I have rewritten this article three – make that four – times…because Antarctica, the Scenic Eclipse, and the Expedition Team delivered some of the most amazing experiences. And remember this is my fourth – not first – expedition to “The Ice”.
There were just too many truly epic moments. (Epic is definitely an expedition/youthful term, but trust me on this: “Epic” is far better than “amazing”; more akin to Once-in-a-Lifetime!) Because of this, if I were to detail every Epic moment on this expedition this would be a twenty page article. So I will spare you that, but intersperse some photographs of epic or (merely) amazing moments and then, eventually, give you some detail on a few o my experiences.
But don’t let me get ahead of myself!
To me, the expedition portion of this journey matters the most. It is not about the “luxury” experience in the sense of great cuisine (Scenic Eclipse has that) or the fantastic service onboard (Scenic has that too), but rather making the reason why one comes to Antarctica grab you. In order for this to become more than an experience, but Epic!, there needs to be a coordination of a few very important things…and a bit of luck.
This is my first expedition where not a single landing or zodiac experience was canceled due to swell, weather or logistics. While the weather most definitely cooperated, as did the seas, it was a combination of the excellent team and the capabilities of the Scenic Eclipse that made it happen.
Let me chat about the Scenic Eclipse first, but know that this hardware is only as good as its software…the expedition team and bridge team. Scenic Eclipse provides one of, if not the most, diverse offerings in the expedition market. In addition to the expected zodiacs and kayaks, Scenic offers paddleboards and, as the stars of the “luxury” expedition offerings, two Airbus H130 Helicopters and one U-Boat Worx seven-passenger Submarine (Scenic Neptune).
Scenic Eclipse is a true state-of-the-art expedition ship. Its zodiac garage – along with its deck crew that see themselves as a NASCAR pit crew – can have an expedition loading guests in 15 minutes after the ship is in position.
And the ship can be in position essentially instantaneously due to its dynamic positioning system, that not only keeps the ship in position, but allows for it to be subtly repositioned on the fly to create an area for the gangway to operate in calm seas and wind. Having been on three prior expeditions on a conventional ship, no matter how talented the crew and expedition team, the time to offload zodiacs is much longer and the cancellation of expeditions due to sea swell to be expected.
I was given a truly behind the scene’s tour of everything from the ship’s Zero Discharge facilities to its highly efficient, low-sulfur fuel burning, engines to its massive stabilizers, and more. Because of my shipbuilding background I really got to get techy-nerdy and was very impressed; not only what Scenic Eclipse can do, but all of the safety features to assure the ship will continue to function no matter the emergency. Impressive!
But all these cool features – and there are many more – are worthless without an extremely capable captain, his bridge team and the coordination with the Discovery Team, as the expedition team is called on Scenic Eclipse. The captain definitely worked with them as Danny, the Team Leader along with the submarine pilots and helicopter pilots pushed to deliver the absolute best guest experience while not compromising safety.
Rather than being too conservative or throwing caution to the wind, real discussions were had if the submarine could operate with the sea ice condition, if the helicopter could operate with certain sea and weather conditions, and, of course, if a safe landing could be made in some places where they just don’t happen that often. And, remember, with a PC 6 ice-rated hull, the ship can go places many others cannot so the limits on other equipment can necessarily be challenged more than expected.
Keep in mind that if you are on a ship constrained by Big Corporate Standard Operating Procedures or some guy in the U.S. literally telling the captain what to do without actually being there, great opportunities will unnecessarily be lost. Being experienced, capable and nimble matters!
Scenic’s Discovery Team is a large, youthful, diverse, and – very importantly – engaging contingent of expedition personnel. While being able to deliver a landing is crucial, understanding and becoming engaged with it, is actually more important. The Scenic Eclipse Discovery Team includes marine biologists, glaciologist, geologists, historians, and more. That diversity also matters.
Importantly, the Scenic Discovery Team members are accessible to the guests. In the past Scenic did not really allow for this (Scenic viewed them more as a tour guide rather than an integral part of the experience), but that has changed for the better…and is still evolving. Unfortunately, Covid stifled this during the all-important first three days (as they needed to be safe from the new guests…just in case), but after the ship gave everyone another antigen test and was found to be Covid Free (Yay!) a more social interaction with the guests was allowed.
As a hint, take the time when you are on land or doing a zodiac cruise to talk with each of the Discovery Team members. They are an incredibly enthusiastic and engaging group. And each one of them has an incredibly interesting story- well actually more than one story – and some personal insights into what you are seeing (or better not seeing until they point it out). The Scenic Discovery team is so strong in that regard, I am hard-pressed to pick out a few as standouts…because they all stand out. (OK, I will point out Jenn Fought – my really good friend – who has the enthusiasm and engagement of a first grade teacher, and uses them to bring even rocks to life. She’s a geologist, so what can I say?!)
With busy schedules (two expeditions per day) the team requires some rest, but are available with an invitation to dine with guests in some (but not all) of the dining venues. Selfishly, I would like to see them more out and about in the main lounge and elsewhere before and after dinner though.
