We set off for Antarctica under fire. Bullets of skin-bruising, bone-saturating rain and hail pelt us as we board our ship in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city on the globe, otherwise known as the fin del mundo, or ‘the end of the world’. Beyond this point, land plummets into the sea, resurfacing at the White Continent – the bottom of the world.
Remote, wild, vast, mysterious, majestic, beautiful, deadly Antarctica – the windiest, coldest, driest and most hostile land on our planet – lies more than 1,000km and two days away. Between us and it is the most treacherous body of water on Earth – the Drake Passage. This volatile, Jekyll and Hyde channel, where the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern oceans collide, shows occasional benevolence – under the guise of Drake Lake – but more often than not, it rages as the Drake Shake.
Our Chimu Adventures-chartered polar cruise ship, Ocean Atlantic, hits the passage just as Drake is calming down from an outburst. Though expedition leader Sam Gagnon delayed our departure to avoid the worst of the violence, we still have to pound through furious waves that rise like demons from the depths, throwing our vessel from one swell to the next. So many people are felled by motion sickness that the restaurant and bars are left largely deserted, occupied only by those who, like me, have sea in their blood, or, less poetically and certainly more accurately, legs as sturdy and solid as an anchor.
Whenever Drake’s waves allow, I go on deck to scan the sea and sky for wildlife. Soon there will be whales and dolphins, but for now the action is in the air. Gliding towards me, looping in and out, are various petrels and gulls; in their midst is the magnificent wandering albatross. With a wingspan of up to 3.5m, it is the largest bird on Earth, and lives almost entirely on the wing, going on land only to breed. It’s the first of many times when I’m moved to tears.
The next day dawns infinite and blue. Having crossed the Antarctic Convergence, we’re now officially in Antarctica, drifting through ice floe gardens and heading towards our first landing, Danco Island. Ahead of us, an iceberg – a huge, ethereal, ice-blue presence rising out of black waters – draws gasps of wonder. It is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Its luminous, mesmerising blueness is the result of nature’s alchemy: over millennia, the snow and ice on glaciers becomes so compacted and dense that all the long wavelength colours are absorbed, and only the short-wave aquamarines are reflected.
In preparation for our first disembarkation, we attend briefings on how to safeguard Antarctica, its residents and ourselves. While we can’t eliminate tourism’s impact on this still-pristine wilderness without banning visits, we can limit it by sticking to the rules, foremost of which is to remember that we are guests of the wildlife that lives here. We’re told to stay a respectful distance from the animals – at least 5m from the penguins and more for breeding birds and seals – and before we leave the ship for our first landing, all our expedition clothing is vacuumed to prevent contamination. Additionally, our boots are disinfected before and after each visit to shore.
We board our Zodiacs (small motor boats) and chop past leopard, fur and crabeater seals lumbering down on ice floes and penguins porpoising (jumping) in formation, before disembarking in small groups for strictly timed explorations of Danco Island. There we experience our own live episode of Frozen Planet as we watch Gentoo penguins feeding their chicks and making the slow, arduous climb along their highways from the water to their colonies. It’s a lesson in dealing with the knocks life gives you. Head down against the blizzard, walled in by snow, it’s climb or die. They walk on, they fall. They get up. They climb. I admire their resilience, determination and perseverance and wish I had one drop of it flowing through my veins.
There are visits to more Antarctic islands on other days, and each time our voyage there takes us through scenes of extraordinary beauty, each one of which makes my heart swell with emotion. I learn a new vocabulary to describe what I see: when is an iceberg not an iceberg? When it’s smaller than 4.5m and a bergy bit. And a pancake? What’s that when it’s at sea? A circular piece of ice, of course. Similarly, whales breach, not jump, and they have flukes, not tails.
One morning Sam urges us all to go on deck to experience the wonder of the Lemaire Channel, a narrow iceberg-filled passage flanked by steep, dazzlingly bright, snow-covered cliffs with summits in the heavens. Often blocked by ice, Lemaire has only allowed one other ship through this season, so we all – down to the most seasoned crew member – feel among the luckiest people alive.
