Tue, 7 May, 2019
The lure of an Antarctic Adventure
I blame my grandfather whose massive old atlas used to sit on the bookshelf next to rows of faded and well-thumbed National Geographic magazines. I’d sit for hours poring over the pages, unfolding the maps and imagine travelling to Prussia, Ceylon, the New Hebrides and Yugoslavia. Places I will now never visit, not by those names anyway.
But it was the huge, empty white continent of Antarctica that always intrigued me. I imagined infinitely white vistas, ice-encrusted shorelines and flocks of bizarre creatures engaged in all manner of noisy rituals. I made a promise to myself to venture there one day to see Antarctica’s foreboding frozen wastes firsthand.
As far as the Antarctic is concerned, the peninsula is the most densely populated location on the continent, sprinkled with remote research bases and minute outposts. At the height of the summer season, the human population numbers over 3,000 – not counting tourists. That figure shrinks to less than 1,000 during the intensely chilly winter.
Fast-forward forty-odd years and that misty dream becomes reality. I’m standing on the bow of a modern ice vessel watching hefty chunks of disintegrating pack ice thud against the hull as we pick our way gingerly through a narrow channel. Lonely groups of Adelie Penguins watch curiously as we inch past, while in the distance, a lone Leopard Seal dives for cover under the ice floe. The Akedemik Sergey Vavilov and its seasoned crew of Russian mariners prepare to make the perilous entry into the ever-diminishing confines of the frozen waterways along the Palmer Archipelago.
During the pre-dawn, Vavilov enters the relatively broad expanse of the Gerlache Strait and well before the first smell of morning coffee wafts up from the galley, we’re perched around the bow, goggle-eyed, as the snow-splattered peaks embracing the Lemaire Channel loom above us.
This is the sort of vision that lasts forever in the mind’s eye – a manic chequerboard of ice chunks, so-called ‘bergie bits’, are arrayed out before us. Now at a virtual crawl, the Vavilov gently nudges them aside, the ice-strengthened steel bow ushering them delicately around the hull amid muffled, squeaking protests.
After a suitably reinforcing breakfast we reached our southernmost point, Petermann Island, where a very basic survival hut erected by the Argentines in 1955 provides essential food, shelter and magazines for marooned explorers – handy to know if I miss the last Zodiac back to the ship. A cross erected nearby bears witness to those who didn’t make it.
Apart from the curious hut, the little outpost plays host to the southernmost flock of breeding Gentoo Penguins while Sheathbills, Shags and the ever-opportunistic Skuas patrol overhead.
The return journey was interrupted with some leisurely Zodiac (rigid inflatable runabout) cruising among the grounded icebergs off Pleneau Island. Seasoned by a stiff, sleety breeze, the scene is like a frozen graveyard. These doomed bergs aren’t going anywhere.
Heads suddenly swivel and cameras are produced as a timid female leopard seal and pup suddenly appear, and just as mysteriously disappear, amid the frosted icescape. This is a rare sighting even for experienced expeditioners and just goes to show you never know what you’ll see.
We make a call at Port Lockroy on tiny Goudier Island. Abandoned by the British Antarctic Survey in 1962, the cute hut is chock full of artefacts from the mid 20th century’s Antarctic expeditions and is now a heritage listed site and emporium of Antarctica souvenirs from pencil sharpeners to furry penguins.
The most visited single site on the peninsula, the preserved station houses a vintage radio room, galley and a working post office where you can send a genuine Antarctic postcard and get your passport stamped.
The subject of many postcards, the aptly named Paradise Bay is the epitome of classic Antarctic Peninsula scenery and we disembark for a vigorous stroll to the top of the cliff for a breathtaking view. Deceptively tranquil waterways dotted with ice cakes and framed by snow-dusted cliffs, completely silent except for the occasional screech of a wheeling seabird.
Now, years later and safely reliving my adventure in the comfort of reminiscence, I occasionally blow the dust off Pop’s weighty old atlas and smile childishly as my failing eyes pass along what were once simply maps but are now living, full colour diaries of adventure.
Writer’s Tip: The comfort of modern expedition vessels has increased enormously at very little cost, if any. As with expedition cruises anywhere, first decide what you want to see and for how long, then set about choosing the vessel most suited to your comfort level and budget. Often the more luxurious ships can be a little timid in their expedition delivery, while the sturdy old ex-Soviet vessels go where others fear to sail.
Written by Roderick Eime. Republished with permission of MyDiscoveries.