Antarctica is a destination that divides travellers like few others. There are those who have wished to visit the frozen continent since they first read about it at school. Others say they see little appeal in going somewhere so cold merely to look at a few penguins.
I first visited Antarctica on assignment as a travel writer in 1995 and fell in love with the place for its sense of space, its close link to heroic history and how irrelevant it makes humans seem. I have managed to return every summer since, first as a lecturer and Zodiac boat driver, and then for the past 15 years as a tourist expedition leader.
Each summer I approach the continent with renewed excitement for the adventures ahead. The Antarctic summer is short and hectic, but each phase of the season has enormous appeal. Much of Antarctica is covered in ice, so visitors and penguins alike all head for the scattered patches of exposed land.
The best time to visit depends on your interests. November has almost endless sunlight, so the snow looks at its pristine best. The penguins are just standing around, waiting for the snow to melt. By December, eggs have been laid and bird colonies are busy places with lots of comings and goings. Come the new year, the chicks have hatched, and by the end of January have formed teen gangs.
By mid-January, the whales – mainly humpbacks but often also minkes or orcas – have eaten enough food that they may become curious about boats in the area. February has long periods of actual night, so it’s great time for viewing sunrises and sunsets. As well, penguin chicks are fledgling and the adults are going through their annual moult. The chance of whale encounters increases. By the end of the month, penguin colonies are being deserted, there are whales everywhere and ice may start to form.
Polar veterans often confess that they were lured to Antarctica by the wildlife but returned for the ice. Frank Worsley, captain of the doomed Endurance during famed polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 expedition, waxed lyrical about the ice that was to destroy his ship: “Swans of weird shape pecked at our planks, a gondola steered by a giraffe ran foul of us, which much amused a duck sitting on a crocodile’s head.”
A cruise in Zodiac boats through a field of icebergs reveals infinite shades of blue and green. The shapes, too, create a giant sculpture garden and maze. This is where you will find crabeater or Weddell seals sunbathing on ice floes, while leopard seals patrol for unlucky penguins.
The history and exploration of Antarctica is very neatly contained in a 250-year period that began with Captain James Cook in 1773 and continues today. Of course, the early 20th century was the heroic age of Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and Douglas Mawson, but the more you delve into the history of Antarctic exploration the more you find: the Swedish expedition of 1901-04 under Otto Nordenskjöld reads like a Hollywood script of scattered crew, sunken ship, stranded scientists and eventual reunion and survival.
In situ, the feats of these “iron men in wooden ships” are even more remarkable. You can walk in their paths, see their huts or shelters and visit the graves of Shackleton and Frank Wild. The huts of the early scientists and whalers also still exist. I know of one that still has the cards recording the 1950s husky breeding program.
On South Georgia Island, you can retrace the last section of the path Shackleton and his companions walked into Stromness whaling station and eventual rescue in 1916. The island lies inside the Antarctic Convergence (where the cold water of the Southern Ocean meets the warmer waters of the South Atlantic) and the wealth of nutrients results in an abundance of wildlife.
Sunset on South Georgia Island. Photo: Getty Images
This is where you may encounter a beach crowded with hundreds of thousands of king penguins battling for occupancy rights with some five million fur seals and noisy, rancid wallows of moulting elephant seals. It’s also where, later in the summer, you may have the rare privilege of seeing wandering albatross on their nests. Watching them conduct a courtship dance with their 3.5- metre wings extended is truly awesome.
As a tour leader, I find what really bonds Antarctic tourists together is the two-day crossing each way across the Drake Passage. It can be rough. I’ve spent more than a year of my life on the Drake and estimate it’s very rough 10 per cent of the time, flat calm another 10 per cent and somewhere in between for the majority of crossings. But there’s now an array of sea sickness remedies to take when required and, if necessary, go to bed for the entire crossing.
Every bay along the Antarctic Peninsular is crowded with glaciers. It’s a scene of extraordinary beauty with evocative place names like Paradise Harbour and Crystal Sound. On the average holiday you hope there will be at one or two special experiences that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. In Antarctica these magical moments occur several times every day. It’s an intense, gratifying, otherworldly destination.