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Antarctica: Polar plunge

Come on in — the water’s freezing in the Southern Ocean, but a polar plunge is a rite of passage for cruise visitors to the white continent

Antarctica: Polar plunge
Polar plunge. Image: Alamy

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Paradise Bay lives up to its name. Dazzling blue skies greet me as I step blinking into the sunlight, wearing just a pair of shorts, and stand at the waterline access hatch at the side of our ship. The scene might almost look tropical, except the pure white beaches are made of snow rather than sand. It’s really not that cold.

The polar plunge – literally leaping into the Antarctic Ocean in just your swimsuit – is something of a rite of passage for cruise visitors to the white continent, but on a glorious day like today it really doesn’t seem worthy of much fanfare: I’m pretty certain it was colder in London when I left. Sure, it’s summer in the southern hemisphere – while the UK is taking shaking footsteps into a frostbitten winter – but I was expecting Antarctica to be a bit more nippy than this. But therein lies the problem: the Antarctic Peninsula is getting warmer, and it’s the increasingly undeniable result of climate change.

Nevertheless, my bare feet are still freezing against the frigid metal deck, and as I take my own tremulous steps towards the edge of the platform, I notice the ship’s doctor, Brenda, is sitting on the side of a rigid inflatable boat that bobs nearby, looking at me with the sort of rehearsed, placatory smile reserved for dealing with mass insanity. She’s cradling a defibrillator in her arms. Cardiac arrest on a continent without hospitals is not an eventuality I’d prepared for, and our redoubtable doctor must notice the look of alarm that sweeps across my features, but the stone-cold smile on her lips remains as petrified as the queue of would-be divers behind me.

My progress towards the deck’s extremity has become similarly glacial, but as my toes find its edge and I realise I have nowhere left to go, I become numb. Deaf to the cries of encouragement from behind me and on the decks above – where guests wrapped up in orange parkas gawp down, snapping pictures with cameras, and recording video on smartphones – I focus only on the impending plunge, and take a deep breath.

I jump.

It only takes a few seconds to reach the nadir of a dive and burst back up out of the water, but unfortunately, at the deepest point of my downward trajectory, time has frozen – along with my extremities, my core, and my reeling mind.

I think I might be stuck down here. I’ll have to be chiselled out. I’ll emerge from the Gerlache Strait as a giant novelty ice-cube; a cryogenic time capsule for future generations; a perfectly preserved example of human stupidity in the 21st century. Unless, of course, I’ve since been defrosted, like a chicken in a sink, by global warming.

A two-second eternity later my fingers grasp the makeshift pontoon stationed beside our vessel, and I’m pulled from the water, a look of horror on my icebound features. I’m wrapped in a towel and, as I return to the ship’s interior – juddering yet jubilant – I’m given a strong alcoholic drink and my bathrobe. I remain unthawed. Antarctica’s not that warm yet.