Searching for Snow Hill, Antarctica's most elusive island

Exploring the frozen waters of Antarctica and watching humpbacks, penguins and towering icebergs from the deck is plain sailing aboard a cruise ship.

By Jamie Lafferty
Published 21 Oct 2019, 08:00 BST
Cockburn Island reflected in the mirrored surface of the Weddell Sea.
Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

Antarctica is surreal — it’s a place where the air is cleaner, the water purer and the landscapes more untainted than imaginable. It’s where wildlife, avian and mammalian, are so fantastically naive about the threat of humans, they approach with the sincere inquisitiveness of children.

The Seventh Continent’s outrageous beauty is only matched by this uncanniness, and the sense that maybe none of it is real. Having been lucky enough to visit several times, I’ve never been able to shake the peculiarity of the experience. I’m consistently left with a feeling that in a world increasingly plagued by uniformity, perhaps this continent — and it alone — deserves to be called unique.

My previous visits had been on much smaller ships than Ponant’s 466ft Le Soléal, where I felt every wave, slept poorly on uncomfortable beds and ate forgettable food, but believed, no matter how fancifully, that I was approximately replicating routes taken by legendary figures 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 Nordenskjöld 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 shifting sea ice. The first time it happened, I was standing on deck at dawn, Snow Hill Island’s frozen shores shining tantalisingly on the horizon. However, a potentially deadly and certainly impassable labyrinth of sea ice lay between us. 

It was somehow emblematic of this place of hardship, suffering and ludicrous scenery; Antarctica, where mankind has experienced the greatest of triumphs and the bleakest of fates. Unsure how I’d cope with what was likely to be a third failure, I was actually relieved to see Snow Hill Island wasn’t part of Captain Patrick Marchesseau’s 11-day plan for the luxurious Le Soléal.

Given the challenging history of humankind in Antarctica, decadence in the White Continent can feel rather jarring. Over the week and a half on board, the incongruous opulence of the ship never quite left me. 

Le Soléal wedged into the ice to allow passengers to disembark.
Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

Launched in 2013, Le Soléal is sleek, fast and reliable. As well as the spa and gym, it has an outdoor pool and morning yoga classes. There’s a gastronomic restaurant, which dovetails with a buffet option on a higher deck. Each cabin has an individual espresso machine and balcony. There’s nightly entertainment. In the bar, a beautiful, lone Ukrainian pianist played flawlessly to a crowd that largely ignored her. 

From the buffet restaurant, a slightly officious maitre d’ would walk outside to untangle an enormous tricolore when it got snagged by the wind. Above, cape petrels soared in Antarctic gales, watching the ship glide below. The bar had a selection of drinks that were 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. They were still going by dinner and 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 refreshing 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, crossing the infamous Drake Passage proved to be a great equaliser. 

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’s often described as the roughest ocean on the planet. One passenger, 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 perhaps have done with 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, salami, chorizo, smoked turkey, bresaola, 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 struggled 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...”), croques monsieur, steak tartare, beef bourguignon, bisques, consommes, crepes, croquettes (the concentration of vitamin A in the dogs’ livers proved highly poisonous 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, tartes tatin, cupcakes, sorbets, profiteroles, an entire ice cream trolley (after a month in 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 the ship’s French cheese selection, which was a daily source of wonder.

Passengers from Le Soléal trek up Deception Island.
Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

The captain

Each 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. We were told during the official welcome that as of January 2019, Ponant had made its wi-fi service free on all cruises. This included 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 the best place on Earth for many things: landscapes, birdlife, whale-watching. It has the world’s purest air and clearest water. But there’s also nowhere better to enjoy a digital detox, to put down the screens and really feel the beauty of the planet’s last pristine place. Wi-fi meant people would instead be distracted by emails and uploads and news cycles. They’d talk to each other less and inevitably miss some of the continent’s everyday miracles.

Captain Patrick Marchesseau never spoke about it directly, but I found myself wondering 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. 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. The shows were consistent in frequency, but varied in line-up: humpback whales lunge-feeding in Wilhelmina Bay; orcas stalking a group of chinstrap penguins on an iceberg; a pale sun rising 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 commonly French millionaires. At the welcome dinner he greeted everyone personally, resplendent in uniform. Some of the guests wore tuxedos. 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 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 only responded with a gentle nod, which I took to mean he was unimpressed. 

But then Captain Marchesseau’s experiences dwarf mine in every way. He is, first and foremost, a man of the sea. He’s been sailing since he was a teenager and now, at 50, has lived a varied and dramatic life on the water. A few months after joining Ponant, he witnessed the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami lurch murderously towards the Seychellois coast. Four years later, he was captain of a Ponant vessel that was hijacked by a band of Somali pirates. After a week of being held hostage with his crew, the captain was the last to leave when his employer paid $2.15m (£1.75m) 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 ordeal and was awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

The captain never spoke of these deeds in person and if he’s regarded as a celebrity in sailing circles, he chose not to mention it to us passengers. Later, I’d wonder if perhaps Ponant had decided it wouldn’t be relaxing for passengers to hear his that-time I-saw-a-tsunami or that-swashbuckling-week-with-pirates anecdotes. 

