In Search of Snow Hill
There’s a strangeness to being in Antarctica, a sense of the surreal. I’m fortunate to have been several times, but the repetition hasn’t shaken the peculiarity of the experience. It’s a place where the air is clearer than you can imagine, where the water is purer and the landscapes more untainted than anything you’ve seen before. It’s where wildlife – avian and mammalian – is so delightfully naïve about the threat posed by humans that they approach with the sincere, stupid inquisitiveness of children.
No matter how you experience the Seventh Continent, its outrageous beauty is only matched by an uncanny sense that maybe none of it is real. After being there, I’m left with a feeling that in a world increasingly plagued by ubiquity, perhaps it – and it alone – deserves to be called unique.
My previous visits had been on much smaller ships than Ponant’s 466-feet Le Soléal. On those inferior vessels I felt every wave, slept poorly on uncomfortable beds and ate forgettable food, but believed, no matter how fancifully, that I was approximately following legends from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Twice before I’d been on ships that tried to reach the near-mythic Snow Hill Island, deep in the Weddell Sea, where the great Swedish explorer-scientist Otto Nordenskiöld was forced to spend two winters with his men when their 1902 expedition turned to disaster.
Twice I’d tried to follow in his mighty wake, but twice I was rebuffed by dangerous sea ice. The first time it happened I was standing on deck at dawn, Snow Hill’s frozen shores shining tantalisingly on the horizon. A potentially deadly and certainly impassable maze of sea ice lay between us and so we reluctantly turned away.
It was somehow emblematic of this place of hardship and suffering and such ludicrous scenery, Antarctica, where mankind has experienced the greatest triumphs and bleakest fates. Unsure how I’d cope with a third failure, I was relieved to note that Snow Hill was not part of Captain Patrick Marchessau’s plan for the luxurious Le Soléal.
Depending on how familiar you are with the brief and fraught history of humankind in Antarctica, decadence in the White Continent can feel extremely jarring. While Ponant unquestionably did a great job with providing comfort to the 200-plus passengers, over our week-and-a-half aboard Le Soléal, the inappropriateness of opulence never quite left me.
Launched in 2013, she is a dedicated cruise vessel – sleek, fast, reliable. As well as a spa and gym, the ship has an outdoor pool and morning yoga classes. There’s a dedicated gastronomic restaurant that dovetails with a buffet option on a higher deck. Each cabin has an individual espresso machine and balcony. There is nightly entertainment. In the bar on our cruise, a beautiful, lonely Ukrainian pianist played flawlessly to a flush-faced crowd that largely ignored her.
From the buffet restaurant, a slightly officious maître d’ would walk outside to untangle an enormous French tricolore whenever it got snagged, which was often. Above, cape petrels soared in Antarctic gales, watching our weirdness below.
Ponant’s bar had a selection of drinks that was both broad and deep. They were also mostly free. One day, three old friends from Île-de-France took advantage of this and started drinking champagne and playing cards immediately after breakfast. Our extreme latitudes were so matterless to them, I had to conclude that their battle would only end with the first fatality.
The extraordinary price of cruising in Antarctica means the primary demographic is almost always wealthy and over 60, so on this cruise it was nice to note that there were also teenagers and students, artists and poets, solo travellers and families. And whatever cultural, economic or social differences there were on-board, Antarctica presented her unending beauty to us all. Before that, though, we were equally barged and buffeted by the infamous Drake Passage.
On those days at the start and end of the cruise, the restaurants quietened and the room service staff grew busier as we traversed what is often described as the roughest ocean on the planet. The affable Randall Lamb from Houston used his self-imposed quarantine to pen a poem: “Subhuman it makes you feel/ As the ship rocks and reels/ At one with all your mates/ Who have suffered a similar fate”.
My waistline could have perhaps benefited from a little of what Randall described as “malady’s awesome power” but I was there for every meal, as ill-disciplined at the buffet as a Labrador.
There were pates, hams, salamis, chorizos, smoked turkey, bresola, foie gras (in 1912 explorer Douglas Mawson lost his supply sled and driver Belgrave Ninnis down a crevasse while trying to reach the South Pole), swordfish, octopus carpaccio, smoked mackerel, herring, steamed crab, snails, cured salmon (Mawson and fellow survivor Xavier Mertz soon had to start eating their dogs as they tried to get back to their ship), hummus, baba ghanoush, quinoa, feta, baby spinach, three types of tomato, palmitos (“Their meat was stringy, tough and without a vestige of fat… we were exceedingly hungry”), croque monsieurs, fresh beef tartar, beef bourguignon, bisques, consommés, crepes, croquettes (the concentration of vitamin A in the dogs’ livers was highly toxic and Mawson and Mertz soon began to break down mentally and physically), roast beef, lobster, pork belly, lamb, tuna steaks, veal steaks, venison (Mertz maddened and died leaving Mawson to make the final push utterly alone), gateaux, parfaits, tarte tatins, cupcakes, sorbets, profiteroles, an entire ice cream trolley (after a month in desperate isolation the Australian finally made it to salvation and was eventually knighted even though rumours of cannibalism dogged him for the rest of his life) and Le Soléal’s French cheese selection, which was a daily source of wonder and delight.
