Jennie Carr sailed with Swan Hellenic to the White Continent and she shares a few snapshot moments from the remarkable expedition on SH Minerva.
The Super Pod
The Antarctic Convergence is that place where the cold, northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet the relatively warmer waters of the sub-Antarctic. And on our voyage this pretty much coincided with where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet too. We were treated to an exceptional sight – a super pod of marine activity: around 200 pilot whales, fur seals and a couple of hump back whales blowing in the distance surrounded the ship. The water was filled with dramatic action! The icing on this chilly cake came as a female fin whale (about 70 feet long) and her calf drew alongside; she rolled to display her underbelly, white in reality but it glowed blue in the Antarctic waters. They were feeding on a huge shoal of krill, the staple diet of nearly all animals in this region.
After two relatively smooth days at sea, rested and relaxed, well fed and watered, I was ready to see land. And standing on our balcony, I did. At first like a ghostly mirage, a distant 2D scrimshaw or glass etching, slowly taking on shape as we got closer. It appeared totally white in the gloaming: I got a sense of what it must have felt like for the sailors who discovered these islands after weeks at sea.
Smith Island, one of the South Shetland Islands, is rarely visited and as it became real, fully 3D, it was easy to understand why, it’s essentially a mountain range covered in snow and ice. It captured my imagination though and I was pleased to find out that it had been named after Captain William Smith in 1819: my grandfather, a seafarer too, has the same name.
(Image left: Jennie on Livingstone Island)
Zipping about on Zodiacs
By Day 2, I was in and out of the boat like a pro, swinging my legs over the side, splashing onto rocks and beaches with utter confidence. However, Day 1 saw me and most others a tad nervous as we awkwardly descended the steel staircase in lifejackets and newly fitted muck boots (super sturdy wellies) ready to board the Zodiacs, RIBs that take about ten people. Grab your sailor for support, step on the edge of the boat, then sit. And off we went, with our balaclava-wearing driver looking very like a James Bond villain. He was actually a nice naturalist from Lviv, with oodles of information to share about the wildlife.
Most of our Zodiac journeys were easy on calm waters. There were two exceptions: one where we buffeted through waves and wind, getting covered in spray, heading for Useful Island, it was so exhilarating.
The second was extraordinary, near the Argentine Islands: returning to the ship after a cruise amongst the icebergs, sculpted white and glowing turquoise beauties, a humpback whale gave us a show. First a shiny black body and then the full fluke (tail), made even more dramatic by our proximity to it on a small craft. Whilst we’d been on the water, a flow of growlers (icebergs less than one metre high) had crept in; our drivers had to clear a path through with paddles to return us to the ship. A 90 minute journey on which the nine zodiacs followed each other in a crocodile. The hot chocolate with Baileys was most welcome as we defrosted back on board.
The Polar Plunge
It had to be done! When else would I get the chance to swim in these waters? And so on the volcanic black sandy beach of Deception Island, off came my many layers, right down to a jaunty purple swimsuit. Nipping speedily across the beach, I waded in and then, deep breath, launched into the sea. Yes, dear reader, it was jolly cold, very cold indeed. Even years of North Sea swimming as a child had not prepared me for this. Shoulders under, four brisk strokes and out I came. Even as my hands cramped so drying and dressing was tricky, I felt a sense of triumph. And also really truly alive.
Penguins and seals
Stand very still and they’ll just trot past I’d been told. And it’s true, penguins are not bothered by humans in Antarctica, they waddle determinedly along their highways, about 18 inches deep in the snow in the middle of summer, from one rocky rookery to another, visiting chums we imagined. Legs stiff, wings out balancing themselves which is hilarious as they hop over rocks or pebbles down to the sea. It seems they have no knees. Once in the water however, penguins are a thing of beauty, literally in their element, porpoising joyfully across the waves. Gentoos and chinstraps were what we saw and they are ‘beautiful, interesting and funny. They are a pleasure to watch even though they do smell and their voices are not melodious’, George Gaylord Simpson.
Basking elephant seals on Cuverville Island were no such beauties: huge and lazy, covered in scars with a proboscis that only a mother could love. Utterly indifferent to the watching humans, they snoozed then fought, rearing up tall and roaring as they charged at each other. What a sight, a touch reminiscent of human MMA fighters perhaps. Crabeaters are the pretty cousins, with a winsome charm and fur seals are best steered clear of. They’ve been known to nip an irritating human.
Why visit Antarctica
Go for a unique expedition, to see the stunning animals in unfettered abundance and to experience raw, wild, beautiful, exciting landscapes that man has little interfered with. For maps and further photos, take a look at this PDF.
Jennie’s voyage was kindly supported by Swan Hellenic and many thanks to AJ Vander Ende for her wonderful photos.