Leave no trace: exploring the fragile frontiers of Antarctica and South Georgia

The Southern Ocean’s islands and coasts are one of Earth’s truly wild places — a fragile realm watched over by scientists and conservationists. Board an eco-friendly expedition ship to experience this frozen frontier at the ends of the earth.

By Emma Gregg
photographs by Emma Gregg
Published 16 Apr 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 2 Jun 2021, 10:39 BST
An Argentine research hut and sailing boat on Petermann Island. According to climate scientists, calving events are becoming ...

An Argentine research hut and sailing boat on Petermann Island. According to climate scientists, calving events are becoming more common. The Antarctic Peninsula is warming approximately six times faster than the global average, and the ice shelves surrounding it are thinning.

Photograph by Emma Gregg

I have a new favourite beach. It’s shingled with fine, grey gravel, lapped by tiny waves and scattered with chunks of ice. On this calm, silvery, late-summer afternoon, the air is a comfortable two degrees.

As I relax on the shore of Neko Harbour, my face tilted north towards the sun, my many companions potter among the rocks, paddle in the shallows, plunge into the sea or emerge, sleek and wet, from the glossy, indigo-blue shallows. Occasionally, like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they raise their chins to the sky and bray.

They’re gentoo penguins, endearing little characters with dapper, black-and-white feathers, ketchup-coloured beaks and an ability to zip through the water four times faster than an Olympic swimmer. Their raucous hee-hawing is one of the Antarctic summer’s most distinctive sounds. Recent studies have revealed they call underwater, too, making short, squeaky whoops while hunting fish — even at depths of up to 200 metres. It’s unclear why they do this, although it could be to stun their prey.

It’s extremely rare, as a tourist, to gain access to a pristine region that’s been set aside primarily for science and conservation. It’s equally rare to experience a place where wild birds and animals, instead of fleeing, surround you — on land, while you’re walking, or at sea, while you’re kayaking or in a Zodiac dinghy. The islands and coasts of the Southern Ocean comprise one such place; their only rival for Edenic natural drama is the Galápagos Islands. 

While most of the 10,000 or so people who reside in Antarctica during the austral summer are climatologists, glaciologists, ornithologists and ecologists, a steady trickle of ecotourists visit, braving lengthy flights and stormy seas. Between November and March in a normal year, around 40,000 tourists cruise around this remarkable region. Although that might seem like a lot of people for an ecologically delicate destination, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) has strict conservation protocols to minimise damage, and modest-yet-comfy expedition ships like ours, carrying no more than 200 passengers, make it easy for green-thinking individuals to make their visit as eco-friendly as possible.

These sturdy little icebreakers have a below-average carbon footprint: some have streamlined hulls and hybrid engines; others do away with the sort of amenities found on luxury cruise ships, such as swimming pools, glitzy eating and entertainment areas and oversized cabins, and consequently burn less fuel. But what really sets these expedition ships apart are their knowledgeable guides, who offer lectures and excursions that teach guests everything from seal biology to survival skills. For a few days, we get a fleeting taste of what it might be like to be a polar scientist, naturalist or explorer.

The ship I’ve chosen is classed as ‘small’, meaning we can steer into narrow inlets and are permitted to make shore landings. In preparation, we inspect our outdoor gear fastidiously. 

“Come on everyone, show us your Velcro,” say the expedition guides, checking our fastenings and seams for seeds, insects, mud or sand and scrubbing every inch with a vacuum cleaner. They school us in environmental respect, which includes keeping our distance from wildlife and leaving no trace. “No tissues, no crumbs, no messages in the snow!” Soon, they’re unloading the Zodiac rigid inflatable boats, ready to bounce us across the ice-strewn sea, right into the thick of things.

The expedition ship makes a shore landing, while passengers explore the coast in Zodiac rigid inflatable boats. Some icebreakers have a below-average carbon footprint, with streamlined hulls and hybrid engines.

Photograph by Emma Greegg

Sixty-five degrees south

Neko Harbour fringes Andvord Bay, a pristine Antarctic fjord with an elegant, elongated shape, rather like the outline of Italy. The Neko was a Tyne-built cargo ship, brought here by a whaling and logistics company with bases in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Towards the start of Antarctica’s notoriously brutal whaling era, just over a century ago, it served as a floating factory. Today, after a hard-won reversal of fortunes, the lake-smooth, iceberg-scattered waters of Andvord Bay are a picture of peace. As I watch from the beach, a humpback whale and her calf make a leisurely appearance, muddling the mirror image of the mountains beyond and prompting a flurry of camera action among the Zodiac passengers who happen to be extremely close. After the water settles, a small flock of Wilson’s storm petrels dances lightly across the surface, plucking tiny krill from the water.

The snow-laden slopes that rise behind the beach are striped with penguin paths that climb steeply to nest sites above. Steady streams of gentoos, like hikers at a busy alpine resort, plod doggedly up and down. It’s time for me to stretch my legs, too. Wriggling my toes to revive them, I crunch my way around the harbour to a slope that overlooks a mighty glacier. A small crowd of my fellow voyagers is already there. As I pause to admire the cliffs of ice, there’s a thunderous boom as a section collapses, sending a mini tsunami of ripples radiating across the bay.

