Story and photos by Chris Grose
SAILING TO ANTARCTICA aboard a 40m three-masted steel sailing bark may not be everyone’s holiday of choice but for me it was the only way to go. And so I found myself at the helm of Bark Europa as we ploughed through 5m seas and a 50 knot gale heading across the Drake Passage, the notoriously rough stretch of water where the Pacific meets the Atlantic ocean at the tip of South America.
For the first 24 hours of the crossing most of the voyage crew had succumbed to seasickness and rarely moved from our bunks. ‘Sounds like world war three down here,’ I overheard one experienced crew member say, amidst the moaning and groaning, as I lay hunched over my little yellow bucket.
As we found our sea legs, more and more of us could be found on deck, taking the helm or standing watch as the ship rolled beneath us and the wind howled through the rigging. Meal times became a social occasion rather than something to be endured. After four days of sailing we reached the South Shetland Islands and made our first landfall at Yankee Harbour and were greeted by the soon-to-be familiar aroma of penguin guano.
Going ashore in the zodiacs we were left to wander the pebbly beaches, observing hundreds of gentoo penguins, skuas, fur seals and occasional elephant seals, none of whom appeared in the least perturbed to see us.
Over the following two weeks we had numerous shore landings and zodiac cruises amongst the icebergs. At Walkers Bay on Livingstone Island we climbed an old glacial moraine and looked down upon a tremendous glacier descending from the island’s heart until it reached the sea where it ended in great ice cliffs. Even from our airy lookout we could hear the thunder as great lumps of ice calved off and plunged into the sea.
At Deception Island we visited the remains of an old whaling station and marvelled at steam rising from the beaches where sea water was being heated by thermal activity – the island is itself a dormant volcano!
At every landing site there were gentoo, chinstrap or adelie penguins to greet us. We saw more elephant, weddell and leopard seals. Rising early one morning I climbed the rigging of the main mast and looked out at dramatic mountains and glaciers and a sea that reflected the sapphire blue sky overhead.
Everywhere I turned, both near and far, there were spouts from humpback whales – several passed within 50m of Europa. Most memorable of all were the deep blue shadows hidden inside the many icebergs that we passed.
All too soon it was time to head back across the Drake – but this time few succumbed to sea sickness. As we passed by a distant Cape Horn, thoughts turned to home and those that we had left behind. How could we best explain what dramatic landscapes and marvellous wildlife we had experienced?
I knew the question everyone would ask. ‘What was it like?’ could not be answered with mere words.
My lasting impression of Antarctica is one of just how fragile it is and how important it is that we all look after and protect it in every way we can.