Antarctica: a personal account of a life-changing voyage
I feel humbled, honoured and lucky beyond belief to have been able to see what is, unarguably, the most distinctive continent on earth. Something about the place makes you feel like your reality is suspended. You must be on another planet. Nowhere could possibly be this beautiful, this untouched and desolate in a world full of billions of people. As a Londoner, it is the absolute antithesis of my real life. I felt a psychological change occur in me on this trip – a reflection that led to an almost total shifting of priorities for my life. These are just some of my notes from this journey that I would encourage anyone with the budget and an adventurous spirit to take.
Embarking in Ushuaia (commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world) at 4pm on a Sunday, I was looking forward to a couple of days of guilt-free, enforced relaxation while the ship crossed the Drake Passage. I took preventative Stugeron round the clock for the first 48 hours, so spent my time in a pleasantly drowsy, dream-like state revolving around meals, cups of tea and hot chocolate, gin and tonics, lectures on various Antarctic themes and a few episodes of Gavin & Stacey.
Currents flow around the Antarctic continent, for the most part unimpeded, in vast, open swathes of ocean, but when they get to the area between southern Latin America and the Antarctic Peninsula, all that water power is suddenly forced through a significantly smaller gap. I was fortunate enough to experience the rare event called 'the Drake Lake' while crossing the roughest stretch of water on the planet, so had no seasickness to contend with and thoroughly enjoyed my time, which flew by.
There was no point taking the seasickness medication really, so I stopped taking it and woke up on Day 3 feeling alert and raring to go. Opening the curtains of my cabin window, I was greeted by towering black mountains covered in glacial snow, and in the foreground were colossal, beautiful, white-and-blue icebergs floating past in a gunmetal-grey sea. This was scenery the likes of which I have never seen in real life, even in the Arctic. Bleak, uninhabitable magnitude, where nothing bigger than lichen grows and wildlife constantly battles for survival.
It is lunchtime on Day 4 when I start writing this. Since we started properly exploring yesterday morning, I’ve lost count of how many humpback whales I’ve seen up close, either from the ship or the zodiac. I’ve seen logging, spy hopping and, most phenomenally of all, breaching. Watching two humpbacks breaching metres from my zodiac went straight onto the podium of my lifetime’s wildlife encounters.
I have also seen hundreds of fluffy gentoo penguin chicks, one of which got comfy sitting on my feet, another of which waddled over and pecked repeatedly at my trousers, with countless others wandering inquisitively up to and around me, looking up at me from knee height and waving their flippers.
Where there are penguins, there are leopard seals and I’ve watched one of these impossibly huge creatures poke its reptilian head out of the water right next to our zodiac, then glide right underneath us, before returning to its iceberg house. Scary-looking things but with incredible personality. We’ve seen a huge crabeater seal lazing on his back on an iceberg and lots of dog-like male fur seals play-fighting on beaches.
I’ve also seen two orcas right at the front of the bow of the ship. I was just metres above them, hanging over the bow, watching them hover just below the surface of the crystal-clear water then poke their faces out, looking up at us curiously. They were joined by a few more and swam under and around the ship showing off. Another wildlife encounter heavily jostling for the top spot.
This is less than 24 hours worth of Antarctica. This is only the beginning.
The team on board the Hebridean Sky played a huge part in making the destination what it was. A really incredible expedition leader is vital to making the trip so powerful and Hayley Shepherd knows the Antarctic Peninsula like the back of her hand. The coves, beaches, penguin colonies, research stations; she can pinpoint them exactly. She understands the weather systems, patterns and what it takes to get the ship where it needs to be to make a safe and interesting landing.
The wild weather means that almost every morning and then every afternoon, there will need to be a Plan A, Plan B, quite possibly a Plan C and then even a Plan D or E. Our safety is her top priority but it’s also obvious that she is laser-focused on getting us the best experience she can and getting us off the ship as often as possible. She’s out with us every day, constantly directing the movements of the staff, crew, captain and passengers. She’s working with, managing and looking after more than 200 people in all, and works more or less around the clock, seven days a week, for up to three months at a time. In short, she is basically Superwoman and truly inspirational.
Also in the expedition team is Seb Coulthard, a historian, adventurer and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. His input is invaluable and he brings the fascinating and little-known history to life. How so much information fits into one brain astounded me as he was incredibly knowledgeable on a vast array of topics. This is a consistent theme – most of the staff, while they have a specialism on-board (ornithologist, marine mammal expert, geologist, photographer), they could basically all interchange if they wanted to and seem to know more or less about everything polar.
The sense of fun and enthusiasm among them is infectious. Every time we see a spectacular wildlife display, which was once in a lifetime for most of us but pretty commonplace for them, they all seem to still feel it the same way we do. Many of them have worked in the polar regions for decades, but it is their life and their love and so they feel everything as deeply as we do. The way they interact with each other and with the guests is magical. There is so much laughter and endless scintillating conversation. They eat with us at meal times and they’re always to be found somewhere around the ship, so you really get the chance to get to know each of them as people as well as your guides. They're all full of thousands of mind-blowing stories of past adventures.
The unpredictability of the voyage is yet another part of what makes it so special – you are fully at the mercy of the ice, the wind and the wildlife, so each day, while there is always a plan laid out for you, you never know what’s going to happen. It’s a great lesson in going with the flow. One morning, Plan A was scuppered by some sea ice, but en route to Plan B, a pod of orcas came so close to the bow of the boat that they were touching it. I was up front, leaning over the side, and it immediately became one of my most exhilarating wildlife encounters, of which I’m fortunate to have had many. The captain stopped the ship and we watched them swimming around us – it was unforgettable.
Having done a classic peninsula voyage, I now can’t wait to one day go back, as there’s so much more to see. The longer peninsula voyage where you venture yet further south and cross into the polar circle opens up much more history, with many more abandoned and completely preserved research bases to be explored, opening up the possibility to step inside the fascinating world of polar exploration. The three-week Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula voyage, however, is now my most yearned-for experience. The history of the Falklands and the ultimate wildlife Mecca that is South Georgia now call to me.
South Georgia, every single expedition team member agrees, is the jewel in Antarctica’s crown. The photos I’ve seen of a beach with literally hundreds of thousands of king penguins are astounding. Yet more history abounds here with Scott’s grave and the abandoned whaling station he famously got to after the greatest nautical feat of survival in history. I need to see this.
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