Each article or brochure on Antarctica that I excitedly read before I went, explained that it was a place so breathtaking that those who claim to be able to describe it in words have probably not experienced it first-hand. “Surely this is an exaggeration,” I thought. “Nowhere is indescribable.”
My journey to Antarctica was a smooth one. After setting sail for the Great White Continent from Ushuaia in the far south of Argentina, I had readied myself for the infamous Drake Passage – a section of ocean affectionately known as the ‘Drake Lake’ or ‘Drake Shake’ depending on the size of the waves – but I was pleasantly surprised. Yet, even if it had been a rough journey – it was all part of the ‘Antarctic experience’!
After two days of sailing the open seas, the ship dropped anchor at Half Moon Island in the South Shetland Islands, located in the outer reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula. During the sailing, the Expedition Team on board had spent time imparting great amounts of information on landing etiquette and how to ensure Antarctica is left in the same pristine condition after our visit.
So, it was with excited trepidation that I boarded the zodiac transferring me to the island; it was with excited ease that I disembarked the specially designed zodiac onto the snowy ground; and it was with extreme excitement and joy that I saw my first Chinstrap penguin – not just one, but a whole colony. The cacophony of their display calls, the hilarity of their waddles up and down the slope to their rookery and the ammonia-filled scent of their not-so-pleasant toilet habits are all things that I will never forget.
Landings in Antarctica vary according to weather and ice situations – each one as interesting as the next. They can include astounding sights such as at Yankee Harbour or Cuverville Island, where up to 4,000 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins choose to nest. Or Deception Island, a volcanic caldera where penguins, southern giant petrels and skuas make their homes among the abandoned 20th-century buildings of British Station B. There’s also Neko Harbour, where Gentoo penguins nest adjacent to a regularly calving glacier. Neko Harbour is also one of the places where you can step foot on the actual Antarctic mainland (as opposed to the little islands dotted around).
But I didn’t only have to make landings to see wildlife. The ship’s deck is also the best seat in the house when it comes to looking for whales, and Wilhelmina Bay or Paradise Harbour are ideal locations to find them. Whale species can include orca, minke and humpback, and the mammals don’t stop there. Seals like to haul out on icebergs for a rest – the leopard seal is a ferocious predator in the water, but sitting on a beautiful blue block of ice, it can appear quite innocent. Weddell seals are somewhat rotund, and crabeater seals more elusive. Penguins are often seen minding their own business on a ‘floating rest stop’ too.
Before long it was time to head back north and sail the Drake Passage once again. It was a little more choppy this time, but this was forgotten very quickly when an announcement was made that a wandering albatross was following the ship. The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any bird and can stay in flight for months at a time. To see one of these majestic creatures was a real privilege.
As I reflect on my visit to this pristine continent, it is true to say that there was something to see during every waking moment. If the wildlife was hidden for a few minutes, then I just sat back in awe of the huge icebergs sailing past, each with its own uniquely moulded shape from decades of floating, rolling, being grounded and floating some more. The landscapes of Antarctica are so vast it was very easy to forget the scale of what I was looking at. I could stare at mountains as if they were small hills, then see another ship come into view for scale and realise that ship was completely dwarfed by those ‘small hills’. At every turned angle was beauty, but not your average beauty – the enormous mountains, water channels filled with ice, a snowy volcanic caldera, porpoising penguins, whale blows, and many seabirds, all add up to one of most outstanding types of beauty on Earth. The remoteness is enhanced by pure stillness. When the ship is anchored, all you can hear is the silence of the snow interspersed by penguin calls, or the crackle of ice running alongside the hull.
Despite my lack of belief, there really is no easy way to truly describe Antarctica. But however anyone chooses to portray it; I know that I would go back in a heartbeat.
Penguins, whales and icy landscapes are all on the agenda during our 16-day expedition voyage, Adventure to Antarctica – Highlights of the Frozen Continent.