I hate the cold. And although I love boats and river trips, I am not a fan of organised cruises. So, there I was trapped on a Russian-crewed vessel for ten days, pitching perilously about as we crossed the infamous Drake’s Passage en route for the South Shetland Islands. What am I doing here? I thought. At the last moment in Ushuaia I had bought some extra warm clothing, a bit of a mish-mash of styles to be honest, but I didn’t care; I just wanted to stay warm. A lot of other people on board were quite well-off and kitted out in top designer winter wear.
The only way to visit Antarctica is on live-aboard ships and I had signed up with Quark Expeditions, an American company, not cheap, but incredibly efficient and well-organised. The first day hadn’t boded well. We had a brief tour around the National Park in Ushuaia, at the tip of Tierra del Fuego, then one of those awkward get-to-know-your-fellow-travellers lunches.
However, as the sun set and we cast off, the excitement and anticipation in the air were palpable. By the time I had sighted my first wandering albatross all my reservations were set aside. My fellow passengers were on the whole an aimiable and interesting crowd. I struck up conversations with two British guys, one a professional photographer and another who was a sculptor and had been commissioned to do a piece for the British Antarctic Society.
It takes two days to cross the open sea called Drake’s Passage and violent storms are not uncommon. To help pass the time various talks and lectures were scheduled about how to distinguish different types of penguins, seals, whales and birds. But as seasickness set in and vast quantities of dramamine were consumed, numbers soon fell off and people took to their cabins. I discovered just how difficult it is to shampoo your hair with one hand while the other is gripping a metal bar to steady yourself. After a day of not eating I ventured down for some breakfast and assumed the damp tablecloths were shoddy housekeeping. In fact, I soon realised it helps to keep plates and glasses in place as the ship pitches and tosses.
The ship had a great open policy and you could wander onto the bridge and talk to the captain. I innocently asked the crew what level of storm we had been through only to be told that the crossing had been “quite smooth”. It was a glorious sunny day, but as we approached the South Shetlands it became grey and moody. Dinner was brought forward so we could go ashore on Aitchoo Island. This was an unscheduled landing as we weren’t due to disembark until the next day.
Climbing out of the ship and down the side into a zodiac boat was a thrilling experience as was the choppy journey to the shore. Jagged peaks capped with ice and snow surrounded us, shrouded in mist. A glacier was visible opposite our landing point. There were hundreds of chinstrap and gentoo penguins and were much more curious than the Megallanic ones I had seen earlier on my trip in Patagonia. I spent nearly two hours there soaking up the atmosphere and the time flew by. It was freezing cold, but a moving experience to be in such an amazing place.
The following day we crossed the Bransfield Strait towards the Antarctic peninsular itself. We stopped off at several islands en route. Each day we had at least two landings and sometimes more. On Half Moon Island it snowed heavily, but I saw my first macaroni penguin.
Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island contains the first man-made structures you have seen for days – ghostly ruins of the whaling trade: huge rusting metal vats and tanks and wooden huts. It’s an active caldera which means that at Pendulum Cove there is a small current of water that is heated and warm enough to swim. The Russian crew members proved the hardiest of us all.
My first sight of the Great White Continent was quite breath-taking. We were surrounded by snow-capped mountains and icebergs floated all around. We were up at 6.30am as we were scheduled to go through the Lemaire Channel and it was a perfect sunny morning. The Channel is also nicknamed Kodak Gap and for good reason. It’s a narrow passage with steep mountains on either side and incredibly photogenic.
Port Lockroy on Goudier Island is the site of British Base A and houses a museum and, rather bizarrely, a post office from where it’s possible to send postcards around the world. More surprisingly, the sun was so hot that everyone was down to t-shirts, not what I had expected in the Antarctic. In fact, it was never as cold as I had feared, rarely getting colder than the average British winter. The return journey across Drake’s Passage was much calmer (according to my definition of the word!).
I am often asked what my favourite trip was and I often reply, “Antarctica”. I don’t really like answering questions like that because I like different places for different reasons. In the same way I am not a fan of top ten lists. However, Antarctica was really special and surpassed all my expectations. It was a photographer’s dream and it was also one of the most expensive trips I have ever done, but it was worth every penny.