Beyond this is Port Charcot, where our walk across the snowfields is rewarded by views of Wandel Peak, a 980m mountain that has yet to be conquered. In small groups, we take turns to land and cruise. When we’re in our Zodiacs, our drivers cut the engines so we can listen to Antarctica. On land it is possible to hear nothing except your own heart and breath, but out on the water, there’s the constant snap, crackle and pop of ice, the barking of seals, the calls of nature.
I see things I didn’t expect to see in Antarctica – a desolate whaling station on Deception island where the remains of boats, animals, buildings and humans have created a mournful museum that is gradually being claimed by nature, and a post office at Port Lockroy, on Wiencke Island. I send myself a postcard. It arrives in London six weeks after I do.
Every day I do or learn something new and every day I experience something extraordinary, a shifting of perception, an even deeper appreciation of nature and our environment. Sometimes I have to check that I heard things right. Can it be true that this is the only place in the world where you can sail into an active volcano? The answer is yes: Deception and Half Moon Islands are in the caldera.
When I step foot on Antarctica itself, as opposed to its islands, I feel that sense of isolation the continent promised me. Despite the presence of others, I’m far enough away from them to sink into a literal and metaphoric stillness, the like of which I’ve never experienced. Looking out into that eternal white, I see the “void space,” explorer Ernest Shackleton wrote about, and get some tiny hint of the disorientation that comes from having no trees or shrubs, no paths or markers to give perspective and bearing. If I turn my back on my shipmates, I see a landscape of such pure elemental force that it takes my breath away. This is a place that tests and rewards the body and spirit in equal measure, and also one that has pushed so many to a point beyond what could possibly be endured.
The White Continent disproves the saying that, “it’s never as good as the first time,” at every turn. No matter how many times you see a whale breach, or blow; no matter how many glaciers you sail past; no matter how many penguins you watch struggle up their highway or lower their heads against the wind, you will never feel anything but astonished and awed by the majestic, unique beauty of Antarctica. It will teach you humility and put you in your infinitesimal place. You’ll think you’ve seen it and may head home thinking about where you’d like to go next. But before long, you’ll hear its siren call luring you and you’ll have to return.
Xenia travelled to Antarctica with Chimu Adventures on their Discover Antarctica Cruise. The company has several Antarctic itineraries to choose from. Visit chimuadventures.com for details.
Antarctic expedition essentials
It’s advisable to take everything that’s recommended by your tour operator, but Xenia shares a few bits she couldn’t have managed without.
Plenty of layers
Layering is the key to staying warm. I averaged five on top, four on my legs and three on my feet. You’ll need thermals – long-sleeved vests and leggings, two or three base layers and a good fleece beneath your parka.
Wear them on top of socks and tights.
Layer one thin pair with another thicker, waterproof pair on top.
Parka and waterproof trousers
I stayed snug and dry in borrowed skiwear, but had the weather been bad, I might not have fared so well. Many people had opted for heavy-duty polarwear, which would have withstood blizzards. North Face, Trespass, and Berghaus are good places to shop.
Ocean Atlantic provides these, but not all operators do. These are essential – you won’t get away with hiking boots.
UV-protected, wrap-around shades with polarised lenses to reduce glare are best. The pair I borrowed were Ray-Bans, but there’s plenty of choice.
Sun cream and lip balm
There’s a hole in the ozone right above Antarctica, which means that ultraviolet sun will be beating down on you. Make sure your suncream will protect you from UVA and UVB rays.
Good camera equipment
I only had an iPhone, but the make of choice for serious photographers was Canon. A couple of our group had the Nikon Key Mission 170, a tiny freezeproof, shockproof, waterproof camera that I wish I’d known about earlier.
Spend as much as you can on these. I took a pair of Bushnell Legend M series binoculars, which were brilliant. Lightweight and water-repellent, they provided perfect clarity when I was bird- and whale-watching.