Superyacht SuRi's adventures in Antarctica
by Jim Raycroft
A former British base from 1944 through the mid ’60s, Port Lockroy is now a museum outpost promoting Arctic heritage. SuRi’s landing craft transports the entire contingent of owners and guests plus several crew to a rocky landing spot. A few gentoo penguins have taken up residence around the bright red buildings. Port Lockroy is a delightful distraction from the natural scene we have become accustomed to. The store and museum are small but sufficient, and passports are stamped with the official Port Lockroy penguin mark complete with lat and long. The base is manned by four delightful and adventurous young Brits who competed for the four-month summer posting. SuRi’s owner invites them all back to the yacht for dinner and a special treat—laundry and showers with endless hot water.
As another heavy overcast day begins, the owner plus five hardy souls depart early to make a four- to five-hour snowshoe hike up the glacier across the bay from the outpost. I later hop a Zodiac to shore with Wallis to see a deposit of massive whalebones.
We depart mid afternoon to go up the Neumayer Channel toward Cuverville Island and go ashore for observation of more gentoo penguins entering and exiting the water. They’re amazing to watch—clumsy on land almost tripping into the water—but they swim with amazing speed and agility, rocketing out of the water to instantly upright and walking in the blink of an eye.
At dinnertime, SuRi carefully picks her way through the narrow Errera Channel. Two humpback whales, feeding close enough to hear them spout, swim along with us for 30 minutes. Zito spools up the AStar for a photo op of SuRi in the company of icebergs at dusk. Dwarfed by the massive ice, SuRi easily hides. In this part of the world, anchor watch includes having the landing craft standing by to nudge aside any large pieces of ice drifting down on SuRi.
Morning delivers heavy overcast and light snow. The sea is dead calm, the world is dead silent. It takes awhile for an East Coast kid to get used to the scale of the terrain here—the massive stone mountains holding ice thousands of years old, hundreds of feet deep, slowly moving down to the sea. It splits (calves), revealing crevasses of ancient, bright blue ice.
Until now we have been ashore on islands, but today we are standing on the Antarctic continent at Neko Harbour, preparing for some rope climbing into a crevasse that Lawton has checked out. There are many crevasses in the area, many hidden with snow bridges, so attention has to be paid to where you step. Lawton sets the snow anchors that will take the weight of the climber as he is lowered down. Lying in the snow with a safety line, looking over the edge, I see the crevasse glow bright blue even on this gray day. The long view of weather slowly rolling across the bay goes from clear to cloudy to snow to rain to snow to clear, and SuRi evaporates into white as clouds envelope our position on the mountain. I’m enjoying the challenge of photography as the climbers work their way down 30 to 40 feet, hanging on a thin line. There’s no telling how deep the crevasse goes, but it’s certainly deep enough to take you away.
We had hiked up together but go down separately. Our two young adventurers take the sleds for a faster descent, and the steep hill falls away in front of the speeding craft. With no wind and alone on the trail, the only sounds are my own footsteps in the snow and my breathing. The now familiar smell—eau de penguin—gets stronger with each step closer to the shoreline colony. Then, a crack and rumble: a piece of the glacier gives in to gravity, splashing into the sea.
SuRi departs Neko Harbour for the run back to Enterprise Island, dropping anchor at 10 p.m. Both helicopters are up the next day for some photo work and glacier recon. Some guests go kayaking with humpback whales while one young man chooses to wakeboard in full dry suit. It’s a day playing aboard one sort of craft or another.
That evening, we depart for an all-night crossing to Half Moon Island, just east of Livingston Island. We are welcomed by a large colony of chinstrap penguins going through their daily routine—greeting their mates, feeding the chicks, changing of the guard. Then we are back on board SuRi for an 11 a.m. departure to King George Island and our charter flight back to the world.
As the packing nears an end, we get word that the charter flight to Punta Arenas has been cancelled due to weather. The ceiling had dropped below the 860-foot minimum—no plane today, no plane tomorrow and who knows about the next day. Minimal conditions that would cause little concern in the States bring flight operations to a standstill.
The adverse weather continues until the plane is able to collect us near the end of the third day. Being held captive by the weather is yet another reminder of the formiddable nature of this continent—a faint echo of a century ago when those intrepid explorers had to wait for their ships to be free of the ice.