Interestingly, Scenic has a program to essentially migrate some of the hotel staff into the Discovery Team. Not everyone needs to be an expert and, to be sure, those who have this opportunity are excellent at engagement. As Jason, the head of the entire Discovery Program, believes, many skills can be taught (zodiac driver, landing team, etc.), but being able to make that personal connection with guests is intrinsic. And since Scenic has so many amazing staff, why look anywhere else!
Personally, I would like there to be a bit more information on each of the Discovery Team members and what their experiences have been in Antarctica right up front; possibly one day giving a more expanded into to one or two specialties and others the next. Knowing who has been here over 100 times as well as the ones who are here for the first time not only gives the team more credibility (honesty over hype), it opens up to conversations not only about one’s past Antarctica experience, but conversation about how each person (guest and team member) are perceiving their first Antarctic experience.
Now let me discuss my personal experience, which has been truly exceptional throughout.
While Scenic Eclipse definitely has “put on the show” for me, our first morning in Fournier Bay was incredibly beautiful and was basically a 15 out of 10. OK, the weather certainly helped…and in typical Antarctic fashion it was fortunately better than forecasted.
I was on the first helicopter ride of the expedition. As I was writing an article while in my suite, just waiting for my time, I was scared out of my chair when the helicopter on its reconnaissance flight took off and was literally right outside my balcony door! I have since experienced the helicopter flying while in my suite and if you keep your suite door closed it isn’t much of a bother. But if you keep it open or are out on deck, listening or watching for whales, there is a definite noise pollution factor and, of course, a break in the magnificent Antarctic quiet. (I haven’t really noticed it while on the zodiac since there is engine noise almost all the time there.)
One of my previous concerns was how experienced the pilot was. With many years of experience in the military and US Coast Guard Search and Rescue in Alaska I felt quite safe. And when he said “Helicopter pilots are either bold or old, but never both” I truly felt at ease.
And then it was time to strap in for a breathtaking 45 minutes ride. It truly gives you an awe-inspiring view of this majestic relatively untouched world. The scale of it all is just impossible to comprehend, but the helicopter flight certainly helps!
This experience does not come cheap. It is $695 per person. Considering the cost of the expedition and what people are willing to pay for a business class seat on an airplane, I think this seat is a far better value.
But I still have concerns, as do others. While Scenic does meet and seeks to exceed the IAATO “guidelines” for keeping above and away from wildlife (2,000 feet above bird colonies and 1,500 feet above whales), there is no really definitive data on what levels are actually safe. I did observe a humpback whale feeding with only shallow dives for quite a while with the helicopter flying nearby and it appeared to have no affect. But appearances can be deceiving…or not. I believe it is better to err on the side of caution.
However, and it is a big “however”, taking this flight may well bring a significant amount of environmental awareness to people and that could well outweigh any potential harm…especially considering the limited number of flights in any particular location (as the ship moves often).
Scenic is considering adding heliskiing to its repertoire. I strongly believe this is terribly wrong. Leaving aside the logistics and safety issues, it perverts the very reason the vast majority of people come to, and wish to protect, Antarctica. There are plenty of places to have challenging skiing (I live in one the best places in the world for that). Heliskiing in Antarctica is for no reason other than to feed one’s ego. And to be sure it is that sort of selfish ego that has taken a great toll on Antarctica, its wildlife (whales and fur seals), and, without question, its formerly pristine existence. What cost is Scenic willing to inflict on Antarctica – and the experiences of the other guests – for say maybe thirty people a year to get their self-centered adrenaline rush? I hope, since it is only in the consideration stage, it is ultimately abandoned and left to others (who regularly cannot actually ski due to weather and sea conditions on less sophisticated ships). I shall now step off my soapbox.
I made it back in time to head out on a zodiac expedition in Fournier Bay. As with most all expedition ships, the guests are broken down into four color groups and are scheduled to depart on a staggered basis. When it is time for your group (or a part of your group) you are released to the Mud Room where you have your boots stored in a locker with your suite’s number. After changing into them, it is only a few steps to the zodiac landing gate. You don’t need to scan your suite key, but rather just give them your suite number and you head to a zodiac.
The weather remained perfect with bluebird skies, flat calm seas, no wind and 40 degree temperatures. In just an hour and a half we observed leopard, fur, Weddell and crabeater seals as well as humpback whales. Yes, landings are great, but sometimes a zodiac ride can be the ticket. On a scale of 1 to 10, this morning’s expedition was a 15!
The Scenic Eclipse was not done with me for the day. They arranged for me to experience the Scenic Neptune! I took a zodiac out to the submarine, which was tied up to a “chase boat”. This U-Boat Worx submarine is pretty much the same one Seabourn is installing on its Seabourn Venture. But for Scenic Eclipse it is now considered passe! A new submarine from a different manufacturer is coming. As they say, “With experience comes knowledge!”
