Antarctica: a dreamscape voyage through the big chill

The continent that belongs to everyone and no one is both awesome and fragile, its beauty monumental and ethereal.
Hikers' view of Ponant's *Le Soléal* anchored off Danco Island.

Hikers' view of Ponant's Le Soléal anchored off Danco Island.

James Geer

One night in London, Frank Worsley dreamed he was steering a ship through icebergs as they floated along Burlington Street in Piccadilly. Propelled by the power of premonition, he rushed out to the street next morning, noticed a nameplate for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, went in and was interviewed on the spot. The veteran New Zealand seaman walked out with a new job, as captain of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance, and a new destiny as the right-hand man in one of the greatest survival tales of all time.

For Worsley and me and probably millions more dreamers, Antarctica exists most powerfully in the imagination. It belongs to no one and everyone, but primarily to seals and penguins. Though it’s bigger than Europe, Antarctica wasn’t crossed until 1958 or fully mapped until 1983, and the vast continent is obscured by legend and supernatural weather and ice, in places, nearly five kilometres deep. There’s scant human history here, and scientists working at some 100 research stations and field camps may never fully understand its mysteries. Like Worsley, I dreamed I was surrounded by icebergs. I woke – or did I? – and I was standing on the balcony of a beautiful ship, shivering in my pyjamas and bare feet, floating south into a dreamscape of icebergs as pale as the horizon they touched. Overhead the sky was a porcelain bowl filled with unreadable cloud formations and unearthly silence.

Icebergs at Damoy Point.

(Photo: James Geer)

Latitude 54°48′ S

My dreams of Antarctica began long ago, but the one where I’m on a summer voyage full of icebergs starts in the Argentinian port of Ushuaia, on the windy tip of South America. The locals call it “el fin del mundo” but that’s a misnomer unless you imagine the end of the world has tidy streets with windowboxes in bloom and shops selling penguin souvenirs. I think of Ushuaia instead as the civilised frontier of wild places: Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and, 1000 kilometres south, Antarctica.

Le Soléal steams out of the Beagle Channel and into the Drake Passage with 200 passengers, a crew including an expedition team of 12, 1844 bottles of good French wine and a full complement of ripened cheeses from La France profonde and cultured butter from Normandy. Bien sûr, the Marseille-based Ponant line takes the traditions of French hospitality seriously, especially at the table. From featherweight pâtisseries in the morning to four bijou courses every evening, the standards set by Escoffier et al are rendered with remarkable consistency in the Southern Ocean.

Cierva Cove.

(Photo: James Geer)

It takes almost two days to cross the Drake. It’s a rite of passage for everyone – veteran or virgin – and we’re clamouring for the weather forecast as soon as the snow-capped mountains of Tierra del Fuego disappear. “This time we will see the nice Drake, dear guests,” promises captain Charbel Daher, and we can hardly believe our luck. There’s barely a ripple in the Bordeaux at dinner that night. It doesn’t stay that way, of course, but I imagined much worse.

We arrive in the South Shetland Islands in icy drizzle. “Ah, real expedition weather,” says French penguin specialist Valentin Nivet-Mazerolles, rubbing his gloved hands in anticipation as we wade from Zodiac to shore in polar-thickness rubber boots. Between fridge-sized ice blocks, our first southern footfall is on a black-rock beach at Robert Point, littered with kelp, bits of bone and feather, a dismembered penguin foot.

Captain Charbel Daher.

(Photo: James Geer)

Suddenly, like the curtain opening on a stage, a cast of vaudeville performers swings into action. Five young elephant seals are lined up on a knoll; like teenage boys lounging on beanbags, they fart noisily and bark insults at each other. Between them and a rival gang of fur seals, platoons of gentoo penguins and delicately etched chinstrap penguins march about, comically clumsy yet full of purpose. We scatter dutifully as the penguins approach, keeping the required minimum five-metre distance as best we can, while they seem oblivious to our equally clumsy presence. I’m transfixed by their almost heroic stoicism, undeterred by steep slopes or rocky outcrops, and I might have stayed here longer but for the sting of sleet and the lure of a deckside pot of hot chocolate waiting on Le Soléal.

Chinstrap penguins and Antarctic hair grass on Robert Point, South Shetland Islands.

(Photo: James Geer)

Latitude 63°40.8′ S

Ice. Everywhere. I wake in the Weddell Sea, or I think I’m awake. Like the lapse of time and logic in dreams, everything here seems thrillingly out of kilter. The water is solid, the sun never sets, the days so long that time itself seems to be succumbing to hypothermia or inertia. Not in the bridge, though, which bristles with hyperactivity. My balcony is immediately behind it, and I can hear the crew on deck calling positions as we zigzag through this puzzle of sea ice. This is where the Weddell seal maintains its breathing holes by gnawing at the ice from below. It can hold its breath for an hour and deep-dive to 600 metres but is best known for its song. We listen to a recording in an onboard lecture, a haunting psychedelic electronica unlike anything I’ve ever heard.

