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Reflections in Lockdown by Chantal Cookson

Noble Caledonia Expedition Team Member, Chantal Cookson reminisces on nearly thirty years of adventures with Noble Caledonia and shares her favourite three expeditions.

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MS Island Sky in Colonsay

Our lives have changed on the spin of a sixpence – to a world on hold and an agonising lock down which is so tough for everyone and every business. No more so than for the army fighting our war – the awesome NHS. Suddenly with time on our hands which I find particularity testing, I often snuggle up with the dogs on the sofa reflecting on all the wonderful adventures I have had as part of the Noble Caledonia Field Staff Team – I hardly dare say for nearly 30 years! All the amazingly fabulous passengers I have met on what have been some epic voyages in many dazzling oceans.

 I often get asked ‘what is your favourite destination – your favourite cruise…’ my answer Oban to Oban completely flaws! Surely somewhere more exotic or more glamorous! Firmly I stand my ground and in order, my favourite three expeditions are: The West Coast of Scotland, The Antarctic and The Seychelles. And to think, I did all three in the early years of Noble Caledonia, aboard the MS Caledonian Star, the much loved ‘little blue ship’ with the legendary Expedition Leader Tom Ritchie. What a learning curve that was and how lucky I have been to revisit all three destinations many times since and, of course, hope to again.

 

Hebridean Wonders

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St Kilda

Way back in 1991 Andrew Cochrane, the Founder of Noble Caledonia decided the MS Caledonian Star should sail from the Indian Ocean to do a summer spell in British waters. An idea I remember thinking nuts - who on earth, amongst our passengers, would want to sail the coastlines so close to home. How wrong I was as the first cruise, ‘Britain in Bloom’, led by Tom Ritchie with David Mitchell as the Guest Speaker was, indeed, the pathfinder to what was to become the most popular concept in the array of cruises to all corners of the planet offered by Noble Caledonia. Year after year brochures pop through the letterbox or detailed on the website. The West Coast of Scotland: Island Life, Passage through the British Isles, Summer in the Isles, Wild Scotland, Island hoping in the Hebrides, Bird Quest, Love of Country, Midsummer in the Isles to name but a few. But amongst them is one very special itinerary, which tops my list Hebridean Secrets, ‘There are few parts of the world which possess such magic and mystery as the seas around Scotland’.

 Oban stands unchallenged as the capital of the western seaboard of Scotland. Often known as The Gateway to the Isles, hence an ideal little port snuggly set in the middle of the town for the start of Noble Caledonia’s cruises around the Hebrides, often sailing out of the bay with the sun settling behind McCaig’s Tower as we head out in to the open sea. Anchoring off Colonsay and heading off to Colonsay House, a hidden gem and garden filled with colourful borders set in a small woodland adjacent to a long, narrow loch and then walking along a narrow country road rising up and over rolling hills of muted colours and fields peppered with sheep and their lambs and listening out for corncrakes and their distinctive call. Oronsay separated from Colonsay by a wide expanse of shell sand that can be crossed on foot when the tide is out but quicker and easier for the ship to re-position to this small tidal island. The two linked islands have been inhabited for 7000 years and Oronsay’s American owner runs a trim farm and often an RSPB guide and warden will lead us across grassy terrain to the old farm buildings, secret garden and the ruined 14th century Augustinian Priory.

 Onwards sailing to Iona, the impressive Abbey against the skyline to greet us and then to Staffa made famous by Sir Joseph Banks, who having returned from Captain Cook’s famous first voyage to Australia found himself, due to bad weather sailing to Iceland in 1772, took refuge in the Sound of Mull and there a Mr Leach told him about an extraordinary little island which would interest him. Amazing basalt rock formations and not an easy island for the Zodiacs to land but little defeats our Zodiac drivers and entering Fingle’s Cave – an airy silence is beyond magical. Though the itineraries for the voyages around the Hebrides vary, Lunga in the Treshnish Isles, is often a late afternoon visit. A wonderful island for birdwatchers, spotting clusters of Eider ducks and what seems the headquarters for the much loved puffin. St Kilda awaits us …faced all round with a steep rock, except the bay on the south-east, which is not a harbour fit for any vessel, though in time of a calm one may land upon the rock…This distant island in the wild Atlantic has a mystique all on its own. Seabirds are in command and of all the Scottish islands St Kilda is the ultimate goal. Leaving this isolated archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, the seascape is often like a clear blue diamond as we sail towards the Flannan Isles where a 74 foot high lighthouse was constructed and lit for the first time in 1899 flashing twice in rapid succession every 30 seconds. Our next destination Handa is renowned for its birdlife, supporting not only the largest colony of guillemots but an enormous number of other seabirds and dramatic topography. Zodiacing through narrow passages, into sea caves and below magnificent cliffs is a joy to behold and there is even a chance to spot a sea eagle sourcing high above the cliffs.  

