Antarctica: Behind the Scenes
I’m aboard the Russian research vessel, ‘The Akademik Ioffe’ on a voyage out of Ushuaia in Argentina all the way down to the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s a long journey of well over a thousand kilometers through the infamously rough and stormy seas of the Drake Passage. But the motion sickness and long dull days are a small price to pay when finally we catch sight of the great white continent.
The ship is small when compared to many of the other cruise liners that sail these waters during the perpetual daylight of the Antarctic summer. It carries less than a hundred passengers, whereas the giants carry thousands. But where it lacks in size, the ‘Akademik’ more than makes up for with the promise of adventure. Being small, we are able to venture into shallow bays and make landfall at numerous sites courtesy of a fleet of inflatable outboard dinghies.
And so, after several days on the open sea, I stand on the deck, dressed in thermally insulated clothing and a thick wooly hat and watch with slack jawed awe as we slowly cruise past monolithic mountains of the blackest of stone.
There is ice everywhere. It coats the mountains and softens their jagged peaks, and it forms glacial walls as high as a skyscraper and as blue as sapphire. The glaciers groan and rumble like thunder under their own enormous weight, pieces falling off them into the ocean with spectacular splashes. This is know as ‘calving’ – the process of a glacier exfoliating and breaking apart, and it is how ice bergs are born.
The ship throws down Anchor at a place called Greenwich island; and as snow begins to fall, we climb aboard a zodiac dinghy and make landfall for the first time. On shore, we are met by hundreds of chinstrap penguins, who, being unaccustomed to humans, show us no fear whatsoever. We are able to walk among them and approach closely for photographs, and I am amazed to witness some of them ‘playing’ splash games in the shallows. I wasn’t aware that penguins (or any birds for that matter) were capable of ‘play’ but there they are, having as much fun as little kids at the beach.
Our next port of call is within the caldera of an extinct and mostly submerged volcano known as Deception Island. Here we sail into a shallow lagoon and go ashore once more to visit the remnants of an old World War II listening post and a whaling station. Rusty vats (where whale oil was once rendered) ancient machinery and derelict wooden homes litter a landscape of lava dust and black sandy beaches.
There are king penguins here, and elephant seals too, which can grow to a length of six meters and weigh in at almost four tons.
When two male elephant seals argue with each other (usually over beach real estate and lady seals) its like watching a pair of mighty slugs, each the size of a school bus, engaged in a sumo wrestling match. There is much wailing and belching and gnashing of teeth, and it all looks a bit dangerous. But for the most part, elephant seals are pretty chilled, and it is safe enough for me to walk close to them.
Because the waters of Deception’s caldera are calm and free of predators, it has become a customary place where passengers are encouraged to take a polar dip.
Clothing is removed, and one by one, people run into the icy lagoon, screaming as they go. I have no desire to experience such paralyzingly cold water, and instead volunteer to be the group photographer for the event.
Over the next few days and nights (although there is no night down here) we visit various dramatic bays and floating ice fields. We kayak with giant humpback whales and we climb glacial mountains and visit various penguin and sea bird colonies.
There are so many highlights on this odyssey that I find it hard to nail down a particular favorite, but certainly close to the top would be our encounter with the ominous apex predator known as the leopard seal. It’s rare to encounter one of these huge toothsome hunters. But we get lucky and see eleven of them in the space of a single morning. They eat penguins mostly, and sometimes will hunt other species of seal. They’ve even been known to kill SCUBA divers.
On the last night of the cruise, we are given the option to camp out in the open; just so we can go home and say “I’ve slept on the Antarctic Continent” It’s quite an experience! There are no tents; no fire; no bed. Just a shallow hole dug into the snow in which to lie-down, and of course, a very thick sleeping bag.
Those of us who actually get some sleep, awake to the sight of penguins, seals, whales and dolphins.
The Antarctic truly is a magical and untouched place.