The journey south …
As a polar explorer it’s not easy travelling south these days. Not like it was in the early part of the 20th century for the likes of Shackelton, Scott and Amundsen, whose sole preoccupation was sailing scott-free (unless you were Scott or traveling with him) on the open ocean with nothing to occupy their time but stroking huskies and fellow expedition members or surfing Facebook. No, these days you have to battle your way to the Polar Circle through a never-ending stream of frigid bergs hovering below the waterline ready to sink your chances of making Queen, Kate Middleton and Country proud … in the form of airport security, Immigration and KLM stewardesses.
After spending 40 minutes at Heathrow having my hand luggage searched to check I wasn’t carrying more than my allotted allowance of Semtex, detonators and radical-extremist literature, I ran to the departure gate gutted that I had to forgo my pre-flight pint and the chance to spend time enjoying the truly authentic British pub atmosphere that only an airport departure lounge can offer. Instead, I opted for a bottle of Jack Daniels from the tax-free shop, only to be told by the shop assistant that I couldn’t take it onwards following my connection in Amsterdam and that I would have to drink it on the hour-and-a-half plane ride. Contingency plan! “What would Scott have done in this situation?” I asked myself. So, surreptitiously, I did drink it on the plane, despite having read the in-flight magazine which clearly stated the not bringing of alcohol on-board – along with electronic cigarettes, East Europeans and badger porn.
I got thrown off my polar plan twice during the flight to Buenos Aires (the second leg of the journey before going on to Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentine in a couple of days to meet the expedition ship). First, by the KLM flight attendant when I asked for a beer. She looked at me, askew, and said ‘But we’re serving lunch in half an hour!’ I looked back – in only the way an English scumbag can – and said, ‘And …?’ (That threw her!) She said, ‘But you’re standing up!’ (This is an evolutionary conundrum that, personally, I blame Darwin for). I said, ‘Yes, but I’m sitting down when I’m in that seat there!’ pointing to a chair 0.7m away. She said ‘But you’re waiting for the toilet!’ I said ‘No, I’m standing by a toilet. I have no intention of entering it unless you’re offering me cocaine or inviting me to join the Mile High Club.’ She raised her eyebrows to the God of Economy Class and with great reluctance handed me a 0.2gm can of Heineken – not enough to anesthetize a gnat let alone bring down an intrepid polar adventurer.
The second issue came when I was handed a Customs declaration form for entry into Argentina. Question Number 6: ‘Was I carrying any “sperm” on my person?’ What?!!! I bet Scott and Amundsen never got interrogated like this! What do you say when you’re a full-on Polar-Head fuelled on testosterone and crampons? Looking at the question from the perspective of Immigration – and judging that over half of the one billion Chinese population appeared to be on the flight – I ticked the ‘No’ box and then ticked ‘$0.00’ for the ‘What is the value of the goods you are bringing in?’ question – conveniently overlooking the £3,000 of scuba equipment I had in my ever-so-light luggage.
Anyway, the Chinese population – or any other population – don’t have to worry about entry into Argentina, because during the wait at Immigration most people either die of old age or start swimming back across the South Atlantic vowing to learn from their experience and not to be so stupid in the future. Finally, I got to show the webcam a bloodshot retina, then gave Interpol the thumbprint of America’s-Most-Wanted and entered the country in 25 degrees heat wearing my ski jacket and carrying 60kg of equipment.
The outcome is that I’m now enjoying the wonderful hospitality of the Argentinian people, who have made the journey so far so worthwhile, practicing my Española, and looking forward to flying further south tomorrow.
Hasta luego, Amigos!
Day 1 – Saturday 9th March 2013
Position at the pier: 54°48.6’ S, 068°18.0’ W
Weather: Northerly wind 4 knots; Cloudy; Calm Sea; +5°C.
Embarkation – Ushuaia, Argentina
‘Good morning!’ And what a special morning this is. 0600hrs and I believe I am the third person awake on the good ship Plancius – or at least the third person in the observation lounge – en route to the Antarctic Polar Circle with Oceanwide Expeditions. Clemence is already here and we have had a highly profitable chat. He is indeed a jolly fine fellow from the Netherlands and we shared our reckonings and concerns for the harsh voyage ahead. As a preventive measure against the dreaded scurvy, breakfast has been a tot or three of spiced rum with that most revered of seafaring captains, J.P. Morgan.