“There she goes!” says photographer Shayne McGuire, who’s been staking out this spot. “I’ve seen this glacier calve on many occasions, and it stops me in my tracks every time.” The waves diminish while the penguins, unruffled, simply continue with their business. 

The deliberate exploitation of wildlife may be over, but Antarctica now faces a different threat. According to climate scientists, calving events — the poster phenomena of climate change in the polar regions — are becoming more common. The Antarctic Peninsula is warming approximately six times faster than the global average, and the ice shelves surrounding it are thinning. Although the region appears untouched by human hands, climate effects are far reaching, and Antarctica is very fragile. Being in its icy midst renews our determination to do all we can to help protect it.

Returning to our ship, our spirits rise to fever pitch as, to high-energy music, we strip down to our swimsuits and steel ourselves for that most eccentric of Antarctic rituals: the open-water dip known as the Polar Plunge. For some, it’s hydrotherapy; for others, it’s a dare. “There’s no going back now!” say the newlyweds who don their wedding outfits for the occasion. In ones and twos, a seasonal record of 78 of us tiptoe barefoot down the metal gangway of our nice warm ship and hurl ourselves, screeching, into the icy bay.

Chinstrap penguins gateher on Point Wild, Elephant Island, in front of a monument to Chilean naval officer Luis Pardo, who commanded the steam tug that rescued 22 of Shackleton’s crew in 1916.

Photograph by Emma Gregg

Across turbulent seas

My voyage began in the tourist-friendly port of Ushuaia in southern Patagonia, close to South America’s gracefully pointed toe. On a late-afternoon cruise through the Beagle Channel, the strait separating southern Chile and Argentina, I grin with excitement at the first penguins I see — a small raft of Magellanics, porpoising alongside at impressive speed. Later, as the fading light flattens the craggy mountains to silhouettes, fin whales and Peale’s dolphins appear. It’s a promising start. 

Keen to experience more than a fleeting glimpse of the frozen south, my trip is to be longer than most, visiting some of the best coastal sites on the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetlands and returning via the teeming penguin and seal colonies of South Georgia.

Beyond the Beagle Channel, a rite of passage begins. For two days, our ship bucks and rolls its way across the infamous Drake Passage, an ocean crossing so stormy that every object that isn’t permanently fixed takes on a life of its own. My cabin, incongruously (I now realise) furnished with open shelves, ends up looking like a poltergeist has done its worst.

As we become more accustomed to the ship’s unpredictable movements, I begin asking my fellow passengers whether they think the trip ahead will be worth it. Nobody falters.

“It’s all part of the adventure”, says a gung-ho Australian. “And I’m enjoying being among like-minded individuals: people who are interested in nature and curious, and brave. I think it’s telling that quite a few people on board are travelling solo, like me, and sharing with someone they’ve never met before. My cabin-mate is lovely. We feel we’re in the same boat. Literally! As long as we get some good weather later, I’m fine.”

Another, who’s travelled here before, confesses she’s hooked. “It’s the pure air”, she says. “They say Antarctica changes you, and it’s true. Next time, maybe I’ll push myself even further and try a sleep-out on the snow. A friend who tried it said they were expecting total silence, but got quite a symphony. There were birds chattering, glaciers booming and the ice going snap, crackle and pop. I can’t imagine anything more exciting!”

Weather worries are an understandable preoccupation for Antarctic tourists. We’ve all seen photos of gnarly polar adventurers with snowy eyelashes, icicled noses and frostbitten extremities. In 2020, however, the region experienced its highest ever recorded temperatures — exceeding 18C at the Peninsula’s northern tip — for the second year since 2015. In reality, I find it easy to stay comfortable, dressing from top to toe in breathable layers and protecting myself against sun, wind and sea. We quickly get used to the routine of descending to the ship’s mudroom to kit ourselves out in waterproofs, thick-soled rubber boots and compact lifejackets for the next adventure.

On our earliest forays, we watch the sunrise gild the glaciers edging the Neumayer and Lemaire Channels, skim across calm waters to our first penguin colonies, at Damoy Point, and see leopard seals lounging on pads of ice, their faces fixed in sinister, predatory smiles. This late in the summer, the leopards are well fed: plenty of fledgling Adélie and chinstrap penguins have already flopped into the water, risking the seals’ deadly jaws. The gentoos, which breed later, will be next; for now, the downy chicks remain on land, pestering their parents for food the moment they lurch back from their foraging trips.

Hungry young gentoos scurry around Port Lockroy’s historic huts and Royal Mail post office, while their elders inspect our dry bags and defend themselves against opportunistic sheathbills. We continue on to Pléneau Bay, where we admire icebergs that seem to glow from within, and to Trinity Island, where we tiptoe through a sculpture park of curvaceous ice and velvety seals. Later, on Petermann Island, we discover that Antarctic snow isn’t always white; as the climate warms, algae fertilised by penguin guano can tint it olive green or rose pink.

