Imagine, peacefully cruising along in a small rubber zodiac boat. The waters around you are incredibly calm, perfectly reflecting mountains, glaciers and icebergs that surround you. The colours will stay with you forever, everything is various shades of blue and white like you have never experienced before. A silvery coloured Weddell seal lazing around on top of a blue iceberg clocks you and sits up to check you out. You realise that there are many pairs of big soppy eyes following your every move from the many blocks of floating ice around you. The mirror-like seas are disturbed by something elegantly plopping in and out of the water. You realise it is a penguin. Several penguins playing and teasing. But then something else captures your attention a bit further away, a much larger animal is coming to join the party.
A bit of an iceberg!
Without warning, a few metres away from the dinghy boat, a Minke whale surfaces and sprays water from its blowhole. WOW!!!! Before long, you are surrounded by 5 of these beautiful creatures and they are interested in finding out more about you. They glide underneath the boat, they spy hop up to take a proper look, you look straight into the eye of the gentle giant as it tries to work out what you are doing there. This is surely not a scene from planet earth? As close as most of us will ever get to being on a different planet, this is the mystical white continent of Antarctica.
The rite of passage to get to this world happens to be some of the wildest seas in the world and a topic of pre-trip windups in Ushuaia. The infamous Drake Passage though was surprisingly well behaved for us and during the 2 days it took to cross these seas we could thankfully enjoy various lectures on the wildlife, history and politics of Antarctica, the highest, driest and coldest continent in the world.
Magic moments with Minke whales I will never forget
No people actually live permanently here but a few thousand are temporarily based in research stations and bases scattered around the continent. No single country rules over these lands, rather, a global treaty was established in 1959 to prohibit all military and mining activities, preserving Antarctica as a continent ‘dedicated to peace and science’. I knew this trip was going to be something special.
My bed for the expedition was in a compact cabin in the basement of the Antarctic Dream, originally a Chilean naval vessel reinforced to travel through ice. The ship had a huge social/dining area at the rear with panoramic views all around and several large outside areas for viewing wildlife. My fellow 50 or so explorers were from all over the world, fellow English and Europeans, Aussies, US, Japan, India, you name it.
We had some fun amusing ourselves over the many hours at sea, learning a few rude words in Japanese, enjoying gourmet meals to a Bollywood soundtrack, and enjoying lashings and lashings of free Chilean vino tinto. The iconic wandering albatross, said to be spirits of past adventuring seamen and Southern Giant cape Petrel birds were with us always, escorting us safely across the Drake passage.
I shared my cabin with a mature Argentinian lady who snored terribly, wore huge knickers and was on her second trip to Antarctica. As we left Ushuaia and entered the beagle straits she offered me some chocolate that she said was laced with calafate berries. Legend has it that eating this berry guarantees your return to Patagonia. She was offering me this as a good luck gesture, in the hope we will return safely back to Ushuaia after our adventure.
We were being watched!
Every morning, the whole ship was woken early with a message over the tannoy from Stefan, the charismatic expedition leader, always starting with ‘Good morning, good morning, good mooooorrrrrning...’ swiftly followed by the Spanish translation ‘buenos dias, Buenos dias, Buenos diaaaaaaaaaaaaas’. Stefan would indicate our co-ordinates following our overnight cruising and what was on the agenda for the day. Imagine our excitement when this included our first landing onto Antarctica, yesssssss we had made it ïï¿½ï¿½
After a hearty breakfast, I ventured outside to take in the scenery and there it was, my first Antarctic penguin hopped out of the water, then another, then another, then another.
.. Euggghhhh what was that smell? ‘Ahhhhh’ my cabin mate explained ‘eau de penguin, we know we have reached Antarctica’. These dudes STINK. We were still a fair distance from the actual land and you could smell the buggers from here. Everything felt different here, not sure how to explain it. Something about the colour of the sky and the sea was a blue that i had never seen before. I kitted myself out in several layers of clothing, including welly boots, and we made our first landing, via zodiac dinghys, to Aitchoo island. Stefan greets us as we land to a rocky beach and explains what we expect to see here, where we can wander to, and various do’s and don’ts and off we go to explore these lands. Penguin action EVERYWHERE, mostly juveniles it seems, gentoo penguins and chinstrap penguins, identified by their black banding under the chin.
‘This time of the morning, most of the adults are either already out fishing or getting ready to go’ Stefan explained ‘most of the penguins left here are young and are generally very curious to find out who you are, they are not used to seeing people. Just sit down somewhere and let them take a look at you, take in your surroundings’ So, i did exactly that and got surrounded, nibbled, prodded, by young gentoo penguins! One even tried to steal my camera! There were several colonies of penguins on this island, thousands of them in total and a couple of huge elephant seals flumping about with difficulty. Apparently, the penguins can recognise their own young amongst the thousands by their unique call. All sounded the same to me, an orgasm of waddling, hopping, flopping, noisy smelly penguins.
Mr universe contenders for Japan, Belgium and USA!
Our second landing that same afternoon was to halfmoon island where we spot a single macaroni penguin, a dude with fluffy yellow ‘eyebrows’, quite comical looking. We joked that in the absence of a mirror he probably wondered why the other penguins were giving him strange looks ‘what?’ and we invented singlemacaroni.com for him, a specialised dating website. There was not as much of the white stuff here as I had expected for Antarctica, apart from a few glaciers, these islands were pretty rocky actually. After our overnight sailing though further south towards the Antarctic mainland peninsula, we awoke to a proper white winter wonderland and the kind of scenes that i could only have imagined in my dreams.
