We spent a good deal of time up on the observation deck or on the bridge, watching out for wildlife.When anyone spotted a swimming seal, or a dolphin or a humpback whale blowing in the distance, the shout went out on the tannoy to ensure we all got the chance to rush out on deck with our binoculars and cameras.
Seals often swam across our bows, almost playing 'chicken', looking back at us over their shoulders as they passed. Sometimes a shoal of penguins porpoised by.
The abundance of wildlife was amazing
Albatrosses swooped round us, and a flock of black and white cape petrels flew alongside us for several miles. They were a stunning sight, keeping pace with our ship, the sun glinting on their wings. I made sure I stood near to bird expert Simon, who was always out on deck to identify different species and offer information.
I learnt so much about polar explorers, including of course Ernest Shackleton
When we weren't wildlife spotting, there was a full programme of lectures to go to on board, some of them about Ernest Shackleton and other polar explorers; others were about the places we were soon to visit or the wildlife we were about to meet. Another, by the ship's resident photographer, on making the most of our cameras, was very useful with so many fabulous subjects to point them at.
In the early hours of the twelfth day, we crossed the magic 60ºS latitude line. When we awoke, we were in Antarctica proper.
We could not land on Elephant Island as it was too rough
Shortly after breakfast, our companions with links to Shackleton were thrilled to be passing by Elephant Island where the Endurance crew was marooned for over a year. We'd been hoping we could land there but it was too rough and rugged for the ship to get near. Nobody's been known to land there for some years. From now on, as we neared the peninsula itself, the scenery became more and more magical.
On the Zodiac
We made Zodiac trips to several of the South Shetland Islands where the presence of colonies of gentoo and chinstrap penguins was marked by terracotta coloured blotches against the snow.
Gear on once more!
All wet skins must be disinfected to prevent bacteria spreading
Before visiting each new place, there was a 'vacuum party' in the mudroom, where we'd hoover our wet-skins and disinfect our boots to prevent transference of any bacteria or seeds from the previous place. And always we kept to the other rule for Antarctic visitors – to stay five metres away from the wildlife. Not that the penguins took any notice of that. They'd happily waddle or toboggan right by us. One elephant seal pup was determined to nuzzle at my leg and simply wouldn't take no for an answer, gazing up at me with huge soulful brown eyes.
Sailing into Paradise Bay
The day we arrived at the aptly named Paradise Bay will live in my heart for ever. Strolling out unsuspectingly on to the deck after lunch, it's no exaggeration to say that the scene that met my eyes took my breath away. Our ship was gliding almost silently into what I can only describe as fairyland. Being in a bay, we were surrounded on all sides by blue-white, snow-covered peaks standing out against a vivid turquoise sky and swathed in strands of white cloud and vapour.
Beautiful Breathtaking Icebergs
Icebergs of all shapes and sizes, with brilliant blue undersides, glistened in the sun, casting reflections in the mirror-like water. Into this magical setting, we clambered into the Zodiacs and nipped through the ice towards the shore.
Once on land, the sun was so warm that we took off our padded jackets and climbed up a steepish snow-covered slope to take in the vista from the top. Going back down, the snow littered with disguised ice holes, walking wasn't easy, so I sat down and slalomed all the way down like you do on those slides at waterparks. What an extraordinary, exhilarating, life-affirming day.
The crew topped it off by holding a barbecue for us on deck. Some people stay up till three to watch the sunset/sunrise. That far south at this time of year, it's daylight almost continuously.
Sunset or Sunrise? With almost 24hr daylight, could be either!
The sun just scooped below the surface and popped straight back up again, underlighting the clouds. I didn't stay up to witness it myself, but those who did had some gorgeous photos to show next day.
Heading for home came almost as a surprise. I lost all track of time. I felt as if I'd been in another dimension altogether. I'd been dreading the notorious seas of the Drake Passage awaiting us on the way back to Ushuaia. In fact it was almost an anticlimax. On our last day aboard, we cruised serenely past Cape Horn, hardly able to believe how many intrepid sailors have come to grief in these waters over the years.
Sydney Opera House?!
My memories of Antartica help rebalance my soul, a wonderful never to be forgotten trip of a lifetime
Back home, I still daydream of those snowy peaks and wonderful little penguins, getting on with their lives in the most beautiful and unspoilt wilderness on the planet. In the reality of these troubling times, they are images that help to rebalance my soul. I hope they always will.
Read parts 1 and 2