As an expectant crowd of couples, families, retirees and grizzled world trekkers wait to board our Antarctic-bound ship, the mood is overwhelmingly one of anticipation. Talk is of when the first orca or iceberg will be sighted, and trepidation at the state of the Drake Passage, the notoriously rough sea that sits between us and the pristine ice of Antarctica.
As we leave the docks of the Argentine city of Ushuaia, along with its claim as the southernmost town on Earth, my father and I explore the ship. Antarctic cruise options range from ultra-luxurious liners that offer abundant facilities but reduced access to landing sites, through to well-equipped and manoeuverable smaller boats that get to more places with varying levels of comfort and adventure. Our ship, the MV Ushuaia, is a small US-built icebreaker, sitting very much at the expedition end of the spectrum. With its wide decks, collegiate dining room, and functional cabins, it seems entirely appropriate for a trip motivated by stories of Shackleton, Scott and Mawson.
Conversation on board turns to what has motivated the 91 passengers to forego beaches or cities in favour of a continent most well known as frigidly cold and hugely unforgiving. For some, it is their seventh continent; others their long-promised once-in-a-lifetime trip; for at least one, it is driven simply by a long-held affection for penguins.
Out on deck the next morning, the ship is already powering through the Drake, yet even with incredibly calm seas, numbers have thinned as sea-sickness claims its first victims. This stretch of water has a reputation for potential danger, and crossing it stands as an initiation rite for beholding Antarctica’s delights. So far, the weather has been excellent and I’m thankful my sea legs remain untested.
During the time at sea, a familiar pattern is established, with regular, copious food served up between lectures on wildlife and ventures outside to spot wildlife. The ship’s unassigned seating for every meal means that, very soon, everyone has met everyone, and a bond of quiet self-satisfaction is formed over our luck in all sailing to the end of the world.
Anticipation builds more at our second day briefing, when our expedition leader, Julieta, announces we are nearing the South Shetland Islands and our first landing. Hurriedly, everyone dons layers and waterproofs, returning to the main room struggling with lifejackets and Wellington boots.
As our small Zodiac boat zips across the water towards China’s Great Wall research station, the beauty of the place is already impressive, with rocky islands and outcrops coated with unimaginable layers of ice and snow. Even having seen such images in an array of documentaries, the sheer range of colours and shapes remains unexpected.
Set among this, the station consists principally of large, incongruous buildings for meteorological researchers and support staff. A small museum allows visitors a brief insight into China’s Antarctic work, while also obliging with the all-important Antarctica passport stamp. We spend a few moments appreciating the base’s success growing cucumbers and tomatoes in their greenhouse, but the real excitement is saved for a solitary Gentoo penguin – our first – standing guard at the dock.
For all the photos this invites, the winning moment of the day is saved for later as the soft Antarctic sun starts to set. As we pass through the Bransfield Strait, small groups of humpback whales appear on all sides. One spectacularly breaches right near the boat, while the sound of their exhaling and the circles of their “bubble nets” alert everyone to another appearance. Despite bitterly cold winds and many rapidly prepared, insufficient outfit choices, the whales keep everyone on deck for two solid hours, as they continually surface and slowly descend to feed on krill.
Jokes about a lack of penguins are quickly stifled the next morning when we land at Hydruga Rocks, a Chinstrap Penguin colony in the Gerlache Strait. Passengers teeter across snow and ice in unsteady lines, while groups of penguins and newly hatched chicks watch us from bare rock nests. While there is a sense that our massed ranks of cameras might be disturbing for them, our guide, Kta, tells us that the colony will quickly forget the intrusion if we keep a respectful distance and don’t block their “penguin highways” to the water.
More ice-capped islands, orcas and even the wedding on deck of two Japanese passengers follow, until we land on the continent itself on day four at Orne Harbour.
The weather is gloriously sunny – sunburn a greater risk than frostbite – and a zig-zagged trudge up a long slope brings us to another group of penguins, inexplicably nesting at the foot of an even higher peak. While they enjoy an amazing view of the mountains and bay below, they must also make an exhausting climb of several hundred metres every time they feed.
For six days, our ship makes stops at points across the islands and inlets of the Antarctic Peninsula, but saves one of the most dramatic until the final day. Deception Island – a volcanic island with one tight entrance to its sunken crater bay – provides an entirely different landscape of bare rock, black sand and loose stones. Hiking up a crater rim, the wind is notably stronger and the skies darker, suitably reflecting the desolate feel of this former whaling centre.
As we leave land behind, anticipation of a rougher crossing is one experience left unsatisfied, and instead, we are left with two days of calm seas to consider everything we’ve seen.
Our guides have repeatedly underlined the idea that visitors should become “ambassadors” for Antarctica and its wildlife, and this seems readily attainable. It strikes me that very few people who’ve heard the crashes of its calving glaciers and seen the frenetic action of its penguin colonies will leave the continent without a strong and protective opinion of its singularity.
Like nowhere else I’ve visited, Antarctica feels like a place where nature very much rules, and cruising past its monumental mountain ranges leaves you with little doubt it should continue to do so.