An Antarctic kayaking experience is not to be missed, paddling among the awe-inspiring bobbing icy monoliths.
CHARLOTTE BAY IS BELIEVED by many to be one of the most beautiful spots on the Antarctic Peninsula - and the Peninsula, due south of South America, is the most wildlife-dense region of Antarctica.
On this 10-day Peregrine expedition out of Ushuaia, in southern Argentina, we would stare down the blowholes of minke and humpback whales, walk among penguin and seal colonies, and watch leopard seals chowing down on penguins. There are now about 30 vessels that take nearly 40,000 tourists a year to the Antarctic Peninsula, but this is the only one that offers sea-kayaking among the icebergs.
Excursions in the Zodiacs certainly have their advantages over kayaking - they can quickly get to any whale or seal action that's spotted in the distance. But kayaking is a much more intimate experience among the grandeur of the frozen continent. Instead of the whine and smell of a two-stroke engine, there's the sound of ice cracking, penguin barks and gentle paddle strokes.
"You feel a lot more isolated," said Shannon Drysdale, of Crows Nest in Queensland, who waited three trips before securing one of the 16 coveted sea-kayaking spots on this trip. "I'm not a religious person, but it's more of a spiritual experience - there's no motors going or anything." With each stroke you 'feel' the conditions - a hard lump of ice there, a smooth lead of water there.
At times in these icy conditions it was like paddling through soup, but in really thick slush it was hard work, as if paddling through wet cement. I could hear the slosh and splash of the surge against icebergs, and at times the brilliant aqua of the water close to the icebergs reminded me strangely of a tropical beach. A chunky skua dove low over my kayak and a gentle swell rocked me.
Kayaking the Antarctic
Shaggy-haired kayak guide and the ship's official 'sultan of cool' Solan Jensen said first-time Antarctic kayakers describe three things: "the solitude; the relative feeling of independence - you're moving yourself through this environment; and, it's not like you see more or less, but it's about the pace. You are allowed that more meditative pace - it's like walking."
Loving this intimate, privileged encounter with Antarctica, I stripped off my hood and beanie to feel the snow fall on my hair. Compared with riding in the Zodiacs, or aboard the 117 m, six-deck ship, you feel much more at one with the environment.
For one, you're on the same level as the water - in among the ice, whereas on the Zodiacs you sit up a bit higher. As Shannon said: "You see a penguin at eye level." As a safety measure, a Zodiac does trail unobtrusively some distance behind the kayaks, but I barely noticed it was there.
Later this day, one of the kayakers would end up in the drink when the wind blew up more chop than you'd find on a Sunday barbie, but the Zodiac was there within 15 seconds to pull him out. We were all trained in wet exits, and practised taking off the apron with our eyes closed, because the shock of the freezing water on hands and head can be disorienting, and enough to make people panic.
If conditions are too dangerous, the kayakers don't go out (there were six trips in all on this expedition), instead joining the rest of the passengers on the zodiac or shore excursions. Solan said ideally kayakers should have reasonable experience before trying to kayak in Antarctica, doing a minimum of a two-day course and then two days a month, in different conditions, in the months leading up to the expedition.
"We have major winds that come fast," he said. "And swell. This is the sea - it isn't a lake." But he acknowledged that many kayakers signing up for the trip were considerably less experienced than that. "We get people who have barely, if ever, stepped into a kayak who triple their experience down here." Shannon was one such kayaker. "I found that I personally didn't need any experience. They cater to everyone. It's all very bulletproof - anyone could do it," he said.
The dangers of the Antarctic
"Hey, Ken, you're too close to that iceberg," yells Mo d'Armand, the other kayaking guide. Icebergs regularly roll over, and as you only ever see about 10 per cent of one at a time - the rest is below the water - a seemingly house-sized iceberg could quickly make a pancake out of a too-keen kayaker. Mo, a 20-something Alaskan back-country guide, was chirpy and friendly although tired at the end of a long season in the Antarctic. "I don't care if I see another penguin in my life, but I love ice," she said.
Like many of the crew, she'd be joining the ice-strengthened vessel, the Akademik Ioffe, for its Arctic season, where risks of kayaking are a little more extreme than hypothermia or being crushed by a revolving iceberg. There the kayak guides have shotguns on their kayaks "to deal with man-eating carnivores like polar bears and walrus," Solan said. "It's freaking exciting to see a polar bear from a kayak, man, I can tell you that."
