Antarctic Cruise Ushuaia: There has to be better options than Chimu Adventures and Antarpply’s MV Ushuaia

Well it is good to hear that folks traveling to Antarctica on the MV Ushuaia have reported a pretty terrific cruise. Our cruise was the last of the season for the MV Ushuaia and Antarctica, departing Ushuaia on the 24th March 2016. We bought the last of the season Antarctic cruise to fit in with our extended South American visit but also the pricing for a Superior Cabin with a large window view was pretty good. Getting the last cruise of the season is also quite a risk in terms of the weather, but we and most of the folks on our cruise were resigned to that. In fact the Antarctic weather was pretty wild for most of the trip.

On board we find that we have been misled by Chimu Adventures with our purchase of a Superior Cabin. They have downgraded us to a cheaper Premium Cabin and dumped us in a cabin with an obscured view. And then they vilify and abuse us for actually expecting some equity and fairness for being treated so badly. Apparently we should just feel lucky to actually visit Antarctica with such an ethical travel agent. (Our discussion of our horrible treatment at the hands of Chimu is detailed in a separate post). Quite a few other passengers experience difficulties with the tour organiser Chimu, in terms of downgrades, missing transfers, accommodation booked in the wrong month, not getting the designated cabin and probably the worst being accommodated with an incompatible room mate who tended to drink too much and ended up painting the cabin towards the end of the trip.

In his report of the cruise for the 24th Feb thru 4th March, Keith reported only the “slightest of swells” over the Drake Passage and only a little more on the way back. Unfortunately, when we departed on the Thursday 24th March the weather conditions were not quite so friendly. Our first night south from Ushuaia thru the Beagle seemed to be going well, but we woke to find that we had “parked” somewhere in the vicinity of Picton or Nueva islands. We remained parked all day Friday but finally we were provided with a weather briefing and met the Captain late afternoon and we got moving into the Drake Passage early evening. Information had been non existent all day and the briefing was quite thorough, clarifying the persistence of gale force winds (described as a hurricane in the log) and seas between 9 and 12 metres.

Given that most of us on board were Aussies a bit of swell was not going to stop us and besides a good supply of motion sickness pills was high on most peoples pack agenda. And the Drake was a mess both ways. Wild and windy. Uncomfortable, but bearable in terms of our goal. Even with seas up to 12 metres, sickness was not so much of a problem, but getting a good sleep was difficult. Just as one would be dozing off a killer wave would hit the ship which would lurch and throw the “dozer” a few feet in the air. We all learnt to hang on.

Communication for the remainder of the cruise was pretty ordinary and it was never clear where we were and what was coming up next, which made getting into some sort of organised routine and sleep difficult.

Finally we made the South Shetland Islands on a gloomy and overcast Sunday. Our first port of call and zodiac trip to shore was at Half Moon Island. This place is interesting because we are now getting close to Antarctica and there are some rugged hills and a bit of glacier action. And quite a bit of wildlife, chinstrap penguins and fur seals – all pretty exciting, but sadly we can’t relate the pervasive stink of the place. We had several hours buttonholed here, but as a function of the lack of amenity onshore, most folks found their way back to the ship pretty quickly. And it was getting quite cold.

Our next stop at Deception Island was much anticipated since some of our hard core bronze Aussie beach types were going to have a bit of a surf along the shore. Extra towels were provided. And the entry of the ship into the “active” caldera was quite spectacular, given the last eruption was in as recent as 1971, we were not looking forward to a warm welcome. The landing site here is quite interesting with the old whaling station ruins providing great photographic props. While air temperature was hovering near zero, the wind had increased during our transit to the beach and was reportedly in a range of 40 to 50 knots (75 to 95 Kmph). This resulted in a wind chill of -10 to -12, which is probably not that bad, but the blowing volcanic ash postponed the swim in Antarctic waters to a kinder day.

The weather had not improved much by Monday morning as we made our way through the Errera Channel and the portended landing at Danco Island was never going to happen as a function of a combination of heavy snow and occasional gales. An alternative landing occurred on the continent at the nearby spectacular Neko Harbour with snow and wind still an issue. This was quite a difficult landing and unfortunately a blizzard intervened and the Captain instigated an urgent recall. The situation deteriorated further as the crew had difficulty manoeuvring the ship into a position to allow passengers to get back on board, with most folks getting rather cold sitting in a zodiac for an extra 45 minutes. An experience but a day best forgotten.

Tuesday the 29th was clearly the best day of the cruise with a lovely passage through the iceberg littered Lemaire Channel. Another landing followed on Petermann Island where we found much majestic scenery and abundant wildlife. The highlight here was the zodiac ride back to the ship where we had the opportunity to observe a series of humpback whale pods from very close range. At times our zodiac was within 10 to 15 meters of a pod of 3 whales which included a mother and calf, which is a little closer than the 100 metres “no approach zone” prescribed in Australian waters, but apparently no law down here!

Later in the day as the weather began to deteriorate again, we had the opportunity for another zodiac ride around an iceberg field near Pleneau Island. This ride featured spectacular berg forms and a goodly number of different species of seals. Again or zodiac driver navigated very close to a solitary Leopard seal (within 10 metres) so close we could smell its breath. Maybe it had just eaten and we were a little lucky it was not interested in humans this day.