Transferring to the sub, you give them your life vest and then climb down a small ladder into a fairly tight space with three guest chairs on either side enclosed in large acrylic/ceramic bubbles. While it may sound claustrophobic (and I do have a touch of that!), it is not.
With everyone settled in, the pilot gives a safety briefing and we were off…I mean down. It is very subtle and you really don’t have any perception of speed or depth. (There isn’t much speed as the submarine can only travel at about 1.5 knots.) And as you descend any sense of the bubble being there disappears.
We descended to about 70 meters (230 feet) along a steep wall observing sea stars, sponges, anemones, tube worms, kelp, algae, copepods, and more. It was beautiful and very cool.
A truly wonderful thing about Scenic is this: It is product that remains in development and, unlike some other lines, it encourages criticisms and suggestions. In fact, it seeks them out.
One suggestion I had was providing more context to the submarine program with either a pre-experience discussion by the marine biologists of what you might see and how it all interrelates to the ecology below the surface, beefing up the knowledge of the submarine pilots and/or providing the guests with an identification card so they can better relate to what they see.
So what did Scenic Eclipse do? Apparently there was a healthy discussion among the Discovery Team and then: Scenic Eclipse sent me down again, but this time with the two marine biologists; with one (Alice) describing what we were seeing and how things interrelated, as if I had no marine biology background. It really made the experience come alive. Alice was doing great right up until Alex, the pilot, spotted an octopus…and then another! We all geeked out!
This was Epic for two reasons. Obviously the octopus, but also not only being receptive, but taking the suggestion to heart and putting it into action!
One hint: Don’t try to zoom in your iPhone or camera on anything because the bubble will distort things. You can play with it during your 40-minute dive to find your equipment’s sweet spot. When you are back in your suite, you can edit the photos to zoom in more.
The price for this magical experience is $775 per person. It, too, is expensive but, again, a far more memorable seat than a business class seat on a plane.
Unfortunately, due to the timing of my submarine experience, I was not able to make my second expedition of the day at Georges Point. Somehow, I don’t feel like I missed the chinstrap penguins too much. On expedition this happens from time to time. If you make it back to join another group you will be accommodated. But if not, your unique experience of helicopter, submarine, kayak or paddleboard is, well, just that!
My second day started at one of the most beautiful places I have visited in Antarctica and always a favorite: Neko Harbour. Rather than the spectacular view of all of the glaciers, I saw snow… a lot of snow. And then the snow got heavier…really heavy! But, again, Scenic Eclipse, the captain and the Discovery Team worked together to make sure this was a highlight – truly Epic – rather than conditions that cut the experience short.
I landed among the Gentoo penguins and when I say among, I mean among. We are required to keep about 15 feet from them, but they don’t need to follow those constraints and dozens and dozens of them decided they weren’t going to. They delivered a literal picture postcard moment!
You know how I say, “You should just find a rock, sit and let Antarctica come to you.” Well, with all the snow I couldn’t find a rock, but I did find a spot about three-quarters up a snow-covered hill that was just the perfect spot. And there I stood, sometimes chatting with a Discovery Team member and sometimes in silence…for over two hours.
With the snow falling, the smell of Antarctica (fortunately well above the smell of penguin guano!), the almost black-and-white lighting, it was a mind-fulfilling experience. (It was also an experience my good camera didn’t appreciate. It died. But as I have said, putting the camera down is far more important. I did have a small camera and my iPhone as backups.)
Another Epic experience was a reminder that sometimes, when you think the landing will just be OK, ya gotta go. We landed at Mickkelsen Harbour for a gander at some gentoo penguins, a few fur seals, an waterboat relic and some whale bones. I saw in the distance some zodiacs staying an area because there was a very curious leopard seal. I simply asked if I could be taken over there – groups are not a formality on Scenic Eclipse unless necessary – and there this beautiful creature was. It was not the menacing blob of reptilian looks that I have seen on land, but an incredibly elegant and engaging animal.
I have a great video, but unfortunately, I don’t have the bandwidth to upload it now.
As a final example of my Epic expedition experiences on the Scenic Eclipse – and there are more! – Deception Island. I have always considered Deception Island to be a living Ansell Adams photograph with its black volcanic sand, stark mountains and overall monochromatic presence. But today it was so much more!
After years of “Let’s see if we might be able to land at Bailey Head to see thousands of chinstrap penguins…Nope” this time we landed. And what we saw, in this rarified landing, was absolutely mind-blowing! After landing on this spectacular black sand beach with dozens of fur seals and penguins on one side and stark cliffs rising to the other, there was a narrow pathway to chinstrap penguins from right in front of your feet to beyond your vision both in front and looking skyward; with an eerie soft green moss highlight it.
It was simply impossible to capture the vastness, the colors, the energy of this place. Epic!
Scenic Eclipse was built, and the program developed, to deliver the ultimate in luxury expedition experiences. I can state without hesitation that the delivery of the Expedition Experience was, well, EPIC!