I awake gently to the sound of an acoustic guitar melodically chiming from the cabin speaker. This is the best wake-up call of my life; “Good morning…. good morning…” the instantly recognisable, softly paced voice of our Expedition Leader, Solen Jensen, announces through the PA system. “The time is 7 a.m. on November 17th, 2018. The Ocean Adventurer has sailed through the night across the Bransfield Strait and arrived at our first destination on the Antarctic Peninsula, Charlotte Bay. We have beautiful bluebird skies; the wind is just 5 knots and the team are currently out in the Zodiacs scouting for our first landing location”. He pauses in reflection, before announcing, “These are simply the days we dream of, ladies and gentlemen. This morning we will set foot on the continent… Welcome to Antarctica!”
Feeling overjoyed, instantly my cabin mate and I both sit up in our beds and rush to look out the window. Pure white snow-covered mountains melt into the mirror-like ocean. The water shimmers brightly, the sky is the purest of blues and turquoise ice floes peacefully drift by. Keen to seize the day, I head up to breakfast in the dining room, and enjoy a delicious omelette, freshly prepared by a very smiley chef and served by our wonderful waiter, Gerry.
Sumptuously fed and watered, I head straight out to the aft deck with my fellow adventurers and quietly observe the epic panorama in front of me from an elevated height, lost in thought trying to comprehend the heavenly views from the stationary ship. We watch the expedition team traverse the bay in Zodiacs preparing for our landing, making for great photographs as the small boats give a sense of scale to the vastness of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. We are informed that the first landings will start from 9 am, so head back to the cabin and get geared up in preparation.
The moment has finally arrived, our group (the “Amundsen Group”) is called forward to head to the Zodiac launch platform. I head slowly down the steps onto the platform and revel in the surreal moment of leaving the ship for the first time. Our Zodiac driver and Expedition Guide, Wayne Broomfield, reaches out to me with a fisherman’s grip, and smoothly leads me onto the Zodiac. The process is efficiently repeated with the other members in my group, and once completed, Wayne recaps the safety briefing with us. With the Zodiac ready to go, we head out through the crystalline waters across Charlotte Bay to Meusnier Point for our landing location, which transpires to be a first for Quark Expeditions. Zipping through the waters is an exhilarating experience – nothing beats feeling the brilliant sun and rush of Antarctic air against your skin (sunglasses, lip balm and sunblock are essential!). Every direction you look, mesmerising ice sculptures adorn the landscape, glaciers majestically tumble down the mountains and the deep blue cloudless sky paints the most pristine backdrop.
We arrive at Meusnier Point and are greeted on arrival by Solan, who briefs us on our landing and helps escort us safely off the Zodiac. As we set foot on the Antarctic Continent, the group is awash with the biggest of smiles, overwhelmed by the pristine majesty of the surroundings, a feeling of privilege and accomplishment. Within moments of standing on the freshly carpeted snowy ground, we immediately spot two gentoo penguins gracefully swimming under the cornice of snow overhanging the ocean, just a few metres from us. This is a world of unscripted magic, nature at its best.
A few of us slowly walk through the fluffy snow to a slightly elevated point on the shore, and simply sit and embrace the view of the entire bay, keeping watch for penguins, seals & various seabirds. We sit in silence for some time, just absorbing the serene moment and taking photos. As other’s have said, Antarctica really is impossible to describe in words, it feels almost spiritual.
We continue to walk around the area, taking an endless supply of photos in this otherworldly environment. Our expedition is very fortunately joined by professional wildlife photographer Cindy Miller Hopkins, who is on hand to help even the most amateur of photographers (me!) get a good snap. In the exposed cliffs surrounding the bay, ornithologist & marine biologist Santiago de la Vega introduces us to one of only two flowering plant species on the continent, the Antarctic hair grass, and highlights a non-native plant species which he proceeds to remove from the cliff-face (and notes the location for further investigation), proceeding to explain in-depth the delicacy of the Antarctic ecosystem.
Before returning to the Zodiac, we enjoy photos with an Antarctic flag in hand to commemorate standing on the Peninsula. The excitement doesn’t stop there however, we hear news on one of the guide’s radio transceivers that a sighting of a “significant marine mammal” has been spotted in the bay.
We board the Zodiacs in search of this elusive marine mammal and slowly meander through a maze of ice sculptures, a truly picturesque landscape of white, turquoise and icy blue hues. Our expert Zodiac driver and guide, assistant expedition leader Franny Bergschneider, spots something and alerts us, “10 o’clock!”. Initially, I feel puzzled, not being able to see whatever it is I should be seeing, with the small icebergs blocking the view. We keep watching, silently weaving through the sea ice. Some minutes pass by, with the silence only broken by the gentle sound of ice knocking and water sloshing against the Zodiac. We keep scanning the surroundings.
Suddenly we hear a distinct, “BSSSSSSSSSHT!” A plume of water is sent skyward about 40 metres away, followed by a shimmering tail elegantly descending into the water. We gaze in amazement, it really is a magical moment. Franny confirms that is a humpback whale, and we continue to quietly watch it glide through the bay undisturbed, feeling very fortunate to have had such an intimate encounter.
Franny navigates us around the myriad of icy passages, the water so clear and dazzling that it looks like a giant mirror, reflecting the mountains and icebergs. “Is that a seal up there, at 3 o’clock?” remarks a fellow traveller. We divert the Zodiac to a large ice floe in the distance and then find ourselves metres away from a Weddell seal basking in the sun. The seal was so perfectly still, he could genuinely be mistaken for a boulder - admittedly on first glance, I couldn’t distinguish his head from his tail. We sat patiently & silently observed from the Zodiac, leaning down onto our knees and using the inflatable Zodiac ‘seat’ to rest our elbows to steady ourselves for taking pictures. Luckily, the seal appeared to wave at us and turned his cute whiskery face in our direction, eyes wide open for adorable photographs.
Nearing lunchtime, Franny skilfully zips us through the ice floes and leads us back to the ship. I look around at my fellow explorers, everyone is beaming with delight and totally awestruck at the experience of the last few hours. The Expedition Leader, Solen, was certainly right - these really are the days we dream of… does life get any better?
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