Days aboard the Sea Explorer fell into a natural rhythm that went like this…
Awake each morning, in a gently-swaying cabin, layers of thermals strewn around the floor, to the mellifluous tones of Hannah’s voice over the speakers.
“Well good morning everyone…” she says, exactly the same way every day, before launching into a soliloquy about the weather conditions, the birds and whales which happen to be passing by, and our plan for the day.
Plans change all the time down in Antarctica because of the ever-shifting climate, but the great thing is, you don’t have to put any thought or effort in, which is a rarity when it comes to travel.
You just flounce around all day waiting for Hannah’s voice to appear from the ceiling, and say something like, “we couldn’t get to this island because of all the ice that blew in, but our captain did manage to get to this other one, and there are lots of penguins, so dress warmly and be on Deck 3 in 20 minutes.”
Breakfast is a 7.30am, lunch is 12.30pm, dinner is at 7-ish. These are the mealtime-anchors around which you navigate your day. Periodically, there are lectures in the lounge area about famous explorers and wildlife and icebergs.
Naps are popular.
It might have got a bit Groundhog Day had it not been for the comic relief of Team America and its orbiting members.
One of the things I love about watching animals for hours on end (in real life, on documentaries, whatever) is that it reminds me how simple the world is really, and how humans and animals all do the same things, for the same reasons, but humans try to make it mean so much more.
Watch humans watch penguins, and the humans will be laughing at how silly the penguins are being with their hierarchies and their territories.
But chuck a bunch of random, unrelated humans into an enclosed space and keep them there for any length of time, and the same thing will happen every time; whether that’s school, a prison, a desert island or an Antarctic cruise.
We sort ourselves into categories, establish hierarchies, settle into territories, and dig our heels into our habits for the duration – penguin style.
Team America sat at Table 4 (front left) for every meal, and ordered the same drinks, and ran the same jokes into the ground, finding them funnier every single time.
We were always accompanied by the Frenchy Honeymooners, and sometimes by Geology Bob or Dashing Daniel, but no-one else infiltrated Table 4. That would have been outrageous.
Ruda always ordered three main courses, Bill always displayed his approval of something by chanting ‘yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah’, Andrew always performed a comedic impression, Steven always pulled off this very funny in-joke skit, and after a few hours of roaring laughter at the bar afterwards, I always pulled an Irish Goodbye.
But enough about the ship, what of Antarctica?
Many before me have tried and failed to adequately describe what it feels when the ship finds a good spot to anchor, and you clamber into zodiacs, and rumble around these ghost-like icebergs, and then actually hop out of the zodiac and onto Antartica – and that’s because it’s indescribable.
But here is a list of the six most magical and memorable moments I had ashore.
Wandering amongst swarms of penguins, who have no predators on land and thus have no fear of humans. They have more important things to worry about, you see.
At this time of year, the males are hell-bent on impressing the females (by bringing them shiny pebbles) and the females are hell-bent on judging the value of the pebbles, building nests and laying eggs. Getting to plonk yourself down in the snow and observe all this is quite simply a profound privilege.
At one point, I trudged off and found myself a ridge away from the scattered gaggles of humans and I lay down and just listened, and all I heard was nothing.
The sort of nothing which penetrates you. The sort of nothing that exists only on this, the only continent in the world which has never hosted a dictator, or a church, or a war. That sort of nothing.
The only thing which taints Antarctica’s bleach-white snow is pink penguin shit. The water is so cold and silvery, it moves like mercury. Look over the edge of your zodiac and you can pick out every single stone on the seabed from metres up. It’s pristine.
Our midnight landing.
Hannah surprised us one evening with an unscheduled stop ashore at midnight. It never gets properly dark in Antarctica during summer, which only adds to the other-worldly muddle of the place, so everything looked much the same as in the daytime except that Team America was joyously post-dinner drunk.
There was much frolicking and even more laughing than usual.
Scaling a long, high, sweeping glacier edge and sitting atop it for hours with Geology Bob and various members of Team America, learning interesting facts.
The polar plunge, which is a thing Only The Brave do on the last landing of the whole trip, whereby you peel off your endless layers of clothing and charge into the frigid Antarctic ocean from the shores of a volcanic beach, just to prove that you are brave.
It only counts if you fully submerge your head.
Members of Team America ran around beforehand to get sweaty, threw back a slog of whiskey, stripped off (Steven went all the way) and sprinted in screaming.
I can’t remember what it felt like really, because what happens when you sink under the water is that you go into shock so your brain stops producing thoughts. But I remember galloping back onto the beach into the comforting embrace of a dressing gown and feeling more tingly and invigorated than I ever have before.
Our return to Ushuaia at the end of the cruise thwacked us all in the face like a gut-wrenching-text-message-from-an-evil-ex. Even though we knew the end was coming, the end was awful. The crew practically had to peel us off the ship kicking and screaming.
I’ve talked about the merits of Team America, and the spellbinding magic of Antarctica, and the heroic nature of the crew, but all I really have left now is the photos, which I hope speak for themselves…