The Polar Plunge in Antarctica is almost a rite of passage. Guests can sign up to, one by one, plunge safely into the frigid Southern Ocean. Waterproof explorer Carol Warman shared her freezing experience.
A beautiful, golden sunny morning and we were returning onboard after our first landing on a huge, crisp, crunchy white ice floe in Weddell Sea of Antarctica. Pack ice and icebergs surrounded us, crackling and drifting upon an icy and ink blue sea with the odd crabeater seal hauled lazily out and dozing in the rare rays of sunshine.
Warm and comfortably coddled in several layers of merino thermals, full waterproofs and a woolly hat, looking forward to a hot lunch, I clambered home up the Polar Pioneer gangplank, my footing secure in sturdy, snug, regulation wear boots.
At the top of the stairs I met my neighbour from the cabin across the passageway. She had bare legs and feet. And bare arms though she did have a small towel clutched round her upper body. I wondered if she was ill.
“You doing it too?” she whispered.
“Doing what?” I asked.
She was a new neighbour, I didn’t know her well, maybe she’s a little mad?
“The Polar Plunge.”
And right on cue, a voice came over the tannoy.
Elena, our leader, brimming with enthusiasm, determined to take advantage of the calm sea on this beautiful day, inviting passengers to make their way, appropriately dressed (sic) to the top of the gangplank. On Day One!
I was simply not prepared for this. Somewhere in the bottom of my as yet unpacked suitcase I had squeezed in a swimsuit. As an afterthought, with little expectation, or indeed intention, of using it.
From cabins above and below, other clients began to appear in scant clothing and with tiny towels. Light footed on bare feet, faces fixed with apprehensive grins.
Excuses invent themselves as wild fire on occasions like this. From the bizarre to the absurd to total lies. And you fear that a sudden shot of icy sea might stop your heart and the warning by Dr John last night of no. 1 danger of Antarctic travel – the cold – flashes through your mind. So why the hell then would you voluntarily strip off your warm layers, retrace your steps down an unfamiliar gangplank and throw yourself into the Southern Ocean? At 0 degrees Centigrade. Air temperature not much higher. FOMO (fear of missing out…..) knowing that this opportunity may never come again, a little bit of a challenge, the story you will tell over a few glasses of wine back home, a sense of curiosity, fear of losing face.
I joined the queue on Deck 4. Buzzing, shivering and giggling with nervous anticipation, twenty-two of us shuffled slowly and patiently forward in line, craning to see the brave plungers ahead of us as one by one they hit the icy water to a hail of cheers and a wall of cameras.
My turn. No turning now. I descended backwards carefully down the gangplank, conscious that my rear preceded me towards the flotilla of staff armed with video and rescue gear. Bare feet sticking on the icy metal strips. Polar diving guide Pete met me at the bottom, re-assuring, supportive. Cheers of encouragement coming from above and behind. Not a time to re-consider, not helpful to speculate now how horrible this could be, too late.
I jumped in.
Immediately enveloped in a breathtakingly icy fold, hard to recognise as water, simply a swathe of prickling unbelievable, almost oily cold. And then my head was above the sea and Pete was helping me out saying, ‘”Awesome, awesome”, over a few of my less choice words.
The delightful Kathrin wrapped me in a big towel, handed me a shot of sambuca and ordered me down to the sauna.
Sharing our bravery amongst new found friends, warmth and steam, confident laughter and soon the astonishingly fierce cold was a thing of the past. In fact so quickly over and the feeling forgotten that I almost wanted to do it again to savour and recall and notice so that the memory of the sensation of being beneath the Antarctic Sea would remain more real and more tangible.