Broadcaster Sue Cook follows Shackleton’s Antarctica journey on board a polar research ship for the adventure cruise of a lifetime
It’s the smell we notice first, as our Zodiac inflatable dinghy nears the stony, snow-powdered beach; a musky mixture of seal and penguin guano. Then, as we wade though the shallows to shore, it’s the sound. A mixture of hoots and high-pitched squeaks.
We shed our lifejackets and head up the rocky foreshore, the white peaks of South Georgia ahead of us. King penguins straggle past us in groups of a dozen or so, heading to or from the sea.
Finally, as we climb the grassy ridge and look down, the sight takes our breath away. King penguins as far as the eye can see. A quarter of a million of them. A sea of black, white and russet brown with splashes of yellow.
The brown is the penguin chicks. They look like characters from a children’s movie; ungainly big fluffy things. Some trail behind a parent in the hope of a nice gobbet of regurgitated lantern fish, others stand about looking at a bit of a loose end, presumably waiting for Mum and Dad to get back from their fishing trip. From time to time, one or two of them will get a burst of energy for no apparent reason and rush around the colony flapping their flippers and bowling other kids over. Two hours go by in a flash, so absorbing is it just watching these comical, fascinating creatures.
We’re eight days into our voyage on the Russian polar research ship Akademik Sergey Vavilov, but already, the concept of time is losing its significance. Our journey is a special one.
Not only are we heading for the most beautiful and unspoilt wilderness on the planet, we are also following in the tracks of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s famous ‘Imperial Antarctic Expedition’ on board Endurance 100 years ago. Aiming to cross the continent from one side to the other, his mission failed when his ship became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea, but the survival and eventual rescue of those 28 men remains one of the most astonishing adventure stories of all time.
Our vessel is a good deal more robust than Endurance of course. The ice-strengthened Sergey Vavilov is a veteran of voyages to both poles. Stable and quiet, it’s one of the most advanced research vessels at sea. The grey-bearded Captain Beluga has been plying these waters longer than the ship has and I feel we’re in the safest of hands. We’ve been warned that our itinerary will be subject to change. The weather is the guiding force, and nothing is definite until the next day’s forecast comes through at around 4pm. The further south we go, the more capricious – and potentially devastating – the winds can be.
Like Shackleton, we set off from Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina; a town which seems to be described both as the ‘Gateway to Antarctica’ and ‘The End of the Earth’. And, like Shackleton, our next port of call after Ushuaia is the Falklands. Remembering the TV news reports during the Falklands conflict in 1982, I’d expected a lonely, bleak, rocky place. Instead we find friendly people, blue skies and beaches and abundant wildlife. It’s the chill in the wind that reminds us that we were actually in Sub-Antarctica.
On West Falkland, we hiked to see a rookery of nesting black-browed albatrosses living alongside the cutest little penguins called rock-hoppers. On East Falkland, we spend a day at Port Stanley, where it seems odd to be thousands of miles from home and yet hear English voices, see red phone boxes in the street and pay with English money.
My fellow passengers, 92 of them, range in age from 18 to nearly 80 and from the start there’s a convivial atmosphere. There are teachers, scientists, accountants, a geologist, a couple of doctors, a retired florist, and even a woman who flew a helicopter round the world, but the one thing we all have in common is an interest in polar explorations – and in particular, Shackleton’s expedition.
Ten of our companions are descendants of Endurance’s crew. One of them, Alexandra Shackleton, is Sir Ernest’s great granddaughter. It’s the trip of a lifetime for all of us – but particularly so for them. Every place on the itinerary has a special significance. As the rugged grandeur of the South Georgia coastline comes into sight, there’s an air of excitement as we struggle into our bright red waterproof outer garments (‘wet-skins’), rubber boots and lifejackets. We’ll soon be setting foot on King Haakon Bay, the very beach where Shackleton finally found land in the hope of organising a rescue party for the 22 men he’d left behind on Elephant Island. Few have set foot there, either before or since. I feel very privileged to be here.
Luckily the weather around South Georgia is kind to us for the next four days and the ship is able to take us within Zodiac distance of every place we’d hoped to see. For the Endurance descendants, perhaps the most significant of these is the now disused whaling station at Grytviken, where an exhausted Ernest Shackleton and two companions arrived to summon up help after a gruelling 36-hour trek across the island’s jagged mountain range. ‘The Boss’ as his men called him, died in 1922 and is buried in a little cemetery just up the hill from all the rusting old machinery. The ashes of his right hand man, Frank Wild, were recently interred at his side. Near the cemetery is a little wooden church where Ice Tracks has organised a service to honour the great man and his men. Those with links to Endurance give readings and hymns are sung accompanied by a banjo, strummed by the ship’s resident ornithologist, Simon Boyes.
On board Sergey Vavilov next morning we see our first icebergs; little bits of ‘brash ice’ recently calved from a nearby glacier. They make a wonderful popping, crackling sound. One floats by below us with a fur seal sitting upon it, posing obligingly for our cameras.
