Sail on The Vavilov, from Ushuaia in Patagonia, and travel for two days across Drake Passage (named after Sir Francis Drake) to Antarctica, the most mysterious and untouched continent on the planet. A Family Traveller writer and her teenage son set off on the adventure.
It was discovered in 1821 but, as we set off a few days before Christmas, we felt like explorers discovering a land for the first time. The icebergs are continually moving so it changes the landscape, making it both exciting and dangerous to navigate.
Visiting Antarctica is the ultimate in experiential travel. The landscape is melodramatic. You will suffer emotion overload. It will touch your soul and you will probably sob in wonder (just don’t cry outside, or your tears will freeze). The iceberg backdrop, the whales, the penguins… these are images I will remember for the rest of my life.
For the first day at sea, the Vavilov, a vessel originally designed for scientific research in Antarctica, was a ghost ship. Few of us came out of our cabins, finding that lying horizontally helped with the sea sickness. By the afternoon, the captain had steered us off course to avoid the worst of the storm, the waters had calmed and we were back on track, escorted across Drake Passage by petrels, terns and albatross. The albatross, which, legend has it, protects all those at sea and carries the souls of dead sailors, has a wing-span of prehistoric proportions, of up to 11ft, but the backdrop was so vast, they looked small.
We wouldn’t reach the frozen continent for two days, but One Ocean Expeditions provides an exceptional team, who not only look after the guests but are experts in their fields – whales, birds, seals, penguins and wildlife photography. We were privileged to have Sunniva Sorby on board. She was part of the four-woman team who trekked to the South Pole in 1993, pulling 200lb sleds on skis. She is one of the most self-effacing people I have ever met. She caught bronchitis and tendonitis during the South Pole trek and nearly died - but she didn’t complain.
Mid-afternoon on the second day, the Antarctic Peninsula came into view – icebergs like huge Henry Moore sculptures. We waited for our zodiacs (inflatable boats) to take us ashore, and sat on the edge trying to take photos and look out for seals, whales and penguins.
We saw about 24,000 penguins. It was hatching season, so we witnessed chicks breaking out of their shells. They didn’t tap dance or sing, like they did in Happy Feet, but they did plenty of waddling.
We took two excursions each day. The most powerful and haunting was on Christmas morning, when we landed on Deception Island, a live volcanic island and the most extraordinary place I have visited. We travelled through Neptune’s Bellows, a narrow passage, which looked as though the sea god himself should emerge from the waters, as he did in Jason and the Argonauts, and push the mountains apart as we sailed beneath him.
On all our other excursions – to Half Moon Island and Paradise Bay – the weather had been good and the sea calm, but on the morning of the 25th there was a light wind and heavy snow, which fell silent and heavy like a blanket. It seemed fitting, as we had learned all about Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton’s expeditions in Antarctica and the appalling conditions they had to deal with.
There was no internet on the ship, which, as any teenager will know, is terrible, but there was so much to do on and off board that I quickly forgot about it. OK, I mostly forgot about it.
The experts on board the ship were really cool. They knew weird facts about the place. If Antarctica’s ice sheets melt, the world’s oceans will rise by 200ft and it’s the best place in the world to find meteorites.
The first time I saw a whale was brilliant. And the penguins are noisy, smelly and funny. I’m not sure if people should be allowed to get that close but I spoke to Michael, who knows all about penguins, and works with Oceanites, an organisation that helps to protect and find out about Antarctica. He told me the statistics showed that tourists didn’t affect the penguin numbers, but you can never be sure, can you?
The best bits were sailing among the icebergs on the Zodiac, which was really cool. You felt you were going to fall out of the Zodiac all the time, because you were propped up on the edge, but you never did. And seeing a furry seal poke its head out at us on Christmas Eve afternoon. It just lifted its head up and stared at me with its big brown eyes, only about 50 yards away. And then it went down again. That was cool. That was really, really cool.
I wish we could have stayed longer. I wrote every day in an Antarctica log book, which you can buy before you get on the ship, and tells you all about the birds and mammals you might see on your trip. I’m pleased I did because I’ve added to it since my return. I remember something new every day.