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The Antarctic tundra is a monochrome world except for the flash of a colourful beak or feather, or the ice-blue and turquoise underbelly of a whale. Remote and desolate, it has a bracing purity.
I was in a group of 69 exploring on board the Akademik Ioffe, a Russian-built, ice-strengthened research vessel commissioned by One Ocean Expeditions (OOE), specialists in small-group polar exploration. Our 18-day voyage would take us to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula.
We set sail on a chilly October evening. The anchor clanked and groaned as it was weighed in the little harbour of Ushuaia in southernmost Argentina. This is summer in Antarctica, and with temperatures between zero and five degrees it’s the best time of year to see wildlife. There is 24-hour daylight, winter has ended and animals return from months of feeding further north.
A ship’s pilot boarded the vessel to supervise our passage through the Beagle Channel, and giant petrels and South American terns followed in our wake as we slipped away from land.
It takes two days to reach the Falklands. At sea, some struggle to get their sea legs, while others are up and about. To fill our time at sea, we listen to nature lectures and watch Antarctic themed films and documentaries, or we hang out on the ship’s bridge with binoculars looking for wildlife. We’re told to leave one hand free for the ship, holding onto railings when moving around. But whatever happens, do not whistle! If you whistle on a Russian ship it will bring high winds and storms.
We dine ensemble around large tables, filling our bellies with high-energy meals suitable for the coming colder climes. I go out on deck to look for whales and my perseverance is rewarded by a mesmerising display of breeching humpback whales. Those who want to kayak during the journey go through a few training sessions on what to expect. Safety is a priority, conditions change so fast down here and you need to listen to your guide.
Soon penguins are diving through the water – a definite sign we are getting close to the Falklands. They live along the shore, and they are a signal that land is close.
This British overseas territory is an underrated place to visit. Apart from their complex history of war between Britain and Argentina over the sovereignty of the islands, there is fabulous scenery and a tremendous amount of wildlife, with whales, seals, penguins, albatross and other birds galore.
Our first landing was at West Point Island (originally Albatross Island), off the north-west tip of West Falkland, and home to the black-browed albatross. We used Zodiacs – rigid inflatable boats carrying around 10 passengers – for the swift but bumpy passage from ship to shore.
That sunny morning, we were greeted by the island’s only two human residents, who guided us across rolling hills of tall grass to a large albatross colony, where we observed the massive birds socialising with rockhopper penguins and imperial cormorants.
Our next stop was Stanley, the Falklands’ capital, where we trekked along penguin-thronged beaches before hitting the local pub. I was introduced to king penguins at Bluff Cove sheep farm, near Stanley, where owners Hattie and Kevin Kilmartin took us to their private beach to see around 15 adults and eight fluffy chicks, with some gentoo penguins into the bargain. Getting to the beach was an off-road adventure by Land Rover, through deep mud and over boulders to the remote stretch of sand where Hattie serves tea and cakes at her Sea Cabbage Café. King penguin chicks waddled about the beach in their brown down coats, squawking loudly and constantly for food. One chick screamed and screeched so much that its parents walked off as if embarrassed by their toddler’s outburst. I smiled at the familiarity of this scene.
From the Falkland Islands, we sailed south-west for two days to South Georgia, passing Shag Rock, a volcano tip peeking through the water, covered in the eponymous birds and their white guano. Once there, we spent three days exploring various bays for wildlife. We encountered thousands of penguins and seals, many of which had made homes among the rusting relics of the whaling industry.
On most mornings, guests gathered in the Mud Room, where wet-weather gear for Zodiac excursions was kept. We’d spend a few hours exploring the shore, or cruising around the glaciers before returning to the ship for lunch, and then heading back to the wilds for an afternoon outing.
Veteran expedition leader David Begg kept things running smoothly, his calm demeanour inspiring confidence. “I’m passionate about Antarctica and South Georgia, and about sharing the place with others”, he told me. “I’m happiest in a Zodiac, with whales swimming around me”.
At Grytviken, the largest of the old whaling stations on South Georgia, we visited the grave of explorer Ernest Shackleton, who was buried here in 1922. We hiked three kilometres (in the rain) along a marshy river bed to a waterfall that Shackleton had descended on his arduous (and successful) footslog to seek help for those of his crew who were stranded on Elephant Island when their ship broke up.
Next, it was on to Gold Harbour, which turned out to be a highlight of the trip. The beach was a cacophony of deeply scarred, belching, grunting elephant seals. Roaring males breathed out visible hot air clouds, and whenever two met they threw their massive bodies about and clashed, fleshy pink mouths wide open, biting each other, and stabbing with their huge tusks. At times, we had to run to avoid being flattened.
The further south we went, the windier and rougher it got. Thick ice formed on ropes and decks, and we were confined to the living quarters. Apart from socialising, we had master classes and presentations about their work from documentary filmmakers Neil Nightingale and Karen Bass, of BBC Natural History fame, who were also on board.
We ate in the dining room, except for a deck barbecue in Antarctica. Breakfast and lunch were either a hot or cold buffet, with a vegetarian option, while in the evenings our attentive Russian crew served dishes from a daily menu. It can’t be easy to cook and serve in all weathers, but the ship’s staff pulled it off every time – though some meals were better than others.
Leader David was often to be found whale-spotting from the bridge, announcing every sighting over the ship’s speaker system. We would all run outside onto the freezing deck, look for the whale – which by then had gone – and then retreat back inside the warm ship. A few minutes later he would spot another and we’d all rush outside again. After a while some of us gave up, but those who persevered were treated to mesmerising displays of humpbacks breaching.
Five days out of South Georgia we reached the waters of the Antarctic Peninsula, where a choppy sea calmed down as we entered the Gerlache Strait.
The next morning we woke to a bay filled with towering icebergs. We landed at Portal Point, where we grabbed walking poles and hiked through deep snow, avoiding hidden gaps in the ice. Later, we took our Zodiacs around Wilhelmina Bay, dodging massive bergs, while penguins “porpoised” through the water, as swift and smooth as arrows, in contrast to their ungainliness on land.
I spotted three sleek-bodied whales. Their movement, low in the water, the way they swam together as a unit, and their rounded heads and beaked faces, all pointed to a rare sighting of Arnoux’s Beaked Whale. Back on board, we confirmed the sighting in the library by comparing my photos with the books.
It was minus eight degrees on our last day, as we headed to Half Moon Bay, with its humpback whales, and icebergs like fortresses. This was another spectacular highlight; the whole place shimmered in the sunlight and the bay looked as if it were magically studded with diamonds of light from the sea.
Observing the penguins on shore there was a joy. They constantly steal stones from each other, for their nests. They also bustle up hills on their little legs, using their claws as crampons and their tails for balance, before belly-surfing down again. Without brakes, they often bowl into other penguins, knocking them down like skittles.
Buzzing with excitement from all we had seen, we prepared for our return voyage across the Drake Passage, back to Ushuaia. This notorious passage has a reputation for big storms, but it was tranquil for us. At times like these, seafarers call it Drake Lake.
As we approached the tip of South America, the sun shone and Cape Horn came into sight. In no time people were stripping off their cold weather layers for T-shirts and flip flops. It felt more like a Caribbean cruise than an Antarctic expedition. Was this confirmation of global warming?
Whether we were once-in-a-lifetimers or serial Antarctic travelers, each of us took away a unique memory of a personal adventure into our planet’s most remote and pristine location.
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