This is where the Endurance became stuck and Shackleton’s expedition unstuck. “It was almost a relief when the end came,” he wrote on 21 November 1915 when the crew watched their crushed ship sink, 10 months after it became trapped in the Weddell’s drifting pack ice. It was the start of an unimaginable ordeal in which the starving crew sailed two lifeboats in mountainous seas – 16 days and 1300 kilometres in the case of Shackleton and Worsley in the tiny James Caird. All 28 men survived. I read some of Shackleton’s accounts while tucked up in a warm bed aboard Le Soléal, feeling more in common with the Weddell seals than the superhuman crew of the Endurance.

Icebergs at Danco Island.

(Photo: James Geer)

The morning sun is blazing when we layer up (thermals, high-tech woollens, waterproof trousers and gloves, two pairs of thick socks, scarlet Ponant-issued waterproof jacket and rubber boots, beanie, life jacket, sunglasses, sunscreen) and pile into Zodiacs. The temperature hovers comfortably around zero. We expect to spend the morning poking around the Weddell’s icy fairground. Instead, our guides smile conspiratorially and run the Zodiacs aground on a floe. Not just any ice floe. This one has a pop-up Champagne bar and sofas strewn with faux-fur throws, so improbable we laugh and throw snowballs in the sunshine and toast the crew.

Back on Le Soléal that afternoon we’re roused from madeleines and tea. “Dear guests, this is your captain speaking from the bridge,” says Captain Daher, first in French, then English, in a tone that commands attention. “This is no time to nap. Put down your desserts. Come outside. We have des baleines portside.”

Le Soléal‘s expedition team prepares Zodiacs.

(Photo: James Geer)

There’s a pod of killer whales on the hunt, and Adélie penguins and petrels (cape, giant and a snowstorm of snow petrels), ugly brown skuas and pretty Antarctic terns. By the end of the day three kinds of whales have been spotted: humpback, fin and, exceedingly rare, a blue whale, the largest creature on Earth. The shattered plates of pack ice we saw this morning have supersized into bergs. The largest of them, known as tabular icebergs, have the gravitas and heft of monuments (the largest on record, spotted in 1956, was bigger than Belgium). The afternoon’s show-stopper, however, is an adolescent emperor penguin, small and alone on his floe, sliding around aimlessly on his belly. The penguin specialists are agog. “He’s a long way from home,” says Christophe Gouraud, a French seabird specialist. The nearest emperor colony is some 60 kilometres east, on an inaccessible island called Snow Hill. Gouraud made it there after several years and three failed attempts by helicopter. It’s hard to imagine how our lone emperor will make the journey home.

A lone emperor penguin.

(Photo: James Geer)

Latitude 63°53.99′ S

We drop anchor for breakfast in Mikkelsen Harbour, along the west coast of Graham Land. The bay is concrete grey and utterly forbidding: 20 kilometres wide, flanked by ice cliffs and black mountains fissured by glacial snouts. Every half hour or so a thunderous crack splits the silence and somewhere nearby a glacier loses weight. The Zodiacs drop us on tiny D’Hainaut Island and we wade shin-deep to a beach covered by polished black rocks. A pile of bleached whale bones – huge jaws, an arc of ribs – sits beside the remains of a timber whaling boat. It’s our first unforgettable whiff of a penguin colony, and we watch gentoo parents labouring along penguin highways to their pebbly nests, then regurgitating fish soup for their hungry chicks. While many penguin species are serially monogamous, the gentoo is the most faithful of all, Nivet-Mazerolles tells me on the ride home. Those whose partners fail to return to their habitual breeding ground have to console themselves at the end of the mating season with a similarly lonely widow.

In daily lectures delivered in French and English we learn more about the fidelity of penguins and the Game of Thrones-style mating habits of seals, the mystery of “watermelon” snow (coloured by a red algae) and the secret life of glaciers. We steam through fog during a morning lecture on cyanobacteria, but the weather clears by mid-afternoon and the scene on deck is dazzling. Cierva Cove is as calm as a pond, a mirror image hinged at the waterline of sawtooth mountains cleaved by mighty glaciers. The bay in the foreground is a textbook of ice formation: the slurry of brash ice, graduating to Esky-sized growlers, then bergy bits and then icebergs. Some are shaped geometrically in pinnacles and cubist wedges; others are free-form, like brain coral or frozen clouds. Some bergs are as clear as cut crystal, or milky with air bubbles; others so vividly sapphire they might be lit from within.

Drifting through Danco Island.

