Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest continent on Earth... But it's also a wildlife wonderland, says Geoffrey Roy
The Zodiac rode in on the crest of a small wave. It was 10pm and darkness was slowly coming upon us. Hands on shore steadied the inflatable craft and then assisted us over the side and into the shallow water. Wading ashore in my rubber boots I felt a great sense of exhilaration. I was having my first Antarctic landing. It had long been an ambition of mine to see the great southern land and now I was finally here at Arctowski Research Station, a Polish base on King George Island.
Earlier that evening we had entered Bransfield Strait at the northern end of the South Shetland Islands, off the Antarctic Peninsula. Weather conditions decided our first landing point and Arctowski lay on the sheltered side of the island. It was too late in the evening to visit the base, so instead we strolled along the beach. There were penguins everywhere: gentoo, Adélie and chinstraps slipping in and out of the water and waddling up the beach to their rocky nests.
Further on from our landing point, crabeater and elephant seals lounged on shore catching up on some much-needed rest after days at sea. A distinct air of excitement prevailed, and even those still feeling delicate from the crossing quickly picked up.
My first proper step on this long-awaited journey was along the long quay that juts out from Ushuaia like a crooked finger. I saw there were several ships in dock, one of which was a huge red and white icebreaker called the Explorer that carried 600 or so passengers. Next to it was an even bigger liner flying a Norwegian flag. But the thought of being on a ship that size really didn’t appeal.
This was the highest, coldest, driest, windiest continent on earth, and I’d travelled half the world to be here. I wanted to feel like I was an explorer and soak up everything the continent had to offer.
By contrast, shore landings from these huge passenger liners are virtually impossible. Under the self-imposed rules by which all Antarctic tour operators work, only 100 people can be put ashore at any given time. These ships are on very tight schedules, and to offload 1500 or so passengers ashore, even only for an hour, would take over 24 hours of non-stop transfers.
The little ship taking me to Antarctica was called the Akademik Boris Petrov. On board was a permanent Russian crew of 35, 11 expedition staff, and fewer than 40 passengers. Our cabins were nothing flash, but remarkably comfortable: roomy enough for two, with plenty of space to stow all your gear.
The ship was named after a Russian space scientist and I couldn’t help but wonder what Antarctica might look like viewed from space. One astronaut had said ‘Antarctica radiates light like a great lantern across the bottom of the world’, which boded well for the trip. The cool refreshing air of the Beagle Channel heightened my anticipation further as I stood on deck for the post-dinner lifeboat drill. Somewhere southward lay my destination: the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands.
The Drake Passage is a notorious stretch of open water between South America and Antarctica. It is a bleak, miserable place plagued by fierce winds and turbulent seas; an unforgiving environment that has been a match for many a fine sailor. I was sure that crossing one of the roughest stretches of ocean in the world would mean two days of extreme discomfort. I wasn’t wrong.
As I discovered on the first morning, the old sailors’ adage about keeping ‘one hand for yourself and one for the ship’ particularly applied in the bathroom, and in fact it was only after a seated shower that I made it to breakfast. Many others didn’t though; it seemed that the Drake was claiming its first victims. People did start to emerge from their cabins when we reached calmer waters on the third morning at sea, though some still looked a little pale.
Spirits were raised with the excitement of the first iceberg sighting. Everyone was soon out on deck searching for signs of land and keeping their eyes open for the tell-tale spout of a whale. Antarctica was so close you could smell it.
Soon we were actually there, among the gentoo and the chinstraps, and sailing from one coastal inlet to another. Our enthusiasm for Antarctica and the wildlife was maintained – against the odds of mundane shipboard life – by fascinating lectures from the staff, which kept us going between the daily landings. On most days we made two landings, though getting on shore wasn’t an easy task.
Secured at the end of the long and shaky aluminium gangway, the Zodiacs would bob around like corks in a pond if there was any kind of sea swell. Fortunately for all concerned, a strapping Russian sailor called Sasha was stationed at the end of the gangway and had a firm grip on everything. With the Zodiac skipper strategically positioned on-board, getting into the boats was a little less precarious than it looked.
The size of our group meant these operations were completed quite quickly, and also lessened the impact we had on the environment. Our guides saw to it that we observed the rules – designed to protect the wildlife – that governed our on-shore activities.
