Why A Cruise Ship is the Best Way to Discover Antarctica

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Jul 06, 2018

In a frozen place where the sun refuses to set, Ben Mckelvey expects the big chill but finds himself thawing out instead on an exhilarating journey in Antarctica. 

I am sitting in a kayak with my friend, Peggy. South of us are shifting walls of ice. North, nearly all evidence of humankind. On either side are soaring mountains of black and white, the frozen borders of the Lemaire Channel, a narrow 11-kilometre passageway cleaved into the Antarctic Peninsula. Our ship, Aurora Expeditions’ Polar Pioneer, has been kept from completing the channel by three icebergs sitting at the southern mouth. An anchor and kayaks have been dropped. Paddling to the impediments, we find them beautiful and blue, larger than office blocks and moving at alarming speed.

This is the southernmost point of our Antarctic journey. We pull our paddles from the water and snatch a moment of silent contemplation. In this frozen place where the sun refuses to set and humans are an oddity, my thoughts are dizzying and existential.

“Okay, that’s it,” says Chris Hipgrave, our kayaking guide, after we hear the thunder of a distant avalanche. “We’d better work our way back to the ship.”

After battling brackish ice and a previously unseen current, we reach open water. With the Polar Pioneer in sight, I start thinking about dinner – eating it, that is, not being someone else’s – until Hipgrave spots a huge leopard seal, estimated by one of the expedition’s naturalists to weigh about 500 kilograms, between us and the ship. Leopard seals are curious and predatory and I can see both traits when the animal appears just a few metres from our kayak. It stares at us and we stare back.

It’s another remarkable moment but drastically different to the serene one that we’d enjoyed a few minutes ago. When the animal disappears below the surface, Peggy and I paddle frantically to the ship. As soon as our feet touch the deck (and we can breathe again) the delight of the day washes over us.

Like most tourist vessels travelling to the seventh continent, the Polar Pioneer leaves from the windblown town of Ushuaia, in Argentina, and crosses Drake Passage, an 800-kilometre stretch of ocean separating the southern tip of South America from the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Drake is notorious for its violent seas but on our 36-hour journey the passage is kind and we spend the time resting, eating and getting to know our 48 shipmates.

The Polar Pioneer, a repurposed ice-hardened research vessel, is comfortable and charming but not luxurious. The cabins have the aesthetic of a country motel but all are relatively large and have portholes that cast natural light on beds that are soft and welcoming. Our fellow guests are friendly, intelligent, curious people, most of them over 50 and predominantly from Australia and North America. 

We’re sharing the ship with one Ukrainian and 22 Russian crew members and 12 expedition staff led by New Zealander Don McFadzien, who is equal parts Howard Cunningham and Ernest Shackleton. “I’ve planned the expedition as best I can but I recommend stowing any expectations,” he says at our first briefing in the ship’s bar-cum-library. “Antarctica will give what it chooses.”

Thirteen landings are planned, in which Zodiac inflatable boats and kayaks are dropped from the ship and sent to destinations known to be rich with wildlife, natural beauty and/or history. All landings are subject to change or cancellation, McFadzien reminds us, as the weather can be fickle.

We get to test our complimentary polar jackets on the first landing as an icy gale blows across the Aitcho Islands and the gentoo penguin colonies we’ve come to visit. The scene is one of comical industry undeterred by the wind but sometimes brutally punctuated by skua seabirds trying to snatch penguin young.

On the second day, the weather improves and we land on a relatively warm beach on Greenwich Island. Against a brilliant sky, details of the scene are revealed, from beads of water that sit like diamonds on tiny penguin feathers to icefields that showcase the thousands of colours that exist between white and blue.

We pull on drysuits (waterproof and watertight, they’re designed to be worn over regular clothing or thermal undergarments), grab our snorkels and cross a pebbled beach packed with elephant seals. Pushing past ice, we glide into the water and soon we’re in an alien world, where penguin and seal locomotion becomes poetic and the seabed is littered with giant whale skeletons that look like wrecks of the wooden ships that once hunted them.

Some days we paddle kayaks to luminescent glaciers and jet-black coves, to hills dotted with penguin colonies and to white cliffs that seem to span the horizon.

After each landing we return to the Polar Pioneer and, eventually, one of the ship’s two dining rooms. There, at long communal tables, we share a two- or three-course meal (the sort of dishes you’d get at a good wedding) and freshly baked bread. After meals we often take tea on the ship’s bridge, which is open to guests 24/7, or head to the bar for a gin and tonic chilled with chunks of thousand-year-old glacial ice plucked from the ocean that day.

For the truly adventurous, there’s another way of chilling out. With the ship anchored in a bay aptly named Paradise, the intercom invites guests to undertake a Polar Pioneer ritual called the Polar Plunge. This involves guests – the “usually young and always foolhardy”, as McFadzien describes them – throwing themselves off the ship and into the sub-zero ocean below. Having resolved to do everything that Aurora Expeditions offers, Peggy and I find ourselves half-naked, on the wrong side of the ship’s guardrail, looking out at ice mountains, icebergs and icy water. We jump but, strangely, the water seems warmer than the minus-two degrees it’s recorded as; we even stay on the sun-drenched deck in our swimmers for the next 20 minutes, cheering on our new friends while they take their turn.

When the final day of the adventure arrives, I ask Hipgrave what we can expect. “Icebergs and shipwrecks,” he says, giving me hope that perhaps the best isn’t behind us. An hour later we’re paddling past giant slabs of atypical beauty and rusted remnants of Antarctica’s sad whaling history. Soon we emerge at an icy cove bisected by the wreck of the Governoren, a 19th-century floating whaling factory that caught fire and was grounded in 1915. We paddle inside the massive vessel alongside the Polar Pioneer’s snorkelling crew, the force and horror of the blaze evident in the ship’s heat-buckled deck.

Heading back to the Polar Pioneer, I conclude that this is one of the greatest paddles I will have in my life. Then Hipgrave’s radio crackles: there are whales between us and the ship.

Having spent the morning in a Zodiac, watching humpbacks feed, I’m familiar with the concept of bubble-netting, which involves whales creating breath-filled whirlpools that fill with krill and fish ready for the eating. Bubbles appear some 30 metres from our kayaks. Seabirds peck at them then scatter when a giant whale’s head breaks the surface. A hump – aquiline and sleek – follows and then a forked tail.

Now the bubbles are closer, about six metres from us. Our gasps, which have grown louder with each advance, turn into muffled shrieks when bubbles appear directly under our kayaks. A whale’s head, as large as a Mini, emerges so close that we could touch it. The hump glides past us, black, brilliant and alien. The tail brushes the front of our kayak before leaving us. 

We paddle back to the ship silently, struck mute by the moment. As I climb a ladder to the ship, I think of McFadzien and his pre-landing suggestion that we stow any expectations before getting to the peninsula. Mine were that this trip would be about my relationship with the planet, not the people on it. When I hit the deck of a ship that feels like home and help up a travel companion with whom I’ll share luminescent memories for the rest of my life, I begin to understand what McFadzien was talking about. 

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