. What is fascinating is that they come back to the very spot each year and seek out the same partner. We saw thousands, yes, thousands, of penguins with different colonies at each landing.
I won’t dwell on all the other species we saw up close – including albatross, elephant seals and humpback whales. Why not come here and discover them for yourself?
One of the best days we spent was a very special day: the christening of Silver Endeavour. Our captain took the ship into the famous Lemaire Channel, an incredible and narrow channel with massive mountain peaks and cliffs packed with ice on either side. The ship then stopped, and all of our guests got into Zodiacs, which sailed through the channel in formation. The ship followed close behind us, an incredible sight in its own right, as was the sun, which suddenly came out from behind the clouds, and an incredible blue sky.
At the Lemaire Channel’s midpoint, our Zodiacs manoeuvred into a close semicircle around the bow of the ship. Then, as you would expect from Silversea, we were all carefully handed a glass of Champagne.
Up above us on Silver Endeavour’s bridge were the captain and Felicity Aston, our godmother. A bottle made of ice – so as not to risk dropping anything into the pristine waters – hung above the bow. Captain Niklas Peterstam uttered the appropriate words, our godmother blessed the ship and cut the ribbon, the bottle smashed and a big cheer went up.
That is how to launch a ship as special as Silver Endeavour and doing it in Antarctica is pretty cool – in every sense of the word.
That evening we had a gala celebration dinner and the next day it was time to start the long journey home. This time we experienced our Antarctica Bridge itinerary’s logistics. As the ship stood off the shore of King George Island, still deep in the heart of Antarctica, our luggage was taken ashore in the Zodiacs. Once we knew the inbound flight (with the lucky next passengers to board Silver Endeavour) from Punta Arenas was close we followed in our Zodiac groups for the 10-minute ride ashore – safe and warm in our boots and parkas. We landed on the shore and were met by small buses and then driven the short distance to the airfield. The special large tent being constructed for the season was not quite ready. So we waited in some local sheds , with warming tea and coffee or stood outside as we watched the plane come in, bringing with it our excited inaugural sailing guests.
This was exciting. Not many people have flown into or out of the Antarctic Peninsula and departing this way felt like a different kind of expedition. A warming cup of soup was waiting for us as we boarded. Rather than take up two more days sailing across a probably bumpy Drake Passage, our journey took two hours in absolute comfort back to Punta Arenas. And from there over the next day everybody started their long journey home.
I feel very privileged to have experienced Antarctica. I have often described it as the closest thing to being on another planet whilst still on this planet. And now I feel even closer to this very special planet Earth, with its many remarkable and beautiful places.
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