Nature’s Home writer David Lindo has just returned from his first visit to Antarctica with Hurtigruten – and it was spectacular before he even reached the ‘white continent’…
There was something weirdly nerve-wracking about embarking on a trip to Antarctica. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it as I stood on the top deck of Hurtigruten’s MS Midnitsol.
We were going to a place that even now has been visited by relatively few people. My trepidation was in fact, extreme excitement, a feeling that I had not experienced in a long time.
Petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses
The first part of the expedition was stunningly scenic. Cruising the Beagle Channel, eyeing up the Chilean Fjords was a joy.
But when we got to the open ocean to cross the notorious Drake’s Passage, the fun really started. It’s the best area for observing petrels, shearwaters and several species of albatross. It was also dubbed, by mariners of old, as the most treacherous stretch of sea that you are ever likely to traverse.
During the 36-hour crossing the sea conditions can be bad or terrible. And this time it was terrible. We skirted the edge of a storm that sent mighty waves lashing over the bow of the ship.
I decided to brave the voyage without seasickness medication – and I found that being on deck watching for birds was a great antidote for nausea.
I was richly rewarded for my on-deck diligence. I jumped with glee as I watched thousands of sooty shearwaters fly past the ship in streams, heading for Cape Horn and further north. Riding the slipstream with them were large and ugly southern giant petrels - the size of a small albatross.
As we neared the continental shelf the profusion of seabirds increased. White-chinned petrels were joined by the attractive southern fulmar, piebald cape petrels and blue petrels that careered along the surface of the waves.
Also riding the air currents were black-browed albatrosses, occasionally joined by grey-headed and light-mantled sooty albatrosses. On rarer occasions a southern royal albatross might swing into the vista before disappearing as quickly as it came.
I even found a couple of wandering albatrosses, the king of all travellers. With a 3.5-metre wingspan they made the black-brows look like gulls. A careful search of the rolling waves revealed tiny Wilson’s storm-petrels meticulously searching the water’s surface for morsels.
As we drifted beyond Drake’s Passage and into Antarctic waters, in came marauding brown skuas and kelp gulls along with patrolling Antarctic terns and scudding Antarctic cormorants.
Icy monsters of the Antarctic
Nothing can prepare you for when you set eyes upon your first iceberg. Stunning, amazing, fantastic are all superlatives that quickly get used up within the first five minutes. The silence as we drifted past these monsters was deafening.
Circling around some of the ice floes were ghostly snow petrels, and lying on the floes themselves was the first of hundreds of crabeater seals. A ‘blow’ in the distance turned out to be a group of humpback whales.
But it was seeing the majestic mountainous Antarctic continent itself that really took my breath away. Our visit was to the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula that, if you could imagine, was like visiting a tiny spot on the western coast of Ireland knowing that there was a vast swathe of unknown land that stretched as far as Moscow!
This trip really felt like an expedition into the unknown. We made landings into guano-reeking gentoo penguin colonies, with a few chinstraps and even a lone king penguin that should have been breeding in South Georgia, at least a thousand miles to the north.
I could write a book about my Antarctic experience. But instead, I will wait for the next time I get to visit this enchanting, fragile and hostile place. One thing is for sure. Antarctica is the sort of place you have to visit at least once in your life.
Hurtigruten has supported the RSPB for over five years. By booking a voyage at www.hurtigruten.co.uk and quoting UK13HRRTRSPB5, 10% of the cost of your booking* will be donated to the RSPB, supporting seabird conservation – and you’ll also receive a 5% discount. So far, supporters like you have helped to raise £80,000 through their expeditions with Hurtigruten. Why not make a difference for wildlife with your holiday?
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