Journey to the end of the earth

Scuba diving in Antarctica may not be everyone's idea of fun. But Erin Cotter took the plunge and found a stunning world above, and below, the ice
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The Independent Travel

Although Antarctica is the world's fifth largest continent - larger than both Australia and Europe - it is the most mysterious and by far the least frequented. There were only 15,000 visitors last year - that's about the number who went to my local Indian restaurant. There are good reasons for this. Antarctica is a very hard place to reach and it does not come cheap. It is also damn cold and inhospitable. As a continent, it wins several meteorological superlatives - coldest, windiest, driest, iciest and most isolated - and it remains a truly undeveloped wilderness.

Although Antarctica is the world's fifth largest continent - larger than both Australia and Europe - it is the most mysterious and by far the least frequented. There were only 15,000 visitors last year - that's about the number who went to my local Indian restaurant. There are good reasons for this. Antarctica is a very hard place to reach and it does not come cheap. It is also damn cold and inhospitable. As a continent, it wins several meteorological superlatives - coldest, windiest, driest, iciest and most isolated - and it remains a truly undeveloped wilderness.

I've wanted to visit Antarctica for years, so when a couple of tour operators added scuba diving to their itineraries, I knew I could wait no longer. The prospect of seeing the ice from below - as well as above - the water was utterly beguiling. Of course it was going to be cold, but diving around Britain is cold, too. Most Antarctic tours set sail from Ushuaia, the southernmost settlement at the tip of Argentina. It is an internet-café-meets- Northern Exposure kind of frontier town in the foothills of the Montes Martial mountains - a dramatic, if somewhat touristy, embarkation point. It was here that I boarded the Professor Multanovskiy, a sturdy, refitted Russian polar research ship that would take me, and 42 other passengers, to the Antarctic Peninsula. We would be on board for a total of 11 days, five of which would be spent in Antarctica, six at sea. At least that was the plan.

"We've had a problem with fuel," announced our expedition leader Shane within minutes of setting sail. "The tanker that supplies Ushuaia has been caught in a storm. The only place we can stock up is the Falkland Islands." There was a deafening silence. Weren't the Falklands in the opposite direction? "I'm sorry," said Shane, "but in this part of the world we remain in the hands of nature."

I couldn't help but feel excited by the idea of our trip being hijacked by outside forces. Two days later we were whizzing across the sea with the morning sun against our faces en route to Paradise Island, where the Falkland Islands' king penguins live. King penguins are big cheeses in the penguin world. With their beautiful orange markings and impressive stature it's easy to see why. Here was a perfect photo opportunity for the incredibly well-equipped amateur snappers in our party. They all click-clicked continuously while the adult penguins made a wonderful, trumpeting sound and their chicks, in various stages of grey fluffiness, chirped and squeaked.

There was far less to impress us during our whirlwind tour of Port Stanley and after refuelling we were all happy to get back to sea, where the Professor Multanovskiy was being chased by dolphins and albatrosses. It was a beautiful sunny evening, but the calm was not to last. We were entering the Drake Passage - a notoriously nasty stretch of sea between South America and Antarctica - and it soon became clear that nature was again in a bad mood. We were about to experience "the Drake Shake". For three days, the boat heaved from left to right as gales reaching force eight sent the contents of our cabins flying and the contents of many stomachs hurtling into the pan.

For those who weren't ill, there was at least plenty to do. There were films about Shackleton, and numerous lectures by the expedition's resident scientists. We soon became experts on the various forms of ice and wildlife we would see. We were also drilled on how to behave in Antarctica, where rigid controls are enforced to protect the environment. Rubber boots are disinfected before each new landing to prevent cross-contamination, while visitors must maintain a comfortable distance from the animals and leave no waste. If you need the toilet while on land, tough. You have to hold it in until you return to ship.

As the bad weather continued, our estimated time of arrival was put back further and a sense of helplessness descended on the group. It had been five days since we left Ushuaia and now we could expect only two full days in Antarctica. When we finally arrived, the weather was picture-postcard perfect. The people on the trip before us had barely seen the mountains through constant sheets of rain and cloud, but we could see for miles. And what we saw was breathtaking: channels of blue ice, endless glaciers and convoluted, sculptured icebergs that looked like the bizarre creations of Dali.

And then there were the animals. Penguins and seals basked in the bright sun or carved through the water. The Russian captain was a keen whale enthusiast and slowed the engine when he spotted three humpbacks blowing. For an hour, we watched them hunt krill, circling the shrimp and creating a bubble wall before lunging upwards, their giant mouths agape.

But many of us had signed up for an "adventure" and now we were here, there was no time to waste. The kayakers started paddling and we divers - kitted out in numerous layers - jumped into the water. My face tingled and hands clenched as the icy water filled my Neoprene gloves (dry gloves would have been infinitely wiser) but, once this initial shock was over, it was fine. Down, down I went. There were huge whale skeletons marooned on the sea bottom, bizarre jellyfish, tiny shrimp and magnificent sun stars - multi-armed, flexible starfish the size of dinner plates. Our eyes were always on the look-out for leopard seals - huge predators with reptilian faces and a very aggressive reputation. On one dive, one of these creatures appeared as we bobbed on the surface. It stared at us from small, cold eyes. We were out of the water in record time.

But it was Antarctica's ice that was most impressive - the different hues of blue and green, the extraordinary shapes and sizes. At Pleneau Island - known as the Iceberg Graveyard - we dived around an iceberg that was fixed to the sea bottom. Against the sun, the colour of the ice constantly changed - jade, azure, blue, white. It reminded me of a shipwreck, powerful and ancient. And all around us were tiny micro-bubbles being released from the melting ice. The air inside them may have been trapped tens of thousands of years ago. The concept was amazing - a record of nature past, floating inexorably to the surface.

As we left, facing a return through the Drake Passage, nobody was complaining. We had spent only two days in Antarctica when we should have had five, but the time had been unforgettable - and profoundly beautiful. Nobody had expected such magnificence or serenity. In spite of the constant noise - whales blowing, ice cracking, penguins calling, sea birds shrieking - there had been an overwhelming impression of stillness, of harmony. It had stunned all of us into silence, and brought some of us to tears.

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