Ambition Achieved... Amazing Antarctica
Antarctica is a dream for many. Enid Astley recently travelled there with Cox & Kings and here she shares with us the highlights of her trip.
Fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition, I finally booked my place on the Antarctic Explorer, much to the puzzlement of friends and family. Why? Where would I stay? Would I see polar bears? Isn’t it minus 60 degrees? Explanations offered, I escaped the dreariness of a British February and eventually joined the ship in Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego). I was filled with great anticipation as the Sea Spirit embarked on its voyage along the Beagle Channel and, as night fell, began crossing the notorious Drake Passage, the confluence of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Seasickness pills proved unnecessary as we were fortunate to have “Drake Lake”, not “Drake shake”! The UK contingent was in the minority, there being four UK citizens out of 112 passengers, the remainder from USA, China, South Africa, Canada, Europe, and Australia.
The Antarctic Peninsula is but a small extension of a vast frozen continent into which the British Isles and most of Europe could fit easily. Our ten day cruise took us first to the South Shetland islands, where zodiacs (rigid inflatable boats) ferried us to shore, mainly snow free at this time, i.e. the austral summer. Penguins delighted us with their antics, gathering stones for nests and squabbling raucously amongst themselves, whilst overseeing their numerous fluffy offspring. There was much purposeful pattering creating “penguin highways”, deep ruts in the snow which effectively gave them right of way.
This, our first landing, set the scene for our expedition. We were extremely fortunate with the weather as we made our way down the peninsula, passing majestic icebergs and snow covered mountains. The ship was excellent, providing high quality food and accommodation. The expedition guides were in a class of their own. Their passion for their work, the invaluable knowledge and insights shared, whether during the more formal lectures or in passing conversation, plus their willingness to accommodate all (well almost all!) requests was unrivalled.
In the absence of phones, onboard email access allowed communication with the outside world…. I wrote the following paragraph during a quieter moment on the boat.
“I’m in the lounge of the Sea Spirit, facing stern. My view is a bay full of icebergs, Gentoo penguins leaping effortlessly through the water, afternoon sunlight creating shadows on the glaciers; the light quality shifting to create shades of iridescent aquamarine in the ice; snow covered mountains and glaciers calving into the water. Behind me I hear banter and tales of the day’s activities, kayakers vying for best story and photographers for best penguin picture, fortunately not capturing the aroma of guano! We are at anchor in Wilhelmina bay, near to Cuverville Island, just off the Antarctic Peninsula. It has been a sublime day, brilliant sunshine, too bright for the naked eye, temperature about 1 or 2 degrees, though wind chill makes it cooler and we dress warmly when on the zodiacs. Earlier today we saw three humpback whales, one breaching completely out of the water revealing its entire tail fins- spectacular!!! There are Weddell, elephant and fur seals on the beaches; from the zodiac bobbing in ice strewn waters we watched a leopard seal casually surveying his extensive territory whilst lounging on an ice floe; we’ve seen chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, Antarctic skuas, including one attacking a penguin chick. Back onboard a delicious barbecue awaited, and we sat outside, mesmerised by the breath-taking scene surrounding us. Later we slowly circumnavigated a gigantic iceberg, enthralled by its size and beauty. I have taken a “few” photos so probably best to avoid me on return…
It’s challenging to capture the quintessential nature of this astounding place. Quark Expeditions suggest that those who travel here become ambassadors for the Antarctic. The Antarctic Treaty (1961) states that it is “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”, where various nations coexist from their bases in a way that is sadly not replicated around the world. It’s a sobering thought – only when depending upon each other for survival do we tolerate our differences. The Antarctic demands respect and humility. It’s “great white silence” has to be witnessed to have any idea of its immense effect upon the heart, mind and soul. If you are thinking of going, my advice is just do it – you will be irrevocably changed by your experience.