The World Ends in Ice. Lots Of It.
We were just over 60 degrees south when I stripped down to my swimming costume and plunged into the South Atlantic Ocean. On impact, the icy water petrified my vocal chords, contorted my toes and shut off my senses. Seconds later, I shot to the surface with goldfish-wide eyes and trembling fingers, then clambered back up the ship's metal steps as fast as my frozen feet would let me. I made a beeline for the sauna.
10 days ago I had boarded the G Adventures ship, the M/S Expedition (a 345ft icebreaker-turned-cruise ship) in Ushuaia, Argentina, and spent the past week sailing west to the Falkland Islands, to ramble across the archipelago's green plains, sink my toes in its white sands and sup ale in its English pubs. A further two days at sea and we'd arrived at South Georgia, where I'd watched giant albatrosses feed chicks as big as terriers; stood dumbfounded at the sight of more than 100,000 king penguins; witnessed elephant seals as long as cars lolling on the shorelines. I heard their belches resonate off the rocks and watched them spar with canines as big as bananas; and I'd wandered in disbelief around rusting whaling stations where blubber cookeries and harpoons lay thankfully abandoned.
But today the M/S Expedition swung south across the Scotia Sea and set a course for the Antarctic Peninsula, a finger of ice-clad land that would take five full days at sea to reach.
With 100 or so passengers aboard the ship, ranging in age from 16 to 86, there was always someone to chat to. We'd socialise over extended breakfasts and play cards after long buffet lunches, sip happy hour cocktails at the bar and enjoy four-course meals in the evenings. Daily lectures gave us the opportunity to find out about Antarctica's first ever explorers, learn the dozens of different names for ice, and hear about the wildlife we'd encounter in Antarctica.
But l spent most of my time on deck, searching the horizon for the blow of a whale, scanning the water for the first signs of sea-ice, watching seabirds follow the ship's tail and feeling the air temperature drop with every nautical mile we nudged further south.
A bottle of champagne was awarded to the first passenger who spotted an iceberg larger than our ship, and the cork was popped within 24 hours of leaving South Georgia. Over the next few days, immense ice-cubes that dwarfed our ship became so common that we began examining them as you would clouds: "It looks like a dog"; "it's a horse"; "look, a camel!"
Within two days of reaching the Antarctic Peninsula, the sea gained an oily looking sheen of 'grease ice'. The next day, flat white crusts appeared on the water and, before long, pancakes measuring two or three metres across bobbed in the swell. Soon, the drift ice had thickened so much that our ship had to slow right down to nudge a passageway through and, at times, the sea ice would fuse to form a vast white crust, which our ship had to push at until fractures spread across the sheet, creating a spiderweb-like pattern of fissures.
14 days after leaving Argentina, we arrived in the Antarctica region proper. But after months of anticipating this moment with electric excitement, the ice hushed each passenger into silence and we stood on deck, spellbound at the petrified coastlines, glistening sculptures and ice-choked sea, taking in Antarctica as if it were a new planet.
Skirting the peninsula, we dropped anchor at around 64 degrees south, and prepared to venture out. Rushing down to our cabins to pull on fleecy layers, woolly hats and warm mittens, we had to wait for the boat crew to clear a space in the sea ice before we could board the eight-man rigid inflatable boats, or 'Zodiacs', that would carry us through the Antarctic waters. I peered out of my porthole, watching the crew nudge and push at the ice floe, breaking it into pieces that could be propelled away by the whirring engines of the Zodiacs.
After half an hour, we were called to disembark and descended to the mud room to don rubber boots and lifejackets, giggling like school children as we kicked bits of stray ice around the floor and waddled about in our thick layers like penguins.
My nose numbed instantly when I stepped out into the Antarctic air and, as I took my seat in one the Zodiacs, I became instantly hypnotised by the frozen world around me. With a determined rev of the engine, our adventure through the ice began, and we sputtered and struggled through the slush, pausing every few seconds to lever large pieces of ice aside with the oar. Where we found a clear channel through the floating sheets, we revved through water the consistency of a mojito, the engine stirring up a thick porridge of ice behind us.
We cruised within metres of Weddell seals which reclined on the ice, their soft flanks bearing the red scars of killer whale attacks and their pale fur creating a halo of light around their cat-like faces as they twitched their black-whiskered noses and blinked back at us with watery eyes, fringed with ice-frosted lashes.
After 20 minutes of slow progress through the pack ice, we clicked off our Zodiac's engine and listened as newly formed 'shuga ice' fizzed and crackled in the water, while the gentle chorus of Gentoo penguins carried on the breeze. I sat transfixed, staring at the white landscape until it hurt the back of my eyes, and looked back at the red hulk of the M/S Expedition glowing against the ice, while porpoising penguins danced past the hull and the drift ice closed in around us.
Each of the three days we spent in Antarctica revealed new wonders. At the British research base of Port Lockroy we gained a glimpse into the early years of Antarctic research and survival, with everything from original weather monitoring equipment to tins of Frys Cocoa and jars of marmite preserved inside. We paid a visit to the Chilean base of González Videla in Paradise Bay and chatted with the staff who lived there for the summer tourist season. We wandered along washed pebble beaches and discovered whale bones as big as tree trunks and penguins so plucky they pecked at our clothes. But most of all, we became addicted to the ice, and every journey we took in the Zodiacs had us awestruck.
We chugged past frozen coastlines of folded, ruptured and sun-pocked ice, where gaping caves glowed luminous blue, the colour of de-icer. We pulled up by the snout of towering glaciers which crumbled into the sea like chalky white cliffs and waited for immense blocks of ice to calve into the water, sending a set of waves that would rock our Zodiac, and a mass of debris ice that crackled in the water like popcorn.
Our journey towards the pole ended at 64.49 degrees and, after more than two weeks southbound travel, the M/S Expedition turned her stern north and headed back towards Argentina. Each passenger stood out on deck as we navigated back out of the ice, speaking very little as we showed reverence for the end of the earth and tried to commit our last glimpses of the great white continent to memory. It was supposed to be a 'once in a lifetime adventure' but one visit to Antarctica we had been hooked by the purity and power of one of the planet's last great wildernesses. On the journey home we eagerly planned our return visits, each agreeing that we have every intention of going back.
About the Author: Lucy Grewcock
Lucy got bitten by the gap year bug at the age of 18, when she spent a year travelling the globe after her A-levels. Somehow managing to combine her university degree with time in China and Borneo, she went on to take two more gap years skiing in the French Alps and windsurfing in Greece. Eventually settling in Brighton, she now works as a freelance travel journalist and expedition leader. In 2011, she won the Guardian's adventure travel writing competition and spent three weeks in Antarctica, a trip which she felt just had to be shared with gapyear.com.