The ice tinkling in our glasses has been carved from a glacier earlier in the day - 100,000-year-old ice cubes slowly melting in 30-year-old single malt. As we stand on deck, the glacier in question sparkles on the other side of Paradise Bay, a wall of blue and white ice a kilometre wide where it meets the sea. Slowly it’s receding as our Finnish-built ship, Akademik Loffe, leaves the bay and several of us raise our glasses in a toast.
Antarctica, once described by British polar explorer Robert Scott, as “an awful place” is putting on its best face. Today, the prevailing winds, known as the “Screaming Sixties”, are still. It’s a balmy 4°C. The sun is shining over a placid sea and a pod of humpback whales is escorting the ship into the Lemaire Channel, otherwise known as “Iceberg Alley”.
Now and then, a gentle thud rises from the ship’s ice-hardened hull as it hits a mini-berg. As the ice cubes in our glasses go tinkle, tinkle, the mini-bergs hit the hull with a rhythmical thud, thud. On deck, there’s even a young Australian dressed in thongs, T-shirt and shorts.
It’s incredible to think that this is the same place that Scott, Douglas Mawson and Ernest Shackleton endured such hardships. But make no mistake, Antarctic weather is capricious. A storm could clear the deck in seconds.
Six days prior, we left the Argentine port of Ushuaia on the two-day crossing of Drake Passage - a 700-kilometre stretch of ocean with a fearsome reputation. “If it’s rough, you’ll never forget it,” says the expedition leader. “That’s when we call it Drake’s Shake. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a Drake’s Lake, but don’t count on it.”
As it is, we strike lucky - a perfect Drake’s Lake. Above the gentle swell, albatrosses and petrels circle the ship. Inside, there are lectures on whales and krill, giant squid, polar expeditions and the three species of penguin we will see - adelie, gentoo and chinstrap.
On the third day, it’s considerably chillier. Overnight, the ship sailed into the Antarctic Convergence, a frigid current that circulates clockwise around the continent, effectively sealing off Antarctica from the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans.
That evening, a bird watcher on the foredeck yells “landfall”. We all raise our binoculars. Is it land or an anvil-shaped storm cloud on the horizon? It is land; our destination - a chain of snow-covered mountains on the Antarctic Peninsula, the great finger of land that rises from the western edge of the continent towards South America.
As the sun is low, the mountains are bathed in a gentle orange glow. In the foreground, massive bergs with sapphire bands of ancient ice are fringed with snow.
Antarctica is twice the size of Australia and contains about 70 per cent of the world’s ice and snow. With the geographic South Pole at its centre, most of the continent fits snugly within the Antarctic Circle, the line of latitude at 66 degrees south that marks the limit of the midnight sun. It’s a place so pristine that in 1961 the Antarctic Treaty was ratified by 45 nations and declared "a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science".
On the fourth morning, we wake up at the entrance of the Lemaire Channel, also known as ”Kodak Gap”, one of the most photographed places on the peninsula. Snow-covered peaks tower either side of the ship. Icebergs, 10 storeys high, drift by like celestial battleships. Flocks of adelie penguins skim across the waves.
By 10am, the ship is at anchor and we are climbing into Zodiacs (rigid, inflatable craft) that take us to the shores of Petermann Island and a gentoo penguin rookery. Here, thousands of the birds tend their chicks and squabble with their neighbours. The smell of guano is challenging, but we soon get used to it. Rising above the rookery is a giant cross commemorating three polar explorers who ventured into the mountains beyond, never to be seen again.
Before returning to the ship for lunch, we visit Vernadsky Station, formerly known as Faraday, where British scientists discovered the hole in the ozone layer in 1984. In 1997, the British sold the station to Ukraine for £1 and left their mock-Tudor bar for the Ukranian scientists, who now use it to welcome visitors with shots of homemade vodka.
On day five, the 16 Australians on board find themselves in the Zodiac of Ray Mahon, 75, a fellow Aussie, and clearly one of most popular members of the expedition team.
In 1963, after completing a 1700km Antarctic expedition, Ray was presented with the Polar Medal by the Queen, the same award given to Scott and Roald Amunsden, the first man to reach the South Pole. Ray’s instinct for finding wildlife is uncanny. As we explore the waters around Pleneau Island, he leads us to a giant leopard seal sunbaking on an icefloe and a pod of humpback whales feeding on shoals of krill, small shrimp-like creatures.
The six days in Antarctica pass quickly. We track pods of minke whales around Neko Harbour, kayak around Dorian Bay, trek over ice sheets on Wiencke Island, visit several penguin rookeries and cruise through channels full of icebergs, sculpted into incredible shapes by wind and water.
On our last day in Antarctic waters, there’s a morning on Deception Island, a desolate volcano with black sand beaches, where thousands of humpbacks were massacred at the old whaling station. Here, during a light blizzard, 26 brave passengers take a quick swim on a beach, where hot volcanic springs heat the sea to a little above freezing.
That night in the ship’s bar, Ray raises a glass with a single malt and the last of the 100,000-year ice and makes a toast to Antarctica. “Until travel to space becomes commonplace, Antarctica is the closest we will ever get to visiting an alien planet. Long may this precious place be protected.”
NRMA Travel and One Ocean offer cruises to Antarctica. All cruises depart from Ushuaia, Argentina and packages include return flights to Argentina, transfers, most meals and pre- and post-cruise accommodation and wet weather gear. For details, call 1300 273 972 or visit LAN offers daily flights from Australia to Santiago, Chile, and has an extensive network within Chile and also to the Argentine port of Ushuaia, where many Antarctic cruises depart.