Cruises are booming: Demand is growing not only for ships with a diverse on board entertainment programme, but also for small expedition vessels bound for more remote regions off the traditional routes. By 2021 Hapag-Lloyd Cruises will take delivery of three new expedition ships in addition to the BREMEN. We set sail with her on a voyage to the Antarctic.

Sleepyhead. The sea elephants of South Georgia are the world’s biggest seals – up to six metres long and four tonnes in weight.

Rugged coast. Clouds hang heavy over the mountains. Snow cover. A glacier thrusts against a broad plain. Undulating tussock grassland. And countless penguins. Their squawking fills the air. Their smell too. The Zodiac pounds towards a provisional mooring. Eyes smart in the airstream. It is cold. Three degrees Celsius. A typical summer’s day in South Georgia. The crew help us onto the shore, two, three strides in wellington boots through icy water. We reach Salisbury Plain, surrounded by thousands of creatures. A deep breath. Welcome to the “Serengeti of the South”.

250,000 king penguins nest here. A few of them scuttle by, unabashed and with unconcealed curiosity. A group of experts are accompanying the trip and point out their distinguishing features: “The penguins that look like brown coffee pot warmers are young birds, still moulting.” We are reminded to respect the five-metre rule. Not so easy. A baby fur seal flops towards us, gazing at us with eyes the size of saucers. One of the elephant seals, nearly five metres long, raises a head full of scars. Snorts. Then slumbers on. The Antarctic already has us in its spell – and we haven’t even arrived yet.

South Georgia lies between the southern tip of South America and the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula in the storm-blown latitudes of the Furious Fifties. The archipelago is one stage in an expedition cruise to the eternal ice, along with Drake Passage, the Falklands, the South Sandwich Islands and Graham Land. The continent of Antarctica is about a third larger than Europe. We can only see a tiny piece of it – as if a cruise to Europe had swung by the Aeolian Islands and Calabria. The vastness stretching away before us defies imagination. There is hardly anywhere else on the planet where a person can feel so alone.

Demand outstrips the fleet

More and more people are fascinated by this world. Between November 2012 and February 2013 there were 30,000 visitors, but during last year’s Antarctic season that number had risen to almost 50,000. In 2019 ten more expedition vessels will enter service. And the Hapag-Lloyd Cruises fleet will expand too: the HANSEATIC nature will be launched in Hamburg in April, the HANSEATIC inspiration in Antwerp in October, and the HANSEATIC spirit will arrive in 2021. These three new liners will replace the original HANSEATIC, which left the fleet in October 2018 – after 25 years of expeditions to 148 countries, 128 Antarctic voyages and the first North-East Passage crossing by a non-Russian ship.

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises has set its stamp on the expedition format. And the company is convinced it has a strong position. “The HANSEATIC nature, HANSEATIC inspiration and HANSEATIC spirit cater to a need for which there is currently and foreseeably greater demand than there are ships available in the market,” says CEO Karl J. Pojer. “And Hapag-Lloyd Cruises can draw on outstanding expertise.”

Design inspired by nature

Understanding the world. The Ocean Academy aboard the HANSEATIC nature.

There is a name behind this experience: Isolde Susset. She is in charge of product management for Expedition Cruises. In 1988 she left her home in southern Germany to work for the Hamburg shipping line with its wealth of tradition, and she is familiar with every vessel. She and her team are responsible for planning the routes, choosing the lecturers – and managing the newbuild projects. The ships are based on a design concept called “inspired by nature” – curvy lines, clear shapes, warm colours. Susset says: “We want to bring the nature we visit on board.”

The newbuilds also boast a few exceptional features: astern a marina for water sports, afore the novel viewing platform, the sliding roof over the pool, the glass balconies that can be extended sideways. And what is your personal highlight, Ms Susset? “The walkway around the bows. For me this is the ultimate expedition feeling, being able to stand up front and take in that view.”

An unrivalled spectacle: the BREMEN defies the ice with her reinforced hull.

Goose pimple moments in the ice

The Zodiacs have brought us back now – and we witness another special dimension to this journey: the experience is bringing the people on board together. They are deep in discussion about their favourite moments. The next one is about to happen: the BREMEN skirts the first table iceberg. We have reached the southern polar circle. It is cold on deck, our breath hovers in front of our mouths like cotton wool pads. The cameras are glowing. It’s a goose pimple moment in so many ways. 

Then the next thrill. The captain reports a severe gale sweeping across the Southern Ocean. Waves up to 14 metres high at its heart. There is only one option: give it a wide berth. Clear evidence, yet again, that expeditions need competent handling. These sensitive, demanding regions leave no room for ex­periments. Once more we have cause to appreciate the well-versed captains at
Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and the crew on board.