Landings were always an enjoyable mixture of very noisy penguin colonies, raucous blue-eyed cormorant rookeries and haulouts populated by grumbling seals. Guided walks were an option on most landings, but I found nothing more enjoyable than just sitting and watching penguins going about their daily business completely unperturbed by my presence.
Whale sightings were common and a great joy. We even had a minke we nicknamed Milton play with the Zodiacs one day. He swam around and under the boats rolling on his side to get a better look at us all. Sadly, the huge herds of whales found in Antarctica a hundred and more years ago have all gone. The sealers, and the whalers responsible for this extermination, caused a certain amount of environmental damage, but even the more modern commercial operations left vast amounts of junk behind.
Now that Antarctica was beginning to become something of a tourist destination, I was keen to find out what impact my rubber boots, and others before me, had on the flora and fauna in this virtually undisturbed environment.
Rod Downie is the environmental manager at Port Lockroy for the British Antarctic Survey’s Environmental Section. His main job is to study the effects visitors have on breeding penguin populations, but Rod also acts as postman, cook and does a bit of educational guiding on the side. He shares his little island paradise with station head and museum curator Dave Birkitt, as well as a couple of thousand penguins.
But the visitors necessary for the study meant it couldn’t have been too lonely – as Rod said, “We have seen 53 ships so far this season, which equates to about 35 to 55 visitors every day or so.” He explained how the penguins were monitored: “I’ve two separate colonies of birds for the study. The area around the buildings is allowed human intrusion, if for no other reason than the fact that the two of us live here.”
Turning around, he pointed out the other colony, further afield and entirely free from interference. “Figures so far show that both the populations are on the increase and that there is no perceivable difference in either group’s breeding success or that there is any variation in stress levels related to human visitation between either of the two colonies,” he explained. “It seems the only thing affecting either population is the natural fluctuations in the food resources of the penguins.”
I asked Rod how he got on with the penguins, “They’re a bit of a problem if you’re sweeping the floor and you happen to leave the door open. The young chicks are so curious that they come inside the house and then they take forever to shuffle outside again.”
I could see his point. One of the great things about visiting penguin colonies in the Antarctic is that, although you may know that you’re not allowed to within ten metres of the wildlife, the penguins don’t. They seemed completely unconcerned by us humans, and if you sit down quietly and wait patiently, they just waddle right up to you to see what you are all about. It’s one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had – though there was better yet to come.
Ships, even small ones, aren’t the place to get away from it all. There’s always someone to talk to – the bridge, for example, which was freely open to the passengers most of the time, always seemed to have someone watching out for whales. Meals are communal and rooms are shared. Even out on deck you have to balance the need for solitude with the bracing effects of the Antarctic weather.
I managed to achieve complete solitude one day when we went sea-kayaking in and around the minibergs and sea ice of Orne Harbour. Paddling in break ice has something magical about it. I felt as if I was in a huge blue-green cocktail, bobbing around amongst the ice cubes. The only sound was the little chunks of ice scraping and bouncing along the underside of the kayak.
At one point I stopped paddling and quietly sat alone in the middle of the vast expanse of water, taking in the scenery. The temperature was only just above freezing and I was surrounded by glaciers and thousand-metre-high mountains. The sea was dead calm and my only company was a lone, yet curious, crabeater seal popping up on one side of me for a look, then diving and resurfacing on the other.
The support boat had seen me sitting so still they thought something was wrong and came to investigate. The state of euphoria I was in at that moment was sadly broken by their interest in my welfare. The knowledge of where I was; the sense of being alone in this magnificent wilderness; was as near as possible to what I would call absolute bliss. I never did manage to get that feeling back.
During the voyage I got to watch the series the BBC made on Antarctica, Life in the Freezer. It was great to relive so vividly each evening all that I had seen during the day. As we headed out into the Drake Passage once again on our last night in Antarctica, we saw the final episode.
Sir David Attenborough’s closing comments summed up my feelings about the continent perfectly: “At a time when it’s possible for 30 people to stand on the top of Everest in one day, Antarctica still remains a remote, lonely and desolate continent. A place where it’s possible to see the splendours and immensities of the natural world at its most dramatic, and what’s more witness them almost exactly as they were long, long before human beings ever arrived on the surface of this planet. Long may it remain so.”