I had wanted to visit Antarctica for as long as I can remember – years of planning (and saving) meant I had finally arrived. Not that I knew exactly where I would end up visiting – unlike other cruises no promises are made about where you end up going – it all depends on the ice, the weather and the penguins. Yes, penguins.
We only went ashore if it we didn’t get in the way of the penguins – a previous run ashore was abandoned because the penguins were occupying the beach. The Antarctic summer is very short and the penguins have a very narrow window to raise and fledge a chick before winter closes in again so it seems only fair that we didn’t get in the way.
Thankfully ice, weather and the penguins were favourable and we could go ashore at Paradise Harbour. Despite being the Antarctic summer I had every bit of thermal gear I possessed on but quickly began peeling the layers off as soon as I got to shore. The sun bounces off the water and the snow makes it blindingly bright and surprisingly hot. As my feet sank knee deep into the snow I envied the Chinstrap penguins who were coping much better – they switch to their stomachs and propel themselves along with their feet – this spreads the weight better and stops them sinking in. They use penguin highways and we were under strict instructions to give way when they were crossing. This is peak nesting season and they were taking turns to catch fish while their co parent was egg sitting.
The Argentinians have a base here – Brown Station – a collection of wooden huts with red peeling paint which look like they have seen better days.
One of the huts was burnt down – the story goes that after over wintering in Antarctica word came that the scientists were not being picked up and would have to stay another season. The station leader decided to burn down one of the huts as a protest but still no Argentinian boat was sent to collect them. In the end it was an American boat that rescued them – and the name of that boat? The US ship Hero.
Cruising around the bay the brightness of the snow, the azure blues and deep greens where ice became sea were incredible. Calving from a nearby glacier provided a ready supply of bergy bits – surely a made up word – but no, this is actually what they are called.
The elephant seals lounging on the ice were not at all bothered by our presence. In fact even opening one eye to check what we were doing seemed almost too much for them.
There were other stops but this one – one of the last before we made the long journey north will stay with me forever. The journey north will also stay with me forever for completely different reasons but that is a story for another time…