EXPLORING some of the most spectacular, extreme scenery on the planet, an Antarctic expedition rewards the traveller with the sight of seals, penguins and the stinkiest birds known to sailors
My journey starts in the port of Ushuaia, in Argentina’s far-flung corner of Patagonia, the departing point for my ten-day sea adventure to the Antarctic peninsula. It’s early December and I’m travelling with 40 other passengers. We’ll be hiking, climbing, camping, kayaking and breaking our way through this remote and desolate icy paradise.
As I watch the large passenger ships returning from their last tour of duty in the unpredictable Antarctic waters, our intimate little ship, the Polar Pioneer, looks tiny in comparison. Originally a Russian research vessel, now refurbished to an ‘ice class’ passenger exploration ship capable of pulling through ice a metre and a half thick, it has an open-bridge policy that means passengers can hang out in the most interesting place on the ship with Captain Aleksandr Eugenov and his crew 24/7.
I am travelling with Aurora Expeditions, an Australian company that specialises in small-group polar exploration, and it is not a luxury cruise, rather an adventure expedition. Reassuringly, our captain and crew are highly trained ice navigators who have made more than 500 crossings to Antarctica. As well as the 22-strong Russian crew, there’s an expedition team of ten and three Ukrainian scientists to be dropped off at the Vernadsky research station, where they’ll spend four months diving to research what’s going on under the ice.
We pull out of Ushuaia around 6pm with a pilot joining the crew up on the bridge to oversee our passage through the Beagle Channel. A full moon rises over the mountains and giant petrels and South American terns follow in our wake as Tierra del Fuego slips away.
From October to March, there is no night in Antarctica. With the sun comes the return of animals looking fatter from months of feeding in northern waters. With air temperatures averaging between 0°C and 5°C, it’s the best time to see animals and their babies.
There’s an ample body of water between South America, Australia and South Africa that produces very big waves in this region, and the notorious Drake Passage, covering 88km between Cape Horn and the Antarctic peninsula, has a reputation for serious storms. On a good day, it takes 50 hours to cross, and we make good time travelling at 12.6 knots, due to land the next day. We’re told to leave one hand free to hold on to railings when moving around and, whatever happens, not to whistle. On a Russian ship this is said to bring high winds and storms.
I know we’ve arrived when I spot a chunk of ice the size of Perthshire, there are penguins diving through the water and a humpback whale thunders past the ship’s bow. Our first landing will be in the evening, at Elephant Point, on Livingstone Island in the South Shetlands. Dressed in layers of quality thermals, we tread carefully down the steep walkway to the zodiacs, rigid inflatable boats that carry around ten passengers, bumping at speed, across to the island.
The Antarctic spring brings elephant seals, doe-eyed, mainly male youngsters who soon turn into four tonnes of gas-producing, belching blubber, fighting each other for dominance. Meanwhile, comical penguins waddle along the stony shore, clumsy on land yet in the water flying like arrows and easily outswimming their biggest predator, the notorious leopard seal. We’re told to keep five metres from the penguins, 20 metres from the seals and to give the giant petrels a good 30-metre berth as the smell of their projectile vomit is impossible to remove. No wonder sailors call them stinkers.
Back on the ship, as we sleep the Polar Pioneer crosses the Bransfield Strait and enters the Gerlache Strait. We wake in front of Enterprise Island and scramble into the zodiacs, then pass alarmingly close to huge blue icebergs that radiate cold. I spot a leopard seal desperate to get on to an ice floe to catch resting sea birds.
Two Australian sailing boats sit in a small bay and we pull alongside to say hello. No longer than 50 metres, they carry a handful of passengers – climbers, including the great-great-nephew of Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole. Amundsen’s relative is climbing a nearby peak to commemorate the explorer’s mammoth achievement on 14 December 1911, almost 100 years ago to the day.
Another small boat, the Australis, is monitoring the sounds of leopard seals singing. A researcher on board tells me that on the east coast of Antarctica seal songs are different to on the west coast, and she plans to play them to each other and record what happens.
After Enterprise, we pull anchor and head to Cuverville Island. The kayaks explore a bay clogged with icebergs, stopping at a spectacular blue one. A loud bang is heard and it explodes in half, toppling over and creating waves, an example of why you should never paddle next to unpredictable icebergs.
We travel to Port Lockroy next day, site of Base A, a secret British wartime project that monitored German ships. The hut is now a historic site, with museum, shop and the only public post office in Antarctica.
From the bridge I watch the scenery unfold. Massive edifices emerge through mist and snow, towering either side of the ship. The Lemaire has been described as possibly the most scenic place on earth but, in the mist, not today. However, it is still exhilarating and a strangely emotional experience.
The Lemaire opens into the Penola Strait, which leads to Vernadsky. This section is tricky due to the thick ice, yet visually spectacular. No ship has been this far this season and in no time we are surrounded by ice, a real Shackleton moment. The whole vessel shudders as we hit thick sections, bringing the slow-moving ship to a halt. It’s cold and windy and utterly exciting.
We reach the station, our ship breaking a path for the zodiacs to follow, as they carry the scientists safely to shore. Mission accomplished, we retreat overnight to the Argentine Almirante Brown station, our first continent landing; until now we’ve only landed on islands. At Brown, the snow camouflages nesting penguins and we must be careful not to step on them.
Nest we hit the Melchior Islands, and the sun comes out as we celebrate 100 years to the day since Amundsen arrived at the South Pole. On our return journey, we manage a few more landings – at Cierva Cove to observe leopard seals and at 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.
With storms predicted, we can expect a rough ride but, buzzing with excitement from our spectacular journey, we don’t even think about what’s ahead. After all, it can only add to what must be the most impressive voyage on the planet. Antarctica is unarguably remote and desolate at times, but it is pure and peaceful and makes you feel alive. I love the unpredictability, where things can change very quickly, and it’s ten times more beautiful than in pictures or films. It’s inspiring, huge and every day throws up something unexpected.
Watch Lisa Young’s film of her trip to Antarctica on bit.ly/Ts7tFu
The Antarctica Peninsula spring voyage aboard Polar Pioneer departs from Ushuaia, Argentina, on 30 November. Prices start from £4,485 per person with Aurora Expeditions (www.auroraexpeditions.com.au). Kayaking, climbing, photography and camping are available at an additional charge.
British Airways (0844 493 0787, ba.com) flies from Edinburgh, via Heathrow, to Buenos Aires daily, with return fares from £1,265 per person in World Traveller (economy) and £3,712 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 (020 8747 8315, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk).