What kind of madness would inspire someone to plunge into icy water on the edge of an active volcano? A combination of simple FOMO, peer pressure, and the inevitable ‘because it’s there.’ And also perhaps because, like banging your head against a wall, it feels so good when you stop.
For about 30 seconds, I couldn’t feel my legs … The icy polar waters that lapped at Whalers Bay may have been two degrees warmer than the sub-zero temperature outside, but that hadn’t made spending more than a few seconds submerged in it any more appealing.
You might ask why I, and several others, would deign to do it at all. The real question is – when presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dive into the polar waters off Deception Island – why you wouldn’t.
Stripping off the multiple layers that stood between us and the chill, we donned our swimsuits, teetering impossibly on the black volcanic sands of the bay to keep as much as possible of our bodies covered at one time, more to keep warm than for modesty’s sake.
As the very, very fresh air gnawed at our skin, we hurried down to the water like kids keen to jump into a pool – some choosing to dive headfirst and fully submerge themselves for a few seconds; others wading in slowly so as to adjust to the frigid temperatures. I chose the former, and – seconds later – I was back on the beach and running faster than a toddler on a sweetie binge, in desperate pursuit of warm, dry clothing.
As mist billowed landwards from the water into which I had just plunged, the ruins of the abandoned whaling station behind me seemed shrouded from the modern world. I had never felt more alive.
Deception Island, so named by American sealer Nathaniel Palmer in 1820 because of its deceptive appearance as a ‘normal’ island, is located in the South Shetland Islands just north of Antarctica. And, if you look at a map, you may notice that the conveniently sheltered Whalers Bay is the flooded caldera of a volcano – but what you won’t see on a map is that it’s an active volcano, one of two in Antarctica.
The gigantic oil tanks, bleached whaling boats and several graves are the only things that remain as a testament to a once-prosperous sealing and whaling base – a rather unlikely location on account of the volcano’s unpredictable tendency to erupt when you least expect it, as several researchers were to discover more than a century on, in the late 1960s when their research station was destroyed by falling ash.
Deception Island was our first landfall after several days’ sailing from Argentina across the Drake Passage and an aborted stop at Half Moon Island, which we could not visit because of bad weather. The erratic arrival and departure of wind and ice were a phenomenon we would become used to as we continued our quest to discover a tiny section of the world’s driest and coldest continent. We were sailing on the MS Midnatsol, a 136-metre, 970-passenger cruise ship operated by Hurtigruten, global leaders in exploration travel.
That morning, Midnatsol rounded the snow-dusted cliffs of the caldera and began her slow and steady approach through the narrow entrance, Neptune’s Bellows, eluding the tricky Ravn Rock, which lies submerged just a few metres below the surface in the middle of the channel, and which had been the undoing of many a ship that met its untimely demise in these frigid waters.
A registered member of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, Hurtigruten works hard to make sure that landings in Antarctica and associated islands have no lasting impact. So we had spent much of the journey to the Frozen Continent preparing for these landings.
All passengers aboard Midnatsol are equipped with a crimson wind- and waterproof parka, which we got to keep after the cruise, and special rubber boots that were washed and disinfected after each landing. And before we could go ashore we had to vacuum all our outerwear to ensure that nothing, not even a stray hair, was left behind.
Only 100 people are allowed on shore at any one time, so the ship’s passengers are divided into expedition groups whimsically named after penguins, whales, seals and albatrosses. Each group has at least an hour and a half on land to explore.
Once ashore we had to ‘tread lightly’ and carefully stay on the special ice highways that have been carved out by the expedition team. And, on departure, any holes left in the snow are filled so that the resident penguins can safely use the highways without falling into a boot-shaped snow divot.
In our preparatory onboard lectures, we had been told to stay at least five metres away from the penguins at all times but within minutes on land, I realised that was going to be well nigh impossible. Penguins are a curious lot by nature, and would think nothing of waddling up to the crimson-clad giants for a closer look, or stopping dead in the midst of a Penguin Highway causing a human traffic jam as we craned impossibly to take the Instagram shot of the day.
Surprisingly, the forbidding landscapes of Antarctica are home to an astounding display of life. Deception Island is home to one of the world’s largest Chinstrap Penguin colonies, an incredible array of moss and lichen species cling to its volcanic rocks, and a variety of seabird species nest there. And that’s not to mention the lazy seals that look like giant silver rocks against the snow.
More than a holiday
While we were excited to spend a week in Antarctica, two Norwegian scientists, Andy Lowther and Heide Ahonan, got to stay longer, having swopped the comforts of MS Midnatsol for 90 days on a land of fire and ice, their world condensed into a neat three metre by three metre cube of luggage.
Working for the Norwegian Polar Institute, they will spend the next three months studying one of the world’s keystone species, Antarctic krill, which is the main source of food for many marine animals, including penguins and whales.
Life was about to become very simple for them. No running water, no buffet lunches, no internet – only the day-to-day business of their immediate surrounds, extreme isolation, extreme weather, and the surprises that Antarctica would inevitably deliver.
They were quite happy to turn their backs on the ship and on civilisation, and spend their ‘summer holiday’ at the end of the earth. Having spent a week in Antarctica, I completely understand why.
Hurtigruten is represented in South Africa by Development Promotions. (derprom.co.za)
10 Antarctica Travel Tips
1. Wear layers: about 3–4 layers will be enough.
2. You don’t need to bring boots. Instead, bring comfortable shoes for on board.
3. Make sure you have waterproof pants, thermal socks, waterproof gloves and a beanie.
4. Bring a waterproof bag you can keep on your back.
5. Bring a good camera with a good lens, but take some time to live in the moment.
6. If you get seasick, eat only dry food and green apples.
7. Wear suntan lotion and lip balm with a high SPF.
8. Push your boundaries: do the excursions – kayaking, camping, snowshoeing.
9. Bring a costume for the polar plunge and on-board Jacuzzi.
10.Read South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition or watch the movie before you go.