Thrills and Chills in Antarctica

By Susan Elliott

Gentoo penguins breed on the hill above Neko Harbour, an inlet of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Gentoo penguins breed on the hill above Neko Harbour, an inlet of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Music icons, sporting heroes, young travellers and artists – the passenger manifest on Antarctic cruise ships is often as unique as the destination.

It’s not as if the Antarctic needs a drawcard. It’s such a show-off. Mighty mountain ranges smothered in Disney-perfect snow are fringed with freshly calved icebergs, circled by whales, orcas, penguins, seals and a field guide of seabirds. It reads like an embellished resume.

Celebrities are the new ice age attractions. If you’re bound for the ‘Big White’, you could be dining with Archibald-winning artist Ben Quilty, having a sleepover on the snow with rugby great John Eales, doing the ‘Polar Plunge’ with Olympian Dawn Fraser or dancing the night away with Paul Kelly. They’re all heading there soon.

I’m kayaking through a surging sea of brash ice with Andrew Denton and Jennifer Byrne, two of Australia’s most loved media personalities who share decades of brilliant journalism – as TV presenters, producers, writers and radio broadcasters.

They’re guests on Ocean Endeavour for a nine-day cruise of the Antarctic Peninsula with Chimu Adventures. It’s their sixth Antarctic trip together, and their thrill of the chill makes them sought-after speakers.

The End of the World 

Our voyage leaves from the colourful, quirky port of Ushuaia – the world’s southernmost city in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. From Australia, it’s an aerial expedition to get there – the flight from Sydney via Santiago, and Buenos Aires steals at least 48 hours of your life.

However, you will forgive and forget on the final leg into Ushuaia. The runway approach is a lovely, low, long track along the Beagle Channel, named for HMS Beagle, which surveyed the coast between 1826 and 1830. Charles Darwin was on a later trip in 1833 as an amateur naturalist. Book a window seat for a view he couldn’t possibly have imagined.

There is a free day in Ushuaia before we leave, and though tempted to hike Tierra del Fuego National Park, or ride the ‘End of the World’ train, or visit the old prison that is now a magnificent Maritime Museum, it’s the call of ‘centolla’, king crab, that has me seated and ‘bibbed’ for a feast at Tia Elvira restaurant on Ushuaia’s waterfront.

Argentina, we love your meat, and it’s a tummy tease to pass restaurant windows boasting rotisseries of butterflied lamb dripping in deliciousness. But crab is king here. Fresh from the tank, our order is cooked and then cracked open at the table in a ceremony befitting the boss of crustaceans. It needs nothing but a squirt of lemon. And everyone’s side dish is a view of the port and our ship, Ocean Endeavour, readied to sail.

Adior Argentina 

There’s a thumb squished between the bathroom door and the jamb. It’s mine.

We’re underway, and 30 minutes after the mandatory safety briefing, I’ve made a rookie error and am paying the excruciating price. Even though the notoriously rocky Drake Passage is doing its version of a lake, not the shake, swinging steel doors claim victims on the calmest of days.

Next, I’m being plucked. The expedition’s biosecurity check inspects all clothing we intend to wear for shore excursions. But if fibres come loose, the fluffy item is ship-bound for the voyage. My favourite rabbit-fur beanie flunks the pluck test. As we are about to learn, the only way to keep the planet’s most pristine environment pristine is to be pristine.

Ocean Endeavour is on course for Lemaire Channel. It’s not the fanciest ship to come off the slipway, but it is ideal for this expedition and will take us into harbours, bays and coves that bigger vessels can’t access. It’s a two-day crossing of the Drake Passage, and peaceful hours are spent gazing upwards for seabirds and down for sea life.

Above, we’re escorted by Wandering, Black-browed, Southern Royal, Grey-headed and Light-mantled Albatrosses with an entourage of prions, terns, skua and the who’s who of petrels flashing across our wake – the Black-bellied Storm, White-chinned, Blue, Wilson’s Storm, Southern Giant and the Northern Giant.

Below, there’s nothing to see but the four-metre swell.

The Ocean Endeavour

The Chills, They’re Multiplying 

I barely sleep on the second sea night, knowing my morning view will be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Antarctica.

At 4 am, I peep out my porthole. Lemaire is there. I dash to the deck and take the first of a thousand photos. The scene is magnificent. Icebergs seem to levitate, mountains are overdosed with snow, and the water – well, it’s the purest on the planet.