On this afternoon, 1st February, I took my first steps onto the Antarctic mainland continent and trekked up a glacier for a view of this breathtaking magical world.
Turns out that on this same day some significant things were happening 11,000 miles away back home in England that were to change my life. There is no wifi, no phone signal, nothing in these remote lands so i was completely oblivious that my company was closing down the site where I worked and several thousand of us scientists were to lose our jobs. Oblivious and in complete oblivion, looking down a pristine white valley towards jewel covered seas perfectly reflecting the edge of a huge glacier. Mountains all around us, pure air, special place. It felt like we were the first explorers ever to set foot on this land. Tentative steps on the virgin snow but still losing my footing a few times, my whole leg would occasionally disappear in the snow. It was also on this special day that we met with the Minke whales in Andvord bay.
Does it get any better? We celebrated this unique day with some champagne on the helicopter landing circle on top of our ship. This day had to be one of the best days of my whole year of travelling, one of the best days of my life. Unforgettable.
Due to our extreme latitude, and it being the height of summer in the southern hemisphere, it was still daylight when we made a landing at 11pmish to the Chilean Antarctic base. We were warned that the base was full of Chilean military, all men, and that they hadn’t seen a female in several months! Poor guys! Quite a depressing place really, they live on tinned food with only the penguins for entertainment! The excuse for our visit was to provide fresh water and fruit to the guys there but excuse me, does Antarctica not contain 70% of the world’s fresh water? Just melt some ice damnit!
The next couple of days were spent blissfully exploring, trekking, experiencing Antarctica.
As we journeyed further south to the beautiful sheltered Lemaire channel, the temperatures actually got warmer in the absence of Antarctic wind. Some of the best scenery I have ever seen in my life, I will let the pics do the talking. During one of the landings it was so ‘warm’ that some of the guys went topless! Sightings of Antarctic shags initiated some obvious innuendo and Tom from Belgium being chased by an aggressive skua bird gave us some bonus entertainment. I had already told him there was one nesting but he insisted it was fine hehehe!!! The bugger nearly scalped him! I spent a lot of time just taking it all in really, letting this place into my soul. I was in my own little world when i heard some penguin chatter getting closer, turned around and there was an adult and two juveniles sliding straight towards me on the snow on their bellies! Nearly ran into me! I could just watch these guys for hours, the adelie penguins with their staring open eyes particularly seemed to enjoy penguin tobogganing along on their bellies!!
One of our memorable stops was to the stunning British research base of Port Lockroy.
our ship dwarfed by an iceberg
A hut surrounded by penguins guarding the British flag marks this base which includes a small shop and even a post box for sending postcards home with the Antarctica stamp! Just around from the actual base was a gorgeous view of the seven sisters mountain formations, a skeleton of a humpback whale and perfect iceberg reflections. It was here that I saw a baby penguin hatching out from an egg! I was saddened to hear though that many of these young penguins will not survive into the Antarctic winter as they are hatching out too late.. As a consequence of global warming, milder temperatures are causing penguins to breed later in the season but they then are not big enough to survive as the harsh Antarctic winter draws in. As we went back along the stunning channel towards the open seas, we all enjoyed a spot of sunbathing on the top deck, complete with wine of course, and witnessing an impressive avalanche right ahead of us.
Lectures to take our mind off the Drake passage
So many new experiences and feelings.
The next morning though ‘good morning good morning gooooooood mooooorrrning’ we awoke to quite a depressing sight. Most of the snow had gone and we were back to the cold, windy islands just before the Drake passage. We landed onto Deception island wearing our swimwear under our many layers. Apparently, there are hot springs here that make it possible to bathe in one area of the bay. Unfortunately, on this day, some strong currents were coming in and covering the hot springs so the water was way too cold to swim, just above freezing. This didn’t stop a couple of brave souls though from stripping off to crocodile posing pouch and jumping in! They won a bottle of champagne from it and gave us all a laugh so why not! Our final landing to see a group of farting elephant seals nearly turned into disaster.
While we were enjoying the sights and smells, a storm was coming in and it was touch and go whether we would make it safely back to ship on the zodiacs through the choppy seas. Soaked through, frozen, and depressed to say goodbye to the penguins, we thankfully made it back to warm up with some hot soup. Phew!!
Most amazing pink sunset that evening as we waved goodbye to the white continent and were joined by an albatross escort for our journey back to Argentina. The Drake passage was not as forgiving on the way back. I never get seasick, actually I love the rocking motion of boats as it helps me sleep. This rocking motion though had me rocking right out of bed! I would wake up in midair, all the cupboards flying open in the cabin, impossible to take a shower and even difficult to take a wee!! The crew offered to serve us our dinners in our cabins as it felt unsafe to be walking around the boat.
Seriously, these waiters must have been trained in the circus or something, goodness knows how they managed to still serve dinner when we could barely stand up! We would sit in the main area and watch the huge waves battering towards us from all angles, the sea blowing up right over the ship. Bloody scary! I am feeling hugely inspired though. I feel so lucky to have had this experience, the sixth continent I have visited on my one year round the world adventure. Just Africa I haven’t been on this trip hmmmmmm.... We were planning to have one big party on the way back across the Drake, not much else to do right? Instead we spent the time green around the gills, trying not to be sick or fall over. In the end, it was a relief to get back to Ushuaia but little did I know then of the news I was coming back to.
“I am the albatross that waits for you at the end of the earth
I am the forgotten soul for the dead sailors who crossed cape horn from all the seas of the world
But they did not die in the furious waves
Today they fly in my wings to eternity in the last trough of the Antarctic winds”