My trip of a lifetime concluded with a glass of champagne in my left hand, a camera in my right and a humpback whale, of perhaps 35 tonnes, emerging from the depths of the ocean directly beneath us.
It was our final zodiac excursion and to mark the occasion we were enjoying flutes of fine champagne as we bobbed on the ocean among groups of whales, cavorting around us.
The humpback is so called because of its habit of raising and bending its back in preparation for a dive, accentuating the hump in front of the dorsal fin. One of us had noticed a whale dive beneath the sea in the direction of our zodiac. The next moment, from behind, I heard the frightening sound of its exhalation and could smell its pungent breath as it emerged from the depths, passing directly beneath us and grazing the underside of the boat with its enormous back.
This was just one of the many unique experiences to be encountered on an expedition cruise to Antarctica – but you need to choose your cruise very carefully. An Antarctic expedition is not a frivolous getaway; it’s a learning experience with the most incredible opportunities for practical involvement. Each day includes a side-trip by zodiac to explore spectacular locations with amazing views and unique wildlife: seals and sea leopards, penguins and sea birds of all kinds. Confident that you’re in the hands of academic professionals, you’ll ride through iceberg-choked passages among towering icebergs of the most beautiful shades of blue and turquoise.
Days and evenings are spent attending lectures by professionals in their various fields, and each night features a recap of the day’s experiences. An ornithologist might introduce you to the bird species you’re likely to encounter as you sail ever further south; a marine biologist might tell you about the marine mammals of the Southern Ocean; and your expedition leader will provide you with the mandatory briefing on the IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) guidelines for going ashore in Antarctica, as well as the use of zodiacs. A professional photographer is also on board to help guests achieve the best results with their cameras in the unique light conditions and circumstances of the Antarctic.
All expeditions that head for the Antarctic Peninsula must first cross the notorious Drake Passage, the narrow stretch of water separating South America from the Antarctic Peninsula. Discovered by Sir Francis Drake in September 1578, the passage includes waters known as the Furious Fifties, along with a section of the so-called Screaming Sixties. If you’re lucky, as we were, you’ll also experience relatively kind seas, when the passage is referred to as the Drake “Lake”. By carefully choosing the right time of year, your chances of uncomfortable crossings can be greatly reduced.
Travelling today, in the lap of luxury, and in the company of Antarctic experts, is a far cry from what the likes of “Scott of the Antarctic” and Sir Ernest Shackleton had to deal with. In preparation for my Antarctic experience, I read perhaps the best adventure story I’ve encountered: Shackleton, by Roland Huntford. One member of Shackleton’s beleaguered party, Thomas Orde-Lees, made an interesting comment with remarkable foresight. It was in the same month as my journey, but exactly one hundred years before. In January 1915, he said, “I do wish sometimes that I could just pop home for an hour or two as easily in the flesh as in the spirit. No doubt the explorers of 2015, if there is anything left to explore, will not only carry their pocket wireless telephones fitted with wireless telescopes but will also receive their nourishment and warmth by wireless…”
As we returned north to South America, across the Drake Passage, I happened to look at a map in the ship’s library. It caused me to contemplate the enormous overcrowding of the continents of the world, when compared with the huge, silent continent we had just visited.
Antarctica is so pristine, and with no people at all.