Breaking Free With Ponant
The acclaimed line’s Le Commandant Charcot explores remote poles few others can – all in peerless style. We spoke to expedition leader Ryo Ijichi to learn more.
ROBB REPORT: Just how revolutionary is what Charcot offers compared to other ships that visit the region?
RYO IJICHI: In one word, it’s a gamechanger. Lots of ships visit the region every year, all of which are ice-strengthened of course, but because Charcot is an icebreaker, it has the ability to go almost anywhere it wants that other ships would normally avoid. Charcot is actually the strongest icebreaker in the world that uses a conventional power source. The only stronger icebreaker than Charcot is 50 Years of Victory, which is a nuclear-powered ship from Russia, so you’re truly on one of the strongest ships in the world. This means we can chart new courses and visit new landing sites without having to add to the overcrowding that’s already an issue with a lot of landing sites around the continent. We can land at places no ship has ever visited and show passengers a slice of the continent all to their own.
RR: Being up close to these environments must provide perspective on the importance of preservation.
RI: Absolutely. It’s more obvious in the Arctic because you have the gulf stream more warm currents of water running up towards it, creating more visible ice melt that the passengers can clearly see. Antarctica has a current of cool water running in a ring around it, shielding it a little bit more – but we do see other evidence of climate change affecting the continent each time we go there. Penguins are a big indicator. We’re seeing the populations of Gentoo Penguins, which prefer warmer weather and live on the islands around the continent, rise, while Adelie penguins, which prefer the cold peninsulas on the continent, are struggling. The population volumes are lowering and the physical size of the birds is reducing as well – simply because they’re having a harder time surviving in a warming continent.
RR: Beyond being hybrid-powered, how else does Charcot ‘assist’ the fragility of the environments it explores?
RI: One of the cool things about the ship is that we offer opportunities for the scientists to come on board to conduct scientific research in the area. Because it can get further into areas where they’d normally not have access to, it’s a great platform. We’ve already seen scientists on board using the ship to take measurements of the ice and sea conditions around the North Pole each season — something that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. So the ship is actively contributing to conservation efforts every time it visits.
RR: How does the onboard experience differ?
RI: Of course, an icebreaker is normally a working ship. It’s not a passenger ship. It’s supposed to create pathways for ships behind it to go through, so when you stay on one as a civilian passenger or a scientist, you’re basically using an officer’s room. Because Charcot is a pure passenger ship, we’re able to use that space much more effectively. Obviously the size of the rooms and the amenities provided increase with the class, but we’re able to offer our passengers much more space and better views. Our sister ships that used to visit Antarctica used to do so with around 260 passengers in a 10,000-tonne ship. Charcot is 30,000 tonnes and only holds 240 people, so everyone has a lot more room both inside and outside of their rooms, which also allows us to push the luxury aspect much further with big staterooms and restaurants with menus devised by Michelin star chefs.
RR: In regard to plotted itineraries, is there also some sense of improvisation involved?
RI: So like a lot of other ships our basic route is a semi-circumnavigation of the continent – however we also devise paths that make use of the Charcot’s unique icebreaking function, mostly through the Weddell and Bellingshausen Seas. The Antarctic has seen a lot of new ships in recent years and is actually starting to become quite congested as there aren’t a lot of landing sites to accommodate all these passengers—so we can not only plot our course to avoid these ports when they’re full, but find new landing spots, some of which might have never been used before.
RR: I imagine it’s quite a leap between worlds for passengers going from that level of luxury to one of the harshest environments on the planet.
RI: Yes, but that’s exactly why they choose Charcot. They want to go further than the other ships and see things others don’t get to see. For instance, on one of our trips last year we were able to lead a walking expedition to visit a penguin colony that other tourists would normally need to get on a helicopter to see. It’s a sense of exclusivity but for a different reason. I liken it to a luxury safari. You might have a comfortable base to return to every night, but once you get out into the wilderness, there’s a genuine sense of adventure. It’s a dual lifestyle and dual experience—experiencing true luxury while also going on the exploration of a lifetime.
RR: So there’s a sense of organic discovery.
RI: Everyone who runs expeditions in this region is really trying to show people as wide a variety of sceneries and species as possible, while also ensuring they’re entertained and comfortable when they’re on board. But with Charcot, it’s more than an expedition, it’s an exploration because you can explore with us in finding new landing sites and finding new scenery to explore. It’s a lot more than just a regular expedition because we’re still exploring and learning just how much further Charcot can go compared to any other passenger ship. On one typical day in November when I was on board, we went to one landing site that we had found previously, but we didn’t have anywhere to go that was close enough that we knew of from the previous season. So the captain and I had to go out on a Zodiac looking for the afternoon landing site while the passengers were enjoying their morning landing site. So we’re constantly exploring as we go along. And as we continue to find more landing sites and places to visit with each expedition, it’s only going to get better.
RR: Can that be stressful?
RI: No, I enjoy the challenge. Rather than constantly making planned visits to the same places, there’s always the excitement of finding somewhere new and gorgeous. It’s the best part of the job.
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