- The journey to Antarctica isn’t easy. It consists of a string of flights and a two-day sail on a Russian ship in Ushuaia
- Flooded by an abundance of wildlife including napping seals, penguins diving and birds swooping through the sky
- Prices for a 14-day Antarctic Circle voyage with One Ocean start at £7,570 per person, with kayaking option for £550
Two Buddhist monks had been on the same trip, down below the Antarctic Circle, before our voyage.
Why had they picked the coldest, driest and windiest spot on the world for their pilgrimage? I was told they wanted to witness the purity of the seventh continent in all its glory.
After following in their footsteps, I can say that for anyone who goes to Antarctica it unintentionally becomes a sacred experience.
Shades of blue: The seventh continent is spectacular and for anyone who visits, it unintentionally becomes a sacred experience
Antarctica is made up of skyscraper icebergs rolling into the horizon, a whispering silence carried by the winds and pristine, and untouched snow glistening intermittently in the dewy light
After a string of flights from London to Patagonia, Sadie boarded a Russian ship in Ushuaia then began a two-day sail down through some of the world’s roughest seas
Eventually, on the fifth day it was announced that they had crossed the Antarctic Circle and hit 66°33’ 46.1” south of the Equator
Skyscraper icebergs rolling into the horizon, a whispering silence carried by the winds and pristine, untouched snow glistening intermittently in the dewy light.
Like many pilgrimages, the journey to Antarctica isn’t easy. For us, it started with a string of flights from London to Patagonia. Then, after finally boarding our solid-looking Russian ship in Ushuaia – the southernmost city in the world – we began a two-day sail down through some of the world’s roughest seas.
Staff from the Canadian-based company running the expedition, One Ocean, had kindly lined the handrails on the ship with sick bags and the bar downstairs was decked out with non-slip mats. Lying in bed, the room appeared to spin around me (I’d only had one glass of wine!) and showering with a razor suddenly became a potentially fatal exercise.
Luckily my boyfriend, who I was travelling with, had managed to source some seasickness patches. The little plaster-like patches, which affix just behind the ear, really were a miracle and I managed to retain my appetite at mealtimes without emergency exits.
To reach the home of numerous wildlife, including this seal, many of the holidaymakers on the expedition suffered from sea sickness
Happy feet: The expedition were greeted by the sight of rocky hilltops lined with hundreds of penguins socialising
An Adelie penguin leaps through the air, hopping over cracks and crevices in the ground
For four days we bobbed around through a haze of mist and violent salt spray. Hit by cabin fever, I attempted using the gym treadmill one day but it proved to be quite a challenge with my legs unexpectedly levitating as we hit a big wave.
Eventually, on the fifth day it was announced that we had crossed the Antarctic Circle and hit 66°33’ 46.1” south of the Equator. With mulled wine to hand, all of the passengers gave a celebratory cheer on deck with the sun putting in a welcome appearance.
In total there were 100 people on board hailing from all walks of life, from photographers and surfers to lawyers, bankers and retirees. Surprisingly there were lots of Brits on board, intermixed with Australians, Americans and Chinese.
With the seas reducing to a gentle lilt, we marked the Antarctic Circle crossing with our first off-ship excursion. One Ocean offered a kayaking option for an extra cost, and luckily my boyfriend and I managed to secure a place as part of the group. Our first paddle into the glassy waters took us around Detaille Island, the site of a former British science base, which closed in 1959 and preserved as a historical visitor site.
Peaceful surrounds: As they crossed the Antarctic Circle with mulled wine to hand, all of the passengers gave a celebratory cheer on deck with the sun putting in a welcome appearance.
With it being summer in Antarctica, Sadie was blessed with ideal conditions; blue skies, bright sun and minimal wind
During kayaking holidaymakers can whizz through the vast landscape weaving in and out of ice fields to get up-close to nature
Sadie takes the dreaded ‘polar plunge’ where it is tradition on Antarctic excursions to whip off your clothes and take a swim in the freezing waters (pictured left). The landscape provided an enchanting backdrop for Sadie to photograph (pictured right)
With it being summer in Antarctica, we were blessed with ideal conditions; blue skies, bright sun and minimal wind. However, I later discovered that it was also the perfect weather for a nice bit of Antarctic sunburn, with my chin ripening to a painful shade of pink.
Paddling through the chunks of ice on our first day, we spotted scores of Adelie penguins hopping overs cracks and crevices. Rocky hilltops were lined with hundreds of bobbling birds, crowing to their heart’s content. One thing you don’t learn from watching nature documentaries is what the ‘cute’ animals smell like. Be warned, penguin poop is a pretty powerful odour. Similar to cigarette smoke, the ‘eau de guano’ appeared to linger in my hair with a soapy shower being the only cure.
Along with kayaking, we also went out in small groups aboard zodiac boats James Bond-style. Whizzing through the vast landscape, we would weave in and out of ice fields to get up-close to nature. Each day we saw an abundance of wildlife. Weddell seals napping incessantly, penguins ducking and diving and birds swooping through the crisp blue skies.
One thing you don’t learn from watching nature documentaries, says Sadie, is what the ‘cute’ animals smell like. Penguin poop is a pretty powerful odour similar to cigarette smoke, she reveals
Our kayak guides even plucked out a krill one day – a tiny translucent shrimp, which serves as the main food source for most species in the area. The one animal most people still hadn’t ticked off their ‘spotted’ list, was a whale. Shortly after crossing the Antarctic Circle a lucky few had spied a pack of Orcas in the distance before they descended into the deep but since then there had been little fin action. Keen to get up close to some of the world’s biggest mammals, we cruised towards Wilhelmina Bay. With a healthy krill population in this stretch of 100ft-deep-water, humpbacks are aplenty, along with other species of whale such as minkes and orcas.