The last 48 hours have brought with them a flood of the most unbelievable feelings of excitement together with a weird sense of contentment stemming from a lifetime of goal-setting and adventure. I’m also experiencing a bizarre feeling of nostalgia in a kind of ‘think-how-far-you’ve-come’ way. I guess what I mean is, I set out to travel the seven continents, even though at times it hasn’t always gone to plan, and now that dream is coming true. Never more so than when I looked out of my hotel window yesterday in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina – the southern-most town in the world – and saw Plancius, our icebreaking expedition ship, docked in the beautiful aquamarine waters of the harbour surrounded by snow-capped peaks. That was the ship taking me to the final frontier, and, unlike Star Trek, it suddenly got very real.
I’d flown from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia with the biggest grin on my face, a grin that got stupidly bigger when my thousands-of-pounds-worth of dive gear and expedition equipment arrived on the airport’s carousel and I knew at that point, bar an act of God, another Falkland’s war or tripping over my shoelaces, nothing would stop me visiting Antarctica and scuba diving in her pristine waters.
Moreover, my life would be complete and I could look forward to relaxing up and returning to the UK to build bonfires on a Sunday and crocheting antimacassars for the girls at my Women’s Institute. I pulled the tab on a can of Quilmes and sparked a roll-up and savoured the experience of finally landing in Fin de Mundo – the End of the World – and then I hailed a cab.
Ushuaia is a Wild West town lying on a barren windswept peninsular lapped by the greeny-blue waves of the Southern Ocean and ringed by frozen mountains.
I spent the day buying final items of expedition wear – everyone should have a bright yellow fanny pack, or at least know somebody who has got one – and gifts for friends mostly of the penguin variety, and then treated myself to a bottle of Argentine red and King Crab fresh from the tank in the window of a delightful restaurant.
When I saw Plancius in the morning, I couldn’t stop looking at her. I had this irrational fear that perhaps the schedule had changed and rather than sail at 4pm as planned, she would depart earlier and without me. I kept checking my mobile phone in case the captain had been trying to get hold of me. I visited a museum, which was also a historic jail, all the time unable to fully appreciate the antiquities on display for fear I was being left behind.
Finally, I took a cab to the dock and joined the long procession of explorers all shuffling like Emperor Penguins as we dragged with our heavy kitbags towards the ship.
“Permission to come aboard, sir?” was my request to the purser and his welcoming party at the top of the gangway. “Permission granted, sir!” was the reply the whole world wanted to hear.
I briefly considered asking if, by chance, a single cabin had become available, having got used to four nights of privacy en route from London Heathrow. I’m so glad I didn’t, as not only did all my kit arrive, as if by magic, before me in the room, but I entered Cabin 203 to meet a wonderful Czech guy named Mirek, a charismatic Russian, Vadim, and a bloody nice Aussie called Matt. As Mirek and Vadim were busy stowing their gear away in the tiny space available, I looked at Matt and said ‘Shall we find the bar?’ ‘Does the Pope need a shag?’ he replied, with what became our mantra for the next 12 days … along with a bar bill for $2,000 between us.
As we cruised into the Drake Passage, pods of humpback whales appearing in abundance off both bows, the beer went down well, perhaps too well, as did the champagne welcome party and introductions to polar life given by the captain, crew and expedition leaders. The excitement, rather than rescinding, just built and built and built, and we and 100 other explorers, the most amicable and interesting folks you could meet from nations all around the world, sailed towards our dream on an ocean that grew choppier by the second and saw seasickness patches popping up behind people’s earlobes like a Huxley-esque experiment. No prophylactic measures for the intrepid adventurers in my cabin, just another beer as we sat down to dine on 5-star food courtesy of Robert and Marco, the expedition chefs.
Day 2 – Sunday 10th March 2013
Position at 08.00: 56°39.7’S 065°04.8’ W
Weather: North easterly wind, 5 knots; overcast; moderate sea; +5°C.
