PAMELA WADE SEES ANTARCTICA BY SEA
Who doesn’t love a penguin? Cute, little, waddling, smartly dressed – being surrounded by around 20,000 of them would be a total delight, right? Not entirely. Penguins, frankly, stink. Well, their rookeries do anyway, the snow stained pink with the by-product of a diet rich in krill.
Penguins en masse also make the most almighty racket, hooting and squawking non-stop as they greet mates, shout at marauding skuas or join in the constant chorus just for the fun of it. It’s deafening.
Get them on their own, though, and they’re totally charming. One of the best bits, and there were so many, about my Silversea Expedition cruise to Antarctica was that there was plenty of time for quietly
connecting with this magical, unique environment and its inhabitants. Sitting on a rocky beach in the sunshine, I could hear the chunks of ice clinking in the waves, the ancient air inside them popping audibly as sweet little chinstrap penguins scrambled out of the sea.
Against a background of sculpted icebergs and glistening glaciers, they stopped to preen themselves before waddling past to join their partners and feed their fluffy grey chicks.
And I just watched, listened and felt incredibly lucky to be there.
The Silver Explorer, its 136 passengers and 116 crew had set sail from Ushuaia, in Argentina, heading first to the Falklands, then South Georgia Island, and on down to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands. It’s a remote and rugged part of the planet, but there was no roughing it – my suite had an actual bath, a verandah, possibly the world’s most comfortable bed and a butler.
Yes, Ivy was my butler, for whom nothing was too much trouble and whose only concern was that I wasn’t asking enough of her. But really, everything I wanted was already there because Silversea specialises in luxurious comfort, even on its sturdy, ice-class expedition ships.
After a morning climbing to a viewpoint through knee-deep snow, or wrestling through thick mounds of tussock to an albatross colony, or even just bouncing around in an inflatable boat between icebergs with crabeater seals sprawled on them, it was lovely to be welcomed back on board the boat with a glass of mulled wine. Plus, there was a groaning buffet waiting for us in the restaurant. And a five-course dinner that night. With everything included.
It wasn’t all about indulgence, however. There was a team of specialists on board who were keen that we should understand the wonders we were seeing and their daily lectures were literally an education.
I might not remember much of Wolfgang’s geology talks – something to do with the rocking of the ship making my eyelids droop – but Luke, Cory and the others were interesting over a wide range of topics, from photography and whale noises to Ernest Shackleton.
We covered a lot of the same ground that Shackleton did on his epic rescue mission back in 1917 and to stand finally at his grave on Elephant Island to drink a toast to “The Boss” was a very special moment – but really, the cruise was full of them.
There was the slow-motion calving of a glacier below us, the rumble reaching our ears well after we saw the splash of ice into the turquoise water of the bay. There was the South Georgia sunset that was more intense and long-lasting than any I have ever seen. There were the snow flurries over a colony of hundreds of fluffy fur seals.
There were also the humpback whales gulping huge mouthfuls of krill. There were orcas, glaciers, icebergs... and everywhere, penguins. I’ll soon forget the smell. I’ll never forget the sight.
A fuzzy king penguin chick and an equally well-wrapped human eye each other curiously.
The variety in size, shape and colour of the icebergs seen from the ship was astonishing.
The king penguin is a strikingly elegant bird.
Gentoo penguins on playing a game in a sunny afternoon the South Shetland Islands.