‘Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised’, wrote the English Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard in his memoir The Worst Journey in the World.
Leaning over the rail of my ship, the National Geographic Explorer, while it idles in Commonwealth Bay, on the Antarctic Peninsula, I’m inclined to think Cherry-Garrard got it wrong. In the water below, a wall of donut-shaped bubbles curls to the surface. Like a silent movie, the creamy silhouette of a 40-ton humpback whale looms in its wake, the milky pleats in its jaw ballooning underwater as it gorges on krill.
Surfacing under the bow, the humpback exhales, sending a fine, fishy mist up towards us. For just a second the condensation catches the light, sending a rainbow across our line of vision, before it falls like rain into the water below. With a flick of his tail, the whale dives down to feed again, his liquorice-coloured skin dissolving into the murky ink of the Antarctic waters.
Despite the cold, despite the cost, and despite Cherry-Garrard’s less-than-glowing-recommendation, Antarctica remains the traveller’s dream: remote, uninhabited, seductive, filled with natural wonders and blue ice, shining in unlimited sunlight during summer and enclosed in darkness for the winter.
The golden era of Antarctic exploration may well have been that of Scott and Shackleton, but in 1966 a new era of passenger travel began, when Lars-Eric Lindblad chartered the converted Argentine naval ship Lapataia, taking 57 passengers to the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula.
‘The Antarctica Expedition is not set up for those who only want a good time’, the trip brochure cautioned perspective travellers, according to an article in Life magazine. Despite the warning, the successful voyage made global headlines, and future trips were booked out years in advance.
Today, there are 48 ships ferrying over 38,000 passengers to Antarctica each austral summer, from eight-passenger privately chartered yachts to modified 2,000-passenger cruise ships. The 148-passenger National Geographic Explorer might seem modest in comparison, but it’s pleasingly well appointed. There’s an undersea programme, incorporating divers and a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV), plus a National Geographic photographer on hand to help passengers take photos. On board there’s a gym, glass-encased library, gift shop and, should the stress of whale-watching become too much, sauna and spa. However, despite the bells and whistles, expedition cruising still mimics the experience of the heroic age of polar exploration.
“We’re subject to the exact same conditions as the early explorers,” says captain Oliver Kruess, pointing to the ice charts on the bridge. “Yes, we have a five-star chef, yes we have masseurs, but we’re still subject to these conditions.”
As if to prove him right, when we reach the Antarctic Peninsula, bad weather hits — 60-knot gusts throw our entire landing schedule out the window and send the tourist fleet scurrying south for shelter. But it’s not just wind that’s the problem — ice blocks the Lemaitre Channel, while Port Lockroy — home to the famous Penguin Post Office — has only just reopened after being inaccessible for two weeks.
Yet it’s this unpredictability that makes Antarctica the ultimate great journey for today’s traveller — an unbridled wilderness that turns a tourist into an expeditioner, and a passenger into an explorer.
And, most of the time, the ice isn’t the enemy, but rather a spectacular novelty, from the penguin-speckled icebergs in the Drake Passage — hints we’re getting close to the continent — to the tabular bergs that create a marine maze in the Antarctic Sound, and the spectacular glaciers that splinter and smash into the icy bays with brute force.
The person who seems to have the most fun with the ice, however, is captain Kruess. When Port Lockroy reopens, he doesn’t anchor off Goudier Island. Instead, he sails the ship right into the ice sheet, ‘parking’ it in sea ice for the night.
A small door in the hull is opened, and a ramp lowered. It’s early evening when passengers take their first tentative steps onto sea ice, the ocean only metres away. The surface is uneven and dusted with snow, but the giddy thrill of wandering across this frozen landscape is infectious. Snowball fights break out. Antarctic snow angels emerge in the powder, and everyone wants a turn taking novelty photos with the towrope under Explorer’s bow.