Our last call on South Georgia is Gold Harbour – the smile on my face from that visit lasted all afternoon. It’s wonderful to quietly hang out with so much wildlife – king penguins, and the smaller gentoo penguins with little pink feet, fur seals and lumbering elephant seals.
For the next four days, we’ll be heading south on the Scotia Sea. I’m in a twin cabin, sharing with a girlfriend. Not spacious, but there’s enough storage space for everything we’ve brought with us, and the bunks are surprisingly comfortable. In fact I sleep better during this voyage than I usually do at home; a combination of the gentle rocking motion, the action-packed days and abundant fresh sea air.
There’s plenty to do during our ‘at sea’ days. We spend time up on the observation deck or on the bridge, watching out for wildlife. When anyone spots a swimming seal, a dolphin or humpback whale, the shout goes out on the tannoy to ensure we all get the chance to rush out on deck with our binoculars and cameras. Seals swim across our bows, almost playing ‘chicken’, looking back at us over their shoulders as they pass. Sometimes we see a little shoal of penguins porpoising across the ocean. Albatrosses swoop round us, and flocks of black-and-white cape petrels fly alongside the ship for miles. They are a stunning sight, keeping pace with us, the sun glinting on their wings. I make sure I stand near to bird expert Simon, who’s always out on deck to identify different species and offer information. All the staff are terrific. They’ve all done a bit of adventuring themselves and we soon recognise we’re in good hands. They do everything – driving the Zodiacs, serving in the bar, watching over us all during our visits on land; cheerful and always around for advice or information.
When we aren’t wildlife spotting, there’s a full programme of lectures on board, some of them about Shackleton and other polar explorers. Another, by the ship’s photographer, gives tips on making the most of our cameras.
There’s a library for quiet reading as well as a gym and spa. The lounge bar on the observation deck is also a great place to drop in to. Before breakfast there are fresh smoothies and all-day coffee and tea. Before dinner is Happy Hour with bar prices halved. Someone introduced me to the perfect cocktail to combat seasickness – vodka on ice with ginger ale and chopped fresh ginger. I get into the routine of having one every evening, just in case. After dinner ‘fireside chats’ – short informal talks – are given by either a guide or by a fellow passenger. After only a few days, we feel like we’ve known each other for years.
In the early hours of the 12th day, we cross the magic 60ºS latitude line. When we awake, we’re in Antarctica proper. Shortly after breakfast our companions with links to Shackleton were thrilled to be passing Elephant Island where the crew of Endurance were marooned for over a year. We’d been hoping to land there but it was too rough and rugged for the ship to get near – nobody has landed there for years.
As we near the seventh continent itself, the scenery becomes more and more beautiful. We make Zodiac trips to several of the South Shetland Islands where terracotta coloured patches in the snow mark the presence of colonies of little gentoo and chinstrap penguins. Before visiting each new place, there’s a ‘vacuum party’ in the mudroom, where we hoover our wet-skins and disinfect our boots to prevent transference of any bacteria or seeds from the previous place. And we always keep to the other rule for Antarctic visitors – to stay five metres away from the wildlife. Not that the penguins take any notice of that. They happily waddle or toboggan right by us. One elephant seal pup is determined to nuzzle at my leg and simply won’t take no for an answer, gazing up at me with huge soulful brown eyes.
The day we arrive at the aptly named Paradise Bay will live in my heart for ever. Strolling out onto the deck after lunch, the scene is literally breathtaking. Our ship is gliding almost silently into what I can only describe as like fairyland. We are surrounded by snow-covered peaks standing out against a turquoise coloured sky and swathed in strands of white cloud and vapour. Icebergs with startling blue undersides, glisten in the sun, casting astonishing reflections in the mirror-like water. In this magical setting, we clamber into the Zodiacs and nip around the icebergs towards the shore. Once on land, the sun is so warm that we take off our padded jackets and climb up a steepish, snow-covered slope to take in the vista from the top. Going back down, the snow littered with disguised ice holes, walking is laborious, so some of us decide to slide down, lying back and slaloming all the way down like on a waterslide. What an extraordinary, exhilarating, life-affirming day.
The crew top it off by holding a barbecue for us on deck. Some people stay up till 3am to watch the sunset/sunrise. That far south at this time of year, it’s daylight almost continuously. The sun just scoops below the surface and pops straight back up again, underlighting the clouds. I don’t stay up myself, but those who do get some gorgeous photos.
Heading for home comes almost as a surprise; it feels as if I’ve been in another dimension. The notorious seas of the Drake Passage await on the way back to Ushuaia. We cruise serenely past Cape Horn, hardly able to believe how many intrepid sailors have come to grief in these waters over the years.
Back home, I know that the serenity and unspoiled beauty of Antarctica will stay in a corner of my soul for the rest of my life.
GETTING THERE: The 100th anniversary of the sinking of Endurance is on 21 November 2015. Ice Tracks Expeditions offers the Shackleton Centenary Voyage 2015 from 21 November-10 December 2015 (18 nights) in association with the Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute. This cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina calls at Tierra del Fuego National Park, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, Elephant Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. Prices from £9,094pp and include hotels and transfers, but not flights (ice-tracks.com).
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