Last year marked the 100th anniversary of Robert Ilford Scott’s ill-fated last expedition to Antarctica, shedding a spotlight on this challenging region.
Ours was an easy-peasy voyage by comparison, but as we set sail from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of Argentina, there was a hazard worse than seasickness on my mind.
Navigating polar waters is not without its perils – even for high-paying tourists on hi-tech vessels. Only the day before, another vessel, the Polar Star, had struck an “un-surveyed rock” just north of Detaille Island (also on our itinerary), holing her outer hull. The 80 passengers had to be evacuated.
Soon we were sailing through the Beagle Channel, passing the last trees we would see for the next two weeks on the densely wooded shore. After a mercifully calm night I awoke to find Drake’s Passage smooth as silk, and a dozen or more black-browed albatross soaring above us.
My first sight of land was not what I expected, no shimmering white peaks or glaciers spitting out towering icebergs – yet. We sailed through the South Shetland Islands, named in 1819 for their similarity in latitude to the Scottish islands.
As the captain skilfully navigated Neptune’s Bellows, the narrow opening with a submerged rock in the middle, the eerie sight of the remains of a long deserted whaling station came into view.
We landed by PolarSirkel boats with the warning to give a wide berth to a resting fur seal, camouflaged on the dark grey volcanic sand.
“One bite and that’s it for you!” said Manuel from the expedition team, convincing us there was no antidote to the deadly bacteria in its saliva.
It started to snow as I wandered among the bleached bones of long-dead whales to a derelict hut with vast copper cauldrons once used for blubber processing. The sun came out briefly and 38 hardy souls, including an Englishman in a tie, took a dip in the icy sea, and were awarded with a tot of whisky and a certificate.
That evening I could barely drag myself away from the deck as our first icebergs came into view. In early February, it was no colder than home, with temperatures of 4-6C. The great difference was that the sun didn’t set until 10pm or later and rose a few hours later.
The Fram is an unusual cross between a large expedition ship and a small cruise ship with a maximum of 300 passengers and an ice-strengthened hull. My cabin, with fold down bunks on either side, a good-sized window and tiny bathroom, was a cosy refuge. More spacious cabins are also offered on the higher decks.
As we approached Cuverville Island I saw my first humpback whale spouting in the distance. On deck the crisp clean air was tinged with an acrid whiff, leaving us in no doubt that the Antarctica Peninsula’s largest known colony of gentoo penguins were at home.
Once ashore, cameras and camcorders went into overdrive to capture their antics – whether shooting, beak first, down runways in the snow, or cocking their heads from side to side in a flirtatious manner.
That evening we sailed through the Gullet, a narrow channel bordered by towering peaks turning peachy rose in the setting sun. As we crunched slowly through water like chilled blue soup with ice croutons, we watched a pod of five orcas surface next to one of the scout boats and appear to chase it.
This was just a taster for a long and close encounter with whales to come in Wilhelmina Bay.
Past the wreck of the whaler Guvernoren, run aground in 1915, we came across a humpback mother and calf. Creeping away as quietly as a 12,700-ton vessel can, we moved on to find a male and female. These obligingly did flips and turns right beside the ship for more than half an hour.
Caroline Hendrie travelled with Hurtigruten on the MS Fram’s 13-day Antarctica – Polar Circle Expedition.
The next departure will be January 22, 2014, and costs from £5,721pp including 12 nights on the ship, full-board, flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, all landings and lectures.
International flight packages are extra and cost from £1,692pp, based on two sharing.
For more information call 0844 448 7601 or visit www.hurtigruten.co.uk