Antarctic tundra is a black and white world, except for the occasional colourful beak, feather, foot or fin, or the blue ice and turquoise underbelly of a whale. While it is certainly remote and desolate, it is also pure and peaceful: it makes you feel alive.
From October to March, there is no night in Antarctica, just 24-hour daylight. It’s when the Antarctic winter gives way to the sun and the animals return, looking fatter from months of feeding in northern waters.
The air temperature in summer averages between 0°C to 5°C and it’s by far the best time to see wildlife. And, with so much daylight, there is plenty of opportunity to look out for it.
My journey starts in the port of Ushuaia, in Argentina’s far-flung region of Patagonia. It’s the departing point for most vessels setting sail for the Antarctic Peninsula.
I’m travelling with Aurora Expeditions, an Australian company that specialises in small-group Polar exploration. It’s not a luxury cruise, but an adventure expedition. I chose Aurora because I didn’t want to travel en-mass, never getting to know the names of my fellow passengers and crew.
The Polar Pioneer has an open bridge policy, meaning passengers can join Captain Aleksandr Eugenov and his crew on the bridge any time they like, which is a great idea, because it’s the most interesting place on the ship.
I watch large passenger ships carrying hundreds of souls returning from their last tour of duty in the unpredictable Antarctic waters. Our intimate little ship looks tiny in comparison. We are carrying forty passengers, including three Ukrainian scientists, who we’ll drop of at Vernadsky research station deep in the Antarctic Peninsula, if the ice allows. No ship has gone that far south this season.
At 6pm, we pull out of Ushuaia and head into the Beagle Channel. Giant petrels and South American terns follow in our wake as Tierra del Fuego slowly slips away. We pass Puerto Williams; according to the Chileans, it’s the most southerly town in the world.
Five hours later we are in open water. Our latitude: 54° 55’S; longitude 67° 13’W; 12 knot winds; course 101°. The air temperature is 10°C and the sea temperature 4°C.
The Polar Pioneer is a working ship. Originally a Russian research ship, it has been refurbished to an ice-class passenger exploration vessel, capable of pulling through one and a half metre thick ice. Our Captain and his crew are highly trained ice navigators and most of the crew have made over 500 crossings to Antarctica.
The notorious Drake Passage, between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula, has a reputation for big storms. On a good day, the Drake can be dead calm, earning it the nickname the Drake Lake. The crossing covers approximately 800 kilometres and takes about 50 hours.
Strong 14 knot winds from a previous storm are still around, but they work to our advantage, coming from the stern of the ship, pushing the Polar Pioneer onwards and making it a comfortable crossing.
We dine together around large tables, filling our bellies with high-energy meals suitable for the coming colder climes. Later, I go out on deck to look for whales and my perseverance is rewarded by a mesmerising display of breeching humpback whales.
Jetlagged, I wake at 3am, so I head up to the bridge where first mate Valery Manedov is on watch. Valery has made over 700 voyages to Antarctica; it’s his favourite place. He pinpoints our position on the charts. “We are crossing the shelf, where the sea is 500m deep and then it drop’s off quickly to thousands of metres deep,” he explains.
A large tabular iceberg appears, then I spot penguins diving through the water and a humpback whale appears off the ships bow – a definite sign we have arrived.
Our first landing will be in the evening, when we’ll land at Elephant Point, on Livingstone Island in the South Shetlands. A fortress of drifting icebergs and humpback whales guards the island.
To get to shore we’ll be using Zodiacs, a rigid inflatable boat that carries around 10 passengers. Quality thermal clothing is essential to keep your body warm in what will become extremely cold conditions. On go the ski pants and jacket, topped with my bulky orange life-vest and a pair of ship-provided wellington boots – the best thing to wear for wading through water and snow.
You must keep your distance from the animals; five metres from the penguins and 20 metres from the seals.
Several hundred elephant seals are scattered across the island. The doe-eyed, mainly male, youngsters will soon turn into four tonnes of gas producing, belching blubber. Fights break out regularly. Gentoo penguins parade along the stony shore; they are comical, almost clumsy.
At night, the ship continues southward down the Bransfield Strait to the northern end of the Gerlache Strait. We wake in front of Enterprise Island and scramble into the Zodiacs to explore the area, passing alarmingly close to huge, blue bergs. I could feel the coldness radiating from the icy cathedrals.
Pulling anchor, we leave Enterprise and head further into the Gerlache Strait to Cuverville Island, where the bay is clogged with icebergs.
The setting is nothing short of spectacular. The whole place shimmers in the sunlight and the bay looks like it’s studded with uncut liquid diamonds. Curious Adélie penguins wander close to investigate the odd looking visitors sporting wellington boots. Observing penguins as they steal stones from each other to build their nests is a complete joy.
Throughout the rest of the day and night we manoeuvre through the Errera Channel on a course of 35° at 4.5 knots towards to Port Lockroy and Jugla Point. We wake at the mouth of the Peltier Channel, off Port Lockroy. I add an extra layer of thermals for warmth before leaving the ship.