On the bridge — which was open to the public — Marchesseau 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 said, 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. Instead we sailed to nearby 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 dictating commands. He assured me this was quite normal. One morning this included scything through some flat icebergs, leaving enormous fissures torn open 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?

The truth was the captain was looking for a ’berg into which he could purposely wedge Le Soléal. “It was a way of testing the ice, to see if we could make a landing and lower the gangway without any risks to the ship,” he explained with Gallic confidence.

If that represented daring, then it was some of the first we’d 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 it follows a standard itinerary to 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.

Elephant seals lounging on the beach at Elephant Point.
Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

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. On a bleak promontory in a wooden hut, Nordenskjöld kept his men alive for more than two years. Just 13 years later, a similar fate would famously befall Shackleton’s Endurance.

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 an iceberg — and that was significantly north of the Weddell. 

Reaching as far south as Snow Hill Island requires kind weather, but also navigating an ever-shifting maze of ice corridors, what Shackleton described as ‘the silent water streets of this vast, unpeopled white city’. Getting there’s one thing, but getting back can be another entirely. 

The sort of near miss I experienced years ago wasn’t uncommon. Le Soléal had never been to the island and, in nine years of sailing to Antarctica, neither had Captain Marchesseau. The previous season, ice had kept him from entering the Weddell Sea at all. In fact, of all the ship’s expedition staff, only ornithologist Christophe Gouraud had visited Snow Hill before — and 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 experience, of all the 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. Imagine our surprise, then, 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, just 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, the ship’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 that get forever frozen into the brain — a whale’s song 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. We pushed on towards Snow Hill, spotting more emperors in the white distance. At one point a solitary minke whale started launching itself from the glassy ocean, its bullet-shaped head appearing like an arrow pointing towards our goal. I realised this had been Marchesseau’s plan all along. 

Certain landings in Antarctica were foreboding affairs, perhaps hinting that humankind had no place there. Even on the beaches stuffed full of penguins there was a sublime hideousness alongside the avian comedy: eggs laid next to the ribcage of a dead neighbour or relative; penguins defecating on each other then sheathbills flying in to eat it; and the manifold cruelties of larger semi-predatory species like south polar skuas and southern giant petrels too upsetting to document here.

Despite the build-up, Snow Hill had none of that. Instead, the dark-sand shore led to the scientists’ historic hut, which had somehow survived decades of untold storms to stand defiantly on its little platform. With no wind and a tolerable 10C, it seemed almost like a pleasant little chalet. On the beach, chunks of glacial ice were wedged into the sand like beautiful meteors landed gently from another galaxy.

As we arrived at Snow Hill, some of my fellow passengers, who knew nothing of Nordenskjöld and his unlikely story, had little interest in his survival, nor that the science conducted here had 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, but 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 fetid festival goers, nervously waddling between cantankerous elephant seals that gurgled and burped as though they too had been given free rein at the ship’s buffet.

The significance of landing at Snow Hill wasn’t lost on more experienced visitors, including Captain Marchesseau. As I reluctantly retreated to my rigid inflatable boat for return 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. With no other ship nearby 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 pair of gentoo penguins and one of Ponant’s expedition crew at Elephant Point.
Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

Getting there & around

British Airways and Norwegian have daily direct flights to Buenos Aires from London.

Average flight time: 13h10m.

Ponant’s Emblematic Antarctica programme starts and ends in Buenos Aires, with passengers boarding Le Soléal in Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city. In between times, passengers need to be fit enough to board and disembark rigid inflatable boats, and they will be required to provide a doctor’s letter confirming as much before travel. 

When to go

Antarctica is currently only accessible during the austral summer (November to March). Le Soléal will first sail there in mid-November 2019 and will make its final trip in late February 2020. The next Emblematic Antarctic sailing takes place 9-19 December.  

More info

Endurance by Alfred Lansing (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). RRP: £9.99.

The White Darkness by David Grann (Simon & Schuster). RRP: £12.99.

How to do it

Ponant’s Emblematic Antarctic 10-night/11-day programme costs from £8,422 per person based on two sharing a Deluxe Stateroom, including seats on its transfer charter flight between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia. Excludes international flights.

National Geographic Expeditions and Ponant have joined together to operate a range of co-branded cruises. Guests will travel alongside a dynamic expedition team of seasoned photographers, marine biologists, historians and/or naturalists, as well as a National Geographic expert and a National Geographic photographer. Destinations include Antarctica, Alaska, the Russian Far East, Greenland, Spitsbergen, Central America, the Caribbean, Oceania and the islands of the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean, with departures throughout 2020 and beyond. 

Published in the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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