In one swift movement, he launched his massive blubbery body at me, galloping (if that is the right word for a sea lion) using his fore flippers for extra propulsion. “I mustn’t run, I must hold my ground,” I kept reminding myself, because to flee would only further encourage this cranky bull. But just as I was wondering what was going to happen next, Louis nudged me out of the way and, a bit like a clean-shaven Gandolf with a funny accent, forcefully thrust a large stick into the ground in front of the charging animal bringing his onslaught to a quick finale. The confused beast just looked at us as if the stick was suddenly a brick wall. “Go, now, please.” said Louis plainly. The rare New Zealand sea lions are now returning to Enderby Island after earlier brutal hunting and complete eradication of feral species like goats, rabbits, cattle and rats.
Enderby is the tiny northern neighbour to the much larger UNESCO World Heritage-listed Auckland Island and a popular stopover for the few expedition ships that head south to Macquarie Island and beyond. Previously the domain of tough and stout naval and oceanographic vessels, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation is now working with cruise lines to bring tourists to the island to enjoy the abundant wildlife. Silversea Expeditions is one such cruise line and the 2014-relaunched Silver Discoverer is the vessel deployed in this region.
It was billed as a voyage for the “hardy expeditioner” – deep into the Southern Ocean, beyond the “roaring forties” and well into the “furious fifties”.
The New Zealand sub-Antarctic itineraries are not for the fainthearted. Once upon a time, you would have spent your first days strapped in a bunk aboard a repurposed former Soviet icebreaker or Arctic ferry, on a ride not unlike those at the Gold Coast.
So this was to be an interesting test of the ethos of white-gloved comfort espoused by today’s expedition cruise fleet – the shiny new Ponants, the luxe Hapag-Lloyds and, in this case, Silversea.
Silversea has long been an Australian favourite. Silversea Cruises was formed in 1993 by a happy confluence of the Lefebvre family of Rome and V-ships of Monaco, a pairing that had previously steered the cruise line, Sitmar.
The plan was – and still is – to operate luxurious smaller cruise ships at an all-inclusive price, a strategy that has held Silversea in good stead for 36,000 ton, 540-passenger Silver Spirit, launched just in time for Christmas 2009.
But back to the roaring forties.
We were aboard the Silver Discover. Starting life in 1989 and previously operating as the much-loved Clipper Odyssey, another extensive refit and makeover transformed this perfectly suited vessel into the Silver Discoverer. The 103-metre vessel accommodates a maximum of 120 guests, served by 96 officers, staff and crew.
Shipboard accommodations deliver the kind of luxury that’s increasingly in demand in modern expedition cruising.
Suites ranging in size from 17 to 40sqm offer butler service; champagne on request; refrigerator stocked with guests’ choice of beverages; European bath amenities; premium Pratesi bed linen with down duvets; iPod docking stations; plush bathrobe and slippers; (reasonably priced) Wi-Fi, flat-screen television with on-demand movies, music and satellite news.
But the luxury doesn’t stop there. Silversea has lofty culinary standards. In The Restaurant, which is led by executive chef Rainer Wohrle, the menu features regional offerings and dishes inspired by Relais & Châteaux grand chef, Jacques Thorel. And Silver Discoverer’s elegant lounges and open bar are popular gathering points where travellers swap tales and relive the day’s adventures.
Guests can relax outside in the fresh air on the sunny pool deck, a location that also serves as a perfect platform for birdwatchers and photographers. For the energetic, there’s a fitness centre plus a beauty and massage salon for easing tired muscles – particularly appealing after an adventurous day ashore.
Most Antarctic journeys, as we all know, centre around the peninsula, that spiny tendril forever lunging out from the Antarctic continent towards the tail of South America. But in recent years more journeys began heading out of Hobart and New Zealand towards the historic region around Commonwealth Bay and Cape Adare, where Mawson’s famous huts are located.
But since 2012, a massive iceberg, dubbed B9B, has prevented any vessels getting anywhere near Mawson’s Huts, so voyages were either rerouted or just cancelled. One of the alternative routes included Australia’s vast subantarctic territory, Macquarie Island, usually coupled with stops at New Zealand’s satellite outposts, Campbell Island, The Auckland Islands, Enderby and The Snares.
This shorter itinerary avoids the invariably turbulent seas that toss ships around like corks in the roaring forties and furious fifties, through the screaming sixties and beyond. Plus there are more frequent landings and wildlife viewing opportunities for guests at these little isolated havens. Seals, penguins and seabirds of myriad species abound on these otherwise forlorn outcrops, sending bird lovers into a spin.
Our first stop out of our departure point of Dunedin was The Snares, a no-impact reserve where landings are not permitted. Instead we enjoy leisurely Zodiac cruises around the rocky alcoves and caves, checking out the endemic Snares Penguin and elusive snipe.
Then it’s on to Enderby Island, now depleted of invasive species like cattle and feral rabbits and home to its own native species of sea lion and cormorant. The feisty sea lions love to chase us even though we take a wide berth around their harems. The young males, in particular, bound up to us barking and bellowing until a stick is raised over their heads, a tactic that stops their playful assault dead in its tracks.
The jewel in the crown of this expedition is Macquarie Island. Lying way down at 54-degrees south, we are made to earn our passage. With 100-knot winds and 10-metre swells, it’s a wild old ride. More than once I find myself on the floor of the cabin during the night.
Restaurant staff, butlers and crew maintain their stations at all times and even though worrying noises are heard occasionally from the galley, chef Rainer and his team don’t miss a single sitting. Fragrant lamb, tasty venison, rib-eye steaks and baked fish embellished with garden vegetables and salad continue to emerge from the galley uninterrupted. Our stewards glide around the dining room as if on skates, elegantly dodging guests who ride their chairs across the polished wooden floors during the “big ones”.
Macquarie Island lives up to its reputation as a difficult location for landings, but our expert expedition team get us ashore every time with a synchronised and choreographed manoeuvre on the pebbly beach that sees each passenger plucked from the Zodiac and deposited on shore with their cameras and modesty intact.
We spend two days ashore on the island, escorted by head ranger Chris Howard, who gives us insights into daily life for rangers and scientists and staff on “Macca”. Parks staff are particularly buoyed by the recent announcement that, after almost 200 years of human interference and a concerted eradication program, Macquarie Island has been declared pest free. Seabirds and penguins can finally nest unmolested and return to pre-contact population levels.
The balance of the itinerary sees Silver Discoverer head north-east towards the Bounty and Antipodes islands, where we’re also not permitted to land, but instead explore wildlife activity on the shoreline from our Zodiac. Seals, penguins and more seabirds are in constant motion, feeding, breeding and checking us out in return. Majestic albatrosses wheel overhead, swooping low to pluck food from the water.
Before heading to shore for more conventional shore excursions at Napier, we stop by seldom-visited Chatham and Pitt islands where an ambitious local nature rehabilitation program is the pride on the former.
In all, it’s an exciting and truly adventurous journey in the true spirit of expedition cruising. We are thrown at the mercy of the elements, as it should be, and taken to parts of our planet only ever visited by committed scientists and shipwrecked sailors.
As for Silversea, it has shaken off doubts cast by the more established operators and confidently joined the ranks of the true expeditioners.