“We were the fools who could not rest
In the dull earth we left behind
But burned with passion for the South
And drank strange frenzy from its wind
The world where wise men sit at ease
Fades from our unregretful eyes
And thus across unchartered seas
We stagger on our enterprise”
– EH Shackleton July,1916
In February this year, we – a bunch of modern day ‘Epic Explorers’- crossed the dreaded Drake Passage by air in the latest down and gortex gear to join the luxury vessel, Ocean Nova, for what was a most amazing journey into Antarctica.
We were blessed with calm seas and sunny weather and a daily display of incredible biodiversity with a backdrop of glaciers, icebergs and snow capped mountains. 5 days on the ship flew past and we really experienced all Antarctica has to offer with opportunity to walk with penguins, snow shoe to the top of the hills, zodiac or kayak with the seals and whales. Or simply sit quietly and soak up the sheer enormity of the landscape, listening to the earth crack and groan under the extreme weight of ice and snow.
We saw many species of penguins (Gentoo, Adelie, King, Chinstrap) and seals (Weddel, Fur, Leopard, Elephant, Crabeater). We also saw orcas, whales, and birds as well as algae, salp and krill which is the driving force of this ecosystem. The ship’s crew kept us well informed – where we had been and what we had seen each day with maps, check lists, photos and an info session before dinner each night.
Early one morning, 3 humpback whales sent a spray of water past my cabin window. What a wakeup call! I couldn’t get my 20 layers of clothes on fast enough to race out onto the deck to see them. And that was the beginning of an amazing couple of hours. The whales dive like synchronised swimmers, waving their flukes as they work together to spin a net of air at depth. The ‘bubble net’ rises to the surface, trapping the krill into a neat ball, which they follow up filling their huge pleated mouths, filtering the water through their baleen.
Opportunistic birds all wait at the surface to share the food. I learnt about this behaviour while studying to be a marine biologist in the early 80s and I can’t describe the joy of seeing it played out live in front of me.
Watch the Epic Antarctica Highlights video here
Another surreal encounter was the day the crew hurried us into our gear and onto the zodiacs to enjoy a pod of 40 orcas. They played with a gentoo penguin, tossing it between them. And their curiosity brought them close to the zodiac, for a look at us watching them. I admit to hearing the music from Jaws as they swam under our boat.
An eye-opener was a visit to Pauletter Island where a Swedish Antarctic Expedition built a very small stone hut in 1901 where 19 men were forced to spend winter after their ship sunk. The penguins were comical as they hopped in and out of the front door.
The camaraderie amongst the Epic Explorers was also a highlight. There were a lot of laughs along the way as we waddled around in all our gear like penguins, attempted the odd jumping shot, stamped our passports on the 7th continent, drank pisco sours with 30,000 year old glacial ice and took the zero degree polar plunge.