Accompanied by a few curious snowy sheathbills, I walk across the glazed, white landscape, standing in the shadow of towering glacial cliffs. In the late evening light, they gently glow like uncut sapphires, thousands of years old. It’s spooky, intimidating, captivating. There really is nowhere like this.
Science in action
A luxury vessel it may be, but National Geographic Explorer is also used as a platform for scientific research, often hosting scientists who spend their time on board giving lectures and conducting experiments. This arrangement gives scientists access to one of the most remote environments in the world, while the passengers get to see polar science in action. On our trip, we’re able to see the ship’s latest scientific endeavour before the scientists can even get their hands on the data. National Geographic Expeditions and Lindblad Expeditions have partnered with the Extreme Ice Survey (the team behind the award-winning documentary Chasing Ice) to create photographic records of the peninsula’s glaciers.
But the focus isn’t just on the glaciers. One of the several cameras set up is located in the middle of a penguin colony at Brown Bluff — nicknamed ‘Guano Cam’, thanks to the large amount of stinking, acidic penguin faeces it regularly gets covered in.
Brown Bluff is a true penguin city, home to 20,000 nesting Adélie penguins. We transfer to shore via rigid-inflatable boat. Penguins leap and plunge before darting under the water with an incredible stealth that belies the awkwardness of their on-shore shuffle.
On land, it’s so hard to take them seriously. Battalions of Adélies waddle along the beach in packs, with traffic coming to a complete standstill when they collide with another group heading in the other direction.
As it turns out, penguins like to follow the path of least resistance: totally ignoring the orange markers used to keep human visitors a respectful distance from their colony and instead, following in the footsteps of oblivious passengers as they make their way down the beach.
By chance, our landing at Brown Bluff occurs just as the infant Adélies are beginning to hatch. I settle on a rock and watch as a penguin mother turns the egg resting on her feet, once, twice, before I glimpse a small crack, then a tiny beak.
With a little help and a lot of goo, a small, soggy baby penguin emerges, and is tucked quickly into the feathers of its nesting parent. Consumed, I sit amid the stink and noise, watching the little chick’s first hour of life: his feathers fluffing into a woolly grey, his first meal eagerly gobbled. This is Antarctica at peak life: alive and thriving.
While passengers wander the shore, naturalist Eric Guth is responsible for repairing the cameras and recovering the approximately 11,000 photos that are taken over the course of the year as part of the Extreme Ice Survey. That evening, he presents guests with a sample collection of the images from the infamous ‘Guano Cam’ — and the data is impressive. A quick analysis of the images reveals that the penguins arrived at Brown Bluff on 10 October to nest — exactly the same day they arrived the previous year.
“I find it incredibly significant,” says Eric, who sports three stitches on his hand from repairing the camera. “I’ll be really curious for next year and the year after that. This could just be an anomaly, but this just makes complete sense, as this is what the penguins need to do — they need to get back to the nesting site as promptly as possible and start their breeding cycle.”
On board Explorer, the passengers are enthralled by the images. It’s clear that by giving guests access to this sort of science, they start to care about the outcome — not just of the science, but of Antarctica itself; if they see it, they’ll see the value in saving it, creating ambassadors for the polar regions.
It’s beginning to stir up in me too. While we sail a stretch of the Gerlache Strait, I look through my binoculars at an odd-looking ship in a nearby bay, and find myself enraged. It’s a large fish-processing factory ship — sucking nutrients, most likely krill, from the sea mere miles from the penguin colonies we’ve just visited. While tourist boats adhere to strict restrictions, and the land is protected in Antarctica, the waters are not — and factory ships legally operate with permits.
Into the unknown
With the weather improving and the ice charts updated, a decision is made: we’ll free ourselves from the pack of ships on the peninsula and head into the Weddell Sea. There’s a buzz of excitement among staff and guests. For four years, this body of water has been so corked up with ice no one has been able to get into it, and our daily programme is left deliberately vague. The plan is to explore.
