My Second Cruise To Antarctica: Death At Sea

Having already done one Antarctica cruise, I was quite looking forward to this trip and felt I knew what to expect. I arrived in the Argentine port town Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, on 9th February 2018. This allowed me 24 hours to rest from the long flight and explore some colourful local seafood restaurants before boarding Seabourn Quest.

The crossing of the infamous Drake Passage on 11th February was moderately bumpy. I fared better than some of my fellow passengers, thanks to the two Stugeron pills and to my strategy of staying around mid-ship area, where the rolling and pitching were less violent.

I saw some amazing places on this cruise, both familiar and new. Half Moon Island, Paradise Bay and Yankee Harbour, which I remembered from my previous trip, had considerably less snow than last time. Perhaps, February is warmer in Antarctica – it was around +2C most of the time.

On 13th February I visited for the very first time the spectacularly beautiful Neko Harbour by stepping onto the actual continent of Antarctica. Even according to Iggy, the expedition team leader, this is one of their favourite destinations. Some of the Gentoo penguin chicks here had not grown big enough and would almost certainly not survive… It makes me sad to think of a mother penguin still guarding her egg, which had no hope of hatching at this point.

I hiked to the top of a very slippery mountain, which was quite a challenge without the hiking sticks.

My boots, although guaranteed by the manufacturer, proved to be anything but waterproof. They took in a lot of water when I jumped off the zodiac and it took several hours to dry them with a hairdryer later in my room.

The Lemaire Channel that we went through later in the afternoon had an eerie, ghostly atmosphere due to the poor visibility. Hazy blue icebergs kept materializing out of nowhere.

Two seals were resting on an iceberg and plunged into the water as we came closer. I believe, one of them was bleeding, most likely, wounded by a killer whale.

On 14th February we sailed into the so-called Iceberg Graveyard (also often called the Glacier Graveyard) in Pleneau Bay, where we were surrounded by icebergs of all kind of phantasmagoric shapes and density.

In the late afternoon, several humpback whales appeared and started showing off playfully. It is extremely difficult to get a good picture of these magnificent animals in action, especially to capture the moment of breaching. It takes a lot of time, patience and frozen hands - and the rest of the body, for that matter, if one is not dressed warmly enough. They appear suddenly, often in pairs, and by the time I pointed the camera and tried to focus, they were almost fully submerged and all I could get was a bit of the hump or tail or a noisy spray of water from their breathing. At some point, I gave up trying to take a photo and decided to just enjoy the spectacle. Very exciting as the whale sightings were, my photos hardly do them justice. One member of the expedition team asked us during her presentation to share with her any good pictures of whales’ tails we managed to get. The reason for this request was that every tail is highly individual and by studying them scientists can identify whales’ migration patterns. My pictures most certainly didn't make the grade!

On 15th February we arrived at the place called Crystal Sound, a channel between the southern part of the Biscoe Islands and the coast of Graham Land. There is a different type of ice here: it sits on top of the water, rather than growing upwards and forming icebergs. As we were sailing away from it, I saw some icebergs of the most magnificent bright blue hue. This tint is due to all of the oxygen having been squeezed out of the ice under pressure over the long period of time, resulting in it reflecting the light away.

That day we made history by sailing further south than any other cruise ship and reaching the Antarctic Circle at 66 degrees 33 minutes and 47 seconds south latitude. Most ships only venture as far as 66 degrees 33 minutes and 39 seconds due to the risk of countless icebergs blocking the way. Captain Larsen made an announcement to share with us his pride at this achievement. I received a certificate testifying to the fact that I took part in this adventure.

On 16th February I landed on the Antarctic mainland's Waterboat Point in Paradise Bay, where I revisited the Chilean Gonzales Videla Antarctic base, got myself an Antarctic certificate and had my passport stamped with a cute penguin. Talking of the latter, there was a great number of penguin chicks, the smaller ones being guarded by their parents, while some of the more grown-up ones were lying down on the ground visibly exhausted. A massive Southern Elephant seal was sleeping on its side, totally oblivious to our presence.

The day I will never forget is 17th February, our last day in Antarctica. It started with a cold, foggy morning. I had to get up at 6 am, as my group (White) was to do the first landing of the day on the shores of Yankee Harbour. After having been dropped at the shore, I walked about half-a-mile to the next drop-off point, encountering many fur seals playing their aggressive games and some of the most adorable Gentoo penguin chicks waiting for their parents to come back with fish.

