To the ends of the earth: Aurora Expeditions in Antarctica
Sam Ballard joins Aurora Expeditions on the trip of a lifetime to Antarctica on board its revolutionary new ship, the Greg Mortimer. All photos were taken on the 12-day cruise by Anthony Pearce
One of the most surprising things about being in Antarctica is how quiet it is. It’s one of the first things that hits you. No civilisation. No people. There aren’t even trees to rustle in the wind. Once you notice the silence it’s the vastness of it that blows your mind. Antarctica is huge, expansive – and virtually untouched. There is nowhere on Earth that can come close to it. To be there is humbling. There is an immense sense of power in the place. When you step ashore it feels like you’re walking on another planet.
We were in Antarctica courtesy of Aurora Expeditions, the Australia-based polar specialists, on their brand new ship, the Greg Mortimer. It’s a special vessel for a special destination. Named after the company’s co-founder, the ship is also the first in the world to be fitted with the X-Bow – the unique design that gives the ship a beak-like appearance (expedition staff quipped that it looks like a puffin) – that helps slice through ice and rough seas. The new design also helps ensure a smoother ride over the dreaded Drake Passage, reducing the effects of seasickness.
The journey to reach our destination would be a long one, at least by modern standards. We started with a flight to Buenos Aires (via a nice couple of hours in the Plaza Premium Lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal 5). Then it was an overnight stay in the Argentine capital before flying to Ushuaia at the country’s southerly tip. We would stay in the pre-cruise hotel for another night before boarding our ship. It would then be two days sailing before we reached the South Shetland Islands, just off the Antarctic Peninsula. The following day we would finally set foot on the Frozen Continent. That’s five days of travel. It only takes three days to reach the Moon.
Having heard so much about the Greg Mortimer it was hard to imagine how it would live up to expectations. To say that it blew them out of the water is not to put too fine a point on it. This is a modern ship for a modern age of expedition cruising. The Greg Mortimer will carry only 120 passengers on its Antarctic cruises – with 20 guests going off to kayak and 100 going on the ice.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) limits the number of passengers allowed on the ice to just 100 – meaning that everyone gets to make a landing, every time. This is something to look out for on the larger expedition ships, where operators have to rotate landings.
Our crossing across the Drake Passage was bumpy – while the X-Bow does reduce the effects of seasickness it can’t eradicate five-metre swells altogether. Aurora provides seasickness tablets free of charge, but the X-Bow did work. Not only was it able to ensure a smoother crossing (according to experienced expedition staff and the ship’s doctor) but it also made it faster, a result of the ship not having to slow down or suffer from being buffeted by the waves.
During the crossing we got to know the expedition team on board. This was my first expedition cruise and I was not aware of how important the expedition team are to the sailing. Put simply: they make it. They were engaging, insightful and always had time for questions. They gave lectures on wildlife and the history of the region. Photographers taught passengers how to capture wildlife on their smartphone. The team of between 15 and 18 experts also spread themselves out across different tables during meals – enthralling guests with tales of their adventures.
It’s hard to describe how it feels to see that first chunk of ice, floating in the middle of the sea. It looks alien, like it shouldn’t be there. Huge, curved and beautiful. Suddenly cameras were out and everyone was on deck. That afternoon we would make our first landing.
Every day of this trip managed to be more impressive than the last. Our first landing was at Half Moon Bay on South Shetland, a series of islands just off the Antarctic Peninsula. We trooped down to the ship’s mudroom, in our thermals, waterproof trousers and Aurora expedition jacket. Once there we slipped on the boots that are provided, boarded our Zodiac and were whisked to shore. That’s where we saw our first penguins of the trip. The tiny chinstraps – which are so graceful in the water – waddle around on land, bumping into each other and falling over. It’s like a slapstick routine. We all just stood in silence watching them go about their business, not fazed at all by our presence. It was incredible.
It was the beginning of the season (November) when we travelled, which means that the snow and penguin rookeries are pristine but there is less of a chance of seeing wildlife. Go later in the season and you will see penguin chicks and are more likely to see whales, but there will be a lot more penguin poo (known as guano) in the rookeries.
Our second day would set the pattern for the rest of the voyage: with morning and afternoon landings made when we could. That morning we called at Hydrurga Rocks and in the afternoon Portal Point. The warm weather took us all by surprise as expedition jackets got unzipped and eventually taken off altogether. Penguin rookeries were everywhere and a huge seal lay prostrate by our landing site. One of the expedition guides took the opportunity to make a slide down one of the steep hills – with passengers hurling themselves down it for the next hour.
Heavy ice meant that we couldn’t make our landing the following morning and visit the Post Office at Port Lockroy (set up by the British as a way of laying claim to the land) so instead we sailed down the Peltier Channel.
The 10km passage was heavy with sea ice, so the captain used it as an opportunity to “see what the ship could do”. The hydraulic viewing platforms were lowered, allowing passengers to stand out from the edge of the ship and watch as the Greg Mortimer sliced through the ice. And, from the look on the expedition team’s faces you could tell it was something special. This is the only ship in the world where you can have this kind of experience.
That afternoon we went kayaking around Cuverville Island. By now, icebergs had become abundant and even more impressive. We paddled so close we touched them. A raft of penguins surrounded us, gracefully diving in and out of the water as they went out to sea. We almost capsize when what we think is a rock turns out to be a Weddell Seal, which glides right underneath our boat.
The following afternoon the call goes out for the ship’s inaugural Polar Plunge. The feat of madness involves jumping off the inflatable platform at the ship’s aft into the Antarctic waters. Incredibly, about 60 passengers opt in. We wait our turn and eventually plunge into the icy depths. The cold is so total that it takes your breath away. A shot of vodka brings the feeling back – helped by a trip to the sauna, where a bottle of whisky appears. Everyone is laughing, chatting and drinking in the heady atmosphere.
Given how we were warned that the wildlife wouldn’t be as abundant in November as later in the season – we were not left disappointed. From the decks of the ship we saw seals floating on sea ice and a pod of orcas swimming past.
On a Zodiac cruise we were lucky enough to see humpback whales. However, the best was yet to come.
On our final day of landings, we spent the morning at Elephant Point on Livingston Island. From a personal point of view, this is as exciting as it gets. I’d spent the entire voyage pestering the expedition staff about whether we would see elephant seals. Inspired by watching David Attenborough documentaries showing the massive animals – which can weigh up to five tons – fiercely jousting over territory. Aurora’s policy is to under promise and over deliver. As with everything in Antarctica the weather and ice can stop you making a landing so it’s best to not think anything is guaranteed.
In this case it worked perfectly. We landed and were walked among dozens of animals, the biggest of which, known as ‘beach masters’, are absolutely massive. Whenever another male comes close the roaring and charging starts. Suddenly you’re just metres away from two animals the size of SUVs bearing down on each other. To be just a few steps away as these massive mounds of blubber start to stir is heart-stopping. They never paid us any attention – they had more on their plates. To them, we’re probably just overgrown penguins.
Before we set off on this adventure, I was excited but I didn’t know why. I knew Antarctica was special, but I couldn’t have defined it beyond that. Once you’ve been there, you know. The land feels sacred. The vastness and enormity of the landscape translate into realising how delicate our planet is.
Travel has the ability to change your outlook on life and few places can compare to Antarctica for life-changing experiences. If you have customers who want something that will blow them away, nothing else on Earth comes close