Superyacht SuRi's adventures in Antarctica
by Jim Raycroft
SuRi’s owner heads off to scuba dive with the expedition divemaster Douglas Allan. A man of many talents, Allan is a renowned freelance cameraman and naturalist contributing to many programs including BBC’s The Blue Planet and Frozen Planet with footage shot above and below the surface. He shared his knowledge and experience with us daily in the comfort of SuRi’s salon, presenting entertaining talks and films of his worldwide adventures. His new book, Freeze Frame, is on my must-have list.
For the non-divers, expedition leader Kieran Lawton runs us over to a small island for a short introduction to ice hiking up to a 150-foot elevation and an impressive view of the bay. Lawton brings more than two decades of experience leading expeditions at both Poles and leading research teams in the Antarctic. We start our climb near a couple of old wooden boats poking up through the snow. Abandoned long ago with the demise of commercial whaling industry, they are relics of Antarctica’s more recent past and, like the wildlife, these historic sites are protected by the Antarctic Treaty.
Returning to the Zodiacs, we join our expedition ice pilot Captain Roger Wallis. His local knowledge was invaluable in complementing SuRi captain Neil Anderson’s expertise for the vessel’s safe operation in an area devoid of aides to navigation. With clear, sunny weather, flat calm seas and temperatures well above freezing, Wallis runs the Zodiac outside Enterprise Island to give us an up close view of icebergs. The shapes and color are startling—the natural vibrance of the blue ice has to be seen to be believed.
We come across a large leopard seal dozing on a small piece of ice. He shows no fear as we slowly approach. Back at SuRi, six humpback whales and a few minke are circling the yacht, feeding on the abundant krill, oblivious to us. They swim within 20 feet of the yacht, passing directly beneath the Zodiacs several times.
Later that day, we continue south down the Gerlache Strait in search of a colony of chinstrap penguins, with the helicopter making the perfect platform for penguin recon. By 8 p.m. with the sun still high, SuRi eases into Orne Harbor, lingering in 300 feet of water while we made a 600-foot ice climb up Spigot Peak to view a chinstrap penguin colony—fuzzy young chicks and all—perched high on the windswept ridge.
Back aboard SuRi at 10:30 p.m., dinner is a special time. Owners and guests come together and share their experiences of the day—scuba diving, ice climbing, wildlife watching, wakeboarding, helicoptering or simply taking in the majestic vistas through the salon windows—over a welcome glass of fine wine.
SuRi runs south all night through the Penola Strait, aided by a pair of intense spotlights sweeping constantly across her forward route while the captain and crew kept a very watchful eye to avoid a collision with any one of thousands of icebergs.
Waking up in the shadow of Mt. Shackleton, our third day dawns bright and clear, presenting an unobstructed view to mile-high mountains draped with centuries-old glaciers rising straight out of the sea. The morning air is startling fresh and clear, and we are soon in the tenders. The ride to the Yalour Islands is like picking our way through a colossal white maze. Dwarfed by the shear scale of the icebergs, we lose sight of SuRi in minutes. While most of our group heads to a small island to get our first glimpse of Adélie penguins, the two youngest set off to climb the steep 1,500-foot slope of Mt. Demaria led by Lawton.
Later in the morning several of the more sane among us make the same climb via helicopter to see these three adventurous souls perched on the ice-covered summit with a shear drop down the back side. We nicknamed it Mt. SuRi in honor of their challenging effort. Flying low over icebergs offers a stunning perspective to these chunks of ancient drifting ice—some the size of a playground, others the size of Central Park or bigger. Our pilot finds a suitably sized flat-top berg and adds one more unique landing experience to his logbook.
Following lunch, we return to the tenders for a run across the bay and a visit with the Ukrainian researchers at Vernadsky Station. A former British base established in 1947 as Station F on Winter Island, the operation was relocated in 1954 to the present site on nearby Galindez Island and renamed Faraday Station in 1977. It was data collected at Faraday Station that led British scientists to discover a hole in the ozone layer in 1985. Ukraine took over the operation in 1996. Though we could not take part in any scientific work, we did partake of a libation at the southernmost pub on the planet, aptly named “The Southernmost Public Bar” when built by the British. Our Ukrainian hosts distill their own vodka with the pure water from centuries-old glacier ice. We raise our glasses in a toast to friendship then depart for Pleneau Island 10 nautical miles to the north.
We wake to the sound of ice bouncing off SuRi’s hull as she moves slowly through a sea of chunks that had been ground off the bottom of icebergs when they were pushed aground by wind and current. The day is heavy gray, overcast with a cold light rain. We drop anchor at the edge of Iceberg Alley and pile into the Zodiac tenders in search of wildlife.
Iceberg Alley is so called because of the icebergs that drift into the channel with wind and current. The logjam effect creates a tight cluster of ice with turning space between them nearly too tight even for the tenders. Within minutes we are closing in on a large leopard seal lounging on a low floating piece of ice. He’s soon joined by a younger, more active male determined to harass his older friend by bobbing up on the ice and sliding past him into the water. The young seal entertains us with his antics, zooming close around and under the Zodiac for 10 minutes—then he’s gone. We find another photo op with a smaller colony of gentoo penguins nesting barely above sea level. Observing the nests, our guide remarks that chicks that have not grown sufficiently by now stand a slim chance of surviving the coming winter.
Departing at 1 p.m. through the Lemaire Channel, we squeeze through a narrow channel edged with soaring mountains and ice. The going is slow, and at times the crew boat muscles a large chunk of ice out of our way. Augmenting the scenery, Doug Allan talks about filming orcas on the peninsula. We exit the channel and approach Port Lockroy by 5 p.m. Towered over by a glacier on three sides, it offers a well-protected overnight anchorage boasting good diving and scenery.