Awe and Appreciation in Antarctica
John O’Ceallaigh finds himself profoundly impressed as he ventures to the earth’s southernmost continent by superyacht.
You never forget your first iceberg, and mine was a corker. A couple of hours into our voyage from King George Island, I slipped away from welcome drinks by the pool to go alone to the prow of our superyacht – and there it was. What had appeared on the horizon initially as a baby-blue shimmer against an ink-black sea gradually came into full and dazzling view: a three-storey city block with a concave hollow in its centre, as though carved out by an ice-cream scoop, and a promontory atop which rested a colony of nonchalant penguins. I could scarcely believe I’d been gifted such a spectacular welcome to Antarctica.
My group had flown from Punta Arenas in Chile that morning over the notorious Drake Passage and on to King George Island in the Southern Ocean. Even for the very well-travelled among us this was to be the trip of a lifetime: a week-long charter along the Antarctic Peninsula aboard the 77.4-metre Legend, originally built in the 1970s as a Class 1 Icebreaker and subsequently converted into a plush superyacht. The addition of the pool, alongside a spa, cinema and assorted lounges meant it could compete with vessels plying the Med’s Milk Run in summer or touting for trade over Christmas in the Caribbean, but as soon as we saw the iceberg it was clear that here in the Antarctic – cracking through floes and venturing alone to isolated idylls that lesser yachts and larger cruise ships simply couldn’t hope to reach – is where she was meant to be.
Built for the Antarctic Legend may be, but it is the environment that has supremacy here and so our journey commenced with only a general itinerary – where we went each day would depend on the conditions we faced. Ensuring we enjoyed our surroundings in safety and could respond rapidly to the challenges of changing weather patterns or the opportunities of unexpected wildlife sightings, we were accompanied by three expert naturalist guides from EYOS Expeditions, a high-end tour operator specialising in meticulously managed superyacht itineraries to some of the world’s most remote waters. The lack of certainty was something I quickly came to see as a positive: every day promised fresh discovery and adventure, every unpredicted encounter was a privilege.
Unexpected though many of our most memorable experiences were, they were hardly infrequent. Calm conditions on day two allowed for an easy passage to Port Lockroy and our first engagement with some of the hardy few who get to call Antarctica home. A British historic base established in 1944, Port Lockroy is positioned on a football pitch-sized island that each summer houses four researchers in a basic hut with no mains power or running water.
The ladies joined us that morning to avail of hot showers and an abundance of fruits, freshly prepared eggs and pastries from the breakfast buffet, amenities we appreciated anew when confronted with the restrictions they faced every day. We sat enthralled as they detailed their toil in this extreme climate and regaled us with stories about the hundreds of gentoo penguins with whom they shared this rocky outcrop.
We later visited them ashore, touring the island’s original abode, now a museum incorporating its earlier inhabitants’ preserved living quarters and a post office, the world’s most southerly. For the first time in my life I was prompted to write a postcard to myself, to serve as a treasured reminder of this day like no other. (As I write this feature at home in London some two weeks later, I still anxiously await its arrival but it has a long way to go and in these days of instant communication it’s a reminder that some of the best things take time.)
Already Antarctica’s allure had enveloped us all so comfortably, so completely. Ceaseless waters stretched out before us; their coastlines guarded by soaring towers of insurmountable ice, impenetrable islands and ancient mountain ranges exuded mystery. How often, today, is it possible to look at a perfect panorama and know it has never once been blemished by the hand of man? Day and night I stood captivated by the window, on the deck, greedily surveying all before me; we were in the middle of nowhere and yet there was always so much to see.
The long days of early February made sightseeing easy, but the blue skies we associate with summer were a rarity. Our one day of brilliant sunshine came as we sliced through ice en route to the Lemaire Channel, also known as the Kodak Gap for its supremely photogenic splendour.
The water glass-flat and the sun unexpectedly warm on our skin, we took pause in a cove and boarded Zodiacs to survey our surroundings, occasionally stopping the motor to appreciate the serenity – a complete, calming silence only occasionally interrupted by the crinkle of ice bobbing on water or the sudden roar of a distant glacier calving.
Here, at sea level, was when we could enjoy some of our most intimate wildlife encounters. We drifted past icebergs serving as makeshift beach clubs for herds of sunbathing seals, our arrival met only with apathy; we sailed on as penguins sprung from the water in unison, as if in greeting. I’m privileged to visit spectacular places routinely (I work as The Telegraph’s luxury travel editor), but few places have ever impressed me this profoundly.
That sense of awe and appreciation was shared by all on board. Over lunch (unpretentious, delicious and generously portioned themed world cuisine, from Italian to Thai, served family-style) and dinner (thoughtful three-course menus, a touch more formal and made with obvious care), our group babbled excitedly about the day’s encounters. Tended to intuitively by an exceptional crew, each night we shared stories over cocktails or – invigorated by our surroundings – rejected Hollywood blockbusters in favour of watching reruns of Frozen Planet on the big screen.
It was obvious to all of us that we were in the midst of something truly remarkable, and even when near dizzy from the intensity of all we had encountered, the surprises kept coming. On one day a visit to a penguin colony preceded our arrival at Vernadsky Station, a Ukrainian research base. After showing us the facilities, including a simple gym, chapel and sauna, our guide brought us upstairs to the bar for $3 shots of homemade moonshine. I think it must have been the glacial water that made mine go down so easy.
But for many, the most magical moment of all came when the team from EYOS led us to a stretch of particularly bountiful waters. Their hunch proved fruitful: there before us played a pod of maybe 16 or so orcas. Gingerly, we boarded Zodiacs, hoping a clutch of these magnificent killer whales might deign to approach us.
They did so much more than that. Encircling us – for them too, this was a rare and unexpected sighting – diving beneath us, breaching beside us, seemingly contemplating us and trusting us. For an hour we remained side by side, together but otherwise all alone in this most remarkable spot at the bottom of the world.