 

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Perhaps onwards to The Shiants owned by Adam Nicholson ‘For the last twenty years I have owned some islands. They are called ‘The Shiants………….The rest of the world thinks there is nothing much to them. Even on a map of the Hebrides the tip of your finger would blot them out………they stand out ……..’  Depending on which itinerary has been planned – the Isle of Barra is often included. Castlebay with its abandoned herring factory, little Catholic Church and spotting the bird life on the rocky shoreline. The highlight is visiting Kisimul Castle on its lone rocky outpost in the middle of the bay. Mingulay, not always the easiest Island for Zodiac landings, which sometimes have to be abandoned due the swell hitting the white sands of Village Bay. A landing can be a triumph. The bay is centrally situated on the more sheltered side of the island, often the sandy beach scattered with grey seals. A walk to the remains of the deserted village and, if energy permits, walking up the valley to a point above where it is possible to look across the cleft and see the utterly breathtaking heights of the precipice rising straight out of the sea and soaring towards the sky. Every horizontal crack, ledge and crevice is stripped white with kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots. A sight to behold.

 Close by Berneray Island ‘…..proud and tall where she faces the storm-swept Atlantic. If your idea is a distant isle on the edge of a limitless ocean – and never mind the weather- then this could be it……’ A landing on a small quay on the Isle of Rum and a walk past the little village school to a late Victorian mansion built in 1897 for Sir George Bullough, a textile tycoon, whose father bought Rum as his summer residence and shooting estate. Back in time we go!  As we sail back towards Oban there is an island a truly special one - the Isle of Canna. Our Zodiacs bring us ashore to participate in island tours with the awesome Winnie, Stewart and sometimes with our very own John Love. These knowledgeable guides entertain us with stories of island life and the fascinating Margaret Fay Shaw. She loved the island and lived here with her husband in Canna House collecting local historic artefacts and books. After a spot of tea and a slice of Winnie’s homemade chocolate cake in the sunshine outside the Canna Café it is onwards southwest to ‘’Muck on the starboard bow’ says the old song. An island so often sailed straight past with eyes set on the Sgurr of Eigg or the awesome peaks of Rum. Owned by the MacEwen family since 1890 we are made to feel so welcomed as we trundle off towards Gallanach Farm and the white sandy beach, with an array of seashells, golden plover, sandpipers, grey herons and elegant finches amongst the sea birds.

So Oban to Oban – many different connotations to the itinerary which perhaps might include the islands of Mull and Skye, The Summer Isles, further north to the Islands of Orkney and The Shetlands – and venturing further north to the wonderful Isles of Foula, Mousa and the Fair Isles. Be it sunshine or blustering winds and rain, the Scottish islands hold an enchantment and magic, which is difficult to explain. You have to experience it and if John Love, one of our Guest Speakers, is on board – he wrote a fascinating book A Natural History of St Kilda…then that really is the icing on the cake!

 

Antarctic Adventures

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King Penguins in the Falklands

 Across the oceans: The Antarctic. I know on many a ‘bucket list’. In 1999 my first Antarctic voyage was aboard the MS Caledonian Star – her first voyage there too. Tom Ritchie the Expedition Leader and a full ship! The Falklands and then South Georgia, which had always been top of my ‘must get there list’ especially as two friends of mine were on South Georgia filming the King penguins when the Falklands War began, and their account and rescue gripped me.  

“On the open, limitless ocean, where time is meaningless and the horizon is always out of reach, there is nothing to mark one’s progress save the occasional and unexpected cry of a bird, splash of a dolphin or spout of a whale.”