As our flotilla of 10 kayaks crunched and sloshed through the ice soup, two humpbacks stuck their gnarled knobbly heads through the maze of ice castles about 50 m ahead. Repeatedly they launched their massive frames vertically out of the water, in a move called spyhopping, in order to get a decent look at us. In the silence we could hear every breath and belch, and the odd bellow resonated through my kayak.
Encounters like this weren't rare on this trip - humpbacks and minkes accompanied the ship almost continually, often getting within metres of us. Kayakers cruised past busy penguin colonies and even saw, sitting aloft an iceberg - a lone juvenile emperor, just taking a break from its first-ever sea voyage.
As well as the kayaking, the Zodiac trips, and the landings, this expedition also offered the opportunity to camp in a bivvy bag on Antarctica. Many of the 110 on board jumped at the chance to take this opportunity, until we had the on-board briefing. "Remove all romantic notions about camping in Antarctica," said expedition leader David 'Woody' Wood.
"We're not going to have an open fire, we're not going to be roasting marshmellows. You will be cold." A few laughed nervously, before Woody went on: "If you don't feel the cold at all, and you dress very warmly, you'll only be really cold, not dangerously cold."
Peregrine applies for camping permits a year in advance and are only allowed in very specific spots and a perimeter is set outside which none can pass. No food is allowed to be taken ashore, and everything has to be removed afterwards, including all human waste, which is deposited in a blue barrel nicknamed 'Mr Yum Yum'.
By the end of the briefing, about half the group had decided not to go camping. I was still very keen, and in fact looking forward to one of my better sleeps of the voyage so far - I always sleep better under the stars. Unfortunately, the elements worked against us, and due to high wind, rain and sleet, the decision was made not to camp this trip. "We're not set up for bad-weather camping," Woody said. "It's something we won't do unless we think the conditions are reasonable."
But the opportunity to go kayaking more than made up for the lack of camping. From our narrow perches, with nothing but a few millimetres of fibreglass separating us from depths of 500 m, we sat and gazed at the whales for 20 or so minutes, while snow continued to bucket down. Gradually my bright yellow kayak turned white, until it almost blended in and became one with Antarctica.
How to attempt Antarctic kayaking:
Step 1: Dilly-dally over how many layers of thermals and socks to wear under a dry suit while snow accumulates in kayak outside. Decide on three.
Step 2: Brush as much heavily falling snow out of kayak as possible. Will make bony behind considerably warmer for the next few hours.
Step 3: Seal apron around kayak - not so much to keep water out, as snow, and to supposedly provide a warm cocoon for aforementioned bony behind.
Step 4: Closely examine conditions. Snow is bucketing down in thick clumps like clotted cream on to a brash ice milkshake. There's barely a breath of wind in the air, so the snow just falls and falls. It's a few degrees below zero and the water here in Charlotte Bay is starting to freeze over for the winter, so the snow doesn't melt when it hits the surface. It just turns into a heavy slush, several centimetres thick, interspersed with harder chunks of brash ice - fresh from breaking icebergs.
Getting there: There are no direct flights from Sydney to Ushuaia. Qantas flies to Buenos Aires three times a week and you can transfer to LAN, which also flies from Sydney to Buenos Aires. Peregrine's travel consultants can help organise flights.
The expedition: Book early. There are 16 kayaking spots on board, and they book out very quickly, so you'll need to book at least a year in advance. Ten-day expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula generally cost from around $10,000.
Accommodation: In Ushuaia I stayed in a small B&B that was cheaper, but less convenient than the motel that the rest of the travellers stayed in.
Food/drink: The food on board is both plentiful and sensational, and everything is included except your bar tab (and there are happy hours every day). Be warned: the coffee onboard was absolutely awful, particularly on a non-seafaring stomach. In Ushuaia try a traditional barbecue or succulent seafood.
Climate/when to go: You can only go in the summer months, usually November to March.
Equipment: Everything is supplied for kayaking, but you will need your own high-quality rain gear, gloves (two pairs), beanie and warm clothes.
Kayaking info or courses: Widely available in Australia almost all around the coast. Operators include: in Melbourne, www.seakayakaustralia.com; Sydney, www.sydneyharbourkayaks.com.au; and in Brisbane, www.riverlife.com.au/kayaking
Ken cruised courtesy of Peregrine.