Expedition to the last frontier
THROUGH the snow, driven almost horizontal by a freezing Antarctic blizzard, I see two wooden crosses marking the lonely graves of whalers who rest here forever.
Even the name of the place, Deception Island, in the South Shetland Islands on the fringe of the Antarctic, suggests some misadventure.
I had come ashore with my fellow Antarctic expeditioners to inspect the relics of a one-time whaling station and research base at Whalers Bay on Deception Island.
Its only present-day inhabitants, battalions of penguins and seals, greeted us as our boats crunched on the glistening pebble shoreline.
Whalebones, white and dry, lie on the beach to remind us of the dark days when whales were butchered to near-extinction.
Unlike the explorers who lived for weeks on a lard-based diet and who slept under animal skins in thin tents, I would return, after my momentary insight, to the luxury of a warm ship, a hearty, three-course meal and a comfortable bunk.
Yet, a modern sea voyage to the Antarctic, the planet's last great frontier, is not a cruise but an expedition.
The Antarctic is a place of superlatives – the coldest, windiest, emptiest, highest, driest and least friendly continent on earth. It remains a strange and dangerous wilderness, the world's biggest.
But it is supremely beautiful. The whiteness, the vastness, the silence, the wildlife (which show no fear of humans). Still so unspoilt. A unique laboratory, the largest on earth, it gives us clues to the health of the whole planet.
A visit here is a singular, thrilling lifetime experience. There are no hotels ashore, no local markets, no shopping opportunities, and no city lights to pollute the night sky.
My three-week expedition to the Antarctic peninsula was on Quark Expeditions' Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a former Russian research vessel which was launched in 1989 but quickly became a modest cruise ship when Russia ran out of funds to continue the ship's research role.
From November to March, Vavilov runs Antarctic expeditions out of Ushuaia (oo-sh-why-a) at the southern tip of Argentina, near Cape Horn.
Our expedition crossed the stormy Drake Peninsula (two days) to call at the Falkland Islands and South Georgia on our way to the Antarctic peninsula, a round trip of 3716 nautical miles.
Carrying just 100 passengers, Vavilov is a handy compromise between comfort and utility. It functions well in the sometimes rough seas. With our small passenger complement we invariably all go ashore together, by inflatable, rubber Zodiacs, twice daily for several hours.
Our expedition team of specialists – marine biologists, ornithologist and geologist – share with us their vast knowledge.
Our days begin with a briefing. Then we kit up in our warm and waterproof outer clothing, including supplied “wellies” and lifejackets. Looking like bulky astronauts, we line up on deck to file down a swaying and slick gangway and, supported by gloved hands of strong crew, on to bucking Zodiacs for a quick and often wet transfer for a beach landing.
Following a strict code so as not to disturb wildlife, we give penguins, seals and others right-of-way on the beaches. But often, very often, the animals don't themselves obey the rules and give us inquisitive, close-up inspections.
Thousands of penguins make quite a racket (and fill our nostrils with their acid smell). Some penguins are coming ashore after going to the fish supermarket to get a feed for a chick. They belly-surf up to the beach and flop ashore to make their awkward progress to their chick left in the security of a penguin crèche.
So, we tick off the wildlife – whales, elephant seals, leopard seals, penguins. And birds – albatross with their huge wingspans, giant petrels, skuas and terns and many others.
Elephant seals, looking like giant garden slugs with runny noses, lie sloth-like on the beaches and cock an inquisitive, watery and bloodshot eye. Occasionally, a male fur seal will show some mock aggression toward us but is easily told off. They run, doglike, on articulated flippers.
We either visit, or see from a distance, abandoned and slowly decaying whaling stations on South Georgia. They are the urban slums of the Antarctic.
We have passed, in a sea fog, Point Wild on Elephant Island, where Sir Ernest Shackleton left 27 of his men while he went for help after their Ship Endurance was crushed by ice.
We see glaciers that look like frozen rapids. Icebergs, thousands of them, calved from as many glaciers and ice shelfs.
Each day is a new adventure.
The writer was a guest of Natural Focus Safaris and Quark Expeditions.
LAN Chile has flights from Sydney, via Auckland, to Santiago in Chile, with frequent connections to Ushuaia. Quark Expeditions has departures from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula as well as via the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, between November and March of each year. Cruise costs for a 10-day expedition start at AUD$5560.
For more information, contact Natural Focus Safaris on 1300 363 302 or (03) 9249 3777 or email at email@example.com