At sea – En route to Antarctica
In the morning, Christophe, a French expedition guide, gave the first of a highly interesting series of lectures. This one was on Antarctic birds. However, as it was highly unlikely we would meet any in the Continent’s not-so-bustling pub and clubland districts, and that lap-dancing is only just starting to take off down there, he quickly changed the subject from the elusive Arctic Shag to Albatrosses, Terns and other distractions of the feathery variety. Jim from England then gave a highly informative presentation of Antarctic weather and how this has affected historical expeditions. Basically, as far as my limited meteorological understanding goes, the problem is wind, snow, and more snow – though, I am the first to point out I do not do this educated and entertaining gentleman justice. Andrew from Australia talked about the continents geological history with a focus on its rocks – quite an endeavour as most of them are either buried below 3km of ice or covered in penguin shit.
Later in the trip came fascinating lectures from Katja, an atmospheric scientist, on greenhouse gasses, the ozone layer and what it is like to spend a pitch-black winter on the continent. These days, I try to only spend my time with atmospheric scientists. They’re a sophisticated bunch, particularly this one who has a passion for extreme adventure, Irish whiskey and building sundials using penguins sculpted from snow. Brent Houston, USA, would also bound upon stage, with all the pizazz of a Vegas comedian. With a name like that I thought I might be on the wrong ship and that we were heading instead for the Sea of Tranquillity, reassured to find out that Brent was the ornithology expert on board, who does a mean penguin impersonation … until Day 6 when we started paying him not to.
That evening came the moment that the fearful … fearless few had been waiting for – our extreme polar ice diving briefing given by our dive leader, Johan, from Sweden. And, as we listened to crucial safety and technical information, asking pressing questions and presenting our qualifications, equipment and experience, a very special team formed – none more ‘special’ than me, apparently, although I’m still not sure why I received such a nomenclature as I hadn’t shown anyone my dance moves at this stage.
Day 3 – Monday 11th March 2013
Position at 08.00: 60°57.5’S 061°05.0’W
Weather: South easterly wind, 5 knots; overcast; moderate sea; 0°C
Drake Passage – Aitcho Island
We awoke to the dulcet Scottish tones of our charismatic expedition leader, Kelvin, who kindly invited all the ladies, gentlemen and people from Plymouth to venture forth to the dining room for breakfast. Expecting porridge and haggis, or possibly pemmican and penguin blubber, I was delighted to sit down with Steve and Susan and Tom and Jenny from the USA, and Bjorn from Finland, and enjoy an out-and-out feast that would put the Ritz to shame and see Jamie Oliver flipping burgers in McDonalds. It was slightly disconcerting, however, as food, crockery, cutlery and passengers slid across the tables, up the bulkheads and across the ceiling, and projectile vomiting became officially accepted as an Olympic event, that the restaurant staff calmly informed us that this was a good day to cross the Drake Passage. In addition, as we ate, an iceberg the size of Belgium floated past us. For relaxation, my next journey will be the Poseidon Adventure.
After breakfast, we adjourned to the lounge where Kelvin conducted a compulsory International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) briefing. In short, this meant that, in the interest of conservation, all those day-to-day habits you naturally pick up as you go through life – eating, breathing, spraying graffiti, arson, arm-wrestling penguins, and seducing the wildlfe – had to be forgotten about as we made our first foray onto this untainted land. Fortunately, nothing was mentioned about rave parties or fracking for natural gas, so I was glad I had my record decks and drilling rig with me.
We were then given a briefing on how to get in and out of the Zodiac speedboats that would be used to ferry us ashore – although the ‘getting out’ part was pretty redundant for us extreme polar scuba divers, whose backward exit rolls would soon see us employed as stunt doubles in the next Bond film. In essence, it all came down to the ‘Seaman’s Grip’ – complete wrist-on-wrist action that would get you safely onto Antarctica or into any nightclub in Harlem without paying.
