The Russian research vessel upon which I am about to set sail is tiny compared with most of the ships that take tourists from the Argentinian town of Ushuaia down to the Antarctic Continent. It carries just 95 passengers rather than the thousands the bigger ships can accommodate, but being small can be an advantage. The Akademik Ioffe can enter narrow harbours and navigate shallow waters, facilitating visits to places those on bigger cruise liners will never get to see. I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. And so the Ioffe’s horn blows, and we pull away from the snowy peaks of Southern Argentina and head northeast to the Falkland Islands, a place of heathery hills, rainy weather, fish ‘n’ chips… and penguins.
We visit albatross colonies and rockhopper, Magellanic and gentoo penguin rookeries, and historical sites where British and Argentinean forces fought in the 1980s. But most memorable is a stroll around the islands’ capital, Stanley. This tiny ‘town’ looks and feels like it’s been lifted from Scotland and placed here in the Subantarctic. The locals will tell you they are distinctly Falklander, but anyone who has been to the United Kingdom will get pangs of deja vu.
Shackleton and battling seals – From the Falklands, it takes us two days of sailing through infamous swells to reach our next destination – the isolated and frigid Islands of South Georgia – but it isn’t a boring voyage. Not at all. Akademik Ioffe is staffed with glaciologists, ornithologists, marine biologists and historians, and lectures throughout the day teach me about the exploits of explorer Ernest Shackleton and all manner of relevant topics, from how glaciers and icebergs are formed to why elephant seals can dive to more than 2000 metres and hold their breath for over an hour. And speaking of elephant seals… I see my first colony of them as we hop aboard the Zodiacs and land at Fortune Bay on South Georgia.
On a narrow beach, backed by massive black snow-capped mountains and cerulean-blue glaciers, hundreds of these giant behemoths (some measuring up to six metres long and weighing in at 4000 kilograms) have hauled themselves ashore to fight, fidget and flatulate. When two male elephant seals take umbrage with each other (usually over beach real estate and lady seals) it’s like watching a pair of mighty slugs sumo wrestling. There is much wailing and belching and gnashing of teeth, and it all looks a bit hectic. But for the most part, elephant seals are pretty chilled, and it is safe enough for me to walk among them and take photos.
Just as distracting are the hundreds of thousands of king penguins that also live on this coastline. They cluster in unbelievable numbers, and sing their tuneless songs while making a fuss over their brown and downy chicks. Like most animals in the Antarctic, they are unafraid of humans, making them easy to approach. We spend a few additional days exploring, and taking kayak and Zodiac cruises among playful seals and dolphins. But the most fascinating place on the island is a dilapidated and rusty ex-whaling station called Grytviken. It’s the only place on this 4000-square-kilometre island where people live, but the population is only around 20 souls. There is a historical museum here which celebrates, commemorates and castigates the whaling industry that, before it was phased out in the 1970s and 80s, nearly sent many species into the abyss of extinction.
Out of this world – We set sail south down to the Antarctic Peninsula, where huge monolithic mountains of the blackest hues reach for the heavens and glaciers as tall as skyscrapers and as blue as sapphires crack and groan under their own enormous weight. There are gargantuan icebergs drifting here and there, whales breaching, ice shelves, snow drifts and penguins and seals galore; and all of this under the 24-hour sunshine of the Antarctic summer skies. I’m in awe of this massive, untouched place.
On the last day, we take the Zodiacs out one last time and explore the drifting ice fields of Orne Harbour, a beautiful calm bay where whales and icebergs play. We find numerous predatory leopard seals and ‘flocks’ of porpoising penguins ‘flying’ through the crystal-clear waters like jet fighters. And then the clouds roll in and the light becomes surreal. Everything turns the colour of blueberry ice-cream – the snow, the mountains, and even the clouds. The weather is about to change, we’re told, and it’s time to head back to the Ioffe. And indeed it does. Within minutes, the serenity and cobalt colours are replaced by driving sleet and snow and icy winds, and we are reminded of how inhospitable and wild the Antarctic can truly be.