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Published: March 14th 2020
We'd wanted to come to the Antarctic for maybe 50 years. It had never seemed possible but here we are, well below the Antarctic Circle at latitude 68° south on the MS Expedition
We've just navigated a tricky channel known as “the gullet”, twisting and turning between mountainous islands in a channel strewn with icebergs. The sun is shining on snow covered mountains, their high snow cliffs dropping sheer to the sea The snow glistens white; the ice has every shade of blue. This is the Antarctic we have wanted to see and enjoy for so long.
The scene is stunning and our crew decide it is too good to miss. We anchor and all get into the black inflatable boats, the Zodiacs, so that we can get up close to the icebergs and chunks of pack ice. Crab-eater seals doze on the ice; they look at us passing with little interest.
We boarded our ship in Ushuaia, the world's most southerly town, and then cruised south east along the calm Beagle Channel into the South Atlantic. Here we hit real seas, indeed a real storm. It was so bad that the ship hugged the shore for many
hours. Six metre waves, so not a lot of sleep that night.
Crossing the Drake Passage took two days. For some of the time the sun shone, the sea was calm and it was warm enough for t-shirts on the sheltered rear deck. At other times, it was cold and rainy. We took refuge in the ship's lounge where there are talks on wildlife, penguins and explorers.
Two talks are mandatory. The first of these explains how to abandon ship, including how to get into an immersion suit. The other covers the rules when on the Zodiacs and on shore. We must disturb nothing, take nothing, leave nothing. As we board the ship after each landing we have to wash down all our gear. We must ensure that absolutely nothing is taken from site to site. Even the smallest piece of grit discovered in the tread of your boot will cause the embarrassment of a tannoyed recall to the mud room!
During our second afternoon we spot fin whales off the starboard bow, our first big wildlife. The ship changes course to stay with them for a while. During the trip we also see minkes, humpbacks and
killer whales. It's all a bit hard to take in; we very much feel that we are in their world, their ocean.
One evening we come across four killer whales hunting as a pack, looking for seals and penguins. On another morning, from a little Zodiac we watch a humpback whale as it surfaces and breathes a few times and then arches its back, raises its tail and dives to the depths right under us. Quite an experience. Then, in front of us, a mother, her adolescent child and a baby of maybe six months swim together, the children mimicking their mother's every move. The bay is rich with their favourite food, little shrimp-like krill. Over the course of an hour we spot over twenty humpbacks around our little boat.
What we do each day is dependent on the weather, on the ice and on where we get to. The Zodiacs take us to small islands where we can wander and spot wildlife. We are not allowed to approach closer than 5 metres but, when penguin chicks wander up to us, we don’t have to back off. They seem to be trying to work out just what we
are. Every time we land there are penguins around. Ever comical, they waddle and hop across the snow and rocks before diving into the water. It is impossible not to be captivated by them. The penguins slowly climb the snow covered hills to get to their nest sites and then slip and slide their way back to the shore.
It is early on our fourth day when we cross the Antarctic Circle. Politically, the Antarctic is everything below 60 degrees south but the Circle is at 66° 33'. There are icebergs everywhere and we feel we have really arrived. Even the weather is arctic: snow, low cloud and a 25 mph wind. But then the sun comes out and the wind eases; on deck, we try to take in this amazing world.
Weather here changes fast and so do plans. One landing has to be abandoned but a little further south we find a rock shelf that we can land on. Everywhere are Adelie penguins and crab-eater seals but the smell is not coming from them. Just below us are thirty huge, smelly, elephant seals. These are up to 5 metres long and can weight 4 tonnes! They
are laying up here while they moult and grow a new layer of fur before winter. By laying together they stay warmer ... and smellier.
Seals are abundant. The most common are the crab-eaters, who don't eat crabs, but we also see leopard seals, Weddells and fur seals. Most lay on the ice and ignore us, some even glance at us and yawn! But in the water, they twist and turn, jump and dive and then dart off with incredible speed. Hungry leopard seals chase penguins, flocks of penguins “porpoise” across the water’s surface to confuse their hunter and thus escape.
On one island we visit two long abandoned research stations. A few wooden structures on a bleak hilltop was home to a scientific community for more than 15 years. The huts were last occupied in the 1970s but have not really deteriorated much. It's hard to imagine over-wintering in such a hostile spot in such basic accommodation.
Navigation is tricky, even for our small ship. Icebergs are everywhere. Some are aground but if not they can move quickly and erratically in the wind and sea currents. Many are huge, larger than the ship, but they do
come in every size and shape. The British decided that to be classed as an iceberg, the block of ice must be larger than a thatched cottage! I don't think this is the international definition.
The daytime temperature in Antarctica has stayed around 1° or 2°C, cool but OK. Often the sun has shone and we've enjoyed blue skies. But it is the wind that chills. Without any wind one is never cold but with a 20 mph wind one gets chilly very quickly. This is despite wearing three to four layers of clothing, a woolly hat and two pairs of gloves.
Winter is coming soon, the sea already has patches of thin sea ice forming. Almost every mammal and bird will migrate north in the next month. The only mammal to stay is the Weddell seal. It survives by cutting fishing holes through the sea ice with its teeth.
It’s hard to describe Antarctica. It’s the highest, the driest, the coldest and the windiest continent. It's the most hostile to man and the least developed by man. There are no words nor pictures that do Antarctica justice. There is something about this remote, unspoilt, pristine beauty
that touches the soul.
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