Leave no trace: exploring the fragile frontiers of Antarctica and South Georgia

Across turbulent seas

My voyage began in the tourist-friendly port of Ushuaia in southern Patagonia, close to South America’s gracefully pointed toe. On a late-afternoon cruise through the Beagle Channel, the strait separating southern Chile and Argentina, I grin with excitement at the first penguins I see — a small raft of Magellanics, porpoising alongside at impressive speed. Later, as the fading light flattens the craggy mountains to silhouettes, fin whales and Peale’s dolphins appear. It’s a promising start. 

Keen to experience more than a fleeting glimpse of the frozen south, my trip is to be longer than most, visiting some of the best coastal sites on the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetlands and returning via the teeming penguin and seal colonies of South Georgia.

Beyond the Beagle Channel, a rite of passage begins. For two days, our ship bucks and rolls its way across the infamous Drake Passage, an ocean crossing so stormy that every object that isn’t permanently fixed takes on a life of its own. My cabin, incongruously (I now realise) furnished with open shelves, ends up looking like a poltergeist has done its worst.

As we become more accustomed to the ship’s unpredictable movements, I begin asking my fellow passengers whether they think the trip ahead will be worth it. Nobody falters.

“It’s all part of the adventure”, says a gung-ho Australian. “And I’m enjoying being among like-minded individuals: people who are interested in nature and curious, and brave. I think it’s telling that quite a few people on board are travelling solo, like me, and sharing with someone they’ve never met before. My cabin-mate is lovely. We feel we’re in the same boat. Literally! As long as we get some good weather later, I’m fine.”

Another, who’s travelled here before, confesses she’s hooked. “It’s the pure air”, she says. “They say Antarctica changes you, and it’s true. Next time, maybe I’ll push myself even further and try a sleep-out on the snow. A friend who tried it said they were expecting total silence, but got quite a symphony. There were birds chattering, glaciers booming and the ice going snap, crackle and pop. I can’t imagine anything more exciting!”

Weather worries are an understandable preoccupation for Antarctic tourists. We’ve all seen photos of gnarly polar adventurers with snowy eyelashes, icicled noses and frostbitten extremities. In 2020, however, the region experienced its highest ever recorded temperatures — exceeding 18C at the Peninsula’s northern tip — for the second year since 2015. In reality, I find it easy to stay comfortable, dressing from top to toe in breathable layers and protecting myself against sun, wind and sea. We quickly get used to the routine of descending to the ship’s mudroom to kit ourselves out in waterproofs, thick-soled rubber boots and compact lifejackets for the next adventure.

On our earliest forays, we watch the sunrise gild the glaciers edging the Neumayer and Lemaire Channels, skim across calm waters to our first penguin colonies, at Damoy Point, and see leopard seals lounging on pads of ice, their faces fixed in sinister, predatory smiles. This late in the summer, the leopards are well fed: plenty of fledgling Adélie and chinstrap penguins have already flopped into the water, risking the seals’ deadly jaws. The gentoos, which breed later, will be next; for now, the downy chicks remain on land, pestering their parents for food the moment they lurch back from their foraging trips.

Hungry young gentoos scurry around Port Lockroy’s historic huts and Royal Mail post office, while their elders inspect our dry bags and defend themselves against opportunistic sheathbills. We continue on to Pléneau Bay, where we admire icebergs that seem to glow from within, and to Trinity Island, where we tiptoe through a sculpture park of curvaceous ice and velvety seals. Later, on Petermann Island, we discover that Antarctic snow isn’t always white; as the climate warms, algae fertilised by penguin guano can tint it olive green or rose pink.

Neko Harbour and its near neighbour, the aptly named Paradise Bay, offer us another exciting first: a chance to set foot on the Antarctic mainland, pondering the dizzying notion that if we were to continue another 25 degrees south, climbing around 9,000ft in altitude, we’d reach the South Pole.

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