Written for Unconventional Magazine by David McGonigal
The pristine icy wonderland of Antarctica really is the last frontier. It is a continent of superlatives – the highest, coldest, windiest place on earth occupied by penguins, seals and whales in a landscape of extraordinary beauty.
Captain Cook didn’t think much of Antarctica. In fact he seemed rather peeved that it wasn’t Australia but rather “a country doomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, but to lie forever buried under everlasting snow and ice.” These days, from ships much more comfortable than Cook’s Endeavour, we relate more to Roald Amundsen, the leader of the first party to reach the South Pole, who wrote “glittering white, shining blue, raven black lit by the sun, the land looks like a fairytale”.
Nor is it unrelenting cold. During the brief Antarctic summer the Antarctic Peninsula is bathed in never-ending daylight and experiences roughly the same temperatures as an Australian ski resort.
Antarctica unfolds as you approach it. Crossing the Drake Passage – ominous for some, iconic for others – this sometimes-stormy stretch of water is a great time to find your way around the ship, spend time on the bridge watching for whales and albatross, and prepare for adventures ahead with presentations about Antarctica, its wildlife, history and politics, and how to make the most of the photographic opportunities. You’ll learn that Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ocean while the Arctic is frozen ocean surrounded by continents.
The Convergence, where the icy waters from the south meet the warmer waters of the north, brings a chill to the air and provides extra nutrients for whales and seabirds. Spotting your first gleaming white iceberg sculptured by the sea is an exciting moment. Finally, the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula or the South Shetland Islands are visible, black and snowy peaks above shimmering glaciers. Here the sea is calm, any waves dampened by the ice.
After all the planning and expectation it’s time to leave the ship and set off exploring. This is by Zodiac, the stable and dependable inflatable craft designed by Jacques Cousteau that are the basis of Antarctic expeditions. Naturally, activities ashore depend on where you go – and sometimes a profusion of penguins and seals limits how far you can move. A real joy can be using the Zodiac as a floating camera platform and taking a cruise through the ice seeking sunbaking seals on icefloes or, later in the summer, curious humpback and minke whales. After a crowded day it’s wonderful to step outside to watch alpenglow illuminating snowy peaks.
There’s a surprising diversity of twice-daily excursions along the Antarctic Peninsula whether it’s looking for different species of penguin, ice cruising, visiting a scientific base, climbing up a glacier – or simply watching glaciers and waiting for one to calve. Some passengers choose to paddle their own kayak to gain a unique viewpoint. Each naturalist has his or her own speciality so you may join the birder’s Zodiac, or the marine mammals expert’s, or the historian’s. Once ashore you can be as active or as sedentary as you wish.
An Antarctic voyage sometimes seems like you’re on ‘the ship that never sleeps’ with midnight sunset photography on the bow and pre-breakfast bridge watches for birders. The two-day voyage back across the Drake is a chance to consolidate diaries and photographs and review the voyage with fellow passengers and staff.
There’s an expert photographic presenter on every voyage to assist you to capture the Antarctic experience. The results are generally remarkable. Make sure you have enough memory cards or a back-up drive for the excessive number of photographs you’ll take. A back-up camera can be reassuring, too, in the harsh Antarctic conditions.
Even with all the photo opportunities, everyone visiting Antarctica should take the time to put down the camera at some stage and simply appreciate where they are. Antarctica is an exotic and beautiful alien world. Being there is enriching and few return unchanged.
David McGonigal has visited Antarctica more than 100 times, mostly as an Expedition Leader for One Ocean Expeditions, and co-wrote Antarctica the Complete Story.