an unforgettable adventure to the Antarctic Peninsula
With steam billowing from my mouth and snow up to my knees, I reach the top of a small hill on the largest of the Aitcho Islands, in the South Shetland chain, to a round of gurgling applause from the local gentoo penguin colony. But approval from the residents on this desolately beautiful rock isn’t the only reward for the 30 hours flying and two days sailing it took to get here; the view across the English Strait, which is bathed in glorious golden sunlight despite the late hour, is truly magnificent. If I was an explorer of old, I’d be looking for a good spot to raise my flag. I settle for erecting a tripod instead, as black-and-white chinstrap penguins and gentoos the size of house cats fuss around my feet.
Aitcho is our first dry land since our ship, Aurora Expeditions’ pint-sized Polar Pioneer, left Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina, three days before. There, the port was busy with ships bound for the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula as an ever-increasing number of affluent and intrepid travellers make for the White Continent and its unique, awe inspiring landscapes.
It’s more reminiscent of a day cruise to some secluded picnic spot than the beginning of an expedition as we ply the calm waters of the Beagle Channel, enjoying glorious sunshine and views of the snow-dusted peaks which ring Ushuaia’s harbour. We mingle with fellow explorers from across the globe, pose for photos on the Pioneer’s bow and trace the flight paths of sheathbills and sleek cormorants as they race across the glistening water in formation. Just after dinner our expedition leader Dr Gary Miller announces our arrival at the Drake Passage and it’s time to batten down the hatches as we enter some of the most tumultuous waters on the globe.
There’s nothing quite like five-metre swells and 40-knot winds to bring out the explorer in you. Aurora’s open-bridge policy ensures those who venture up the ship’s narrow staircases feel like part of the Russian crew, as they cling to supports and watch whitecaps slam against the hull.
That’s what Antarctica cruising is all about; it’s a journey to a remote land wreathed by turbulent seas and capped with inhospitable ice, ensuring only the most willing ever venture this far south.
The Drake Passage and the icy environment are not the only detractors; international conventions strictly enforce rules on the number of tourists allowed to visit each season, ensuring it remains pristine. The few cruise companies that are allowed to land passengers on the continent (most of the estimated 40,000 visitors annually arrive by ship, with many on ‘cruise by’ itineraries that never actually land) are regulated by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. The number of travellers allowed on the ice at any one time, and what they do when they arrive, is all strictly monitored.
Aurora Expeditions has been cruising to the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as many other remote locations, since the 1990s. Polar Pioneer, a former Russian spy ship that’s much smaller than many of the other vessels that venture so far south, is far from luxurious. But its hardy crew, comfort cuisine and compact but practical cabins offer a true sense of how scientific teams live when they visit the White Continent. In fact, Aurora’s marine crew is complemented by a dedicated team of polar junkies – naturalists, biologists and photographers – who provide visitors with guided excursions and insightful onboard briefings. The atmosphere is positively electric through the ship’s narrow confines two days later as the swells finally relent.
Miller announces that we’ve made good progress through the Drake and arrived in Antarctic waters with time for an evening landing in the South Shetlands. Our complement of 50 passengers scramble into thick rubber moon boots and bright blue Aurora Expeditions jackets, cameras at the ready as we line the decks waiting for our first Antarctic landing.
The few hours spent on Aitcho is the first of a dozen such excursions that come with an Aurora Expeditions cruise. By night the ship navigates the frozen coastline, through the South Shetlands and then on to the White Continent itself, giving guests a chance to walk, climb and even – in a rare opportunity only offered by a few expeditionary cruise lines – camp a night in the ice.
At Hydrurga Rocks, two small rocky islands in the Palmer Archipelago, we watch Weddell seals and a solitary leopard seal lounging on the ice. The sensational views of the Buache and Modey Peaks, towering mountains on nearby Two Hummock Island, provide a dramatic backdrop. In narrow, sheltered Neko Harbour, on the west coast of Graham Land on the Antarctic Peninsula, passengers who had signed up for climbing follow their guides high above the bay. The rest of us tour a sea of towering icebergs by Zodiac, serenaded by the penguins of a vast gentoo colony perched on rocks overlooking the harbour as the noisy birds warn off dark green skuas hoping to steal from their nests.
As our Russian captain crushes and barges our way through the ice of the mesmerising Lemaire Channel , virtually every passenger stoops over the rail on the ship’s foresail to watch the ice floes crack and capsize in our wake (we were the first ship to pass through this ice gauntlet in over a month). My brother Dan and I board a Zodiac driven by Norwegian expedition photographer and bird fanatic Eirik Gronningsaeter. We follow the reflection of the valley’s snowy peaks on the water towards an endless expanse of ice floes, tracing the wake of an inquisitive minkie whale, capturing the turquoise brilliance of freshly turned icebergs, and disturbing the afternoon slumbers of a crab-eating seal.
We meet fellow explorers in Port Lockroy, one of the Peninsula’s most beautiful natural harbours and one that is ringed by the jagged, brutal peaks of the Seven Sisters to one side, and the imposing yet magnificent 1,415m-high Savoia Peak on the other. Here, four scientists work through the summer, tasked by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust to maintain and restore past settlements on the Peninsula, including historic Bransfield House, where they live. Bransfield is part museum, part science camp, part gift shop, and we take turns lingering through the kitchen’s cookbooks, which detail methods of cooking seal stew and penguin pie, and sending letters from the only postbox in Antarctica. Beyond the tiny camp, whale skeletons reach up from the snow, penguins stumble their way across the flat sea ice, and blue-eyed shags take turns to race across the water and glide through the frozen thermals above the harbour. That night a duo of humpbacks escort our ship through the mirror-like waters of the Gerlache Strait.
Finally it’s our time to play true polar explorer, with two of Aurora’s most popular experiences, ice camping and the polar plunge. The latter takes place on our afternoon in the Lemaire Channel, where, under a dazzling sun, passengers of all ages leap from the ship’s deck into the frozen waters. The warmth of the sun is glorious and many passengers wander the decks in their swimming trunks, forgetting they are on the cusp of the Antarctic Circle.
Ice camping is a much hardier experience but one that still seduces. While other companies offer a camping experience with tents and creature comforts, Aurora guests are encouraged to ‘rough it’ with nothing but sleeping bags between them and the awe-inspiring landscapes of an Antarctic summer night.
The crew ferry passengers loaded up with special sleeping bags and bed rolls across to Useful Island in the Gerlache Strait. Our little group works up a sweat digging a trench in the wind-hardened ice, piling the snow in a 0.3m-high wall that will help protect us from the whipping polar gusts. Then we settle in for a night under the polar summer skies.
We wave goodbye to Antarctica a few days later as the ship slips back into the tumultuous Drake Passage. But the ice camping isn’t our last chance to explore the wonders of the deep south; after a rare landing at Cape Horn, where we climb the steep staircases to the top of wind-whipped sea cliff s and visit the sole Chilean naval family that protects this last outpost, Polar Pioneer berths at Porto Williams, the first commercial cruise ship to conduct an itinerary turnaround there. The remote Chilean town has aspirations to compete with Ushuaia, another 50km down the Beagle Channel, and our band of now seasoned polar explorers makes history as the first polar tourists to disembark at its tiny pier. It’s a fitting end to an unforgettable adventure to the world’s last frozen frontier.