At some point, I stood just a couple of meters away from one of the parents feeding a chick, while nearby an Antarctic bird called South Polar Skua was finishing the breakfast of another penguin chick. I sincerely hope the latter had died before being eaten…

As I was having lunch on the deck in the afternoon, we were sailing past majestic glacier peaks. Soon we entered the Drake Passage on our way out of Antarctica. The Captain was quite eager to begin our return journey promptly to try to get through these treacherous waters before the bad weather set in. The rolling and pitching of the ship were noticeably intensifying.

​In the evening, approximately two hours before my first concert, I went into the dining room to have an early dinner before my rehearsal in the Amundsen Lounge. Suddenly, during my dinner, an emergency code “Bright Star” came through the speakers and I immediately knew that something was very wrong. I had heard many medical emergency calls before, but the voice had never sounded so distressed. I noticed that the room in question started with a crew digit. I sensed that this was serious, but had to revert my thoughts to my imminent performance.

The concert went well, despite the piano trying to roll away and the stool often sliding away from the piano due to the ship’s movement.

Afterwards, I was unwinding in the Club having a drink with my friends and listening to fellow musicians playing jazz. After they finished the session and joined us, Kirill, my compatriot saxophone player, having first sworn me to secrecy, shared with me the most terrible, unthinkable news: our 48-year-old Danish Captain Bjarne Larsen had been found dead in his room, apparently having suffered a heart attack…

The next morning everyone was already aware of the Captain’s death and incredulous passengers were congregating in large numbers in the Square discussing this shocking news. Captain Larsen was young, appeared to be in good shape and was much loved by both crew and passengers due to his kindness, humanity and sense of humour. He belonged to the rare breed of certified “ice captains” with the extensive experience of navigating the hazardous waters of the southern hemisphere.

Captain's body left the ship by tender in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands on 19th February. In the early afternoon, the voice of Jan, our Cruise Director, came through the speakers, asking everyone, who was still on board at that point, to come out on the promenade deck to say farewell to our Captain. It was a very sombre, moving, and surreal moment, which I will never be able to forget. It was raining. The words “Our beloved Captain Larsen” were written in big letters on the roof of the tender that was rocking gently on the waves, while waiting for its unusual cargo. Crew and passengers alike were lining the deck looking downwards over the railings, many crying. After the tender was loaded and it pushed away from the ship, there came a very long, sad farewell blast – a poig­­nant moment.

I was contemplating that as shocking and tragic as his sudden passing away was, he died while doing what he loved and in the place, where he loved sailing most. I can think of at least two great pianists from Russia, who exited in a similar way: Simon Barere dropped dead during his performance of the Grieg Concerto at Carnegie Hall, and Sviatoslav Richter had a heart attack while practising his beloved Schubert sonatas in Paris for a forthcoming concert.

Now we were sailing to Montevideo, where we were to arrive a day earlier than scheduled. The other two remaining captains, the Ice Captain and the Staff Captain, were in charge of the vessel now.

On 21st February I played at Captain Larsen’s two memorial services - one for the crew and one for the passengers. I played Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau op. 39 No. 2 in A minor. I chose this piece for three reasons: it is very soulful and melancholy; it is known to have been inspired by the sea and seagulls; last, but not least, Rachmaninoff concealed Dies Irae, the motif of death from the medieval Catholic Mass For The Dead, in one of the voices in the left hand. The slide show about the Captain's life was being shown as I played. The Hotel Director Philipp, who was his close friend, was choking on tears during his speech. Most touchingly, next to Captain Larsen’s navy hat there was sitting a little toy monkey, which had been given to him by his mother to keep him out of harm’s way...

It became even more obvious to me how much he was loved by the crew. Some of them came up after the service to thank me with tears in their eyes.

It was now getting warmer by the hour. On 23rd February we sailed into Montevideo. It was a pleasure, as always, to walk through the sun-lit market square and look at all the vintage brick-a-brack. A musician was playing very well Piazzola's Tangos on the bandoneon, which added greatly to the atmosphere. On the way back to the port I bumped into my friends and joined them for a beer in one of the parillas at the famous Mercado del Puerto (the grilled meat market). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to order from the grill on this occasion, as my car pickup was in 30 minutes, but there was enough time for us to toast our Captain and this unforgettable cruise.

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