Penguins and seals lie thick on the ground. Birds dot the sky. The ocean blusters around me. The landscape is not welcoming. It is vast, isolated, majestic and malevolent. In any other place on our planet, running superlatives ragged would be an overstatement. But on the Antarctic Peninsula, accessible to visitors from November to March, everything is more extreme than elsewhere.
It has been a few days, and we have finally arrived in Antarctica, via stops at the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, pitching and squirming over miles of ocean. The planning for this odyssey began a year earlier, because though there are many kinds of ships that make the journey, the suites on the specific expedition vessel we wanted were disappearing quickly. Budget outlined? Check. Vessel type? Check. Scientists on board? Check. Gear organised? Check. The research that went into customising our experience was worthy of its own dissertation, so ensure you plan well ahead.
In the words of John Muir: “To dine with a glacier on a sunny day is a glorious thing and makes feasts of meat and wine ridiculous. The glacier eats hills and drinks sunbeams”
Antarctica is a part of the world where size matters. According to regulations set by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, only 100 passengers can disembark at any one time. Our ship is of the expedition variety, or size XS. We’ve selected this vessel not only for the intensity of zodiac (inflatable boat) cruising and landings it allows, but also because it does away with the frills of entertainment on sea days. The focus in that in-between time is on lectures that revolve around glaciers and penguin habits, the British polar explorer Ernest Henry Shackleton, and sea ice. It is all the stimulation we require to enhance our forays onto land.
Getting on shore implies alighting into zodiacs, but a rigorous bio security drill must be kowtowed to before one can even dream of making footfall. Outer gear, backpacks, rubber boots, walking sticks and tripods are all given the once-over by a vigilant crew. The biosecurity form duly signed, it is time to dress like a self-regulating ecosystem to ensure that we don’t spend the day ahead leaking like iced lollies.
Brown Bluff is our first landing on the peninsula. Rockslides are regular here, and we’re warned to stay off the slopes. Red flags mark the area within which we are free to explore. Adélie and Gentoo penguin colonies hold sway here, with the Adélie population running into the tens of thousands. We watch with the pounding heart of a peeping Tom, as an astute Adélie recovers the stones he had collected from a wily rival that had stolen them. Snow petrels and Cape petrels watch us lumber around like astronauts from their perch on the bluff face. In the near distance, the face of a glacier looms menacingly. In the words of the Scottish-American naturalist John Muir: “To dine with a glacier on a sunny day is a glorious thing and makes feasts of meat and wine ridiculous. The glacier eats hills and drinks sunbeams.”
Hiking in Teflon Bay, on Deception Island
As a general rule, excursions depend on weather conditions. The sky on the day we’re due to set out for the Danger Islands is thick with feathery snow. These islands acquired their apt name because, appearing under heavy ice fragments, they were close to being completely concealed until a ship was nearly upon them. Too wild for a landing this day, the islands must be skirted by zodiac. The cliffs, studded with large colonies of Adélie (who thrive in the bitter cold), point angry fingers at the sky. Illustrating the fine business of evolution further are Weddell seals basking in the icy winds. These creatures are designed to travel long distances under water, so that they can find a mate who might be far away.
Cierva Cove, engulfed by rugged mountains and dramatic glaciers is next on the cards—and it is a haven for zodiac cruising. The bay is punctuated by icebergs, some of which have calved off local glaciers while others have blown in from the Gerlache Strait. Here tall ice sculptures, there weathered bergs and ancient caves. Wind is clearly nature’s greatest architect, and it shapes everything in Antarctica: snow, rocks, ice, even the lives of the very few who choose to live on this continent for the purpose of research. Distracting us from these gloriously blue ice cathedrals are Gentoo penguins and Humpback whales that dive and surface around us.
Adélie penguins on the cliffs of the Danger Islands
No matter what time of spring you arrive at, Mikkelsen Harbour feels as though you’ve plummeted into Christmas. I feel like a voyeur watching the Gentoos jostle and canoodle, lost in the loveliness of the scape and each other. They nest amid a ring of rocks and both mama and papa share the duties of egg incubation. The Argentine refuge hut (although unoccupied) and an old radio mast appear grossly out of place amid the daily business of these phenomenal creatures. Weddell seals and elephant seals along the beach slumber through most intrusions, disregarding the odd human that appears.
Humpback whales distract us from the glorious cathedrals of ice that pepper Cierva Cove
As islands and excursions go, there’s little to beat Deception Island’s Teflon Bay, which feels not unlike a black and white sketch torn from a master’s sketchbook. Set inside an active Antarctic volcano, the bay is a haiku of glittering black (stone) and white (snow) lines, set against a vast grey arena of sky and ocean. The farther we trek, the more we confront pinnacles, peaks and craters from previous volcanic activity. And with every passing experience it becomes clearer that the geology is as complex as the wildlife and is constantly changing.
Teflon Bay is a haiku of glittering black (stone) and white (snow) lines, set against the vast sea and sky
Discussions on climate change and global warming seep into everything. We learn that the Larsen Ice Shelf broke up in one month, a direct outcome of warmer water entering the Antarctic system. Thankfully, no matter where in the world one lives, there are things one can constructively do to avert terrible losses to our vital ecosystems: reduce the use of plastic (single-use plastic, especially), cut down on energy consumption, don’t eat beef, and—as they tell us frequently in these parts—count penguins. This is because populations of penguins can change and it’s important to help scientists keep track of how many there are.
All things considered, the journey is not a romantic one. But it is magnificent, spectral even; it’s challenging on all counts. Crossing Drake Passage involved a sleepless night on one of the world’s roughest seas. The intense cold generated frostbitten toes and fingers, and our discussions on climate change sometimes became dark. But as the French word travail never fails to point out, what you get out of a voyage is often equivalent to what you put into it… and I’d do this one again in a heartbeat.
Seals disregard the odd human that appears
When to go: Between November and March. November, the austral spring, is when the wilderness is at its most rugged—penguins mate, whales arrive to feed, and seals guard their offspring. December and January bring more melted ice and a greater promise of venturing deep into the landscape. It is high season for wildlife, with whale watching reaching its peak in February.
How to get there: The majority of cruise ships leave from Ushuaia, Argentina, on the very tip of South America. There are multiple flight combinations available from Indian cities to Ushuaia, so you can really choose which suits you best.
Need to know: No visa is needed for Antarctica, but you do need one for Argentina. Keep in mind that while plenty of big ship companies do operate cruises, shore excursions aren’t permissible if there are more than 500 passengers, with only 100 permitted to land at a time.
A ship that serves as the only other sign of human activity that we’ve seen in days
Photographs: Sonia Nazareth