 Both the MS Island Sky and more so the MS Hebridean Sky are very familiar sights sailing the southern ocean and I was so lucky to be aboard the MS Island Sky’s first voyage to the Antarctic in 2017 ‘In the Wake of Shackleton’ under the command of the hugely experienced Captain Andrey Rudenko and with the luxury of a second Captain, Henrik Karlsson. The unflappable and very experienced Jane Wilson, the Expedition Leader and the added bonus of a special Associate Leader, a seasoned veteran when it comes to exploring, the awesome Cheli Larsen. From the excitement and anticipation on embarking the MS Island Sky in Puerto Madryn, the adventure had begun as we sailed to West Falkland. Carcass Island and Saunders Island and our first sightings of Macaroni, rockhopper and Adelie penguins and other abundant bird life. East Falklands – Stanley a name so familiar to all. Battlefield tours, walking tours with guides and others just wandering around Stanley. It was wonderful we could welcome aboard His Excellency Nigel Phillips, Governor of the Falkland Islands and Commissioner of the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands - to give him his full title! With his wife Emma, a champagne reception with the passengers, and then a specially chosen menu for lunch. It was great to be joined by Captain Chris Locke and his wife Nancy. Chris is the Falkland Island’s Government marine officer and harbour master and has, over the years, been a very good friend to Noble Caledonia.

 

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Having crossed the fabled Antarctic Convergence, South Georgia awaits for three of the most memorable days. Salisbury Plain and seeing for real the huge extent of the king penguin colony, as well as a myriad of cigar shaped rocks, which were in fact hundreds of elephant and fur seals, that seem to be just to be lolling about – unless you got too near them! And it was beware of the leopard seals! Jason Harbour, a more sheltered anchorage for an afternoon of gentle walks to marvel at the wildlife, stunning scenery and even a light-mantled albatross on a low cliff. Then sailing to the former whaling station of Stromness, which is were Shackleton and his companions finally reached the end of their epic journey from Elephant Island. Grytviken and a solemn visit to the cemetery where Peter Warwick said a few words and, once ‘The Boss’ had been toasted, the residue from our glasses was, in time-honoured tradition, poured on to his grave. Wildlife wandering everywhere - king penguins, gentoo’s, shags, pintails and Antarctic terns dancing in the air. Sleeping fur seals and Weddell seals to trip over. The station itself is so full of interest and, as always a visit to the fascinating South Georgia Museum to hear about the SG Heritage Trust, which we support. Gold Harbour to see the alarming elephant seals again, and colonies of king penguins and gentoos, before setting off to sail the Scotia Sea towards Elephant Island – a daunting isolated rocky island with such a story to tell. And so the MS Island Sky continued to sail towards the Antarctic Peninsula. Ice flows, growlers, icebergs of many shapes and sizes, large ice-covered islands. Always on high alert for sightings of humpback whales, minke whales, Colin Baird’s most favourite the orca and, if luck would have it, blue whales and dolphins following the ship.  Onwards to Brown Bluff, Mikkelsend Harbour and Gerlache Strait, Cuverville Island and Paradise Bay and then heading for the South Shetland Islands before taking a deep breath sailing north through the Drake Passage and then Beagle Channel to Ushuaia. Bio security and boot washing printed forever on our minds but overtaken by the sheer magnificence of the Antarctic

‘……for countless ages

the wind swept snow has

drifted over these deserts,

with never a footprint

to break its white surface,,,,’

Captain Robert Falcon Scott

 A touch of great sadness, Peter Warwick a much loved Guest Speaker, was on this amazing voyage and played a huge role as part of the Expedition Team, died a few months later. He will always be remembered very specially by his fellow teammates for his is infectious enthusiasm; the wonderful talks on his hero Ernest Shackleton and always a helping hand right there.

 December 2019 another memorable happy voyage aboard the MS Island Sky, with Captain Jose Fonseca from the Panama and again the undeniable brilliant Jane Wilson as Expedition Leader. We followed much the same itinerary as in 2017 – though embarking in Ushuaia. There can be no greater adventure than actually sailing the southern ocean. Excitement building up months before and all of pre-planning on how many layers of clothing, footwear, waterproofs to take or not to take with reams of advice from Noble Caledonia! Splashing out on good binoculars and camera equipment to record every minute of what is approximately 4,000 nautical miles of sheer anticipation, delight and wonder. 

