A DIP ON THE CHILLY SIDE

A South­ern Ocean swim is truly breath-tak­ing, writes Caro­line Ber­don.

Herald on Sunday - - CRUISE -

Is­tand on the marine deck of the ex­pe­di­tion ship in my bikini, ready to jump into the dark grey chop of the South­ern Ocean.

I’m mus­ter­ing up a lit­tle courage: the air tem­per­a­ture is below zero, an icy wind is whip­ping my bare stom­ach, and there’s a small crowd star­ing at me.

These vast waters at Cierva Cove off the Antarc­tic Pensin­sula are hardly trop­i­cal. Dis­tant ice­bergs and drift­ing pack ice bel­low of what this zero-de­gree wa­ter is ca­pa­ble of — ap­par­ently it could turn a body rigid in four min­utes.

Hence the crowds. This is no place for a peace­ful, solo swim. I even have a can­vas belt around my waist at­tached to a rope in case the Po­sei­don Ex­pe­di­tions crew needs to pull me out.

Then I jump, feet first, push­ing away from the ship as far as I can. The cold bites my skin and takes my body. The wa­ter looks al­most black, but also ap­pears amaz­ingly clear and clean. I lurch into a messy freestyle for five or six strokes be­fore stop­ping to take it all in.

The first thing I no­tice is my dis­tance from the ship — per­haps 20m; the cur­rent is stronger than I thought.

Then I clock the con­cerned faces of the crew, who start to tug at the rope at­tached to my belt. I swim back to help them but al­ready my body feels heavy and slow. And when I’m out of the wa­ter wrap­ping my­self in a towel, I’m shiv­er­ing and shak­ing and talk­ing in gasps.

It’s short-lived, of course. I’m soon cra­dled in the warm bub­bles of the Jacuzzi on Sea Spirit’s top deck, our cheery bar­man Sixto hand­ing me the shot of Argentinian Pa­tron te­quila I’d or­dered in ad­vance. I sink down along­side fel­low elated jumpers — a cou­ple of Ger­mans, a Liver­pudlian and a Chi­nese-Amer­i­can — to ab­sorb the late-af­ter­noon beauty.

A misty grey sky hov­ers like tis­sue pa­per over a bright, white sun. Sil­very rays are break­ing through here and there, flick­er­ing on the waves and dart­ing across lonely glaciers on the hori­zon. As views from tubs go, it’s out of this world.

In true Antarc­tic style, a new weather front is on its way. A wind is build­ing, car­ry­ing rain and sleet, and a swell is ris­ing in the grey wa­ter.

Within min­utes my bub­ble bud­dies have de­parted and I take in the scene alone — which of­ten I pre­fer be­cause it makes me feel more vul­ner­a­ble and in this way, the con­di­tions more mag­nif­i­cent.

It’s Antarc­tica’s un­pre­dictable weather that makes us can­cel our planned night of camp­ing on shore. The win­ter has left float­ing pack ice yet to melt and if we stay on land overnight, there’s a dan­ger we could get iced in. Although our ship is ice classed (which means its hull is strength­ened to nav­i­gate through sea ice), it’s no ice­breaker.

I can’t help my dis­ap­point­ment. I was ex­cited about dig­ging an ice pit, ly­ing out in the open in my bivvy bag and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the brief twi­light that is an Antarc­tic sum­mer’s night.

At least a good sleep in a warm, blacked out cabin read­ies you for trekking, which is so var­ied on the Antarc­tic Penin­sula and its sur­round­ing is­lands.

Dur­ing our six days here with Chimu Ad­ven­tures, we wan­der past pen­guin rook­eries and sleepy ele­phant seals laid out like bread dough; we walk on crunchy vol­canic beaches and climb snowy glaciers.

One of my favourite treks is at Orne Har­bour, which marks our first land­ing on main­land Antarc­tica.

In a wind chill of about -10C, we trudge up a moun­tain through snow that’s thigh-high in parts (there’s al­ways an op­tion for less able trav­ellers too, who can walk on the flat near the shore­line).

The bl­iz­zard feels fast and fierce on this ex­posed side of the glacier. It cracks our lips, burns our skin and white-cakes any hair show­ing through hats, hoods and scarves. It also tem­po­rar­ily ren­ders use­less our cam­eras, so we tuck them up un­der our jack­ets and ig­nore them.

The ex­pe­di­tion team have laid out a zigzag of flags for us to fol­low for our safety and as I reach the top, I col­lapse into the soft, squeaky white.

Through gog­gles and whizzing snow, I look down the steep glacier to jagged ice as it falls into the dark sea, and make out our tiny Sea Spirit at the other side of the bay. The weather and light in Antarc­tica is al­ways chang­ing, and has been do­ing so like this for cen­turies.

It’s another world from life back home. It is pris­tine and un­spoiled. It is in­hu­man. And in some ways it feels hard to con­nect with. To have dug into its sur­face and dipped into its waters has been an amaz­ing way to pen­e­trate even a tiny part of this place, and I feel so priv­i­leged. Just sit­ting still on a moun­tain in a bl­iz­zard, is a chance to breathe it all in.

Pen­guins and ele­phant seals and, in­set, a seal catches a scent of in­ter­est in Antarc­tica.

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