Next, the staff brought out vacuum cleaners and rubber boots, a shear look of terror spreading across the face of every explorer on board. ‘Did we have to hoover the whole continent?’ or worse still, ‘Did we have to hoover our 4-man cabins?’ – the latter, by this time, looking a cross between a crack den and a jumble sale. ‘Phew!’ Fortunately, we only had to rid our expedition clothes, boots and equipment of any seeds we may inadvertently brought with us. So the moral of this story is: If your pants are contaminated, you should consider going to Magaluf.
As we drew closer to the South Shetland Islands, Pete from England gave a wonderful presentation on the types of whales we would see, and good to his word, Fin, Minke and Humpback popped up all around us as he spoke, seeing herds of Antarcticus Exploricus running from one side of the Observation Lounge to the other, seriously increasing the roll of the ship and the share value of Cannon.
Then came the moment we had all been waiting for! Stepping foot onto the continent of Antarctica! Well, actually not Antarctica, because apparently the South Shetland Islands doesn’t count … but in my deluded state – only a state one gets into having drunk beer all afternoon – it was Antarctica! The final frontier! The last of seven continents! It was truly a moment for Oscar-esque speeches, satellite phone calls to someone else’s wife and wise words via podcast to the ever-growing fan base of Blue Peter viewers – but instead I casually hopped off the Zodiac with only a T-shirt on my back and an Aussie named Matt on my arm. If I can recommend one thing and one thing only, it is to only ever hop ashore in Antarctica – or the South Shetland Islands – with an Aussie named Matt on your arm. We were made up! And as we waded through heaps of Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins, covering the beach and cliff tops all around us, we got even more made up.
Day 4 – Tuesday 12th March 2013
Position at 08.00: 62°35.4’S, 59°54.4’W
Weather: North westerly wind, 4 knots; clear; slight sea; +2°C.
Half Moon Island – Deception Island
This was the day! This was the day that the divers would get to back roll from a Zodiac into the frigid waters of Antarctica and see a double dream come true … only, it didn’t go to plan. Matt and I, together with an American, John, had been diving for seven minutes at a comfortable ‘check’ depth of five metres when we heard the emergency sign – the frantic revving of the Zodiac’s outboard engine. Something had gone wrong. We returned to the surface to find out that one of our dive buddies, a Japanese woman, had gone missing and we later found out that she had drowned. (I will refrain from naming this person for reasons of privacy). As divers, we had enthralled each other with tales of derring-do-at-depth, we laughed together at every given opportunity, but now we bandied together as a team and with a serious and empathic set to our faces, watched as the woman’s body was recovered to the ship by the dive masters who without hesitation donned their equipment and dropped into the icy water to do what they had to do. It was an awful experience for the ship’s crew and expedition staff and passengers underway on their trip of a lifetime; for the divers, it reiterated the dangers of our sport, the extreme nature of polar diving and the importance of knowing your ability and equipment, carrying out your drills and looking after your buddy – although, I should point out, it is as yet unknown the cause of this accident. Each of us would most certainly dive the next day – it was what we came here to do – and the fact that our dive leaders were able to compartmentalise such a tragedy and remain in professional mode at the pre-dive briefing in the morning was a credit to them, Oceanwide Expeditions and the scuba diving profession.
Day 5 – Wednesday 13th March 2013
Position at 08.00: 64°40.35’S, 062°37.8’W
Weather: North north westerly wind, 4 knots; clear; slight sea; 0°C
Cuverville Island – Neko Harbour
Wow! What a day. We were seriously in the Antarctic now. I won’t bore you with statistics, facts and descriptions of the snowy, mountainous, iceberg-and-ice-packed region enveloping us – mainly because everything here looks the same … absolutely stunning and awe-inspiring. Already, before breakfast, we had sightings of Humpback Whales, the Loch Ness Monster, Jaws II and ET – although, to be honest, I seriously doubted some of these claims, as Humpbacks can easily be mistaken with Minkes.
In the morning, a few of us kayaked around magnificent icebergs, each with their own unique sculpting by both wind and water, some like giant ice creams with a golf-ball finish to them, some like giant golf balls with an ice cream finish to them, and others with a tooth-scraped ‘Whose been at the cheese in the fridge?’ effect; all the time with the ear-splitting sound of ‘carving’ ice shelves falling in tons into the frozen ocean around us and Pete’s protective shrieks of ‘Come back! You’re not supposed to kayak on top of that!’
