Where heaven freezes over

STEPHEN SCOURFIELD leads an intrepid party on a wild adventure to Antarctica

When someone taking a survey at the end of our Antarctic voyage asks what the most interesting animal has been, I pass over the thousands of penguins, dozens of seals, and whales from orcas to a blue whale, the biggest mammal on Earth.

“Humans,” I say.

For I have travelled alongside 13 other West Australians on our Travel Club Tour, and human reactions have given some of the most vivid memories of this most beautiful continent.

There was the moment when we were in a Zodiac circling a leopard seal, and it yawned — a bespoke hunter showing its fearsome dentition — and I heard my companions draw breath.

And there was the sheer beauty of the great white continent in sparkling sunshine under a clear blue sky that left us all elated, on a journey that was blessed with freakishly (and probably unrepeatable) good weather.

There were other extraordinary human sightings too, like the focus and thrill of Capt. Oliver Kruess, one of the world’s most experienced ice-expedition shipmasters, as he took National Geographic Explorer through brash ice, sea ice, alongside the seven-storey wall of a 150km-long iceberg and then drove it right up on to the ice to park. Imagine that.

Capt. Kruess proved that one of the three crucial decisions in choosing an Antarctic voyage is finding the right ship and crew.

Another decision is to find the right itinerary — and, for me, a 10-day voyage from Ushuaia, at the southern tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula will give the trip of a lifetime.

The third decision is to choose the time of year. The Antarctic sailing season is from November to March, and I particularly picked late November to early December, when penguins are on their nests with eggs, but while it is still snowy and clean and the place looks fresh and white.

But then luck came into it … the Weather Gods treated us as I’ve never been treated before.

We left Ushuaia at teatime on Friday. The ship slid down the Beagle Channel and into the Drake Passage and I’ve never seen it so mild. It not only makes for a comfortable crossing, but a fast one.

By Sunday we were in the South Shetland Islands, just north-west of the Antarctic Peninsula, and landing on Barrientos Island, with an easy landing, for our first penguin encounters, in sunshine, under a blue sky.

The next day it is positively balmy as the ship anchors in still, steel-blue water off Half Moon Island. We land in Zodiacs on a grey pebble beach for a long hike in pristine, crisp and calf-deep snow around Half Moon Island.

Up on a white bluff, I sit for 20 minutes, in silence and alone, just watching the sweep of the bay coast and organza mist draping and drifting over the epic, snow-covered mountains beyond.

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The Weddell Sea

We plunge into the Weddell, where the massive iceberg A68A emerges from fog, a sheer wall of ice. This 150km-long, 50km-wide iceberg is holding back the sea ice, and us to see emperor penguins on an iceberg and allowing the ship to penetrate as far as the edge of the ice edge.

Then comes excitement on the bridge as killer whales are spotted in the breaks between ice — these water corridors in which they stalk and hunt.

The Antarctic Peninsula

So far, we have landed on islands but, as we head back out of the Weddell Sea, we make our first landing on the Antarctic Peninsula at Brown Bluff, named for its rock, some of which is coloured by lichen. And then comes ice. Serious sea ice, which the ship pushed through.

It is thrilling to be on deck, in safe hands, in a strong ship in ice.

The ship has lots of viewing areas — from the high indoors, Observation Deck lounge to many outdoor areas.

Further south comes the Lemaire Channel — a narrow channel through a deep gorge just off the Antarctic Peninsula. Explorer pushes through the frozen surface ice, weaves around a big iceberg, and takes us through to a still micro-environment on the other side, where we kayak in brash ice on a perfectly still and sunny afternoon, and find the perfect opportunity for dozens of guests to “take the polar plunge”.

We are in sunshine under that blue sky again and that continues the next day at appropriately named Paradise Harbour. It is blissful.

This extraordinary weather that keeps following us is also a bit weird.

But the question now in many minds is “can it last?” Will the Drake Passage be kind on the passage north?

After a benign start to the crossing, a low weather system kicks in, proving deeper than predicted and giving a stiff wind and 7m swell.

I spend lots of the next day on the back deck, my long lens following wanderings and royals.

But this extraordinary voyage feels choreographed by some higher power and, right on schedule, wind and swell drop.

Because of the obliging seas as we left the peninsula, Capt. Kruess was not only able to carefully follow a blue whale, giving an unforgettable view, but set a course almost due north, and that puts us right on track for Cape Horn.

I’m often asked if there’s anything special I’d like to pack when I travel, and from now on my answer will be my companions on this trip, because they’re the luckiest bunch I’ve ever come across.

For this has, indeed, been the trip of a lifetime.


Fact File

Collette, our partners in this Travel Club Tour, book Antarctic cruising, and many other tours. gocollette.com and travel agents.

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