I felt a bit vulnerable heading out on to the water in my dinky kayak but the guides reassured us that the whales would keep their distance and not attempt any funny business.
So the lot of us headed out in our vessels, with cameras strung around our necks to capture any action. Everything was still for several minutes and then all of a sudden we heard a triumphant blow of air as a whale surfaced somewhere nearby. Stopping to locate our friend we saw a dark grey mass of flesh gracefully move through the inky waters just meters away. It was incredible sitting so close to the whales and everyone appeared to have permanent smiles fixed to their faces.
A mother and calf were next to appear just a few feet behind someone’s kayak and again we were all stunned into silence. At the end of the day, back in the boat bar for the daily happy hour, everyone shared their photographs with some incredible shots to boot; whale tails slipping into the ocean, humps rising and falling, spurts of water being fired into the sky.
Up close and personal: A seal and penguin bask in the Antarctica sunshine. It was warmer than Sadie anticipated and as well as getting sunburned, she enjoyed a BBQ-style dinner out on deck
Sadie spotted several Weddell seals whiling away their days napping on a vast blue chunks of ice
When we weren’t out exploring the Antarctic wilds there was plenty of time on board our boat – the Akademik Ioffe – to gather our thoughts. Each expedition day would start with a 7:30am wake-up call alerting us to the fact that breakfast would be served at 8:00am. The expeditions generally left at 9:00am, returning at 11:00am with lunch served at 12:00pm.
The afternoon expeditions wouldn’t leave until 3:00pm, so there was time to nap or upload the hundreds of photographs we’d all been taking. A 7.30pm dinner was preceded by ‘happy hour’, where the legendary duo, Craig and Ian, would rustle up some warming cocktails. Everyone’s favourite social occurred on day eight when the weather was so beautiful dinner was served BBQ-style out on deck. The Australian chef even donned a short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt as he flipped shrimp on the grill. Snow-covered mountains, lining the banks of the Lemaire Channel, served as our backdrop as the sun slowly descended.
Another highlight had to be an excursion to the working Ukrainian Antarctic station, the Vernadsky Research Base. The science base – acquired from the British for £1 in 1996 – is home to the ‘Southernmost bar in the World’. And for the ladies, a bra will earn you a free drink. Testing the tradition, I purchased a pretty tasteless pink, diamante bustier in Ushuaia and whipped it out on my visit to Vernadsky. Confirming the ritual, the smiley barman swiftly served me up a glass of red wine. He then allowed me behind the bar to hang up my underwear with remnants from past visitors. We had been promised a Ukrainian moonshine vodka concoction but their homemade brew appeared to be out-of-stock the day we visited.
With a healthy krill population in Wilhelmina Bay, humpbacks are aplenty, along with other species of whale such as minkes and orcas
The expeditions generally left at 9:00am, returning at 11:00am with lunch served at 12:00pm. The afternoon expeditions wouldn’t leave until 3:00pm, so there was time to nap or upload the hundreds of wildlife photographs that the group had been taking
With the trip nearing an end there was still one thing on everyone’s minds, the dreaded ‘polar plunge’. Apparently it’s tradition on Antarctic excursions to whip off your clothes and take a swim in the freezing waters. Our turn came on day eleven during a visit to Deception Island – one of four volcanoes in the world that you can actually sail into.
It was rather surreal steering into the eerie bay, once home to a bustling whaling station, with mist rolling over the volcanic rocks. We moored up close to the rusting, derelict factory and made our way on shore.
Before our frosty swim we went for a quick hike to get our hearts pounding. Unfortunately, a snow shower interrupted the sunny weather we’d had for the majority of the trip and the thought of minus-degree water became increasingly less appealing.
A paddle into the glassy waters took Sadie and her boyfriend around Detaille Island, the site of a former British science base, which closed in 1959 and preserved as a historical visitor site
The destination is flooded by an abundance of wildlife including napping seals, penguins diving and birds swooping through the sky
A visit to the ‘frozen desert’ is often life-changing for those who make the pilgrimage and find themselves yearning for a return to the ice and freezing winds. Pictured is a refuge hut built by Argentina in 1955 on Petermann Island
The remains of a whaling station at Whalers Bay, Deception Island – one of the few places in the world where boats can sail directly into a volcano
However, after a quick pep talk I was ready to tackle the polar plunge and readily stripped down to my bikini. To minimise exposure to the cold I quickly sprinted along the black sand beach and dived headfirst into the sea. It took me a good few seconds to get my breath back. Once I’d got my bearings, I lumbered ashore and attempted to pull on my clothes with chattering teeth. It was then a quick zodiac ride back to the boat before I made a fervent expedition to the ship’s outdoor hot tub.
That night, we started our voyage back through the Drake Passage towards Ushuaia and the sick bags silently reappeared. Speaking to people they all agreed it had been an incredible experience visiting the frozen desert. One woman said how ‘insignificant’ she’d felt in amongst the icebergs and another man told him the trip had made him feel ‘humble’ – a sentiment echoed by many.
During our voyage one couple from the UK had chose to mark the occasion by getting married, another man from California had brought his mother’s ashes to scatter in the endless blue. ‘Now I’ve got a reason to come back and visit,’ he told me, ‘to see mum’. The ship’s onboard photographer and BBC wildlife photographer of the year award winner, Ira Meyer, had warned me that Antarctica could be infectious. And now I see his point. Never did I think I’d be hankering after ice and freezing winds.