Antartica – Christmas 2000

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Hope Bay Antartica

I got to tour Antarctica through a combination of a long Christmas holiday (rare) and a very strong Irish punt (rarer). So, the day I sailed out of steaming Buenos Aires for the ice further south was one day I was immensely contented with my lot.

The weather was glorious and the Plate estuary like glass. Rising up from the ocean in the distance was the mountain that overlooked Montevideo. I took a good look- this was going to be our last look at mainstream civilisation for a few weeks.

The ship ploughed its way southwards. Gradually, the air got cool and the sea heavy. Wandering albatross veered and dived ahead of us for hours at a time, never once, it seemed, flapping their wings.

We stopped in the Falklands for a day or so. A place of windswept moors and mountains, thousands of penguins and old minefields. But that’s all another story …

We soon met the Antarctic Convergence, where Antarctica is said to begin. This is the region where cold waters from the continent encounter the warmer ocean. The result, in our case, was a pea-soup fog. Standing on deck without winter gear wasn’t an option any longer.

As we approached the Antarctic mainland, the skies cleared and 24-hour daylight descended. Soon we were seeing monstrous icebergs and, with monotonous regularity, whales. Mountains rose from vast snowscapes as we made our first stop at Hope Bay.

Generally, the ship anchored offshore and a small fleet of inflatable landing craft ferried us to a designated area. You returned to the ship when you felt like it. The boat crews marked out how far inland you could go and enforced the limits strictly- I still have a sore ear from the rollicking I got the day that I ignored instructions and set off up a mountain. The threat of confinement to the ship kept manners on me for the rest of the voyage.

Hope Bay was a pebbly beach populated by thousands of Adelie penguins. Many of them were nursing mothers. Some penguins lay prostrate- their way of cooling off. High overhead, skuas waited their chance to seize young or weak birds while, offshore, seals waited for their prey to enter the water which, eventually, they would have to do.

Over the next several days, we weaved through icebergs, by sea stacks and cliffs to different landing places. And, always, there was the incredible wildlife- millions of penguins of all types, seals, whales, dolphins, albatross. . ..

Deception Island is in fact an old volcano with a collapsed wall. The ground and slopes are covered by black volcanic ash. Old whaling facilities and the remnants of an airstrip litter the shoreline. Here, I received a bloody head from a dive—bombing tern- I had probably wandered too near its nest. Here, as well, I had my only swim in Antarctica. The water temperature varied from freezing to boiling near the volcanic vents.

We drifted on. Eventually, we travelled down the beautiful Lemaire Channel, a place of plunging ice-cliffs, glaciers and soaring mountains. At the end of the channel was a set of dome-shaped islands and a seascape of broken ice floes.

Many countries maintain bases in Antarctica for research, but also for political reasons. The Argentinians once brought a woman to Antarctica to have her baby, and so bolster a territorial claim. Not so well known is that Britain and Argentina traded fire here, well before the Falklands war.

One day, I visited a base- about the size of a bungalow. There, in damp Spartan conditions, were a Scots lassie and some Argentinians on a 3-month stint. They showed me Antarctic moss and grass growing in the dripping crevices. Behind them were hills and, in the distance, the white haze of a frozen continent.

Our first disappointment was a landing which had to be cancelled because a bay was completely frozen over. This was, ironically, in a region known as Antarctica’s Riviera.

Further north, in the South Shetlands, I went ashore on a crescent-shaped island. Out of nowhere, gales blew up and the sea heaved. We raced for the landing craft and it took skill on the part of the crews to get us back on the ship. Most of the tour group didn’t get ashore at all and we all sailed away, exhilarated or deeply disappointed.

It was bye bye Antarctica! We headed north, past Cape Horn, around Tierra del Fuego, through the Drake Passage and Straits of Magellan to the tranquil port of Punta Arenas in Chile. From there, it was a series of flights back home. As yet, Antarctica hasn’t been mined for oil or minerals but fuel crises will probably change that. Moreover, global warming may already be affecting the ecology there. So, I would say, go there while it’s still paradise, albeit an unforgiving one.

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About this record

Written by Paul Holland

Published here 10 May 2023 and originally published Christmas 2000

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