Rime ice begins to coat the decks as we head south towards the Antarctic Peninsula. Our first tabular iceberg come into view as we churn our way towards the South Shetland Islands. We discover that icebergs are handy resting points for chinstrap penguins in this vast ocean! After 2 days’ sailing in a boisterous sea and gale force 10 winds, we manage to land at Point Wild on Elephant Island. The spot was made famous when Shackleton’s Endurance expedition went horribly wrong and the ship was crushed by sea ice. The men hauled three life-boats across the ice and finally found solid ground at the extreme end of the South Shetland Islands, only to find that their first landing point was too exposed to afford the cold, starving men any relief. They finally settled on this tiny neck of ice and rock, backed by glaciers, but with a pyramid of rock offering some level of protection from the prevailing winds.
Our landing is a rare event – we are told only one in ten expeditions manage to make a landing here. It is a brief visit in any event – the winds can change at any time, and it would not have been easy to rescue 105 passengers from this stormy place. So we are taken in small groups and allowed just a few minutes to step ashore and inspect the bronze bust of the captain of the Yelcho (the Chilean vessel that rescued the men in April 1916), surrounded by an audience of slumbering chinstrap penguins. I try to imagine 22 men here, living in two upturned lifeboats, and Frank Hurley’s image comes to mind.
The Screaming Sixties
Next stop: the Antarctic Peninsula! We are finally surrounded by sea ice and pushing our way through it to our landing point at Brown Bluff. After the stormy conditions of the last couple of days, we cruise beneath a gloriously clear blue sky and into calm waters covered with white ‘lotus flowers’ – my name for the newly-forming pancake ice as the floating ice pieces collide and curl up at the edges. This is perhaps my favourite part of the voyage – I love, love, love the sea ice! It seems to be alive, constantly moving and circling and joining and separating. I find it entrancing to simply watch. When my zodiac is finally lowered into the ice, we find ourselves pushed up against the hull of the ship until our driver backs out of the pack and negotiates the spaces between the ice to reach a black pebby landing point with an icy overhang. We step out onto continental Antarctica!
Over the next few days we cruise through ice in all shapes and sizes and colours – the blue ice is unbelievably intense. Sailing in the Bransfield Strait between the Peninsula and South Shetlands, we discover that chinstrap and Gentoo penguins are particularly fond of the cold. At Cierva Cove we reach our furthest south (latitude 64 deg South), and at Bailey Head it starts to snow.
Our last stop of the voyage at Half Moon Bay yields some surprises. After a stroll through falling snow and clusters of chinstrap penguins, we discover a lone macaroni penguin huddled with a chinstrap colony. Apparently ‘Elvis’ (as the crew named him) is an annual visitor to this colony, although his own colony would be much further north. I decide to take the ‘polar plunge’ – complete with thick falling snow, below zero water temperature, and floating pieces of ice! It takes several hours for the blood to return to my feet!
For the next two days we sail over the notoriously stormy Drake Passage between the Antarctic and South America, although I have to say that ours was a remarkably benign crossing.
Finally, Cape Horn comes into view. I have always imagined what the Horn must be like – the ‘sailors’ graveyard’ – and I confess it does look threatening as it looms on the horizon. Our own rounding of the Horn is quite sedate, however, and we enter the Beagle Channel as evening falls, dropping anchor in the harbour of Ushuaia.