On the stern, I have the company of travellers who possibly didn’t sleep at all – there’s a piano in the Aurora Lounge, and two of the crew have guitars! Most are under 30, some have snagged last-minute cheap deals in Ushuaia (a risky option); others have used money saved during lockdown years for a trip they didn’t think they would do until later in life.

“It’s the ‘Attenborough Effect’, says Sean Boon from Somerset, England. “Young people want to go on holidays like this rather than going to a resort and sitting around.”

Also, very present are young women travelling alone. I meet Calista, a social worker from Ohio. Anne-Maree, a nurse from Bendigo; Sonia, an epidemiologist from Baltimore and Leona, a team builder from Sydney.

Mud Rooms and Penguin Pee

Antarctic expeditions tick like an Atomic clock. To the minute, we are called in groups for meals, summoned to the ‘Mud Room’ to don our protective clothing, and then loaded into Zodiacs for one of four excursions – shore landing, kayaking, photography or citizen science.

I’m in a kayak, juggling my paddle, gloves, sunglasses and phone. You know which one wins – it’s a double kayak, not that cold, not glary, and if I don’t post on social media, then I was never here.

Pleneau Island is our morning excursion. The Gentoo penguins imagine I have a bow wave and porpoise in front of my very slow-moving craft, Crabeater seals lounge on icebergs posing like celebrities at a Mediterranean resort, and the shore is black and white with birds. Every sense is engaged, particularly smell. Penguins reek.

US science producer Jason Orfanon nails it: “The best way to recreate the experience is to take some old cigarette tobacco, soak it in ammonia, mix in some rotten shrimp, and let it sit out in the sun for a few days.” I drop everything to pull up my balaclava.

The foul smell doesn’t bother my paddle buddies, Andrew and Jennifer. Journalism has delivered worse.

“Antarctica is the nearest we can come to leaving the planet,” says Denton. “It’s the last ‘Great Place’, a unique landscape of colours and wildlife, solitude and history,”

Antarctic history is Andrew’s forte. Well, one of them. That evening, his presentation tells the story of Adrien Victor Joseph de Gerlache de Gromery. Yep, I’d never heard of him either. If your surname isn’t Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott or Mawson, we possibly don’t know about you. Apologies Adrien, I now know you.

Gerlache was from Belgium, and his expedition on Belgica (1897-1899) is considered the first to have wintered in the Antarctic. As was the norm, sailors got scurvy, became anaemic, died, jumped ship or were fired for insubordination. Still, Gerlache returned home a hero. Andrew tells the story, with passion, as we sip French champagne en route to Neko Harbour.

Gerlache discovered Neko Harbour as well as our next three stops, Orne Harbour, Wilhemina Bay and Brialmont Cove. They’re all a beautiful blur of white. And the wildlife is anything but wild. The Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins don’t know the three-metre “distance” rule and waddle close, heads high as if to say: “Rules, what rules?”

Extra Thrills 

Pay extra and you can trade your cosy cabin to sleep on rock-hard snow. Polar camping is cool if you love cold and uncomfortable. From drop off at 9 pm until pick up at 5 am there’s little to do but take “I did this” photos, squirm in your sleeping bag and dream you’re in the Aurora Lounge with the backpackers singers and their guitars. But, having overnighted on the world’s highest, driest, windiest, coldest continent, you are officially an Antarctic expeditioner and that bragging right is priceless.

Being a citizen scientist is a bigger thrill. We count seabirds, take photos of whale tails, record cloud formations and lower a Secchi disc to measure the clarity of the water – a device that helps real scientists monitor how melting glaciers influence phytoplankton populations.

The topic of climate change and our presence in Antarctica is a recurrent conversation on the trip.

“What You Don’t Know About, You Don’t Care About” 

That’s the call cry from Expedition leader Jonathon Green.

“We could create this enormous plastic bubble and cover Antarctica and say it’s off limits for all humanity. That’s not going to happen, and humans can’t keep their fingers out of the pie. The only way we can preserve the Antarctic for the future is by creating the level of awareness necessary. What you don’t know about, you don’t care about.”

Andrew Denton, who loves a quote, has this one from environmentalist Rob Watson:

“Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is. You cannot sweet talk her. You cannot spin her. She will do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate. Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1.000”.

“Travelling to Antarctica is a powerful education in this reality,” he says.

If it takes celebrities to help get that message across, let’s keep signing them up.

Dawn Fraser has her swimsuit packed for her expedition in January 2024. At 87 she will be the oldest Olympian to do the famous “Polar Plunge” – jumping off the ship into freezing water. When she does it, she’ll be a legend. Again.

Our writer was a guest of Chimu Adventures.


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