Emily Payne en route to Antarctica on icebergs, defecating penguins and Drake Passage Disasters: Part 1

It’s almost impossible not to empathise with the smugness of  Roald Amundsen as you finally spot an iceberg on the horizon, after two days at sea in hazardous conditions. We’ve only gone and got to Antarctica. And while Amundsen’s self-satisfaction stemmed from beating Scott to be the first the South Pole, I can imagine what some of those first explorers: William Smith and Thaddeus von Bellingshausen and a gaggle of men on the hunt for seal fur, felt when they spotted the South Shetland islands. Shiver my timbers.

The iceberg, a dot of white against the sky, was like a catalyst for other worldliness. As soon as it appeared, the weather became moody – grey clouds lowered around us – suddenly there were birds everywhere, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up.  Black and white Cape pigeons darted past our porthole; huge, heavy looking skuas on a break from penguin hunting air-plodded past and tiny gentoo penguins speedily weaved up and over the waves.

As we got closer to the icebergs of half moon island, what would be our first landing, the ice masses became bluer, the rocks sheerer and sharper and the silence more enveloping.

In our small groups, we suited and booted  – I soon resembled a gortex-coated beached whale – and were taken to the landing boats. The rocky beach was crowded with hefty fur seals and chinstrap penguins that seemed to almost enjoy each other’s company.

Setting foot on the shore felt monumental in some way. Then, as I crouched down to take my first photo of penguin, I fell over a rock and subtly tried to get up without anyone noticing. The penguins, also inept at traversing the pebbly ground were charming, inquisitive, enjoyed projectile defecating in my direction and showed a brilliant lack of awareness, waddling right up to us.

Also ignoring us were the fur and Weddell seals harrumphing in the surf. Occasionally, when someone got too close, they’d bark like a dog, elevate the front part of their body and then appear to want to charge. Usually that’s just a threat, but I’m told that once a year a tourist gets bitten by one of these cute looking creatures.

I cornered MS Fram’s resident ornithologist Manuel, who gave me an interesting insight into the vicious sex lives of penguins – you can tell the females by the scratches on their back  – and educated me about scavenging sheathbills, by dangling a penguin corpse dangerously close to my head.

Rewinding to the ‘hazardous’ conditions of the Drake Passage,  there’s a school of thought that says YouTubing things like ‘Drake Passage Disasters’ before embarking on the so-called world’s roughest stretch of water is unwise.

The End of the World

So arriving in Ushuaia, not only was I stunned to see the world’s most southerly city, its glacier topped mountains and washed out, apocalyptic scenery, I was also imagining near death, being tossed around like the cruise ship from the video, was hardly surprising.

In the end, we had lovely weather. The sun shone and while the use of handrails was non negotiable, I soon dispatched of my acupressure bands and happily enjoyed the gentle bobbing of a boat on moderate swell.

On board there are around 200 passengers, of 15 nationalities, representing the Americas, Asia and Europe. There’s a swathe of breathable fabric and Nordic walking sticks and I’ve spotted the doppelgangers of both David Attenborough and Rupert Murdoch. No prizes who’d be more welcome on this voyage.

Read Emily’s Nile Cruise blog