Each passenger briefing was made first in French and then English meaning the former got the jokes first and rarely sat quietly through the translations. A pantomime of shushing from the English-speakers soon developed.
During the first of such gatherings we were issued boots and life jackets to be used during our scheduled landings. We were also told that as of January 2019, Ponant had made its wi-fi service free on all cruises, including Antarctica. As a cheer went up from some of the passengers, I wondered how many I could throttle before the crew carried me out.
Antarctica is best place on Earth for many things: birdlife, glaciers, whale-watching. But there is also nowhere better to enjoy a digital detox, to put down the screens and really feel the magnificence of the planet’s last pristine place.
Wi-fi meant people would instead be distracted by hashtags and emails and uploads and news cycles. They would talk to each other less and inevitably miss some of the continent’s everyday miracles.
Captain Marchesseau never spoke about it directly, but I wondered if he was also concerned about this. The clue came with his oft-employed catchphrase: “The show is outside.” As in: “Put down your phones, internet loyalists, because the show is outside.”
When we spoke on the bridge of Le Soléal he said that wasn’t really the message – it simply got a positive response the first time he happened to say it and so has become part of his lexicon. He tried to use it sparingly, when Antarctica threw up gems too beautiful to ignore, but that still meant he had to say it a few times every day.
Marchesseau’s shows were consistent in frequency but varied in line-up: humpback whales lunge-feeding in Wilhelmina Bay; orcas stalking a waddle of chinstrap penguins on an iceberg; a pale sun setting over snowbound mountains in the Weddell Sea.
In the early days of the cruise, Marchesseau had an aura of invincibility, carrying himself with the necessary aloofness of a captain whose passengers are frequently French millionaires. At the welcome dinner he greeted everyone personally, resplendent in white uniform. Some of the guests wore tuxedos they’d brought specifically for the occasion.
As a five-course meal was served, the captain allowed himself the merest sip of a 2013 Margaux before approving it for his table. Passengers unfamiliar with such formality – including this writer – may have been a little unsure on the etiquette of banqueting in such august company.
I had little option but to learn quickly, especially when I saw my place name was right next to the great man himself. Thankfully, I had plenty of Antarctic tales to trade with him, including my near-misses with Snow Hill. I told these as colourfully and humbly as I could, but on hearing my stories the captain did a sort of De Niro frown coupled with a gentle nod, which I took to mean he was unimpressed. This was of course very annoying.
But then Captain Marchesseau’s experience dwarves mine in every way. He is first and foremost a true man of the sea, has been sailing since he was a teenager and now, at 50, has had just about as varied and dramatic maritime experience as any civilian sailor.
A few months after joining Ponant, from the bridge on one of their ships he witnessed the devastating 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami lurch murderously towards the Seychellois coast. Four years later, he was captain of a Ponant vessel which was hijacked at gunpoint by a band of Somali pirates. After a week of being held hostage with his crew, the captain was the last one to leave after his employer paid $2.15 million in ransom. Once the money was handed over, he had to jump from the ship and swim to the waiting French Navy. He later wrote a book about the whole ordeal, had his story meticulously retold in Vanity Fair and was awarded the Legion d’Honneur.
The captain never spoke of these deeds in person and if he is regarded as a celebrity in sailing circles, he chose not to mention it to we passengers. Later, I would wonder if perhaps Ponant had decided it would not be relaxing for us to hear him tell the time-I-saw-a-tsunami or the swashbuckling-week-with-pirates anecdotes.
On the bridge – which was open to the public – he seemed less guarded. Nine seasons of sailing to Antarctica had not made him complacent, in part because his introduction to the continent was so dramatic. “My first ever landing was at Neko Harbour and we arrived to 50-knot winds,” he told me, pausing to check our ETA with one of his crew. “There was no way to disembark with those katabatic winds coming off the glacier. The sea was smoking. We instead we sailed close by to Paradise Bay and there it was like a mirror. No wind at all. Amazing.”
To my surprise, there were days when Marchesseau personally piloted Le Soléal, rather than simply calling out commands to one of his subordinates. He assured me this was quite normal. One morning this included scything through some flat icebergs, enormous fissures being opened by the ship’s reinforced hull.
It had looked like fun for the crew, but perhaps a little foolhardy. Over another sprawling lunch, some passengers questioned the wisdom and motivations for doing such a thing. Had it been done just for fun? Was he showing off?
The truth was that the captain was looking for a berg into which he could purposely wedge Le Soléal, which he would eventually find, on our penultimate day in Antarctica. “It was a way of testing the ice, to see if we could make a landing and lower the gangway. I could see that it was possible without any risks to the ship,” he later explained with Gallic confidence.
If that represented daring then it was some of the first we had seen all week. For the most part, Ponant’s Emblematic Antarctica cruise wasn’t an expedition, not really – not in an exploratory sense. Sure, it’s described like that in the brochures, but so much as anything is standard in this part of the world, then it is a standard itinerary visiting well-frequented destinations included on most Antarctic cruises. Truthfully there wasn’t much in the way of adventure.
