Going to Antarctica hadn’t been on the top of my travel list mainly because I never really thought it was possible. I didn’t know any bearded explorers or have $10K to spare. But budget mass tourism thankfully brought it within reach.
Up until we got there (Feb 9) I wasn’t really sure it was going to happen – initially I thought we’d be disembarking on Elephant Island (where Ernest Shackleton’s men were shipwrecked for 4 months) – finding out instead we’d be cruising by some Antarctic scenery left me unsure of what we could really expect to see.
But see it we did. The weather was on our side, we went, and it was really there – huge walls of marble snow, bright white cracked with crystalline blue, jagged peaks of rock peering out between the clouds, smooth Henry Moore-esque sculpted white shapes, shorelines that looked like some giant undersea animal had risen from the depths to chew big bites out of them.
I think it was some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t get over the snow – there must be a different Inuit word for it, because this was nothing like what I’ve grown up being surrounded by. This snow was solid, like rock, and conveyed a sense of glacial force and strength. My mum was surprised that it was so mountainous – she’d expected the crystal desert to be flat. We learned that the Andes drop off into the sea at Cape Horn (where we floated past early in the morning of Feb 8) to rise again in Antarctica, forming this snowy, forbidding crown at the bottom of the world.
There were whales spouting and diving everywhere – I think I saw at least 16, and pods of penguins porpoising through the water. They arc out of the water like dolphins, and look just as playful. They’re built to fly underwater and they do – we saw them far off from land, jumping over the waves.
We floated through the Schollart Channel and into Paradise Bay by the afternoon, home to a large number of research stations and renowned for the wildlife. It was calm and the sun came out to shine in patches on the mountain sides. We saw zodiacs with researchers coming toward the ship, looking the size of little bugs next to icebergs that had first seemed like small debris. With effort we spotted the American research station at the base of the bay, which was barely distinguishable as tiny red Lego buildings clustered at the bottom of a giant wall of mountains. The scale of the mountains, the expanse of grey-blue water, was an ongoing surprise.
As we left the bay and made our way north again towards Elephant Island, I sat out on the upper deck and stared out at the scenery until dinner time.