I’m not sure which is more indulgent; watching humpbacks play as I brush my teeth, or drinking Baileys and hot chocolate on a Zodiac amongst the icebergs. It’s the last expedition of the season, aptly named Marine Mammals of Antarctica, and boy has it delivered. Not one of the 92 passengers aboard the MV Akademik Ioffe would have reason to complain. We haven’t just seen whales – we’ve inhaled them.
Our home away from home for ten nights is a Russian research vessel, built for stability and strength in icy, turbulent waters. After a deceptively calm departure from Ushuaia, the last views of Tierra del Fuego fade with the sunset and we begin to cross the roughest stretch of water known on the planet – the Drake Passage. The ship sways from side to side throughout the night – at times it is pleasant and almost comforting but by morning I fail to rise for breakfast. Seasickness isn’t my forte and I think of the journey Shackleton and his men endured on their final push to South Georgia as I lie bed-ridden for an entire 24 hours, all the more grateful for simple luxuries of warmth, good food and shelter.
By day two, the Drake has calmed somewhat and I’m curious to explore the ship. With a bar and adjacent lounge, a large dining area and even a sauna, Jacuzzi and plunge pool it’s the perfect size. It’s big enough to find some solo space if you need, but small enough to be out on the zodiacs in no time. More importantly, it takes a maximum of just 96 guests, just under the all-important Antarctica visitor guidelines that dictate that no more than 100 people can be on the shore at any one time. The top deck provides endless 360 degree views although I prefer to be out on the bow, listening to the gentle whoosh of the waves. Our captain has invited us to spend as much time as we like upon the bridge with him and it turns out to be a splendid place to visit when sun is not out, pair of binoculars in hand looking for signs of life.
On our third morning I awake early. It’s still dark but the anticipation of knowing I’d finally be in Antarctica was too much. I peer out of the cabin window and make out some dimly lit shapes of land. ‘I here.’ I think. ‘I am actually here in Antarctica’. It feels slightly overwhelming and tears flood the corners of my eyes. It’s not often that lifelong dreams come true. I scramble into the shower and get rugged up as quickly as possible then head outside into the fresh air.
Chunks of ice bob past – at first they seem luminescent against the night-covered sea but gradually the sky lightens from black to dark blue and finally all I can sense is the colour blue. This sunrise isn’t orange – it’s turquoise. Everywhere I look – the sky, the sea, the icebergs and the snow-covered shapes of land – it’s all so blue, so surreal, and so profoundly beautiful. We have arrived in the Gerlache straight on the Antarctic Peninsular and are encircled by dozens of mountains separated by heaving glaciers with their peaks hidden by thick clouds that hang low and heavy, masking what lies beyond them.
Our first excursion is to Neko Harbour and onto the Antarctic continent where a Gentoo penguin colony is in for a surprise. Thinking it would be a bit of fun, my friend Mick and I had ordered penguin costumes for our trip, and now dressed in our onesies and feeling a little silly, we head out in the Zodiacs to visit these beautiful, curious creatures.
I smell them before I see them as disgusting waft of penguin guano hits from about 100 metres away. When we glide into shore there are penguins everywhere and they are not the slightest bit bothered by our presence. Perhaps it’s my clever disguise I think. They are so cute with their little waddles and fearless determination to get wherever they are going. I sit down to spend time watching them when one little fellow wanders up to me for a peak. It’s a special moment and a wave of emotion runs through me as every David Attenborough show I’ve ever watched bursts into life.
Each day brought new experiences – from our first encounter with the adorable Gentoo penguins, to our last; the slovenly elephant seals farting and occasionally rearing their oh so ugly heads to check us out before returning to their favourite occupation – sleep.
One encounter produced squeals of delight from even the most seasoned guides as a curious whale scratched his belly on the underside of our zodiacs and covered us in his smelly, slimy whale blow. We spent about an hour with that whale – it was truly one of the most magical experiences of my life.
Besides encounters with the marine mammals, those of the human kind have been unexpectedly interesting too. Fellow passengers include Tom the American kid who has walked from America to Uruguay; Juan, the Oxford fellow who skied to the North and South Poles and Hannes, a photographer with over a million Instagram followers.
In addition, our expedition has a number of experts on board such as Glenn Stein, polar historian and author; Harry Keys, a glaciologist who assisted in creating the Antarctic Treaty System and our resident whale researchers Ari Friedlaender and Jeremy Goldbogen
Antarctica was everything I dreamed it would be and more.