“There’s no Antarctic ocean on the maps. The cold waves that beat against the Antarctic continent are from the southern portions of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, and in their flow around the ice-rimmed land they mingle to form one vast gale-swept wilderness of water.” Russell Owen observed as he nailed the essence of where we were headed.
Sturdy, hardened to Mother Nature’s ferocity and outwardly up-to-the-job, first impressions of our Yugoslavian-built vessel told me we’d be in capable hands. After an excited embarkation on the ‘Sea Adventurer’, I surveyed the nautical scene aboard comfortable surroundings. Punctuated by a succession of sick bags, ubiquitously tucked into the ship’s hand rails on every deck. Here comes the chunder-induced pain before any gain, a term originating from old seafaring days when seasick sailers would stick their head out of their cabin’s porthole and shout “Watch under” (now chunder) to those below. No, don’t become disenchanted before dipping even a big toe into the seas off the Antarctic – go figure when three oceans converge while the circumpolar current surges. An early presentation aboard the ship restored any waning confidence in conveying that our vessel was adept at ‘bio-mimicking’ a whale. Smooth, streamlined and evolved, Olympians of the sea totally in touch with their bodies – I optimistically interpreted. Like an orca then, I resided to keep my eyes on the prize.
We set sail from the Beagle Channel leaving behind us views of the fjords past Puerto Williams, pushing ever south. Into the legendary Drake Passage we ventured, named after the pioneering Sir Francis Drake himself. Trend suggested we should have run a choppy two-day course of strong winds thrashing turbulent waters. In preparing for the worst – gale-force weather is not exactly uncommon – we were rewarded with out-of-the-blue benign conditions. We picked up no more than a four on the Beaufort Scale; 12 being synonymous with a hurricane. Relax, your sea legs have already kicked in from a previous lifetime at sea. With a swarm of wandering, black-browed and light mantled sooty albatross catching the updraft of our ship – dominating the scene in and around a cluster of cape petrels – I had to pinch myself we were really doing this. We were bound for Antarctica! The last place on the Earth. The thought alone nearly knocked me sideways – grateful that the boat-sway didn’t.
As the coldest, windiest and driest continent, Antarctica is also the globe’s largest white desert wilderness. Surely the purest place on the planet. To reach it, one must cross the Antarctic Convergence; a curve continuously encircling Antarctica where cold, northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet the relatively warmer waters of the sub-Antarctic. Mean temperatures in Antarctica’s interior plummet to -70 degrees Celsius where the record sits at an even chillier -92. Thermals? Check.
To set the scene on the seventh and final continent: Antarctica Peninsula is a long chain of alpine mountains, topped by an ice plateau and sculpted by countless active glaciers. Ice cliffs dominate the coastline where these gargantuan glaciers manage to carve their way through valleys or even override the ranges and eventually merge into the Ross Ice Shelf. It’s tricky to contemplate how inhospitable and exposed that would leave any wildlife wandering around. Marine and bird life, despite the odds, abounds in and on the seas surrounding Antarctica. Seals, penguins and various other species of birds are the only permanent residents – all of whom must originate from a higher ilk of ‘tough cookie’.
No sooner had our ship’s thrusters started whirling and guests were given an itinerary of back-to-back lectures from expert-in-their-field expedition staff. Marine biology, ornithology, the weather, glaciology, geology and history headlined the daily agenda. Sitting in the lounge before an animated presenter and projector screen or viewing the same from the comfort of your cabin, simply by switching to channel 8, people appreciated the option to pick and choose. Others would give in and snooze in either location when unable to fight it any longer. Antarctic adventuring is more tiring than you think.
Alex, the expedition leader required all passengers to attend an IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) meeting about correct conduct on the white continent. It gave us a purity of purpose much bigger than ourselves. And it was an adherence to conscience that made us acutely aware to all the precious variables at play within the still unspoiled environment. Consequently, we vacuumed our on-shore items, washed and sanitised the footwear and officially declared nothing other than memories and photographs would be taken. Fair enough.
Occasionally elusive and always enigmatic, Alex was also sea-green incorruptible, the fixed point on this voyage. The ultimate source of assistance, information and knowledge. Under present circumstances, his mental processes were fired to a white-hot pitch that would melt the walls. He seamlessly laced a dry humour through the necessary ‘Dos and don’ts’, exhibited a pin-sharp memory and exuded calm like that of an ER surgeon. A rugged beard framed a moustache that curled up at the sides – maturing his features without hiding a pair of bright, young eyes. I liked him instantly.
Day two of the crossing and circumstances had conspired to favour an early arrival: Deception Island, home to a horseshoe volcano, part of the South Shetland Islands. Staff jumped at the chance to have us leap into the zodiac, our 10-passenger rigid inflatable, ice-strengthened boat and make the first of three bonus ‘opportunistic’ landings. Wonderful weather on top, we were off to a winning start. We emerged from the ship into a cold, icy world at once unfamiliar and intoxicating. Jaw-on-the-floor, I just gazed. Overawed like never before. Bone-deep delight surfaced upon a scene of polar magnificence, far beyond the grandeur of the glossy promo literature. My face distorted into a rictus grin by the wonder – as the Irish would say, it was savage.
