An awe-inspiring cruise of the Antarctic

Sunday Times
Published: 11th March 2012


They say that no one who goes to Antarctica returns the same. Certainly a cruise there is like leaving the planet. There might be an ice peak that looks like the Alps, or a glacier reminiscent of Alaska, but essentially this is different from anything we know. Unlike the Arctic, it has never had an indigenous people. With a land mass one and a half times that of the US, this is ice and snow on a scale which defies the imagination.

Having read about the great explorers (this month is the centenary of the death of the most famous of them all, Captain Scott) I had visions of our ship trapped in ice like Shackleton’s, or of shivering in a tent with a blizzard outside. Instead we saw it all from the comfort of the Sea Spirit, a small ship that held 112 passengers and was warm, comfortable and robust, with fine food and an Antarctica library. The straight-backed, handsome German captain steered us faultlessly through icebergs and ice floes and narrow channels. Phew.

From the ship, we took black Zodiac inflatable dinghies (ten people per boat) through the glistening green and blue icebergs with their glorious ice sculptures — here a wizard’s white hood and cloak, there the beak of a bird or the snout of a bear. We saw glimmering caves, great paws of ice stepping out into the ocean, impossibly graceful peaks of white snow.

As we voyaged deeper through the ice we passed indignant seals lounging on ice floes and little black and white Adélie penguins jumping off their floes into the turquoise water. We saw mighty glaciers calving, ice crashing down into the water, creating great waves, and a humpback whale breached the sea again and again, as if in wild exuberance at having these great waters to play in.

So there was awe first of all. It is unimaginable, beyond humanity, so much lovelier and more graceful than any picture, simply because the real thing is all around you. One minute there’s an albatross sweeping the sky, the next whales swim under your little inflatable boat and you fear they might tip it over. And all the while the spectacular landscape changes as you journey more deeply into the end and the beginning of the world.

The trip is about the wildlife, certainly, but above all, for me, it was about reaching another zone, a zone of ice. I left for this 12 night trip from Ushuaia, in the far south of Argentina, a scraggy little town famous for its king crab, its lupins and for being the gateway into this new world. The trip included the Drake Passage, the South Shetland Islands, the Antarctic Peninsula, the breeding ground for seals and penguins and seabirds, and the Antarctic continent. “I’ve never travelled anywhere before,” muttered a frail, shy American woman with crew-cut grey hair, looking at the ground as I tried to chat with her before embarking. “But all my life, since I was a girl, I wanted to know what Antarctica was like. I don’t know why. All that white space.”

First came Antarctica’s initiation ceremony: the Drake Passage, 1,000 nautical miles of hell between Cape Horn and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Bad sailors should take the flight option; everyone should take good sea-sickness pills. On the other hand, without the Drake Passage, Antarctica would not be so empty.

The voyage first took us to the islands of the South Shetlands archipelago. The Aitcho Islands had the orange-billed gentoo penguins, who were curious about the yellow monsters turning up near their colony; the fluffy bundles waddled over to peck at our trousers and look up at our yellow parkas (given out on the first day, along with fine rubber boots). Teenage chicks chased after their parents demanding food, in so-called “food chases”, familiar to human parents. But there was no snow and no ice. The next day we visited Half Moon Island with its chinstrap penguins (they have a black stripe like a strap under their chins), and eerie Deception Island with the remains of an old whaling station — broken shacks and great rusting tanks, which once contained the whale oil.

The Antarctic was once flush with whales; in the 20th century more than two million are said to have been hunted. It was a snowy, bleak day, the cold scorching the face. But it all changed once we reached the Antarctic Peninsula, where the land opened into the wide, glaciated Wilhelmina Bay. Now the tone of the trip altered. This was it. This was worth all the money, and even worth the Drake Passage.

The next day, among the glaciers, the sun came out and seals lounged on ice floes, their fur like beige silk in the hot sun, and the occasional penguin seemed ordinary in this extraordinary place. That afternoon we took Zodiacs through the ice palaces and arches of Pleneau Bay. This enchanted place is an “iceberg cemetery” where pieces of glaciers drift, some from the Ross ice shelf, letting themselves be carved by wind and water into shapes of such beauty that I was in tears.

There were many David Attenborough moments, watching penguins toboggan head first down snowy slopes or lie on their backs in the glittering seas rubbing their tubby white tummies clean with their flippers, or just leaping like porpoises over and over in the water as if pleased to be exactly who they were and where they were, in the sunshine of their great continent. The next night, while some passengers camped on the continent of Antarctica at Neko harbour, I stayed on the warm boat and watched a full moon rise quickly over an ice cliff and the light change from pink to blue in the silence.

The campers said that a Weddell seal had come and sung to them all night long. What a lullaby to remember. Some of the more adventurous passengers kayaked whenever possible on the voyage, sliding among ice floes, paddling past whales and seals. One man tipped over into the water and damaged his camera, but his wetsuit kept him warm. Others chose to do the “polar plunge” — leaping into the chilled waters, before quickly scrambling out again.Each evening we had a briefing before dinner, learning about the mating habits of penguins and seals, about the shape of their noses, and about courageous or foolhardy explorers. But does the soul shift a little after being here? Is that what we learn? That awe, being overwhelmed by the beauty and otherness of this empire of ice — I hope that is what I have taken back.

On one of the final days before the grim return journey through the Drake Passage, the glorious humpback whale breached the water again, a dark shape against the ice cliffs. I was watching from the bridge and turned to see the slight figure of the American lady I’d met when embarking, and her face was illuminated. “I don’t know how many times I’ve died,” she said.

I smiled politely, puzzled. “You see,” she explained, her eyes bright. “Every time I’ve seen a wonder on this trip I say: ‘Now I can die happy.’ I’ve died so many times.” And she rushed outside on to the cold deck, in just her tracksuit bottoms and jacket, to get a better look. 

Need to Know

Sally Emerson was a guest of The Ultimate Travel Company (020-7386 4646, It has an Antarctic Explorer adventure on the Sea Spirit from £7,130pp, with ten nights at sea. Departures are from early December to late February. Each voyage includes daily shore landings, optional activities, talks by guest lecturers and all meals and drinks. At either end of the voyage there is a night in Buenos Aires and on the eve of departure a night in Ushuaia. The price includes flights from Heathrow. The company offers a similar itinerary on the Ocean Diamond from £4,890pp.

Antarctica is only accessible to passenger ships between mid-to-late November and early March.