(Photo: James Geer)

The ice crunches beneath the Zodiacs as we nose gently through the slurry. A humpback three times our boat size surfaces close by, scaring us witless. We spy a female leopard seal rolling luxuriantly on a floe, holding her flippers like a fan. A big leopard vaults his 300-kilogram heft up and onto a floe in front of us, and then we spy another young male with a fresh tail wound. He yawns, exposing a half-head of teeth and scratches his belly on the ice. He stares at us. And then he opens his mouth, closes his eyes and starts to sing in a high-pitched warble. Our astonished guide Barbara Post, an Austrian zoologist, hasn’t seen or heard the likes of it in her five Antarctic seasons.

I’m about to end dinner with a deconstructed vacherin, resembling a tiny meringue iceberg, when a now familiar voice commands attention. “Dear guests, this is your captain speaking.” Something has disturbed Daher’s customary sangfroid. “We have humpback whales performing some nice movements ahead. There’s a lot of flipper-flapping between 10 and 11 o’clock.” “Oh là là!” exclaim the diners near us, and half the restaurant races portside to watch a pod of whales flipper-flapping and feeding. This might be the only French restaurant in the world where service is routinely suspended to allow whale-watching, and the staff manage these nightly interruptions with grace. Like many passengers, I head to the bridge after dinner. Daher has an open-bridge policy; apart from periods of foul weather or tricky navigation, passengers are welcome to stand behind the bank of monitors and watch the crew at work. They’re just as excited by the presence of feeding whales or tabular icebergs as the passengers. “The idea is to share these moments with guests,” Daher tells me. “Not only discussions but these kind of emotions we all feel in such a place.”

He grew up in Lebanon, in a fishing village inhabited by Phoenicians, the world’s first sailors, and moved to France to study. “I had a dream to cross the horizon,” he says. It’s his eighth Antarctic season, though no voyage has been the same. “I really love this dynamic landscape. Nothing stays the same – the ice, the weather, the wildlife. This makes it challenging, but also an incredible privilege to be here.”

Feeding humpback whales.

(Photo: James Geer)

Latitude 64°48.68′ S

There’s a rare sighting next morning – five humans inhabiting a rocky outcrop, along with 1100 gentoo penguins and 400 chicks. Guillaume de Rémacle, a 31-year-old adventurer from France’s Massif Central, is among those living over summer at the historic British research base of Port Lockroy, caretaking the world’s most southerly post office, souvenir shop and museum – and counting penguins. Sure, there’s no running water or WiFi, says De Rémacle, and precious little privacy with some 18,000 cruise-ship passengers visiting the site each summer, but it’s “an amazing adventure”, he tells me. And he loves the penguins. “Just as well I no longer smell them,” he grins. We poke around the modest timber cottage built in 1944 in a British wartime mission codenamed Operation Tabarin. The base closed in 1962 but it’s as though the beards never left, their woollen long johns hanging in the bunkroom, Gordon’s gin bottles and tobacco tins half empty, naughty murals of scantily clad starlets handpainted beside the old coal-burning heater.

At the ominously named Deception Island, the memories of human occupation are less benign. At dawn on our last day on the Antarctic Peninsula, we sail through the narrow passage of Neptune’s Bellows into the caldera of an active volcano. The scene inside at Whalers Bay is post-apocalyptic: scalded gunmetal mountains, a shoreline steaming with fumaroles, and the ruins of a Norwegian whaling station. “Can you imagine looking out at a bay full of whale carcasses,” says polar historian Dmitrii Kiselev, as we shelter behind a rusted boiler used to render oil from whale blubber. “Thousands of whales every year, stripped and left to rot.” After 25 years the station was abandoned. During World War II the British operated a research base in the whalers’ digs, until an eruption destroyed everything in 1969. With a couple of reconstructed crosses marking graves and the rubble of timber buildings collapsing into the gravel, it’s a damned, desolate site – a reminder of human cruelty and folly. Kiselev spies a couple of kelp gulls raising their chicks in a nest wedged into the top of an oil tank. “Nature fights back,” he says.

Whalers Bay on Deception Island.

(Photo: James Geer)

Back at Port Lockroy, I’m standing with gentoos on an icy beach, stuffed into a dry-suit and ready to push off with a paddle. It’s the first season Ponant has offered Antarctic sea-kayaking, and they’ve recruited a couple of pros to guide us. Yann Lemoine grew up in Brittany but has spent much of his life in Greenland, where kayaking has been an essential part of life for 3500 years and its practice elevated to an artform. Lemoine builds Greenlandic kayaks and leads expeditions, and when he travels he packs several wooden paddles he’s carved in the Greenlandic style – the one he’s carrying has slim rectangular ends that look nothing like our conventional blades. “It is beautiful, no?” he says. “You can really feel the water.” Kayaking, he tells me, “is pure emotion”. “It is not a sport. It’s a way of life. For me it’s a way of being with nature that’s very emotional.”

Kayaking guide Yann Lemoine.

