It’s early morning. I’m sitting on the dock watching the sun rise over the southernmost crags of the Andes. A great day lies ahead. There are just a few clouds and a sun trail flares across the waters of the bay. Blue-eyed shags dive for fish; dolphin gulls loiter for scraps and, in the far distance, black-browed albatrosses scythe over the choppy water. I am on dry land but the promenade seems to roll beneath my feet as my brain struggles to get used to not being at sea. We have just spent two and a half days crossing the infamous Drake Passage from Antarctica.
JOURNEY AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
A sign here reads ‘Ushuaia, Argentina, Fin Del Mundo’, The End Of The World. I was prepared to believe it and that’s certainly how southern Patagonia felt as we boarded the plane at Punta Arenas, Chile, just over a week ago and it felt that even more so when, after a couple of false starts, we found ourselves scrambling from a stony beach on King George Island, into inflatable boats to reach our ship, our home and our transport for the next few days.
The Polar Pioneer is run like a well-tuned machine: meals are excellent, hearty and on-time; the cabins are small but spotless; the Russian crew who sail and maintain her are quiet and courteous and the expedition leaders were enthusiastic and in love with Antarctica.
UNIQUE ICE FORMATIONS
After steaming overnight we awoke to a rare Antarctic Dawn, sparkling with sunlight and glowing with fifty shades of ice. We were on the edge of the Weddell Sea and, in the distance were the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula. Over the next few days were to learn a lot about ice. It would hang over us in mountain glaciers; rivers of ice flowed into the bays and ice filled the sea around us with bergs the size of castles while shattered fragments clanged against our bows. There were the steep-sided icebergs that had broken from glaciers and low mounds and platforms of sea-ice, frozen out of the salty waters.
Leopard seals dozed on glittering floes and Polar Pioneer pushed on until we could push no further. A 20km iceberg, a broken fragment of a huge ice shelf, made a frozen cliff from horizon to horizon and barred our route. So we stopped travelling south and soon our band of 50 or so expeditioners was on its way in the inflatables to take a walk on the Weddell Sea.
We wandered singly and in pairs, in silence, on this golf-course sized piece of ice and, as we stood still, the secret of the ice was revealed – it was all moving! Everything in this floating world was noiselessly sliding and colliding. No human had ever stood here before and no-one would ever stand here again. Channels opened and closed nearby the distance the horizon shifted too. We re-boarded our boats in time to reach the ship before the route was totally blocked and, as we set off, snow petrels slid around the ice fields like tiny white ghosts and Antarctic terns cut through the cold air on sharp wings.
We journeyed from island to island, often steaming overnight to wake up with a new view and a new discovery.
On Half-moon Island there were chinstrap penguins, halfway between skittles and guardsmen from a miniature polar army. An adélie penguin stared at us with its strange button-eyes.
On the volcanic rocks of Deception Island were fur seals and gentoo penguins, standing or lying on any unfrozen ground like refugees from a toy factory. Indeed wherever there were rocks with access to the sea we saw penguins. It was late in the season and we were watching the birds finishing their moult and preparing to go back into the ocean to live like fish for the southern winter.
Long gone are the days of penguin-hunting, but the penguins are not without their enemies: leopard seals loiter offshore and we once watched in horror and amazement as one shook a gentoo so hard that it turned inside-out before it became lunch. Storm petrels and giant fulmars arrived from nowhere to pick up penguin scraps. There were also the less bloodthirsty; Weddell seals; crabeater seals (which don’t eat crabs) and fur seals, though the latter did a lot of snarling when we came across them on the beach.
And there are whales. We watched fin whales and humpbacks moving along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula and we knew there were orcas somewhere around.
Where there were whales, once there were whalers. Their land bases and old research stations are now valued as historic monuments. Strangest of all, is the southernmost post office in the world at Port Lockroy, an old British Antarctic base now managed by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.
SNORKELING THROUGH PARADISE
But, personally, I hadn’t come here to buy stamps! I had come to see Antarctica as thoroughly as possible in a short visit and that would involve getting wet. A small but stoical group of us had committed to Polar Snorkeling in the minus temperatures of the Antarctic waters. Getting dressed was the hardest part. I really didn’t want to get cold and yet I still had to be able to get into a drysuit; do-up the zip; and waddle down the gangway to a zodiac. Getting into the sea was easy, in fact just like falling off an inflatable boat, though there was a range of ability when it came to getting back in again.
The merino base layer, the thermal fleece undersuit and an awful lot of socks worked well with the drysuit from Waterproof Diving International, and the hood and gloves did a good job too. Only my lips around the snorkel and the tips of my fingers felt cold and neither detracted from the remarkable sensation of snorkeling in pack ice. Of course most of the floating ice is underwater so a little floe the size of a sofa looks like a minibus when you can see all of it. The piece of ice I chose to swim round looked like a garden shed until I realized that there was a whole house of ice underneath.
Fridge-sized chunks of sea-ice were pushing up towards the edge of my floe and I found myself elbowing my way through, like a thirsty man pushing his way to a crowded bar.
There was sea life visible near the ice as well as close to shore. There were very slow limpets on the rocks; little crustacea flitted through the surface water and comb jellies did rainbow tricks by flickering the rows of tiny transparent hairs that give them their other common name of sea gooseberry.
Martin, our expedition’s diving and snorkeling lead and safety guru nicely summed-up my feeling of achievement, “This isn’t an easy place: if you’re going to take on the challenge of being in Antarctica you have to fight a bit to experience it to the full … until you’ve felt that cold drip on the end of your nose and smelt the Penguin poo you haven’t really been here”.
LEAVING FROZEN PLANET
But like all good things the trip had to end and we found ourselves heading north in Polar Pioneer trying to reach Tierra del Fuego before a major storm that was barreling in from the Pacific. We missed the worst of it but The Drake Passage lived-up to its reputation as a wild 1000km of open ocean. Some our company remained pale, below decks but Carol and I spent as much time in the open air as possible, in part because it was exhilarating but also because we watched black-browed and wandering albatrosses who somehow overtook the ship, into the near gale, without apparently moving their great shearing wings. Giant petrels, not quite so pretty but nearly as good at flying, would hang just off the rail to give us a looking-over.
But then, once we had passed Cape Horn on our port side, in the lee of Tierra del Fuego, things calmed down and we finally arrived in Ushuaia at dawn.
And there was that sign “Ushuaia, Fin del Mundo”.
“No!”, I thought, “This isn’t the end of the world, it’s the beginning of another one, and I’ve just been lucky enough to go there”.