It goes without saying that Antarctica is one of the most inaccessible places on the planet, but it isn’t until you have spent five days at sea in a 60knot wind with 10m waves breaking over the bows of your ship, that you really appreciate just how remote it actually is.
Oceanwide Expeditions Ross Sea Odyssey onboard m/v Ortelius is a very special trip indeed. Hardly anyone gets to travel so far south, and the privilege of coming here is highlighted by expedition team who are clearly as excited as the passengers by the prospect of the journey. One after another as they introduce themselves to us after embarkation, it is clear that no matter how many times they have been to Antarctica, they are genuinely thrilled to be visiting the Ross Sea, The Dry Valleys, the Historic huts, and to see the unique wildlife of air, ice and water.
But why visit Antarctica? friends and family ask when they find out about our trip. What will you see? Where will you stay? What will you eat? Where will they get the food? Won’t you be bored? Are you taking a camera? Where did this fascination with Antarctica come from? Will you be travelling north or south of Antarctica?
Well firstly, there is the catalogue of places you have only ever read about; The Drake Passage, The Bellingshausen Sea, The Amundsen Sea, The Ross Ice Shelf The Bay of Whales, and Cape Evans, where Scott built his base for the Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1911. I have read almost everything that has ever been written about Scott and Shackleton, and have lived the adventures vicariously though their biographies and diaries. Imagine the excitement when, after studying the heroic age of Exploration until every detail is ingrained in your consciousness; every flaw in their plans, every lucky encounter and disasterous mishap; you suddenly find yourself standing in the hut so familiar from those old photographs. A truly magical experience which I am told on good authority, brought tears to the eyes of Sir David Attenborough when he visited the hut.
It was the three helicopters that made it possible to visit Scott’s hut at Cape Evans. Without them, sea ice would have prohibited our landing by zodiac, although it has been managed by boat on previous trips. On other days, when ice and weather conditions made landing impossible, the skillfull Chilean pilots were able to thrill us with scenic helicopter rides, and close encounters with jagged and sculpted crevasses, swooping down along their slopes, or hovering beside the giant walls of ice that form the Ross Ice Shelf. Passengers emerged from their flights with idiotic grins spreading from ear to ear.
Heading through the Lemaire Channel, the sparkling blue water gave perfect looking glass reflections of the snow-frosted cliffs. We nudged our way carefully through chunks of loose sea ice, watched half heartedly by Crabeater seals, who quietly slid into the water if we got too close. At the end of the channel, a blow and a fluke gave us our first sighting of humpback whales.
Later in the trip, surrounded by sea ice in every direction, the ship gently edging its way through groaning chunks of ice, when an Orca popped its head up spyhopping to see what was going on. A group of Emperor penguins standing on an ice pancake watched us go by, and a leopard seal slipped silently under the ice just in time. Ross seals, are difficult to study as they are only found in Antarctic waters, so the biologists on board were very excited to see them here, and when the experts are excited, you know something very special is going on.
For many of the passengers, staff and crew, bird life is their priority. The expedition bird-watching expert, doubling on this trip as ship’s Doctor, has seen more than 90% of all bird species on the planet, yet was still thrilled by the prospect of spotting a Snow Petrel, Antarctic Prion or a Light Mantled Sooty Albatross. The enthusiasts stood silently on the bridge, binoculars and notebooks in hand; peering, noting, consulting with each other in whispers and occasionally consulting the ID guide to check for minor genetic variations in plumage. It’s infectious, and soon even the most scornful passengers were able to identify a bird or two.
At Franklin Island, we took the opportunity to jump into the zodiacs for a cruise around the icebergs, and along the miles of Adelie penguin rookery lining the beach and cliffs. It is so cold that seawater splashing onto the boat freezes instantly on our clothes and can be brushed off like snow. Later in the day we land, and stand ankle deep in penguin guano, surrounded by thousands of these crazy birds, running up and down the beach, stealing pebbles from each other, and fending off skua’s, while Weddell seals lounge undisturbed by the noise of a thousand camera shutters being released. Undoubtedly, this is a very special experience.
When you’re lying in your cabin and a call goes over the PA system ‘whales on the starboard side!’ you know, as you grab your camera and rush outside, that just being in Antarctica is something special.
When it’s light all night, but you just don’t care because the gentle rocking of the boat is lulling you to sleep; you know that being in Antarctica is something very special.
When a TV film crew uses the ship to reach such isolated locations and capture the stunning sights of glaciers, mountains and wildlife, you know that being in Antarctica is something so very special that you just don’t know what to do with yourself!
It’s not Disney!
Nature doesn’t stop for tourists. It was too icy for the helicopters to land on Peter 1st Island, and we weren’t able to reach the Dry Valleys. High waves prevented us from visiting the Italian Mario Zuccelli Station in Terra Nova Bay, and rough seas slowed our voyage across the Southern Ocean, leaving some passengers in danger of missing their connecting flights home, but you can’t organize the weather, you can’t predict whether the sea ice will be in, or if it has blown out just in time for you to make landfall. If the wind blows and the sea boils, there is nothing we can do to stop it but wait, or change our plans. If you want predictable, give Antarctica a miss and go to Disney instead.
As the Captain said in his introductory speech, put down your camera, and take the time to really appreciate all your incredible experiences without the barrier of a lens. It really is a very special journey.