It’s commonplace these days to hear claims that there’s nowhere left that’s truly out of the way – a place with little chance of bumping into someone from home who’s equally trying to avoid bumping into someone from home.
Yet, there’s an entire continent that always seems to get overlooked in these discussions, and it’s one with no indigenous humans at all. Its 14 million square kilometres are occupied only by a few tiny colonies of cabin-fevered scientists, even fewer of whom stay year-round. Its rush hours are of icebergs jostling their way out to sea, and its queues are of penguins porpoising purposefully through the ocean to hop on shore and find a nesting place. The first human to set foot there only did so in 1821, and no more than a few hundred thousand people have ever landed on its shores in the two centuries since. Antarctica is about as exclusive as it gets.
A visit begins with the notoriously rough crossing from Argentina’s Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, across the Drake Passage to where a slender finger of land called the Antarctic Peninsula reaches up towards South America as if longing for warmth. Most Antarctic expeditions take place among the hundreds of islands scattered along the peninsula’s west coast where there are sheltered anchorages for landing on mainland and island alike, and channels of protected water for cruising.
The best choice of ship is not some vast floating palace but a well-stabilised exploration vessel such as One Ocean Expeditions' M/V Akademik Ioffe (oneoceanexpeditions.com), capable of putting its small complement of around 100 passengers on shore in remote places via a fleet of speedy Zodiac inflatable boats.
The two-day crossing is taken up with spotting pods of dolphins playing across the bow or tracking the wind-blown breath of assorted species of whale.
Albatrosses with three-metre wingspans wheel over the ship’s wake. Expert staff give safety instructions, lectures on ice and wildlife, and briefings on the code of conduct for landings.
But no lecture can anticipate the experience of sitting commando-like on the side of an inflatable boat, only inches above waters cold enough to kill in minutes, and weaving between sea ice to ground on a rocky beach, gingerly lowering insulated boots into the dregs of the tide, and stepping ashore into a David Attenborough wildlife documentary.
The Antarctic has very few native species, but each has vast populations, and although the penguin is one of the icons of wildlife conservation, it faces little threat.
The continent’s wildlife sees so few humans it’s largely indifferent to their presence, but conservation rules require visitors to stay five metres away from colonies or individuals.
No one’s told that to the penguins. Early in the season males struggling uphill with small rocks to present to their mates for nest building can barely be bothered to deviate round camera-wielding humans.
Later in the season curious chicks bustle out from the crowd to peck at the hair of those who lie down to get a penguin’s-eye-view shot.
These are not the emperor penguins of movie fame, found much further south, but the smaller brush-tailed species – the Adélie (named after the wife of a French explorer), the slightly larger gentoo with its distinctive white patches above the eyes, and the diminutive chinstrap, a narrow line of black running underneath its beak, the black feathers atop its head appearing as a sort of cap.
In Antarctica any plan is merely something that will require recalculation, and announcements of the following day’s activities are always followed by further announcements of changes, and then further alterations to those changes.
The ship has a captain, and the expedition has a leader, but it’s the weather that’s actually in charge.
A change of wind direction may clog a passage with flat sheets of sea ice forcing the vessel to double back perhaps instead to view a majestic parade of true tabular icebergs, the size of city blocks, carved from the mainland’s country-sized ice sheets. But if currents cause the big bergs to crowd in, it’s time to turn around again and see if the sea ice has moved on.
But chances are that a first landing will be somewhere in the South Shetlands just off the peninsula’s tip, such as Half Moon Island. From the Zodiac the hills’ rocky cheeks seems to have a five o’clock shadow, but on closer examination every bristle turns out to be a chinstrap penguin.
Mercurial in the water, seemingly more fish than bird, the penguins are reduced to a comical clockwork motion on land, and yet by sheer determination scale the steepest icy slopes to the highest points where winds have blown away the snow and made early egg-laying a possibility. The chinstraps, in particular, are notable climbers.
Zodiac cruises sail through sea ice like slabs of Christmas cake icing, dusted with sugar, lying on a sea of meringue which flexes with a queasy plasticity. They offer close-ups of basking crabeater and leopard seals, and perhaps a lost emperor or macaroni penguin.
Great glaciers lie at steep angles, their tops crossed with fissures, like slices tumbling out of a newly opened loaf, but in decade-long slow motion. The compressed ice appears to glow from inside with eerie cobalt-blue light.
At Deception Island, there’s the chance to sail through a narrow channel into the flooded caldera of a still-active volcano where there are the remains of a whaling station. Tilted whale oil tanks, bits of discarded machinery, and residential huts twisted and buckled by shifting ground all litter the shoreline.
And then there may be opportunities to visit long-abandoned and flimsy exploration bases such as the British Antarctic Survey’s hut at Mikkelsen Harbour, still stocked with ancient brands of tinned goods, now well past their expiry dates. After imagining a winter of that, the cosy interior of the Ioffe seems all the more welcoming.
But at a time when “adventure” and “expedition” are the clichés of travel advertising, even applied to the most mundane trips, One Ocean is offering the real thing.