Dramatic grey-pink skies radiated deep into the evenings, striking sunsets would bowl me over as much as catch me out. The rays grazing the surface of sapphire waters were red, orange and yellow while illuminating mammoth icebergs, shimmering with a neon-bright luminescence. It was like nothing we’d imagined nor could have imagined outside our experience to date. Including burning my sun-screened face after 9pm. An unquestionably thinner ozone meant my no-melanin skin was absorbing UV light better than a sponge taking on water. Welcome to being a redhead in Antarctica.
Throughout the trip, we caught photo-worthy glimpses of humpbacks and killer whales as well as getting flashes of a dorsal fin, water-spurting blowhole or fluke on the odd minke and fin whales. The Antarctic isn’t referred to as ‘Citation Nation’ for nothing. Not a day of the five and a half day exploration passed without close-up sightings of penguins porpoising through the water. Sometimes only a few metres from our sea-kayaks while colonies of long-tailed gentoo, wing-spread Adélie or distinctive chinstrap penguins would bustle about in the bay. Spread-eagled Weddell seals appeared oblivious, harrumphed and snorted before falling back into a lazy siesta again. Some day-dreamed, others snored deeply in the weak sun. All inside a white landscape of floating sea ice, giant crevasses and glowing blue ice structures. It decidedly set the tone of the trip.
Colossal ice action was becoming our new norm; ripping away now and again from glaciers or a mass of sculpted icebergs, which sparkled in the sun and fed further excitement through our already thrill-saturated veins. We took a zodiac cruise around Cierva Cove, clocking the cormorants gliding above and putting a disinfected pair of rubber boots down onto the peninsula. Standing firmly on Antarctica. What a euphoric moment. I stared at the steady accumulation of frozen ice thickening on everything outside in air cold enough that our breath hung white around us.
Orne Harbour was as labour-intensive as the trip was going to get. Floraine, a Swedish girl I’d gelled with on board and I night-hiked up a mountain in twilight, running up like crazed mountain goats to bleed off some excess energy. Feeling giddy all the way up for no other reason than where we were. And the company we were keeping. It always feels good to be amongst contagiously happy people. The high vantage point showed us a speck more of what a great expanse of white empty nothingness the place really was. We saw just a tip of the iceberg. Everything was abandoned to the cold and ice, yet surviving the most brutal conditions on Earth all around us were the penguins and birds. I’ll never complain that I’m cold again.
Cuverville Island was a small island dominated by a large, lichen-covered rocky outcrop. The morning saw a substantial rookery of gentoos coming and going about their business. Lots of mating action to be had there if not already underway. Was it wrong to want to witness the intimate ritual? A fascinating display of talking to one another, bowing genteelly in courtship as only gentoos can and wasting not a second more in getting on with the deed itself. Harmoniously simple.
And so a plethora of persistent males wooed the females. Apathy arose when the odd female would reject a male. It was curious to watch one male shrug off a rebuff and try elsewhere to achieve his personal aspirations that day. More curious perhaps was when the dismissing female clocked the consequences of her actions and shuffled after Mr Rejected having changed her mind. “Sorry love, you’re too late – I’m with Martia now”, he squawked with a certain frisson of satisfaction.
Outgrown all those behaviours, penguin mothers would attentively tend to their eggs while a predatory bird known as the skewer would permanently sniff out any eggs left momentarily unsupervised. Observing a skewer steal one on the sly to feed its own chick was one thing, but to have to watch the resultant penguin’s forlorn and lost reaction leaves you powerless. My heart instantly tried to climb up to my throat like a rat up a drainpipe.
Neko Harbour gave us prime opportunity to hit the water in the kayaks once again. Named after the floating whale factory ship, Neko is home to approximately 250 breeding pairs of penguins but infamous for its calving glaciers. A startling video shown on board beforehand made me sit up and pay attention showing the impact of a hefty calving. Think tsunami and then visualise flipping zodiac boats, kayaks capsizing and penguins running for their lives. That’d up the ante in our video footage.
For us at Neko, what started with the penguins casually swimming alongside us and some small chunks of ice rumbling down into the sea turned into nothing more than a strong headwind and strenuous paddle back. Personally, I’d have preferred riding the wake from an over-zealous carving smashing into the water. Turning my back to a breath-snatching wind, I tried to ignore the frigid air brushing my neck and taking possession of my toes. Alas we started to make our circuitous way home. Cold was creeping quickly through my dry suit and base layers. There was an attending chill that fought to take my breath away and I groaned like someone much older. Eventually back on board after the best part of an afternoon, my half frozen fingers responded with about as much dexterity as oversized clubs at the end of my arms. What did I expect in the Antarctic?
