Very crowded, Antarctica

William Alexander and Dorothy Crawford joined 76 snap-happy Americans and thousands of penguins on the South Shetlands
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The Independent Travel
Captain Robert Scott wrote in his diary "Great God, this is an awful place." Is it? To find out for ourselves, we set out on a 20,000- mile journey to enjoy midsummer in Antarctica.

After three days of travelling we finally arrived in Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, where we boarded the Akademik Ioffe, which was to be our floating home for the rest of the trip. This six-year-old Russian ship was built for scientific polar expeditions. Disused since 1993, it was chartered and refitted with 32 double cabins by the Canadian tour company Marine Expeditions. It was clean, warm and spacious, if not luxurious.

As we met our 76 fellow passengers, the ship slipped quietly out of Ushuaia harbour and we sailed down the Beagle Channel with the sun on our backs. We stayed on the bridge, loath to go to bed until well after midnight when the sun finally dipped below the horizon.

We awoke the next morning to the slow roll of a calm sea in Drakes Passage. Forewarned of this 48-hour crossing, we had brought plenty of books, but time passed pleasantly, with meals interspersed by lectures on Antarctic wildlife, environmental issues, and so on. We developed insatiable appetites, perhaps to put on a layer of blubber to counteract the cold. When we really felt bloated, there was a gym, a sauna and even a tiny swimming- pool (filled with unheated sea water) in which to work off excess calories. But this didn't satisfy the ship's doctor, an elderly Russian woman who took a daily dip in the Antarctic Ocean.

The first "sight" was the Antarctic "convergence", an invisible boundary where the warm waters of the Atlantic meet the cold waters of the Antarctic Ocean. Here the water temperature falls abruptly from 8 to 2C. As a result, the salinity alters and the cold-lovning krill, which breed here in profusion, die from shock and rise to the surface. Hence the area becomes a feeding ground for Antarctic wildlife.We all congregated on the bridge, binoculars at the ready, but the lack of wind kept the birds resting on the sea rather than gliding on the wind. We did, however, get our first sight of whales, albeit distant, and a school of hourglass porpoises joined us for half an hour or so of bowriding.

The next day we saw our frst icebergs. They come in all shapes and sizes. Bergybits are the smallest fragments, growlers the result of ice "calved" from glaciers where they meet the sea, and tabular icebergs which can be massive (we saw one 11 miles across), broken from the Antarctic ice sheet. We were unprepared for their sheer beauty - like intricate ice carvings - and the iridescent blue of their crevices in the sunlight.

On the third day we arrived among the South Shetland Islands where we were to make several landings. Clad in multiple layers of clothing, starting with thermal underwear and ending with a life-jacket and Wellington boots, we set off for our first stint among the penguins. We had been fully versed in the Antarctic travellers' code: keep 15 feet away from penguins and seals; do not step on mosses, lichens or grasses; do not leave rubbish or remove anything; do not interfere with areas protected for scientific research. But our first encounter with chinstrap penguins showed them to be so friendly that to keep 15-foot clearance would have meant running away from them.

Deception Island was truly spectacular; a volcanic crater into which we sailed through "the bellows" - a small opening in the rocky rim. The ice cliffs were grey with a covering of volcanic ash, and there were nesting penguins as far as the eye could see. Apparently organised to its 300,000 inhabitants, the penguin colony seemed like utter chaos to us: the cacophony of sound from hungry chicks, adults fending off marauding skuas and squabbles over stones for nest building; the dramatic colours ; and the smell - which clung to our boots long after we had left.

Our fellow passengers were also worth observing. Most were Americans. To a man and woman photography was their passion, and recording on film seemed to be a higher priority than simply observing. We spent three days cruising between the islands and the Antarctic peninsula, making two landings each day - one on the mainland itself. This was in the aptly named Paradise Bay where the ice cliffs presented massive facades between cavernous entrances. This was the furthest south we ventured and although cold it was not unbearably so. We had ideal conditions: clear, still, sunny days. The cry of "whales sighted" over the ship's tannoy system became commonplace and we would all rush to the deck to see the awesome sight of killer, humpback and fin whales, sometimes with their young, surfacing, blowing and diving. We visited rookeries of gentou, macaroni and Adelie penguins. We saw a variety of seals, but for sheer entertainment the elephant seals took the prize. Lying in wallows of up to 40 animals, these obese creatures, irritated by their moulting fur, would occasionally scratch or wriggle, and, like a Mexican wave, the vibration passed through consecutive piles of blubber to the last in the line.

Finally we turned homeward and as we recrossed Drakes Passage a storm blew up. With it arrived sea birds in their hundreds - albatross, petrels, shearwaters, all riding the wind while we did our best just to stand upright. We had wondered during the trip why all the Americans had sticking plaster behind their ears, it now became clear: to prevent sea-sickness. And it seems to work; only a few were bedridden during the storm.

We headed for the Pacific, in order to round the Horn before re-entering the Beagle Channel. In the morning we were back in Ushuaia harbour, a trip of a lifetime behind us.

The Akademik Ioffe is chartered by Marine Expeditions Inc in Toronto (tel 001 416 964 9069). Basic eight-night cruises from Ushuaia operate from 9 December 1995 to 26 January 1996. The cost, depending on dates and cabins, is pounds 2,550-pounds 3,790 through the company's two UK agents: Birdquest (01254 826317) and The Cruise People (0171-723 2450). This includes flights from London on Aerolineas Argentinas. The vessel is also operating two 13-night trips in November 1995: one taking in the Falklands, and the other visiting South Georgia.

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