The next day, we experienced a little bit of ‘autumnal’ Antarctica. March is the end of the season (as evidenced by the Penguin post office having already shut down for the winter) and as such, the weather can be a bit more variable. We had a ‘plan A’ of sailing into Booth Island, a place situated in a bay with a ‘graveyard’ of icebergs. But by the time we arrived there in the morning, it was far to windy for us to land.
But no worries for our crew! They luckily had a plan B (and C and D) and weren’t afraid to implement it. We headed down to Peterman Island, which was thankfully much calmer. It’s amazing how you can ‘turn a corner’ in Antarctica and experience some totally different weather. It was still grey and snowy, but at least the wind was manageable. Here, we saw a new species – Adelie penguins! (they’re the ones with Mexican accents in Happy Feet) – and fur seals fighting on the beach and one dared to attack a passenger who had lain down on the ground to take a photo! Luckily, a passing expedition member helped to fend him off, but it was a close call.
It was a worthy reminder of the dangers of Antarctica. So, too, was a cross planted on the shoreline. It was put up in honour of three British scientists who, on one of their days off, decided to climb Mount Scott on the opposite shore. They were never seen again. Just like the weather, the ice and the glaciers can turn on you in a second – crevasses opening beneath your feet, and sheets of ice shifting and carrying you away.
But still, so much good scientific work is being done down here. And it was nice to get a real reminder of that, as our next (and very unexpected) stop was at Vernadsky base – a working Ukrainian research centre, and the most Southerly stop of our cruise. They welcomed us with open arms, and gave us a tour around their work and living quarters. It was fascinating to think of these men (and it is all men) working here all winter long. The Vernadsky base (previously the British Faraday base) was where the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was discovered. It’s also the home of the most Southerly pub in the world! It has a really great story – a carpenter who was sent wood to build a boatshed, instead built a pub. He got fired for his ingenuity, but his legend lives on. They will exchange a shot of vodka for a bra. Hey, when in Antarctica!
The next day, we headed back North again – this time, to Paradise. Antarctica threw us another curve ball, which was snow (this is actually pretty unusual for Antarctica as it’s the driest desert in the world). The water was too cold to melt the snow, but it was perfectly still, giving us our first experience of ‘pancake ice’.
There were loads of seals lazing about on the ice – crab eater seals and Weddell seals – lazy buggers! But you really got a sense of the scale of the glaciers from the zodiacs here. The landscape was just stunning, and exactly what you would expect from typical Antarctica.
We then moved on to Danko Island, and the sun came out again! Hurrah! It is really something else when the sun comes out in Antarctica. The light is just so incredibly beautiful. Even looking through my pictures (and I stress, I am *NOT* a good photographer by any means) I’m amazed by how they came out.
Yet the most amazing experience was still yet to come (I do apologize for how the superlatives are flying left, right and centre but I cannot stress how much this trip has changed my scale for ‘amazing’). As we settled down for yet another delicious dinner (the food on this trip has been unreal), we heard a call from the bridge: Whales at 1 o’clock. I rushed out onto the bow in just my ballet slippers and the liner of my parka (no… not warm enough by any means!) and thankfully had my camera with me. Humpback whales surrounded the boat.
Okay, okay. I’m not describing this well at all. I mean, humpback whales surrounded the boat. I’ve been on whale watching-specific cruises before, and I’ve spent a lot of time scanning the horizon for those tell-tale blows. There was no need for scanning here. Blows were going off like fireworks in the water, everywhere you looked – on the horizon or close to the boat, on the starboard or port side. There must have been hundreds of whales in the water.
I ran inside once my fingers began freezing in that permanent ‘shooting’ position and the camera had to be practically cracked from my hands. I went up to the dining room, which has panoramic views out over the bow. I loaded up my plate full of South American buffet. But the show wasn’t over yet.
Just in front of the bow, a playful humpback started slapping the waves with his flippers and tail, jumping up out of the water in front of us. Everywhere I turned my head there were whales, and the sunset was staining the sky rosy pinks and dusky purples. As corny as it sounds, I couldn’t help the tears that welled up in my eyes. It was honestly something truly special – and I will never, ever forget it.