Wednesday the 30th was essentially our last day in the vicinity of Antarctica and the weather was not going to help us again. Very overcast with snow. The zodiac landing today was at the Chilean Gonzalez Vilela Station which really is a desolate place for the nice Chilean scientists who welcomed us. Our last expedition of the cruise was through the Melchior Island group where another quick zodiac ride was convened as blizzard like conditions developed. This was a rather meaningless sprint around a large bay with icebergs without any idea of what was going on since our driver could not speak English. The pointless sojourn was brought to an abrupt ending when the zodiac drivers, clearly frustrated, raced their rubber tubs back to the ship at great speed and much consternation as the boats became airborne.

What followed was a slog “home” through 10 to 12 metre seas back through a windy and rough Drake Passage. Given that we had cut short our time near the peninsular we actually arrived into the Beagle ahead of schedule and tied up at Ushuaia near 5 am on the Saturday April 2nd. Disembarking was quite chaotic with little official direction and much confusion getting off the wharf in a tangle with other passengers from a large cruise ship which had also docked. But hey it was good to be back on terra firma. 

Getting to Antarctica has got to be one of the very great experiences, BUT there are some things that need to be said about this cruise.

1.       The weather can be lousy in this part of the world in March and it really is false economy getting a cheap cruise this time of year … because the weather is “iffy” and lots of folks don’t appear inclined to go, so rates are low. We were lucky that we had one “sort of nice day” in Antarctica, and some March cruises might actually work. But generally the risk in March is that you just will have a very cold and miserable experience. There are many other good options, which might cost a bit more but you will no doubt see a rather lot more.

2.       Given that we were on the last trip of the season and that the weather was deteriorating, the other natural fact is that the crew and guides are also getting to the end of their tether. One of the mysteries of Antarpply the company which runs the MV Ushuaia, is why the crew and staff have not picked up or been trained with a little English over the many years the cruise has been operating. Clearly lots of the passengers on all the tours speak English and if English is not the passengers first language they will speak English rather than Spanish, which is the language of the crew. The result is pervasive communication disorder and a severe lack of empathy between passengers and crew/staff – which was probably accentuated by our cruise being the last of the season with crew/staff wishing to get off the boat and get home.

3.       Given that the MV Ushuaia, which is actually registered under the flag of convenience of the obscure Comoros Islands, has the unenviable record of going on the rocks in Wilhelmina Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula (http://iaato.org/documents/10157/24707/MV_Ushuaia _Situation_Report_Dec_16_2008_1500UTC.pdf), leaking oil and requiring the full complement of passengers to be rescued by the Chilean Naval vessel the Achiles, it could be expected that the owners and crew of the ship would exhibit a very high degree of safety and risk management. This was not always evident on this cruise. Certainly the ship paused before entering the Drake on the southern passage, but the weather conditions had moderated little when the passage was taken. Potentially dangerous situations did seem to arise in connection to the use of zodiacs with passengers on board, which is particularly worrying when several of the zodiacs experienced engine malfunctions. In terms of risk management one might have expected extra zodiacs to be deployed as blizzards swept in and engines misfired. This happened on three occasions and was particularly hair raising in Neko Harbour with a serious blizzard coming on and the crew having difficulty realigning the ship to get passengers back on board. The frantic zodiac race in the Melchior Island group was also probably not all that responsible. Operating the zodiacs within very close proximity to whales (10-15 meters) and leopard seals (10 meters) is exciting but also probably questionable.

4.       The publicity material on the ship says that the MV Ushuaia has been recently refurbished, but nowhere is it possible to establish exactly when. One suspects that the very recent refurbishment lines might have been written somewhere close to 1990, when the ship completed its service with the US NOAA. One publicity blurb actually said the ship was refurbished 10 years ago when it was handed over from the NOAA, which would put the real refurbishment around 1990, which is 26 years ago. Maybe the blurb on refurbishment was written around the year 2000, which is quite a while ago. Anyway the bottom line is that the MV Ushuaia is a pretty tired old ship showing lots of wear and tear. On our cruise the plumbing gave out in a couple of cabins and raw sewage actually was inches deep in one Superior Cabin. Many of the cabins did smell as if there had also been some intermittent leakage and the plumbing and sewerage pipes in our cabin were lose and tended to leak interminably. Our cabin needed to be deodorised 3 times per day and generally it seemed that the cabin staff did not seem particularly interested in plumbing defects unless there was a major spill.

5.       The dining salon reflected the age and decrepitude of the ship. Generally the dining room was cramped and awkward to get around or get seated. The place just was not a very pleasant place for a dining or socialising over a meal. Generally the food was quite stodgy and some meals were fundamentally inedible. Ironically there probably was too much food made available and there would have been considerable wastage. The real issue seemed to be the development of appropriate menus, which should have been refined by now with experience, but were not. There were several quite good meals served, but it was really hit and miss from day to day.

6.       The lecture series did not reach great heights and one got the impression that certain speakers were just filling up time slots. Most of the problem with the lecture series was that the lecturers for the most part were not good English speakers and certainly there was very little ad lib or humour in the series. The series leader warmed to his role after being a somewhat hesitant and austere speaker, but generally most of the other lecturers were uninteresting and there appeared to be very little empathy radiating from their presence.

7.       The internet service on board was shambolic. Email service was advertised as one of the bright lights on the cruise, but in practice quite a few folks lost quite a bit of money before we all gave up. The irony was that there were indeed a couple of private staff networks on board and many of the staff could be seen distracted attending to their email and Facebook. So thanks much for keeping us in contact … not.

 

Bottom line: traveling to a wonderful place like Antarctica on an old and pretty ordinary ship such as the MV Ushuaia is a basic false economy with plenty of risk upside. As March progresses so comes the bad weather and certainly this time of year does not have too many bouquets for seeing the great continent. The professionalism of Antarpply and also Chimu Adventures is also to be seriously questioned.

 

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