Written by Fiona Ayers
How do you begin to put Antarctica into words? Poets use words like inspiring and unforgiving. Travel companies try to use words like experience, adventure and expedition. Photographers say a picture is worth a thousand words so with thousands of photos collectively can say a lot. But it still cannot do justice to Antarctica.
How do you begin to describe that moment a humpback whale disturbs the silence behind your kayak? How do you describe that moment when penguin guano first stings your nostrils downwind from a colony? How do you describe that serenity you feel when you are gazing upon the most peaceful scenery you are ever likely to experience? You can try to put it into words but it will never truly capture the moment. Antarctica is a melting pot of experiences and emotions; no two stories are the same. This is just one story that will attempt to convey the spectrum of emotion felt by one person.
Day one: Excitement. The rolling of the Drake Passage eased and my excitement grew. We were approaching Half Moon Island as a reward for our clear skies and smooth sailing. Like a giggling school girl, I took my first steps on snow and collectively, our dreams were finally reality. We were here! The adrenaline and sheer euphoria in this moment was contagious as our first penguin sightings, first seal sightings and first iceberg sightings were celebrated and shared under the setting sun.
Day Two: Awe. Orca spotted: ‘eleven o’clock’ on the portside. A collective sigh escaped the crowd as the puff of air could be seen in the distance. This was just the beginning to a phenomenal day. We had a smorgasbord of species that graced us with their presence: the minke whale, the orca whale, the humpback whale, the weddell seal and the Gentoo penguin. During our first kayak, however, it was the landscape that dominated. As I paddled through the still waters that kissed the edge of Cuverville Island, I gazed out in awe. It was impossible not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the scenery. It wasn’t until we settled down inside our tents for our camp out on Danco Island, that the realisation of everything I had seen today sank in. Sleep escaped me. This amazing place had captured my heart and my thoughts.
Day Three: Insignificance. I was woken by wind that ripped through the tent. Conditions had changed. Antarctica was no longer the peaceful place I remembered from yesterday. In an instant it had changed and it wanted to show its true power and unforgiving nature. Katabatic winds at Neko Harbour whipped us and beat us down in an instant before easing again just as quickly. Glaciers cracked and carved off, breaking into the water and sending waves on shore. I learned quickly that cold can burn. By the time we reached our next shore excursion Antarctica had changed again. Paradise Harbour lived up to its name and we experienced conditions that were so still, the mountains reflected in the glassy water. As a mere human, I felt so small and insignificant in the mighty face of Mother Nature. She flexed her muscles and taught us a harsh lesson of respect for this environment.
Day Four: Peace. My initial excitement is gone. I’m no longer photographing every penguin I see. I’m no longer running around with urgency and enthusiasm. The impressive nature of this place is still there but something has changed in me. I sit. It is incredible that a place teeming with so much life can be so peaceful and silent. It is easy to slip into a tranquil state and get lost in a moment. Before you know it, the curious penguins come to you before they waddle away, satisfied you mean them no harm. As we sailed into the evening, we caught a rare glimpse of the setting sun. The light bounced off the incredibly still and partially frozen water. A truly spectacular show unraveled where the water mirrored the mountains and the sky. Antarctica was treating us to the most beautiful and tranquil scenery I have ever witnessed.
Day Five: Grateful. There’s a bit of irony in the fact that the overwhelming emotion felt today was gratefulness on the day I plunged into the icy waters of the Southern Ocean. Some excellent wisdom was shared with me prior: “because it scares you, do it anyway”. However, despite my feelings during and immediately after the event, one thing was clear, I was grateful to have had the experience. I was also appreciative to spend more quality time on the water. It was humbling to think that thousands of miles from civilisation, we were kayaking passed rocks, ice and groups of penguins that popped up to the surface for a stickybeak. Today provided great time to reflect on my journey and to lose myself in little moments.
Day Six: Lucky. In just a few short days, we have been gifted with a lifetime of experiences that superseded my previous five months of travel this year. Today, we got very lucky. We collided with and walked on sea ice. The timing, conditions and the accommodating staff onboard the Sea Adventurer all aligned to make this experience possible. We felt incredibly blessed and lucky especially when you hear that one expedition team member, who has worked for twelve years on this ship, has only experienced this three times. In many conversations that I’ve had and heard today, this word was repetitively voiced: lucky. As if we needed more proof and yet, during one such conversation at lunch, in that moment, a hunchback near the ship dived down revealing his powerful fluke. We’ve been lucky with weather, the variety of wildlife sightings, the incredible staff onboard and of course to have experienced this amazing continent first hand. As our ship heads north and our story ends, we hope to be lucky again across the Drake.
Antarctica is a community. Each moment is made up of hundreds of moments seen and lived through hundreds of eyes. In those six days, it was impossible not to have been changed in some way. It changes your perspective of life. It changes your awareness and knowledge of the environment. But most importantly, you have changed. You go home a new person: a better person. It is impossible not to be moved by the sheer beauty and power of this beautiful, brutal continent.
So how do you begin to describe Antarctica? You’ll just have to experience it for yourself.