A visit to the forbidden White Continent of Antarctica is never what it seems at first glance. Visitors have very little idea of what lies in store in this white expanse. Spending the 2019 New Year’s eve battling fears, whales, albatrosses, and icy cold winds proved to be a thrilling & life-changing expedition, recounts Chander Mahadev.
When a daunting, inter-continental dream becomes a shivering reality, it is hard to live down. An 11-day Antarctica Expedition with a majority of home-grown Indian explorers took the exotic journey, complete with an oriental twist. The fact that this was only the second Indian expedition to the White Continent only added to the charm.
Pristine, pure environment, forbidding white-hued portraits of nature etched against the bluest of skylines, glaciers, and icebergs that painted humongous landscapes welcomed us to the White Continent.
But, before we could soak in these first impressions, a 200-odd motley group of high-strung passengers boarded L’Austral, the Luxury yacht. The excitement was palpable as we boarded the ship at the quaint Argentinian port town of Ushuaia, known as the ‘end of the world.’ The Captain of the ship Erwann Le Rouzic and the Cruise Director Mria Paz Garcia Pintado accorded a warm welcome to what turned out to be the expedition of a lifetime.
Onboard the L‘Austral celebration in the air as 2018 was drawing to a close and we were ready to usher in the New Year by setting foot on the While Continent. When we were told by our India travel partner, The Q Experiences, that this was ‘luxury travel re-imagined,’ we thought it was nothing more than a dash of marketing hype thrown in for good measure. However, this tag line proved to be an understatement even as the ship pitched and rolled across the dreaded Drakes’ Passage. It is said that if there is one passage that visitors, scientists, and other sailors fear, it is Drake’s Passage. Sea-farers will tell you that you have to earn the right to see the White Continent and the “Antarctica Convergence” zone. Here the northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet the warmer equatorial waters. It is home to a rich variety of marine wildlife.
The Chosen Ones
As the Captain informed us on the PA system that we indeed were the ‘chosen ones,’ since the passage was never as calm and welcoming, as it was to our expedition. This was greeted with a loud roar by the ‘civilized buccaneers’ who had decided to embark on the 11-day (December 30-January 9) journey to conquer their fears, and the continent, in the process.
On the morning of December 31, some of the expedition members were thrilled to see the elusive albatross, the bird that has inspired many poems and stories on the mysteries and tragedies of sea travel. These feathered giants have the longest wingspan among all birds —up to 11 feet. The wandering albatross is the biggest of some two dozen different species, informed an excited Manuel Marin, the Birder Specialist onboard L’Austral. For, over the last 12 years, he has paid nearly 100 visits to Antarctica and has ample experience in the Sub-Antarctic region as well. There were as many as six wildlife experts and marine biologists who shared their nuggets of wisdom each day while briefing us about our daily explorations.
Paradise on ice
The next morning we had reached Neko Harbor in Paradise Bay – a paradise on ice. Many of the reasons whalers considered Paradise Bay to be idyllic nearly a century ago, hold true even today. While disembarking from Deck 2, most of us were apprehensive and some even wore nervous smiles. We had been given 20 minutes to wear multiple layers of warm clothes, with a parka as the outermost skin. Above all this paraphernalia was the life jacket. We were all now heavier by 10 kgs. Added to this was the wind whistling through our parka caps and the icy cold wind cutting through our warm mittens. All of us also had snow sticks to carry and cameras slung across our necks, to ‘capture for posterity.’
To say that we were a little scared would be an understatement. As we slipped on our knee-length Dunlop gumboots I felt no less than Francis Drake, the original buccaneer who conquered Drake’s Passage. Only 10 fellow-travelers were lowered into each zodiac (there were more than 15 of them) and barring a side rope we were exposed to the elements. An experienced escort was on hand to allay our fears and answer our questions even as the zodiac flung itself on to the choppy sea.
Waves of cold ice lashed against our parkas as wails and screams rent the air. The first few minutes were numbing. However, within five minutes most of us had settled down on the zodiac, and our escort gave us a ‘warning drill.’ He told us how we should not lean on to the side of the zodiac to catch a glimpse of marine life and not to stand up on the zodiac to click photographs. By now we had reached the Neko Harbour. We met different kinds of wise-looking seals lazily basking on icebergs that had greeted us on our first landing.
As we first set foot on Antarctica, a feeling of calm descended on us. We had finally managed to live out our dream of setting foot on the white forbidden continent that is Antarctica. The next nine days were daily encounters with wildlife peculiar to the continent. We encountered 16 different kinds of penguins, who were ever so eager to communicate. They took a special liking to us human beings and we had to be careful not to come closer than 5 meters – the designated distance spelled out in the Antarctica Treaty. We also encountered many penguin highways, which gave them the right of way. Every cruise and landing made each one of us face our fears even as we became more comfortable with the unexpected turn of the weather.
Port Charcot, Hidden Cove, Wilhelmina Bay, Brown Bluff, and Deception Island were the places we touched on our cruises and landings. Our final pit stop was Deception Island. It is an island in the South Shetland Islands archipelago, with one of the safest harbors in Antarctica. The island is the caldera of an active volcano, which seriously damaged local scientific stations in 1967 and in 1969. It has become a popular stop for travelers since it boasts of huge colonies of Chinstrap Penguins. As we crossed Drake’s Passage on our eventful return journey back, it was 11 days of sheer bliss coming to an end. It was time to part ways. We had conquered our fears. Varsha Deshmukh, a co-traveler had the pithiest comments to make on our expedition. “Antarctica is like human nature, the more it reveals the less you know about it. Like human nature, life changes every hour on Antarctica.”
The writer is a former journalist at The Times of India.