We only witness the remnants of the storm and consider ourselves fortunate that the waves are only half as high as at the centre. Soon this too becomes one of those special moments of the trip: cleaning our teeth on a rough sea, eating and drinking on a rough sea. Getting around people on a rough sea as you stumble towards each other laughing. You can’t take yourself so seriously – not on a rough sea.

“Deep Blue” excursion

Astounding the world. Life bursts forth at the unlikeliest places.

There are strict rules for cruising in sensitive waters. Bunker oil is out. The bridge keeps a meticulous record of all consumables. And the water in the ballast tanks must be treated for bacteria. In terms of environment technology, the ships in the new expedition class at Hapag-Lloyd Cruises are cutting edge: nitrogen oxides are cut by 90 per cent thanks to selective catalytic reduction (SCR), fuel consumption is minimised by aerodynamic streamlining of the hull. An on-board desalination unit provides drinking water, and waste water is processed in a biological treatment plant. The only fuel used in the sensitive regions is marine gasoil, which has a low sulphur content. In partnership with Atmosfair passengers can choose to offset their own CO2 emissions. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises supports the initiative, assuming a quarter of the costs.

As an active member of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), Hapag-Lloyd Cruises was partly instrumental in defining the standards for Antarctic journeys. Every voyage must be approved in advance by the Federal Environmental Agency. One requirement is, for example, that only 100 people may go on shore at once. That is why the ships in the new expedition class carry a maximum of 199 passengers to the eternal ice. They are taken on land in several small groups.

For the Zodiac trips, everyone is lent a parka and wellington boots and is taught the circus grip – the one that keeps flying trapeze artists safe. As we climb out of the dinghy, it secures entry to a new world. The expedition ships at Hapag-Lloyd Cruises use Zodiacs with electrical propulsion. The powerful Torqeedo outboard is called Deep Blue and riding it is a totally new experience – all we can hear is a gentle hum. When the engine is idle, which it usually is when observing animals, Deep Blue is silent.

An ice volcano

The BREMEN passes some more table icebergs. The cold embrace of the approaching mainland tickles the surface of the water. One of the experts, with a long research record at the Alfred Wegener Institute, gives a lecture about the research stations. Most of them only operate in the summer, he says. In the winter Antarctica can be as hostile as a distant planet – with temperatures down to 60 degrees Celsius and storm winds at 300 kilometres an hour.

Suddenly a shout goes up: “Whales! Whales! An incredible number of whales!” We are surrounded by a shoal of orcas. More than a hundred fins are cutting through the water. What a sight! Then the BREMEN sets course for Deception Island. It isn’t actually an island, but the collapsed caldera of a volcano. The sand is still steaming in places, although the lake is covered by a layer of ice. This ship is in the highest ice class and it breaks its way forward. It sounds like a percussion solo.

The penguin paradox

Port Lockroy is the best-known Antarctic station. Florence works here as a scientist. Her job: studying penguins, guiding visitors through the museum, selling souvenirs. Isn’t that an odd activity for a scientist? Florence laughs. She takes it in her stride for the privi­lege of being here. Her research is about successful penguin breeding patterns. Two colonies are under observation: one near the museum, with visitors passing every day, and the other in a closed-off area. Astonishingly the penguins near the museum manage to rear more offspring. Evidently the tourists do not bother them.

Back on board there is hardly time for dinner. Just before 9 pm we reach Lemaire Channel, a strait about 13 kilometres long lined by glaciers and steep cliffs. The entrance is marked by the distinctive dual peaks at Cape Renard. Slowly the BREMEN edges forward into the sound. Sunshine bathes the scene in golden light. The foredeck is opened up again. Passengers and crew stand side by side in reverence. Amazement. Photographs, Amazement. A moment we will all remember for a long time to come.

This is the turning point in our voyage to the Antarctic. At around two o’clock at night, the BREMEN alters course. The water glistens, penguins overtake the ship. We pass glaciers and mountains so deep in snow that their shape is almost beyond recognition. Finally, the vessel leaves the last off-lying islands behind her. For a while, small lumps of ice carry on knocking against the hull. Then there are only waves. And open sky. The BREMEN carves her way through the mild-mannered Drake Passage.

The sea is calm. The horizon far off. We lean against the railing looking back – and we understand why people say there is a life before you visit the Antarctic. And a life after.

Feather jumper. Gentoos swim faster than any other penguin. They seem to fly through the water.
Travelling the world. Photographer Susanne Baade and writer Dirk Lehmann in Neko Harbour.