I have to admit I had reservations about travelling to Antarctica. The thought of being wretchedly seasick while crossing some of the roughest seas on the planet bothered me. I wondered if seeing penguins everyday would become monotonous. Then a few weeks before I was due to fly to Argentina to board the ship in Ushuaia, pictures of Antarctica and images of the MS Explorer sinking to the bottom of the ocean filled the news. But media reports about ice caps melting and articles hinting of a possible limit to the number of visitors allowed in Antarctica in the future spurred me to continue with my plans.
In reality, I only experienced mild nausea while crossing the Drake Passage (packing several different kinds of seasick tablets helped).
The various species of penguins were so captivating I could have watched for hours.
Stunning scenery and alien sounds combined with the pungent aroma of guano while on land provided an overwhelming feast for the senses. There’s no doubt I would visit Antarctica again in a heartbeat.
It is eight degrees Celsius at Neko Harbour, on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The 12 passengers in my Zodiac, or black rubber dinghy, are bundled in layers of warm polar clothing.
My outfit consists of sturdy rubber Wellington boots, two pairs of woollen socks, jeans, waterproof over-pants and a warm beanie.
Beneath my bright red polar jacket is a polar fleece layered over thermal underwear. A life jacket and backpack with photography equipment completes my ensemble.
On land, my boot crunches through the snow against the cacophony of shrill penguin calls. We stop to observe a colony of trumpeting Gentoo penguins feeding their chicks.
Ice-covered peaks tower against a backdrop of brilliant blue skies. I follow the procession of trekkers; some are already at the top of the snow-capped hill above.
Although the incline of this hill is a gradual slope, the snow is slushy and slippery. A few passengers choose not to make the trek but I’m glad I make the effort as the scenery from the top of the hill is surreal.
Surrounded by mountains and glaciers, the bay is a glassy deep blue. Crevasses and seracs (columns of ice formed by intersecting crevasses) add to its jaw dropping beauty.
Perched on a fragment of brash ice in the bay are three round-bellied Gentoo penguins, flapping their wings and shoving one another boisterously.
Like children, they goad each other to dive into the freezing water. Eventually one dives in and they all take turns to slide reluctantly into the chilly ocean. It’s a scene straight out of “Happy Feet”.
There’s a deafening rumble. It sounds like a jet plane streaking through the sky but it is only nature screaming at the top of its voice as a vast chunk of ice breaks away from a glacier and crashes into the ocean.
Back on board the Explorer II (which has recently been renamed Minerva), we celebrate our arrival in Antarctica with an outdoor barbeque lunch while sailing past snow-capped mountains and glaciers on both sides of the Aguirre Passage.
Our ship is carrying around 180 passengers, with less than 100 allowed to set foot on land at any one time.
Unlike the early Antarctic pioneers, we’re travelling in luxury. The Minerva has two restaurants and an army of chefs who prepare a different menu each night of the week.
Bar staff and waiters are on hand with flawless service: passengers are greeted by name, drinks are constantly topped up and meals are served without delay.
Staterooms are kept spick and span with visits from housekeeping twice daily. There’s a cinema, beauty parlour, gym, gift shop, smoking room and an extensive library with a goldmine of Antarctic books.
Days at sea are filled with fascinating lectures delivered by resident ornithologists, historians, naturalists, geologists and research scientists on topics ranging from Southern Ocean birds to expedition history.
We sail past hundreds of icebergs of all shapes and sizes. Most have broken away from ice shelves and have been carried north by ocean currents. One is so long it stretches for 100 kilometres.
Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey recently discovered an enormous fracture on the edge of the Wilkins ice shelf, which is a 400-square-kilometre body of permanent floating ice on the western edge of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Their prognosis is that changes in wind patterns and water temperatures, caused by global warming, have begun to erode the ice sheets of western Antarctica at a faster rate than previously detected.
We spot many types of whales including humpbacks, orcas and a rare sighting of a fin whale and blue whale swimming together within 50 metres of the ship.
The blue whale is the largest mammal on the planet. Dolphins frolic alongside and a multitude of seabirds swoop and soar above our heads.
Between lectures, wildlife-spotting and three-course meals, we sip cocktails at one of the ship’s two bars (drinks are included in the price of the cruise), tuck into scrumptious strudel buffets, lick our way through ice-cream parties, munch on freshly baked pastries for afternoon tea and watch wildlife documentaries on the in-room television system.
Petermann Island is fascinating for its Adelie penguin colonies. Adelie penguin numbers have been declining in the Antarctic Peninsula region due to diminishing sea ice, which is an important habitat for immature stages of krill, their primary food source.
At Port Lockroy, we buy post cards, souvenir patches, pins and sweatshirts at the British research station shop. Next to the shop is a museum displaying sledging kits, food rations and radios used by early scientists.
Zodiac tours among the ice floes at Paradise Bay and around Port Lockroy allow us a closer look at the larger seals.
Crabeater seals and a huge leopard seal, with massive jagged teeth, lie blissfully asleep on the ice. We’re careful not to disturb them as leopard seals can weigh up to 370 kilograms and have been known, on occasion, to puncture inflatable boats with their teeth.
We cruise beneath soaring cliffs spotting a blue-eyed shag colony under an overhang of rock. But the most stunning sights are the icebergs which drift past us; one shaped like an amphitheatre is a glowing luminescent blue.
Tucked away in a small cove in Paradise Bay, surrounded by soaring glaciers, is the bar boat manned by waiters from our ship. They hand out glasses of champagne and we sip in silence among the ice, marvelling at this remarkable continent.
Cruising season runs from November to February. Cruise Traveller offers a number of expedition cruises to Antarctica.
Pack seasick medication, sunscreen, sunglasses, lip balm and a swimsuit (the ship stops at the geothermal springs at Deception Island). Dress in layers as the weather can change abruptly. See The North Face for a good range of expedition clothing. A waterproof backpack such as Caribee’s Polar Rucksack is essential to protect photography equipment.