Life at Sea
Here is a little description of what it is to be a cruise ship naturalist during a 10 day Antarctic cruise.
Ushuaia, near the southern tip of South America is a long way from Toronto. I left home at noon on January 2 for the approximately 3 hour flight to Atlanta. This was followed by a 6 hour wait and then a 9 pm flight to Buenos Aires. 10 hours later the plane arrived and I took a taxi to a downtown hotel. It is full summer here and I ate supper and sat in an outdoor café with a naturalist friend for many hours. Finally off to bed only to rise at 1:30 am for another taxi to the airport and a 4:30 am flight to Ushuaia.
On arrival at Le Boreal (this is a little surreal as it was Le Boreal that came close to disaster with an engine room fire last year; one of the more frightening moments of my life), the team of 11 naturalists meets and we are assigned cabins (I got a single though I will be sharing for the next cruise). Uniforms, boots and radios are given out and we have a few hours to get some rest before passengers arrive at 4 pm.
As Ponant is a French company, all but 2 of the naturalists (who are German; one of them works as an actress in Germany when she is not at sea) speak French and English. I am definitely the oldest but there are others in their 50’s and 60’s. The youngest is 28. Several have spent entire years on remote Antarctic islands doing research on penguins, seabirds, ice fish, glaciers and a host of other things. My symphony orchestra background is unusual to be sure, but Bernd, from Germany, has a PHD in religion and is a church organist and choir master in Germany. We have had many interesting talks.
On the first night we wear our best suits and there is a “Meet the Captain” presentation in the theater. There were 203 passengers on the first cruise which included:
2 Austrians, 35 Australians, 9 Belgians, 1 Chinese, 1 Chilean, 5 Germans, 2 Estonians, 3 Spanish, 99 French, 1 British, 2 Hungarians (1 is a big hockey fan!), 2 Italians, 19 Tawainese (I accompanied several of these groups on Zodiak cruises and they are obsessed with taking “selfies.” When we spot a seal, they take a photo with themselves in the foreground.) and 22 Americans (one couple has recently moved to Boston so that they can immerse themselves into the life of their 19 month old grandchild). Our passengers for the next 2 cruises are entirely Chinese. In February, 2 cruises are entirely Australian.
The first two days are at sea as the ship crosses the Drake Passage. This body of water can be mild (Drake Lake) as it was for this cruise or wild (Drake Shake) as it has been on a few others. (Pass the Gravol). Sometimes few passengers appear for breakfast on the first morning.
Speaking of breakfast, the food is very French and is an exquisite 6 stars in quality. Once or twice during each cruise I am invited to eat with passengers in the dining room and have a special Ponant white shirt for this purpose. During these meals we hear lots of interesting life stories. Naturalists eat all of our meals in the dining room or in the buffet at tables designated for us.
I attended a dance show this afternoon. Each ship has 5 dancers (4 female and one male) and they perform 4 or 5 times during each cruise (each time a different show.) In addition they teach ballroom dancing to the passengers etc. The show I saw was a very modern spectacle of dances from all around the globe with great music and dozens of costume changes. The ship also has several pianists (including a classical virtuoso) and singers who entertain in the various lounges.
In Antarctica we lead 2 expeditions a day for 5 straight days. On the recent cruise, we walked about on land 6 times and did Zodiak cruises among icebergs etc 4 times. For Zodiak cruises, I comment on the natural world we are seeing and do it in French, or English or sometimes both. The ears of the English-speakers always perk up when I say the French word “phoque” (seal). At least once per cruise, our Zodiak is met by a special Zodiak which gives us each a glass of champagne. Another Ponant touch.
For the landings, the expedition leader assigns us each a position. It could be near a penguin colony so that we can answer questions, it could be near a “hauled out” elephant seal who is fast asleep on shore and awakes only for incredibly low-pitched burps, it could be to accompany passengers on a hike of an hour or so to the top of a glacier or a mountain, or it could be simply to help passengers in an area which has difficult footing. We exchange positions from time to time and are ashore for about 4 hours. During one cruise I helped a lady who kept falling into deep snow. On the end of the cruise, she told me that she had written a nice report about me in her cruise appraisal. As she left she remarked “Thank-you so much once again Dmitri.” (Dmitri is another tall naturalist.)
One of our landings was at a Chilean science station where T-shirts saying “I was in the Antarctica” were for sale for $40 US.
During each outing, I take 100’s of photos of the penguins etc and, later, choose the best dozen or so which I will put into posts on my website when I return home. Today I took photos as we passed by historic Cape Horn where over 10,000 sailors have lost their lives in stormy seas. Photos from South Georgia which we visited in November are already posted. The waters of the Beagle Channel were full of Sei Whales and Dusky Dolphins during our last few hours to Ushuaia.
Each naturalist gives a lecture during the cruise and I have been doing a lecture on seabirds (albatross etc) and penguins. I have taken many of the photos I show and have chosen music for some of the short videos. As a skua hunts for penguin eggs, the passengers hear music from the “St Matthew Passion” by Bach in the background. As the Snowy Sheathbill struts about, they hear “Walk Right In, Sit Right Down.”
As I write we have arrived at Ushuaia with beautiful mountains on both sides (some are still snow-capped). Tomorrow it all begins again until I return home on March 5.