Next up, The Lemaire Channel. The Russian captain’s biggest challenge navigating us through an 800-metre wall-to-wall narrow crossing for 11 kilometres; negotiating towering peaks overhead and a sea surface smothered in densely packed ice. Very otherworldly, it no longer felt remotely familiar to anything else on Earth. The ship’s course was further choked by an imposing display of large tabular bergs, bunched together the way sky scrapers loom over New York.
Making it to Petermann Island was a sight to behold. Our most southerly point on the voyage. Having taken its name from a German geographer and supporter of polar exploration, the island is home to 300 breeding pairs of Adélies and the most southerly colony of gentoos in Antarctica at around 2,000 breeding pairs. The sun on Petermann peaked at the trip’s highest temperature, perhaps tipping into double figures. Perched on a rock, our eyes were glued to a wide ice structure akin to a bouncy castle gently pitching and rolling in the water. It was like watching an arcade’s two pence machine stacked with coins, edge closer off its moving tray. The ice didn’t break but I guess as far as the jackpot was concerned, we’d already won that the moment we stepped onto an Antarctic-bound boat.
Glancing around Petermann Island, the snow petrels patrolled Antarctic-cool skies. Blue-eyed shags would come and go, feeding their chicks. Some of the penguins took to tobogganing on their chests for ease and speed of travel while others tootled up their highways heading to Gentoo Road, Adélie Alley or Chinstrap City. All in the name of nest-building, diligently fetching materials to construct their safe-havens, high out of harm’s way. If you’re a penguin you might as well build your nest with panoramic views. Hard going on their hard-working but happy feet. Such purposeful little creatures, I studied them for hours. A tidal wave of excitement rolled over me that then just as quickly mutated into a smile erupting on my face. This was my new happy place.
Having visited a Ukraine station, passed several Argentinean ones it was time to head to a British base. The Ukraine’s Vernadsky station was sold by the Britons for the nominal price of a pound back in 1996, as it was cheaper for them to sell up than pay to remove the buildings. Vernadsky was where scientists first observed depletion in the ozone layer, known as the ozone hole. The Ukrainians seemed pleased to receive us, their first set of guests since the previous season. Willingly, they opened up the bar hoping for a roaring trade by sharing their homemade vodka. $3 a pop or a shot in exchange for a lady’s bra no less. What’s the secret ingredient then chaps, distilled penguin? It tickled me in discovering a batch of wood was previously handed over to the site staff with a brief to build a jetty. Destiny had other ideas that day, at least the minds of three Ukrainian guys did when they opted to erect a bar instead. Sadly they got the sack but a fine example of ingenuity boys.
Port Lockroy was the name given to the British Antarctic Survey. A good vantage point to cast your eyes over Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a fairytale-esque set of mountains featuring prominently on the icescape. A delightful little museum depicting life on the Antarctic in the ‘50s, including rusting cans of food on exhibit, an amply stocked gift shop and the Penguin Post Office were the highlights of our visit. I chatted to the base’s staff in the time we’d been allotted: a bubbly Scottish girl with wild curly hair as red as new copper and a forthcoming English guy with connections to Nottingham. It was nostalgic to swop some stories of home sweet home.
Half Moon Island featured next on the itinerary; another supreme site for sea-kayaking. A prime location for penguins to amble across pebbled beaches too, beavering away at the construction of their homes. While whales occasionally spy-hopped, meaning they would poke out of the water ‘nose up’ for a stealthy peek at their prey, Antarctic terns dive-bombed for a quick bite to eat. The mountainside was a frozen region of towering ice with steep, jagged peaks. Some shed cold tears as they trickled down the ice face while my fingers marched a slow exploration of the sea ice, bobbing alongside us in the kayaks; scalloped all over where waves and wind had intervened and left their exquisite design of existence. An audible and continuous ‘snap, crackle and pop’ diverted my attention away from anything else. I paused to take in the beauty of a world engulfed in crystal. Everything reflected light and contributed to the heightened brilliance of the late afternoon. I will sorely miss this place.
The Antarctic is steeped in as much ice as uniqueness. Nothing there but silence, blessed and profound. Icebergs protrude in a lush white scene encircled by midnight-blue ocean. The place effortlessly achieves a state of otherworldliness and in being there, it almost feels like your physical form transcends its corporeal limitations to escape the very bonds of Earth. It’s from time immemorial where light bursts forth in dazzling profusion. One of the farthest ends of the planet yet such a serene, dramatic space. I, as much as everyone else pray we never tame it. Stepping into what feels like a painting more often than not, the surrealism takes hold with such intensity, it’s overwhelming on the emotions. And it will leave your image-tank more than full. Someone asked me during the trip, “Dear, are you enjoying the Antarctic?” Stunned to the root of my soul, I just welled up, smiled with a nod and swallowed hard. Beyond incredible.
You can follow more of Lisa Morris’ offbeat travel tales at www.twowheelednomad.com