That afternoon came the dive of all dives as we carried out our buddy checks before dropping into the sapphire-blue water of Neko Harbour. Highlight of the dive was Matt tapping me on the snorkel to point out a school of penguins shooting past … closely pursued by a pod of Killer Whales, a Blue Whale, a Polar Bear and the entire cast of Finding Nemo … although my memory is getting blurred in old age and Matt is prone to exaggeration, particularly when discussing the Ashes.
In the evening, we danced to the tunes of Bob Marley and Michael Jackson on the afterdeck and enjoyed a veritable barbecued banquet with drinks courtesy of the ship’s crew before setting forth on a camping trip to experience sleeping in the sub-zero temperatures of Paradise Bay in just a bivvy bag. I was delighted to be joined by Matt (complete with horses head – a long story) and Nico from Taiwan and Philip, an ‘extreme’ artist from Ireland who went on to paint icebergs underwater in only 3mm surfing gloves and oils. Lying under the stars of the Southern Hemisphere, with a view across the inky-black water to see Plancius lit up in all her majesty, it was the slumber party to beat all others – particularly as I wore my supremely warm and comfortable polar-diving thermals – and it provided us with the perfect opportunity to discuss important expedition issues such as how to prevent frostbite, what to feed a Husky, and who shot JR? The next morning, as we woke up under a foot of snow from a deep sleep, there were complaints of drinking, dancing, laughing and snoring coming from our side of the cove – I dispute these claims. I never snore.
DAY 6 – Thursday, 14th March 2013
Position at 08.00: 64°53.3’S, 062°51.9’ W
Weather: Southerly wind 1 knot; snow; calm sea; +1°C.
Almirante Brown (Paradise Bay) – Lemaire Channel –
Booth Island (Port Charcot)
Just after breakfast the land-based explorers were invited to don their rubber gear and apply Vaseline to any exposed parts and go and visit an Argentinian research base named Almirante Brown, while us divers got the instruction to go and dig out our Zodiacs and scuba gear from under two feet of snow that had settled overnight on the upper foredeck. Buddied up with Lynn, (male) a physicist from the USA, we dived along a wall that dropped off a hundred or so more metres below us, the sub-freezing water temperature no more an issue in our first-rate equipment – Waterproof dry suit from Sweden, Fourth Element undersuit and Northern Diver dry gloves – than any dive we’ve done back home – in fact, I’m always colder in the tropics. What was an issue, however, was when reaching a depth eighteen metres, just beginning to enjoy sea anemones and an alien-like thirty-seven-legged starfish, I started to breath in the coldest water the planet has to offer. Having taken in three lungful’s and ridding myself of the possibility that I might have a spare set of gills like Kevin Costner in Waterworld, I came to the conclusion that something was seriously wrong and I was drowning. Raising a hand to my mouth I soon found out part of the problem – I had no regulator in it, only the rubber mouthpiece which for reasons beyond me at the time had separated from the main unit containing the all-important air supply. Hesitantly, I switched to my reserve, all the time wondering if it too had suffered the same fate, which for all I knew could have been anything from a cold-water implosion to a Leopard Seal’s breakfast. Fortunately, it worked, and I was able to tap Lynn on the shoulder and give the ‘let’s ascend’ thumbs-up sign followed by a two-armed wave on the surface to Johan in the Zodiac, a signal no diver ever wants to give. Johan was right on the ball and zoomed in to pick us up, and once in the boat I could see what the problem had been – the plastic tie holding the mouthpiece to the Apeks regulator had shattered in the bitterly cold water.
Unperturbed, we set out that afternoon for Booth Island to dive around an iceberg, the dive guides taking great care to choose us one that had no chance of rolling over. To say it was the experience of a lifetime would be an understatement, although with the morning’s shenanigans in the back of my mind and the fresh water coming off the berg to mix with the salt it was more buoyancy than beauty that occupied our thoughts for the first fifteen minutes of the dive. Lynn and I bobbed up and down like two yo-yos that had had a falling out, all the time gazing down through the turquoise water into the black abyss below. At one point for a photo, I tried to grab a hold of the monster to steady myself, only to find out that ice must be the slipperiest substance known to man. But after a time we were able to relax, get some great shots, and appreciate the exquisite sculpting of this creation and the indescribable aura emanating from it.
