It was a trip of a lifetime — kayaking in Antarctica. After over a year in the planning we finally found ourselves on the plane to Buenos Aires. We continued on to Ushuaia on the southernmost point of Argentina. When we disembarked the aircraft, we understood why the plane took so long to land — gale force winds! If it was like that here in Tierra del Fuego, it must be horrific in Antarctica itself. Yes, in fact at that time, the gale grounded a cruise ship, the MV Ushuaia, on the Antarctic Peninsula, and it had to be abandoned by its passengers and crew.
On 8 December last year we excitedly boarded the Polar Pioneer. It is a relatively small ice-strengthened ship fitted out with berths for 54 passengers. A few more passengers were squeezed in at the last minute to accommodate those travellers who had booked to sail on the now languishing Ushuaia. Polar Pioneer is a Russian ship that is chartered by the Australian company Aurora Expeditions. The crew is Russian while the staff is a mixture of Australian, British and New Zealander. After being shown our cabin we all met on the bridge for a briefing by the expedition leader; we were told to leave all our expectations on the dock, as what happens on this trip is to be dependent on the weather, ice and other conditions. At 6 pm we were on our way down the Beagle Channel. Eventually we bunked down while the gentle swaying of the ship yielded to pitching and rolling as we entered the infamous Drake Passage overnight.
The next two days were spent traversing the Drake Passage. Although we were not too badly affected by seasickness, the missing numbers at the dining tables at meal times attested to others having a more unpleasant experience. A big challenge was simply trying to walk, as the ship would lurch from side to side causing us to time our movements very carefully. Late on the third day we passed south of the South Shetland Islands and entered Bransfield Strait, seeing our first icebergs.
Early the next day we entered the Gerlache Strait, which separates Brabant Island from the Antarctic mainland. This was now the real Antarctica we had come to see — surreal beautiful sights, icebergs and snow covered islands, some dotted with penguins. After dropping anchor at Portal Point, we anxiously but eagerly donned our dry suits and collected all our kayaking gear. After climbing down a rope ladder to a Zodiac lashed alongside the ship we gingerly entered the kayak while each of the three vessels — ship, zodiac and kayak — moved up and down independently from each other. However, without too much hesitation we jumped into our awaiting kayaks and started our paddle into the lagoon. Cold hands were soon forgotten as we enjoyed the experience of gliding quietly through the icy Antarctic waters. Fantastic ice cliffs bordered the lagoon while amazing icebergs littered the waters. But the wind was picking up with an associated rising swell meaning a hasty return to the ship. After an undignified headfirst plunge into the awaiting Zodiac and a scramble up the rope ladder on the side of the ship we were both relieved and excited at having completed our first paddle in Antarctica. Shortly after a hearty dinner I was back kayaking with three others from the group along with the guide leaving the eight fellow kayakers on board. This time the conditions were perfect — calm waters, sun low in the sky and broken clouds resulting in a pastel and white magical world. The wind had calmed by this time.
The icebergs were beyond comprehension in colour and design — each one a unique piece of art that deserved closer inspection by kayak. Penguins and Weddell seals were observed and numerous photos taken. We were able to circumnavigate the small Enterprise Island. On the last stretch a few squalls and snow showers changed the mood of the experience, but too soon we were back on board. After a hot shower and hot chocolate drink, life could not be better.
On the next day our plan to paddle to Port Lockroy had to be hastily aborted. While all dressed and ready to launch the kayaks — one moment the bay was clear albeit windy, the next instant it was full of ice floes. The ship pulled anchor and headed south through the Lemaire Channel towards Pléneau Island. The sea ice became thicker the further south we went; it was fascinating to see the ship plough through the great blocks of ice. Eventually we ground to a halt at 65°09′ south when the captain negotiated with the expedition leader to turn around.
On day six we revisited Port Lockroy, a British base located in the middle of a Gentoo Penguin colony. After lunch in the Georges Point/Orne Island area we kayaked around a penguin colony and investigated icebergs and ice cliffs. We spotted a languid Leopard seal on an ice floe before dragging all the kayaks onto a flat iceberg and enjoying Cointreau and Baileys in the sunshine. This is living!
The following morning revealed a clear sunny day with little wind and calm seas — perfect for kayaking. After setting off to Paradise Harbour we checked out the Chilean base then followed the coast exploring icebergs, ice cliffs — which occasionally calved creating an almighty crash — and myriad wildlife: groups of penguins porpoising through the water, seals swimming past and various petrels, skuas and terns. After lunch we were back on the water kayaking again past the Chilean base and into Skontorp Cove. Again, we were able to closely observe a leopard seal which was on a small iceberg.
Another early morning pre-breakfast start saw us kayaking in perfectly calm conditions around Curverville Island. After breakfast we paddled at Hydrurga Rocks and after lunch I joined a small group in paddling again — this time in the Christiana Islands group. To save time on a lengthy circumnavigation of the island we dragged the kayaks across an isthmus. It was tricky relaunching the two double kayaks on the slippery rocks back into the sea amidst the swell and waves. Our guide Simon was able to manhandle our kayaks while in waist-deep water, ready to hoist us onto the water when the swell came in. Unfortunately, there was more sliding down the rocks than floating on the water for me — and out of the kayak and into the zero degree water went my paddling partner and me.
After the initial shock of the icy water we rapidly re-entered our boat with only our pride slightly hurt. We continued on the rest of our paddle, exploring amazing gorges and cliffs. The dry suits proved their worth; when undressing later in our cabin, only a small amount of water had leaked around my collar.
On day nine the ship entered the horseshoe-shaped Deception Island in the South Shetlands. Before breakfast, we were able to kayak back out into the open ocean via the narrow mouth opening — Neptunes Bellows — and explore the cliffs and caves on the outside of Deception Island in very calm conditions.
Deception Island was an old whalers station that has become inundated with volcanic ash, thereby preserving many old ruins — fascinating to walk around. After breakfast it was back kayaking for the last occasion. This time the ship had moved off Elephant Point, again in the South Shetlands.
We kayaked towards an elephant seal colony but as we neared land an inquisitive leopard seal swam up to our kayak. When his prehistoric-looking head rose out of the water just to my right I became (justifiably I feel) slightly anxious and (inadvisably!) encouraged Christine to paddle faster. This was like throwing a stick to a happy spaniel dog — the seal now wanted to play with us. He swam under us and around us, repeatedly emerging from the depths to look me in the eye and exhale over us.
Simon the guide came to our rescue, getting us to group up and slapping the surface of the water with his paddle. The seal lost interest and we were able to land on the beach amongst the grunting. roaring elephant seals and squealing Gentoo penguins with their hatchlings. It felt like being in the middle of one of those British wildlife documentaries.
The next three days were spent returning to Ushuaia across the Drake Passage via Cape Horn. In all we kayaked a total of 12 times, often three times a day. We were very lucky in having only one non kayakable day on the Peninsula, but it was not wasted as it made us appreciate a little of the conditions that are more often than not experienced here.
Kayaking allowed us to appreciate the beauty and magic of Antarctica on a very personal and physical level. The memories will be treasured for as long as we live, for it was such an honour to be in such a magnificent place.