Sunday, 29 January 2012

Snow, icebergs and more penguins: the beauty of Antarctica

It would be a complete understatement to say that Antarctica blew me away. It was everything and nothing like I expected, and the days flew by. As soon as we entered the Antarctic Peninsula, the seas calmed, and the beauty of the region began to exert itself. Huge icebergs drifted past, ranging in colour from white to deep, clear blues. Land rose high around us, and wildlife swam below us. Even the weather was on our side – clear blue skies greeted many of our landings, and although the wind was biting, we were warmed by the bright sun.

Two landings a day meant we visited many of the islands within the peninsula, and were able to step foot on the mainland twice, one occasion forever memorable by a very steep climb up a hill followed by a fast toboggan on our bums back down again! I hadn’t come with too many expectations, all too aware that our itinerary was entirely dependent on the weather and ice conditions, and had resisted reading too many accounts of similar trips. Landings were a real surprise – rather than the strolls along the beaches and hopeful viewings of wildlife I’d expected, we regularly had three or more hours to explore, and almost always the option to climb steeply up through the snow to view points. This was at times challenging – the combination of heavy wellie boots with little foot and ankle movement, the deep untouched snow and the warming sun all made for slow going (and regular falls of inches through the soft snow as a result of heavy steps), but worth every second. Views stretched far and wide, and many penguin rookeries hid up high.

Each landing site was different from the last, and with the freedom we were given by the expedition crew, we were able to choose (on advice) which direction to go and how physical we wanted our visits to be. Along with penguins and seals, there were abandoned huts and boats, incredibly striking and colossal whale skeletons, nesting birds circling above and the occasional echo of cracking ice walls. We sat for huge stretches of time, sitting in awe of the scale and beauty.

There were penguins everywhere, and we were able to add Adelies to our wildlife list. Seals slept on land and icebergs, Weddell and Crabeater the most populous. They lay in the sun, scratching themselves incessantly whilst eyeing us up, before falling back asleep. We even heard ‘singing’ as our expedition leader described it – the high-pitched noises the seals make when asleep. Huge and lumbering when on land, it just took water to turn them into graceful, lithe beings – just like the penguins. One of the oft-quoted highlights of a trip to Antarctica is the opportunity to send postcards with that very unique stamp, so of course we took advantage on a stop to Port Lockroy – the British post, now a staffed museum and post office. A fascinating place, it was hugely enjoyable seeing the reconstructed living quarters of the past before stocking up the shop. The rookery nestled within the raised foundations, literally inches when the pathway, revealed hungry chicks kept warm by their parents, and eggs waiting to hatch.

Although I knew I’d love the wildlife and the chance to explore one of the most untouched places on Earth, I hadn’t anticipated just how much I’d be captivated by the icebergs. On a few occasions we were taken out on zodiac cruises, whole bodies wrapped up against the wind, creeping closer to the huge blue giants. The absence of trapped air resulted in hues ranging from pale milky blue to turquoise and electric blues, the small parts breaking the surface only a limited glimpse of their scale, which we were able to see floating directly over their vast roots. Stalactites of ice hung underneath overhangs, dripping fresh water and shimmering. We travelled under natural arches carved by the sun, saw honeycombed walls alongside ultra-smooth surfaces, and manoeuvred past bobbing smaller chunks. Seals rested on flatter bergs, and we watched jellyfish swim past beside us. It was truly amazing.

Back on board the ship, there were always hot drinks and snacks at the ready upon our return, and after stripping off our many layers with relief, huge lunches and dinners served by the incredible staff aboard. But even in the evenings, after already full and fascinating days, the excitement certainly hadn’t ended, and some other wildlife came out to say hello…

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