Splendid Seychelles

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 Seychelles scene

 And so to my last on the ‘A’ list of destinations. The Seychelles, far flung from the West Coast of Scotland and the Antarctic, to say nothing of the temperature! More like a summer holiday, adventurous but on the relaxed side with endless ambles on paradise islands, along white sands scattered with sea shells, swimming and snorkelling in the clear blue waters, discovering a world beneath the surface of the sea. I first went to the Seychelles again on the MS Caledonian Star under the leadership of Tom Ritchie and amongst the Expedition Team was Ian Bullock who is still, years on, very much part of expedition cruising. For the last three decades he has worked as naturalist and Zodiac driver on our expedition cruises to all corners of the globe. As a lifelong artist, he combines his eye for detail with the patience of a field biologist, and is never happier than sitting alone with a pencil, a pad and puffin or penguin! On both the MS Island Sky and MS Hebridean Sky, Deck 4 is devoted to his wonderful sketches.

A thousand miles from anywhere, a thousand years outside time, a scattering of islands - The Seychelles. Noble Caledonia have been sailing in the Indian Ocean since the founding of the company and, in the early days, were one of the very few small vessels allowed to visit Aldabra. This was due to Adrian Skerrett, director of The Mahe Shipping Company and now Chairman of the Island Conservation Society and a prolific author on the Seychelles. And to think Guy Esparon, still so much part of the Expedition Team, used to welcome us on the shores of Aldabra as Chief Warden! Many enticing itineraries year after year and never a spare cabin! 

 Embarking in Mahe and heading out to La Digue in search of the black paradise flycatchers and takamaka trees. The sovimanda sunbird, barred ground dove to name but a few. Praslin for a walk in the Valley de Mai, a World Heritage Site, is the home of the coco de mer and many endemic plants. The island of Aride, a nature reserve. Apart from the lower plateau it has more natural woodland vegetation than any of the other smaller islands and is a haven for wildlife supporting more than a million breeding seabirds. Fairy terns shimmering on branches and tropic birds swooping off the cliffs. An island that takes one’s breath away.

 Desroches, an old coconut plantation and Astove Reef, the glass clear waters for the snorkellers’ breathtaking views of many species of coral and glimpses of lion fish, freckled hawk fish, whitened hawk fish, clown triggerfish, orange lined trigger fish, racoon butterfly fish – the list is endless! Farquhar Island and walking along glorious sandy beaches in the comforting shade of a grove of casuarina trees. Alphonse Island with its circular lagoon and fascinating island walks. And then perhaps, when the morning light is still slating over the beach, landing on Aldabra, the most remote corner of the Seychelles. Being one of the most difficult places in the world to access and having a lack of freshwater has saved Aldabra from any tourism development and still only few small vessels are allowed to visit. It is therefore a great privilege to be able to land on the untouched beaches, the breeding ground for giant tortoise and home to some of the rarest birds in the Indian Ocean. The red-footed bobbies, the brown and masked bobby, common noddy, great frigate birds, the lesser-crested tern, the fairy and the sooty terns, green backed heron – an endless list of delight. To explore the abundant crystal clear waters of the vast lagoon and to set foot on atolls which have never been exploited by the hand of man is a rare and never forgotten experience. This atoll truly enhances the perfectly wonderful Seychelles cruises.

 

We all joined the Cal Star in Mahe

Aride the first island we reached

But none of us heard about wet landings

So we screamed as we creamed up the beach

 

  For two days we sailed to Aldabra

The land of the Giant Tortoize

The crew tried to kill us with zodiacs

But we surfed in with grace, skill and poise

 

At Farquhar we landed in comfort

The heat on the beach was extreme

But just as the first ones were fainting

The crew dropped in with ice cream

 

Desroches, Fregate, La Digue and Praslin

And all the other paradise islands

We stormed and explored with our maps

Snorkeling and swimming so no rest for us

 

Seychelles.  February 1993

 All three of my top destinations have an island: St Kilda, South Georgia and Aldabra. All very precious, so it warms my heart that Noble Caledonia, through their Charitable Trust the NCCT, and much due to the generosity of our passengers we are able to support projects on each island that are essential to the continuation of protecting their environment.

 I can never resist using the word ‘epic’ for our voyages, be they aboard the MS Island Sky, MS Hebridean Sky, MS Caledonian Sky or the MS Serenissima. They are ‘epic’ due to our awesome passengers who will always be very much part of the Noble Caledonia family. I know I speak for the entire Field Staff Team in saying please all keep very safe and we all hugely look forward to sailing the oceans again with you.

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