“It’s a different kind of ice to that we find on the west side of the peninsula,” says captain Kruess. “It’s a bit more challenging. But at the same time we have faith — we have a fantastic ship, we’ve been doing it for years and we know how much ice she can have.”
Next morning, as I pull back the curtains on my balcony suite, I can see sea ice all around, with huge tabular icebergs dominating the horizon. There’s not another ship to be seen. The loneliness of the Weddell Sea is a comfort. It feels like we’re coming home.
And I’m impressed by the speed and manoeuvrability of our ship — she slinks through the pack ice like a sly fox, turning this way and that, finding patches of open water the way a predator would seek the shadows, pouncing on the ice floes that block the way, the bow acting like a nutcracker.
Then the call goes out: an emperor penguin has been spotted on the edge of the sea ice. Plump and golden-plumed, the sharp-beaked penguin observes us as the captain gently turns the bow, scattering a group of bewildered Adélies. All eyes are on this rare creature, which breeds so far from the peninsula — a bird I never imagined I’d see.
This sighting is a clue to our intended destination. Our course today might be vague, but on a trip to the bridge I learn the captain is trying to get us to Snow Hill Island, where a small breeding colony of emperor penguins is located. Typically, you need an icebreaker or a ship fitted with helicopters to reach the colony during the summer season.
However, the ice has been so packed up in the Weddell Sea that no one has reached Snow Hill in years. Today, we’re giving it our best shot, and this tiny island becomes the sole focus of my attention, imagination, and purpose. I’m determined we’ll reach it.
With precision and occasional brute force, the captain presses us to the edge of the pack ice and then far into it. We zigzag through patches of sea ice and past icebergs that lurch for miles. The bow is crowded, the bridge even more so, as excitement permeates the air, filling everyone with restless energy. We pause the ship again, this time for a leopard seal resting on an ice flow, and another emperor, which toboggans across pancake ice directly under the bow.
But now it’s suddenly not enough. I want to stand eye to eye with an emperor penguin. I want to trek across the ice and find myself a crèche full of beautiful fluffy grey chicks. I want to explore a place few have ever seen.
Alas, the ice won’t have it. Although the wind is with us, pushing us south, the ice is moving against the wind at a speed of two knots; a remarkable pace given the wind conditions and sheer mass of ice it has to move. Open stretches of water close. The ice moves in. With Snow Hill Island visible on the horizon, we have to turn back.
I’d known our chances were limited, but I can’t help but feel disappointed. But then I’m struck by the fact that over the past few days I’ve seen things most people never will, and suddenly I feel greedy and foolish. And it’s then I realise that what I’m feeling isn’t disappointment. It’s hunger — hunger for a new adventure, for a dream to chase, a hunger to explore a place so tantalisingly out of reach.
Shackleton, who was once trapped in this very sea, believed everyone has their white south, a place that calls to their heart. For me, my white south is seeing the emperor colony at Snow Hill Island just once: to reach that island locked in ice and wind and time, which lay just within sight but just out of footfall.
Getting there & around
Most Antarctic cruises depart from the Argentine port of Ushuaia. British Airways flies direct from Heathrow to Buenos Aries. Aerolíneas Argentinas has connections from Buenos Aries to Ushuaia.
Antarctica is accessible by boat on a two-day passage from Ushuaia. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) strictly regulates landing sites and shore time, with no more than 100 people allowed on shore at once. Rigid-inflatable boats transfer passengers between ship and shore.
How to do it
National Geographic Expeditions offers a 14-day Journey to Antarctica from November to February aboard the 148-passenger National Geographic Explorer. The trip starts and ends in Buenos Aires, with double berths from $13,360 (£10,216) each. Return flights on the group charter from Buenos Aries to Ushuaia from $850 (£650). Also offered is the Journey to Antarctica on the 102-passenger National Geographic Orion, departing Santiago, Chile.
Published in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)