Antarctica’s animal kingdom
A holiday on ice with penguins for playmates
FORall their undeniable charms, penguins make decidedly poor bedfellows. When amassed in any number, they smell — and badly. Worse, they don’t know when to shut up. And now would definitely be a time for them to shut up, as I amattempting to sleep while bivouacking on the ice on Orne Island in Antarctica.
It is no easy task, lying on a bed of compacted snow, open to the frigid air and distracting beauty of the surrounding snow-covered mountains and glaciers, bathed in the orange and pink of the never-setting summer sun. I’m wearing an eye mask in an unsuccessful attempt to convince my brain that it’s as dark as nights back home. The sub-zero temperatures bite at my toes despite my thermal socks. I’m clad in synthetic warmers and, in a final act of desperation in the early hours, I pop a woollen beanie on my feet.
When I finally lapse into an uneasy snooze, the penguins start up. Like neighbourhood dogs on a still summer night in suburbia, a single troublemaker begins the cacophony with a provocative honk or guttural squawk. Within minutes they’re all at it and the silence of the world’s last wilderness is shattered.
Slightly more concerning is the occasional spinechilling crack, boom and crash I hear at intervals during the night. Peeking from under my mask, I see the cause — avalanches tumbling down the mountains of the peninsula and large segments of a nearby glacier collapsing into the sea.
About 5am, assistant expedition leader Maggie O’Connor, the chaperone of this bizarre pyjama party at the bottom of the world, decides we have suffered enough. It’s time to wake up (no problem there), stretch stiff limbs, rub frozen extremities, roll up our thin mattresses and sleeping bags, and board Zodiacs to take us back to Polar Pioneer.
Aboard this small, comfortable ship, operated by Australian-based Aurora Expeditions, warm cabins, hot showers and cooked breakfasts await. Mawson and Shackleton may have had to slaughter a penguin or seal for sustenance, but we have eggs and bacon.
This nine-day, fly-cruise journey to the Antarctic Peninsula is not without its share of real adventures. It is as much expedition as cruise for our group of 48 British, Australian, American and assorted European travellers. Aurora’s competent, knowledgeable and enthusiastic team keeps us safe, but we are never mollycoddled. This is particularly the case for the hardcore among us who have opted to go kayaking when the ship anchors, rather than take the customary Zodiac cruises. And short of growing fins or flippers, kayaking provides the most intimate Antarctic experience imaginable — and sometimes a little too intimate.
My first heart-stopping moment comes as we try to locate some humpback whales feeding on krill in Foyn Harbour. As my kayak glides past another, one of its paddlers makes a comment that fails to clearly penetrate the beanie covering my ears and the sound of splashing paddles. By the time I’ve assembled the fragments of misheard words to produce ‘‘There’s one just there!’’, it’s too late.
A mountain of black blubber erupts from the still surface of the inky ocean. Suddenly, I am only several feet away from two 35-tonne leviathans. The humpbacks are close enough for me to count the barnacles on their boat-sized chins. It’s an Attenborough moment, a genuine case of shock and awe. Imagine being swatted by several tons of whale tail or sucked into the depths by the monsters’ slipstreams. For just a split second, the modern
impulse to grab my