Right up until the morning there was.
The show was outside.
Deep in the Weddell
“The weather had changed as if by magic; it seemed as though the Antarctic world repented of the inhospitable way in which it had received us the previous day, or maybe it merely wished to entice us deeper into its interior, the more surely to annihilate us. At all events, we pressed onward, seized by that almost feverish eagerness which can only be felt by an explorer who stands upon the threshold of the great unknown.”
Those are the 117-year-old words of the Swedish adventurer and scientist Otto Nordenskjöld, whose exploratory 1902 mission into the Weddell Sea saw his ship crushed by ice and his men stranded in three separate locations with no way of communicating with each other.
Ice conditions in Antarctica have always been notorious, but even today, with satellite imagery and astonishingly accurate forecasts, nothing is guaranteed. As recently as 2007, the MS Explorer, was slashed open and sunk by and iceberg – and that was significantly north of the Weddell.
Reaching as far south as Snow Hill Island some requires kind weather, but also navigating an ever-shifting maze of ice corridors, described by Ernest Shackleton as “the silent water streets of this vast, unpeopled white city.” Always the captain must remember that he has to make a return journey – getting there is one thing but getting back can be another entirely.
The sort of near misses I experienced years ago were not uncommon. Le Soléal had never been to the island and, in nine years of sailing to Antarctica, Captain Marchesseau had never made it, either. The previous season, ice had kept him from entering the Weddell Sea at all.
In fact, of all the ship’s expedition staff, only one had visited Snow Hill before, ornithologist Christophe Gouraud. Even he’d done so just once, by helicopter (two other attempts had to be abandoned for lack of a landing zone).
All of which is to say: no matter your seafaring experience, nationality or socio-economic standing, of all Antarctica Peninsula’s prizes, Snow Hill is one of the very rarest. Second may well be emperor penguins, which are normally at sea by the time the austral summer allows cruise ships to push into their realm.
Picture our delight, then – and outrageous fortune – when the captain announced at 5am that the show outside was a small delegation of emperors marching on an ice-shelf just a couple of nautical miles from Snow Hill’s precious coast. This was important enough that half an hour later, those refusing to leave bed were given a second nudge, the captain becoming a persistent parent on our best ever school morning.
Before long, Le Soléal’s ordinarily roomy observation decks were crowded, camera shutters flapping like startled bats to capture the bemused penguins. They slid across the ice on their bellies, seemed to berate a group of smaller Adélie penguins, and had all the conscious passengers and crew eating out of their flippers.
There had been other polar moments, those special instances which get forever frozen into the brain – a whale’s saline report echoing off an ice cliff; a hotel-sized piece of ice calving from a glacier – but surely nothing was more memorable than seeing those Antarctic monarchs.
Captain Marchessau took some photos of his own before telling us that we were going to push on towards Snow Hill. Though we would spot more emperors in the white distance, this was to be our new, thrilling goal. At one point a solitary minke whale started launching itself from glassy ocean, its bullet-shaped head appearing to point towards our goal. It was then I realised that this had been Marchessau’s hoped-for plan all along.
Certain landings in Antarctica are foreboding affairs, screaming that humankind has no place there. Even on the beaches stuffed full of penguins there’s a sublime hideousness alongside the avian comedy: eggs laid next to the ribcage of a dead neighbour or relative; penguins defecating on each other; sheathbills then flying in to eat it. The manifold cruelties of larger semi-predatory species like Antarctic skuas and southern giant petrels are too upsetting to document here. That cycle of life and death being in such dreadful proximity is part of Antarctica’s uncanniness, too.
Despite the build-up, Snow Hill had none of that. Instead, the dark-sand shore led to the Nordenskiöld’s historic hut, which had somehow survived decades of untold storms to stand defiantly on an exposed promontory. On the day we saw it, with no wind and the temperature pushing 10C, it seemed almost like a pleasant little chalet.
Yet for passengers who knew nothing of Nordenskjöld and his unlikely story, this was not a dream landing. They had little interest in his survival miracle, nor in knowing that the science conducted here allowed the first ever year-on-year Antarctic data comparisons. Only one man died during the expedition and even that was through illness, not starvation or frostbite, yet some visitors were annoyed they hadn’t seen any more penguins.
Of course they would, soon enough. Gentoos porpoising off the side of the ship and later trudging over beaches like foetid festival goers, nervously waddling between cantankerous elephant seals which gurgled and burped as though they too had been given free rein at the Le Soléal’s buffet.
Still, the significance of landing at Snowhill was not lost on more experienced visitors. This included Captain Marchesseau. As I reluctantly retreated to my Zodiac back to the ship, I passed him on the beach, striding forth with a folded French flag under his arm.
“Have you come to claim it for France?” I asked. After such a triumph, with no other ship near us and the sun glinting off Le Soléal, few would have grudged him at least a temporary governorship.
The captain laughed politely and kept walking, but he didn’t exactly deny it.
A version of this piece was published in National Geographic Traveller in October 2019.