An expedition to Antarctica…
Kris Madden recently worked in Antarctica as part of the expedition crcew abroad Aurora expeditions’ Polar Pioneer. Who better to relate this stunning experience of a polar first-contact?
It’s the coldest, driest, windiest and most inhospitable place on Earth. Why, then, would anyone want to go to there?
The reasons people travel to Antarcticaare as varied as the individual. For many, the frozen south conjures images of the heroicage of exploration and they go to satisfy a long-standing fascination. For others, it’s the culmination of a lifetime of travel and their last grand adventure; and there are some, I suspect, who go because they’re simply a little bit crazy.
Working as a crewmember on board a converted Russian ice-breaker, I encountered all of these personalities during my time at sea. There was the bunch of young “climbers and divers” hell bent on pushing their personal boundaries by climbing virgin peaks and diving in freezing temperatures. Another group was determined to risk their lives to retrace the steps of explorer Ernest Shackleton. Thenthere were the ones who were just contentto experience the wonder of the unspoiled landscape all around them.
Whatever their reasons, Antarctica doesn’t disappoint. No matter how much you prepare yourself, it exceeds everyone’s expectations.
The notorious Drake Passage, off the southern tip of South America at Cape Horn, tests the mettle of even the bravest. Those not confined to their bunks by seasickness sway like drunken sailors to the lecture room to attend briefings by the ship’s naturalists and historians, or venture onto the bridge to watch waves crash over the bow.
Eventually the gale force winds and high seas subside and people slowly emerge from their cocoons. The adrenalin spikes when the first iceberg is spotted and it’s announced that the first landing on the continent will be the following morning.
The mood is high as the gangway is lowered and the wild-eyed passengers make their way into the Zodiacs bouncing up and down in the waves. Wrapped in layers of clothing, they look like Michelin men, with the exception of their comical woolly hats.
Cruising amid icebergs the size of apartment blocks, humpback whales surface so close you can smell their krill-breath and blubbery seals haul themselves up onto nearby ice floes. Ashore hundreds of thousands of penguinsgo about their business, oblivious to the alien creatures walking among them.
The sheer scale can be overwhelming,and some shed a tear at the realisationthat their long-held dream has come true. Others stare in awe at the surreal surrounds. Cameras click continually, capturing just one more penguin or iceberg shot to add to the hundreds already taken.
The climbers and divers are the ones who intrigue me the most. Skinny dipping in the frozen waters and donning thick suits to dive into the icy depths to view creatures few have seen and are ever likely to see There’s the engineer who can’t work out why there’s so much fuss about the birdlife, until he ventures on deck and becomes mesmerised by the sight of a black-browed albatross dancing on the wind around theship’s bow. Later in the bar he pens a poem about his love affair with the wind and the albatross.
The option to spend the night on theice is taken up by an intrepid few, althoughthe distant rumbling of cracking glacier iceand eternal daylight doesn’t lend itself to sleep.
This is not five-star cruising – but ourship, the Polar Pioneer, is a vessel withheart, and the passengers grow to love herand the protection she provides from the raw elements outside. They also learn to respect the proud Russian crew who spend most of their lives at sea and are experts at navigating the dangerous polar ice.
I’m amazed at people’s ability topush themselves beyond their personalcomfort zone, but there’s one thing theyall have in common: the triumph of theirown personal journey that fulfils them inways they never imagined.
WHICH CRUISE IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
1. Choosing the right operator and ship can makea huge difference to your experience. Ships range from 2000-passenger liners to 50-passengerice-strengthened expedition-style ships. Thelarger ships have all the luxuries of a floatinghotel, while the smaller ships are generally comfortable but more basic. Choose the right vessel to suit your particular style and comfort level.
2. On smaller ships you’re likely to have two tothree Zodiac landings per day. Larger ships don’t make as many landings (some not at all) as thereare areas they can’t reach. Only 100 people are permitted to land in one place at one time.
3. The Antarctic Peninsula is known as “the banana belt” of the continent and is generally not as cold as most people expect. Average temps range from -2C to +8C, not much colder than a ski field.
4. During November and December, the spring pack ice is breaking up and penguins are courting and mating. In January, temps are warmer with up to 20hrs daylight, penguin eggs are hatching and the place is a hive of activity. In February, chicks are beginning to fledge and seals, orcas, humpback whales and minke whales abound.