Day 7 – Friday 15th March 2013
Position at 08.00: 66°32.6’S 69°28.9’W
Weather: East north east wind 5knots; snow; moderate sea; +1°C
Crossing the Polar Circle – Detaille Island
This was the moment we had all been waiting for – the one we had paid a significant amount more money to experience … crossing the South Polar Circle to follow in the footsteps (or should I say wake) of all those intrepid explorers that had gone before – Shackelton, Scott, Amundsen … and Ben Fogle. It had been a tentative few days, as due to the death of our fellow explorer no one knew whether we might have to cut the trip short and head back north to repatriate her body. Not one person would have complained if that had turned out to be the decision the company made, our thoughts were with her family back in Japan, but it’s a strange sort of credit to her and her loved ones that as she lay at rest she enabled us all to accomplish the dream of a lifetime. Thank you is not enough to express our gratitude – gutted, was the look on everyone’s faces as Kelvin led us into a two-minute silence later that day.
Just after breakfast, as the Bridge announced ‘66°33’44’’S’ a massive cheer went up and we raised a glass of champagne to toast our achievement, our environment, the crew and expedition staff, and, of course, the good ship Plancius.
As the Exploradores de la Tierra went ashore at Detaille Island to witness an old research base that was abandoned in a hurry – clothes still hanging up, ashtrays full and cupboards still stocked with tins of food, passing Weddell and Crabeater Seals as they did – Lynn and I back-rolled of the Zodiac into the crystal-clear water of the South Polar Circle to fulfil our lifelong goal.
We met up at the front of the boat and then finned our way over to the nearby cliff face and a fifty-metre drop-off. After a few seconds to gather our thoughts and do a second ‘final’ equipment check, we gave each other the OK sign followed by a thumbs down and then slid slowly beneath the surface into the minus 2 deep below us. It was an amazing moment, the culmination of the previous days’ build-up and events, the culmination of a lifetime of aspiration, the culmination of being part of a dive group that were achieving the ultimate and doing it as a team. I won’t bore you with we saw down there – to be honest, you don’t understand an awful lot unless you’re brushed up on marine biology and geology. My dive log just says ‘Polar Circle. Wall’. It’s all it needs to say.
In fact, I won’t bore you with the intricate day-to-day details of the five-day journey home; I think I’ve said enough and that the photos say more than I can. Except that a huge and hospitable experience was a visit to the Ukrainian ‘Vernadsky’ research base – where the 11-month-long team of scientists treated us to a glass of moonshine, the most-southerly game of pool I will ever play and stamps in our passports and dive logs.
That watching a pod of Orcas – Killer Whales – take down an Arnoux’s Beaked Whale over the course of two hours was a sight not too many people ever get to see.
That snorkelling with a Leopard Seal as it devoured a penguin isn’t something I will forget in a hurry – especially as I got a few seconds of video.
That being attacked by a fur seal as we explored an ancient Norwegian whaling station was a real bonus.
That winning the pub quiz as ‘The Plunging Professors’ was a super end to the trip.
That sinking a few more beers et al with my cabin mates – Matt, Vadim, Mirek – along with Tom and Jenny and Steve and Susan from the USA, Bjorn from Finland, an awesome dive team – Jan, Philip, Philippe, Jen, Kim, Duncan, Hiroya, Matt, Lynn, John, Jason, Yolly, Johan, Jerry (dive guide), Erin (dive guide) – and all the other expedition members, staff and ship’s crew I had the pleasure of spending time with made the journey all the more worth it.
However, what I will say is this: If you are reading this as a diver or non-diver, you have to visit Antarctica. Start chucking your spare change into a glass jar, because I and 100 other explorers promise you it will be worth it.
This is Antarctica. This is the South Polar Circle … and we were here.
Thank you for reading.
Chris Thrall is the bestselling author of the memoir Eating Smoke: One Man’s Descent into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland
Tips for first time scuba divers