(Photo: James Geer)

The wind drops, like a blessing. Though we paddle slowly, my heart beats fast with something like the pure emotion that Lemoine described. Suddenly I’m acutely, almost painfully aware of everything: the pearly translucence of the sky, the frigid water that splashes my hands, the belching of bergs as they lurch on their moorings. Like quicksilver, penguins flash beneath the kayak and dive-hop beside us. We circle an iceberg resembling an Easter Island head, glowing in pure saturated blue. When we rest the paddles and glide for a bit, the silence is shocking. I listen harder, and catch the fizz of bubbles bursting inside icebergs and the trickle of snowmelt along the shoreline.

Sea-kayaking near Damoy Point.

(Photo: James Geer)

Latitude 64°56.21′ S

Change of plan. Our journey further south to Port Charcot is blocked by pack ice, so we stretch our legs instead at Paradise Bay. I cast my mind back now and wonder if this entire day was a dream. It begins with the dazzle of sunshine on conical peaks, pure and perfect. Soon we’re out in the waters of paradise watching cormorants nesting in ice cliffs and a glacier calve in the distance. We circle a pool party of crabeater seals lolling on a floe, the plush silver velvet of their bellies flashing in the sun. (Despite their name, they eat krill rather than crabs, using remarkable sieve-like teeth considered the most specialised of any carnivore.)

Back on Le Soléal, we have a pool party of our own. First we raise a sweat in the hammam – along with surprisingly reliable WiFi and freshly baked baguettes, it’s one of the ship’s great luxuries – then we race to the pool deck where the crew has hoisted chunks of ice into artful positions. Manu the barman is shaving glacial ice into glasses of blue Curaçao. Around us the peaks tower, the ice sparkles and the pool beckons. The Australians are the first to jump in – the water is heated but exhilaratingly cold – and soon just about everyone is wet and laughing between chattering teeth.

The pool deck aboard Le Soléal in Paradise Bay.

(Photo: James Geer)

After lunch we hike with penguins. The gentle braying of 3000 gentoos can be heard when the Zodiacs drop us on Danco Island and we follow them at a respectful distance as they hop and stumble along their penguin-width highways. We climb beyond their rocky colony, to a plateau where the snow is soft and powdery and the view so ethereal it might be computer-generated. I’m afraid I won’t remember every precious detail and yet, months later, I can still recall the murmur of the penguins and the strange cling-wrapped surface of the bay.

Dessert that night is interrupted again by the guest appearance of killer whales. And then, as if performing for a wildlife documentary, a couple of humpbacks demonstrate how to catch krill with bubbles. The whales spin together in a circle, dive, and release a cloud of bubbles that forms a net as it rises, trapping the krill. There’s a pause. Then the whales surface abruptly, in unison, with their great barnacled mouths wide open and flooded with food. We cheer as they thrash about, a whirlpool of flippers and flukes.

The whales are still cavorting as we head into a brightly lit twilight, along a strait littered with castellated icebergs and a fortress of mountain. It’s after 10 by this stage and we’ve moved to the observation bar. It’s our last night on the Antarctic Peninsula, and our first sunset appears as if on cue. It begins as a blush between glaciers, rising to the clouds in shades of rose and apricot that turn the icebergs to marshmallow. “Oh là là!” someone exclaims, and a second sunset seems to materialise in front of us. It’s an uncanny reflection bouncing off screens of ice, yet in that moment and place the existence of a second sun seems entirely plausible.

Latitude 62°59.99′ S

The wind picks up as we slip out of the caldera of Deception Island, and at the evening briefing the captain points to a purple wound on a weather map. “This is what we will try to avoid,” he says, indicating the depression heading our way. Pretty soon the restaurant windows on deck 3 resemble the porthole in a washing machine. Miraculously, the waitstaff maintain their grip and poise, though the kitchen loses some crockery.

After a week of relentless daylight, we head into a dark and stormy night. And then another. We pitch and roll. The corridors are deserted. I doze fitfully for most of the return journey across the Drake. My dreams are outlandish: a sky with two suns, seals that sing, icebergs that belch, the ocean erupting with Moby-Dick whales, jaws open and cavernous. I wake, and I remember everything.

Silence at Damoy Point.

(Photo: James Geer)

Getting there

Air New Zealand and Latam fly one stop from Sydney and Melbourne to Buenos Aires. Latam has regular flights from the Argentinian capital to Ushuaia.

Cruising there

Ponant has 24 Antarctic itineraries from November 2019 to February 2020 on Le Soléal and three virtually identical sister ships. Itineraries from 10 to 22 days take in locations including the Antarctic Peninsula, Falkland Islands and South Georgia. The writer sailed on the 10-night Emblematic Antarctica voyage, which costs from $15,820 per person twin share. This includes return domestic flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, all meals and drinks, onboard lectures, WiFi and daily Zodiac excursions with an expedition team.

Related stories