Neko Harbour and its near neighbour, the aptly named Paradise Bay, offer us another exciting first: a chance to set foot on the Antarctic mainland, pondering the dizzying notion that if we were to continue another 25 degrees south, climbing around 9,000ft in altitude, we’d reach the South Pole.

Against a menacing sky, a huge iceberg floats in the Weddell Sea, seen from the deck of the expedition ship as it cruises around the Antarctic Peninsula.

Photograph by Emma Gregg

In the wake of a great explorer

Since Antarctica’s weather and sea conditions can be challenging, landings — whether on the islands or the mainland — are never guaranteed. On top of that, IAATO’s rules state that only one ship can visit each landing site at a time, with no more than 100 people allowed on shore at any given moment. As well as minimising disturbance, this maximises adventure. Each time we land, it’s almost as if ours is the first party to have ever arrived.

People have been landing on the Southern Ocean’s shores since James Cook first crossed the Antarctic Circle in 1773. For several decades, however, they didn’t progress beyond the islands: it was only in early 1821, exactly 200 years ago, that adventurers set foot on the mainland for the first time.

Focused on hunting seals for profit rather than making history, these pioneers kept quiet about their movements; the locations of the best landing spots were a trade secret. But curiosity grew, and within 100 years, some of the world’s most celebrated explorers had made their mark on the continent. By the end of the 20th century, the shift from ruthless exploitation of Antarctica’s natural resources to science, conservation and ecotourism was more or less complete.

As we round the tip of the peninsula, the weather flares up, forcing the captain to change course. “This is where things get really interesting,” says assistant expedition leader Christophe Gouraud. We take it in turns to cram onto the bridge, watching silently as the officers navigate a tricky route past monumental icebergs, their cliffs crazed with cracks. Venturing into locations that expedition ships rarely visit, we explore the Antarctic Sound, dip the ship’s toes in the Weddell Sea and spend two hours cruising past the immense A-68A, the rogue tabular iceberg that, until recently, seemed to be heading for South Georgia, posing a serious threat to its delicate ecosystems.

On Elephant Island (named for the mighty seals that once lolled on its rocky shore), chinstrap penguins dodge the spray. It’s this scrap of beach where the crew of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition were stranded for 105 long days in 1916. It took the explorer another 16 gruelling days to sail from here to South Georgia to seek help, a crossing we manage in just over two.

“Everyone looks forward to South Georgia — even the guys from the engine room who you never normally see,” says expedition ornithologist Ab Steenvoorden, who scans the skies for albatrosses on our approach. “They save up their time off and go out on their own Zodiac trips. It’s an incredible island, and the only way you can get here is by sea.”

Disembarking at Peggotty Bluff, where Shackleton, already exhausted, began his epic island crossing, I’m amused to discover that South Georgia’s wild animals are even more fearless than Antarctica’s. Young fur seals, relentlessly curious and prone to biting, galumph towards us. We fling out our arms to make ourselves look big, giving them pause, then pick our way through the tussock grass to a distant cove, ruled by a true giant: an elephant seal as long as a skip.

The morning we arrive in St Andrew’s Bay, I wake early and head out on deck, binoculars in hand. I notice that the river of speckles on the shore is shifting. They’re king penguins: an estimated 300,000 adults, plus chicks. Within an hour or two, I’ll be standing among these stately birds as they preen, posture and call. A fellow voyager says it perfectly: “This is one of those places that you really have to experience first-hand, with your own eyes, ears, nose, heart and soul.”  

A malt whisky named after Shackleton, served to passengers in mugs with shavings of glacier ice rather than cubes.

Photograph by Emma Gregg

Getting there & around

The main departure points for Antarctic cruises are Ushuaia in Argentina and Punta Arenas in Chile. British Airways flies from Heathrow to Buenos Aires and Santiago, where you can connect to Ushuaia with Aerolíneas Argentinas, or Punta Arenas with LATAM Airlines.

Average flight time: 16h to Buenos Aires and 3h35m onward to Ushuaia.

Antarctic expedition ships usually take two days to cruise the Beagle Channel and Drake Passage and spend four or five days around the South Shetlands and Antarctic Peninsula before their two-day return leg. Longer itineraries, including South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, last two to three weeks. 

The nearest commercial airstrip to the Antarctic Peninsula is on King George Island in the South Shetlands. It’s served by DAP Airlines charter flights from Punta Arenas, as part of cruise packages designed to skip the Drake Passage. 

When to go

Antarctic expedition cruises operate between November and March. In high season (December and January), daytime temperatures around the Antarctic Peninsula average a relatively mild 1.5C, the days are long and penguins can be seen tending their chicks. In later months, the penguins begin disappearing out to sea, but as a consolation, whale sightings increase. South Georgia is colder, with temperatures rarely rising above zero and dipping to -3C by March.

More info

Lonely Planet Antarctica. RRP: £18.99
Antarctic Wildlife, by James Lowen (WILDGuides). RRP: £17.99

How to do it

Chimu Adventures offers a choice of expedition cruises in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, including a 21-day tour of the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia and Falkland Islands from Ushuaia, Argentina, from £11,660 per person, excluding flights. 

Published in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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