A short Zodiac ride takes us to Port Lockroy hut. In 1944 this site became known as Operation Tabarin-Base A, built for a secret British wartime project monitoring German ships. It was restored into a museum, shop and the only public post office in Antarctica.
Visibility is limited as the ship sails into the narrow seven mile long Lemaire Channel. It is 0.7 miles wide at its narrowest point and one mile at its widest. I stand on the bridge watching the scenery unfold. Massive edifices emerge through the mist and snow, towering either side of the ship. It feels like we are entering a Norse kingdom. It is an exhilarating and a strangely emotional experience.
The waterway opens out, ice builds up and large bergs with small blue pools inside drift past. A pod of orcas are spotted patrolling an iceberg. The Captain circles the unfolding scene. The orcas lift themselves onto the ice to try and dislodge two seals that are hugging the iceberg for safety. The orcas fail in their mission and slowly slip away.
Vernadsky Research Station is in sight, but to get there we must first break through a thick band of ominous looking ice blocking the Penola Strait. It resembles a giant, jagged jigsaw puzzle filling the desolate landscape. The ship shudders when we hit thick ice, practically stopping our slow progress. Under pressure from the ship, huge cracks appear and zigzag across the ice. The ice groans, creaks and growls until it finally splits in two. Job done.
Our brave little ship breaks a passageway for the zodiacs to ferry the team and all their equipment safely ashore. They will be here for four months, diving daily to research what is going on under the ice.
We have reached our furthest southerly point at 65° 15’S, 16° 13’W.
Retreating back through the ever-thickening ice, we head northwards overnight to Paradise Bay and the Argentine base of Almirante Brown.
I wake early and the ship is covered bow to stern in a foot of snow: it’s a magical snow-filled moment all to myself. We are about to make our first continent landing.
At Brown, snow camouflages the penguins sitting on their nests; we must be careful not to step on them. We plough our way up a hill in almost waist deep snow for views of the bay. We cruise the bay to see a massive awe-inspiring glacier, with vast chunks of blue ice sticking out.
Back on board we cross the Gerlache Strait, then enter the narrow Neumayer Channel. The sun comes out as we continue along the Peltier Channel and Doumer Island, to see colonies of Chin Strap, Gentoo and Adélie penguins in abundance. Skua’s, a large grey bird, hovers over nesting penguins trying to steal their eggs.
En route to Neko Harbour and the Melchior Islands, two humpback whales start to follow the ship. The Captain stops the engines. I look down and see the whales rubbing their huge bodies against the ship. They dive under, only to come up the other side to spurt vast amounts of salty, smelly whale snot all over us. They play around for half an hour or longer. A graceful tail fluke ends the spectacular display.
We eventually arrive at the Melchior Islands. The sun comes out as we celebrate 100 years, to the day, since Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen arrived at the South Pole in 1911.
We are now on our return journey, and manage a few more landings at Cierva Cove and Hydrurga Rocks – a couple of small islets in the middle of nowhere – where we see beautiful Weddell seals, with their curly whiskers, round faces and large black eyes.
The following morning we wake early to experience the Polar Pioneer attempting to enter the caldera of Deception Island (an active volcano), by way of Neptune’s Bellows. This narrow passage is being pelted by high waves and 50-plus knot winds, making it a gale force 10 on the Beaufort scale. It’s an exciting but tricky situation. Our landing is cancelled and we leave Deception Island and prepare for our Drake crossing back to South America.
Storm warnings have been predicted and we are in for a rough ride. Buzzing with excitement from our spectacular journey, we don’t even think about what’s up ahead. The Drake throws up everything it has, but it only adds to what must be the most impressive journey on the planet.
I love the unpredictability of Antarctica, where things can, and do, change very quickly. Everyone seems to be overawed by it, it’s ten-times more beautiful and spectacular than the pictures you see in books or on television. It’s inspiring and huge and every day it throws up something unexpected. I love it down here and I will return.
NEED TO KNOW
Aurora Expeditions: Antarctica
Aurora Expeditions’ Antarctica Peninsula Springtime voyage departs from Ushuaia, Argentina on 30th November 2012 on board the ice strengthened vessel, Polar Pioneer. Prices start from AUS$7,200 per person (£4,632). Kayaking, climbing, photography and camping is available at an additional surcharge. Return flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia can be arranged for an additional fee. For further details or to order an Antarctica brochure, please visit www.auroraexpeditions.com.au or email email@example.com.
British Airways (ba.com, 0844 493 0787) flies direct from Heathrow to Buenos Aires daily, return fares cost from £1,169 in World Traveller (economy) and £3,566 in Club World (business), including taxes for travel in November.
Passengers spending a few days in Buenos Aires can book accommodation through Journey Latin America.
Contact: 020 8747 8315, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk