Sometimes during the Tasmanian winter, when the southerly wind blows and I am standing outside, shivering, I swear that I can smell the penguins in Antarctica. A flight of fancy perhaps, but given our close associations with Antarctica and the unencumbered proximity of the fifth-largest continent on Earth, perhaps my olfactory senses do not deceive me.
Tasmania and Antarctica were once attached, as part of the super-continent Gondwana. These days the link between the two extends to the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, being a dependency of Tasmania, whilst Hobart has for a long time been a starting point for polar exploration.
Although not driven by a determination to source the penguin guano of my imagination, but perhaps more by the constant awareness of Hobart as an Antarctic centre, I have, like many other enthusiasts of Earth’s wild places, wondered what it would be like to visit the frozen continent. My son went there before me and was in some ways instrumental in my actually making the effort to get there myself. We share a love of photography and I have been blown away by an Antarctic gale of incredible images recorded during his numerous visits there as a research scientist.
They were images which I hoped to emulate.
In retirement, my wife and I both enjoy travelling the world, although while I am happy sleeping on the ground in a tent or wilderness hut, she is more a hot shower and soft bed type of traveller. A few years ago we discovered a wonderful compromise: cruise ships. It was by this means that we finally visited Antarctica.
There are many cruises offered to Antarctica, but perhaps the most economical are those leaving from Chile or Argentina. We joined our ship, the Zaandam, in San Antonio, Chile, and after a few days visiting Chilean ports and fiords, and Tierra del Fuego, we headed for Cape Horn and the Drake Passage.
Anyone who ventures to the southern extremities of Earth is at the mercy of the weather; it is never guaranteed that your ship will actually reach Antarctica. It was with this in mind, and a constant meteorological update from the captain, that we approached the Cape. A severe storm was occurring at the time in the South Pacific and although it was some 400 nautical miles to starboard, we were being warned of a need to change route to skirt the storm’s effect. This seemed to be code for, “We might not go.”
I wouldn’t say that I was disappointed, but rather quite thrilled, to sail past the Horn in gentle seas. The Horn began to disappear towards the horizon, and the swell from the distant storm began to build, but the Captain had given the go-ahead for Antarctica!
The Zaandam carries 1,318 passengers and 612 crew – not one of the floating theme parks that often visit Hobart, but bigger than the many smaller, ultra-luxury vessels that cruise to Antarctica. The bigger the ship, the more comfortable the voyage, supposedly although the long, eight-metre swell, combined with the Antarctic circumpolar current and the confluence of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, would test the comfort level of any ocean liner.
Seeing the first glimpse of Antarctica after a 34-hour crossing of the Drake Passage was like being in a dream. The coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula appeared wraith-like beneath a shroud of low-lying cloud, its white, snow-covered surface glowing like a fluorescent light above an obsidian ocean, creating a portal into an unknown world.
It was evening and the grey sky that almost caressed the sea did not hold promise of great viewing, but sailing closer to shore it became apparent that we had entered the vast and sheltered Dallman Bay. A pod of humpback whales gave us an immediate welcome, fascinating us with coordinated emergings and divings, and the presentation of their enormous tail flukes.
The lexicon of the English language is insufficient to describe the magnificence and experience of Antarctica. Following the grey, low-lying cloud of our arrival, the next four days exceeded everyones’ expectations. On day two, after a flurry of snow at breakfast time, the clouds lifted to reveal the incredible sight of the peninsula, with its mountains thrusting through layers of snow and ice, reflecting the rays of the low-rising sun.
Standing on the deck of a ship gazing at the spectacle of Antarctica is truly awe-inspiring. The mind cannot grasp the vastness. A glacier for instance, of which there are many, may seem at first sight to be a few hundred metres wide, but in fact be many kilometres across. This seems hardly credible, until one realises that the small, dark shadow beneath the face of the glacier is actually another small cruise ship.
It would be impossible not to capture stunning photographs no matter what equipment one employs for the task. Antarctic air is crystal clear, allowing sight and penetration of distances not generally possible in warmer climes.
The bays, ice-floes, icebergs and shorelines of Antarctica are home to amazing wildlife, all of which were easily observed from the ship and enhanced with the use of binoculars. The humpback whales previously mentioned were complemented by marauding orcas, playful dolphins and laid-back seals. Penguins skimmed, dipped and dived beneath the water and waddled comically across icebergs. Albatross, skuas, petrels, fulmars, cormorants and kelp gulls made up the ship’s air support squadrons. Life was abundant, in what might otherwise be considered to be a sterile, yet pristine environment.
Staring across the vast ice sheets, glaciers and lofty mountains, one could not help wondering how the men of the heroic age of exploration dared to venture forth into the unknown. My thoughts went beyond extreme admiration and eventually landed in the arms of sympathy for those who did set out to explore, but did not return. To traverse the glaciers and ice sheets and to brave the ever-changing weather, would be a truly epic adventure, but not one that I would care to risk. I was very happy to return to my cabin at the end of the day, exhausted just by observing nature’s sheer magnificence.
There is something very surreal about sitting in a five-star dining room, with wrap-around windows, observing passing icebergs or a snow-covered, mountainous shoreline; being waited upon and served a four-course dinner, whilst sipping on a glass of wine – a far cry from the supplies consumed by the likes of Amundsen, Shackleton and Mawson.
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Steve Roden was born in Stoke on Trent, England, and found his way to Tasmania in 1976, when he was in his mid-20s. He was a secondary school teacher until 2000, and then held various positions with educational administration, including project manager for the federal government’s Trials of Innovative Government Electronic Regional Services (TIGERS) program for three years.
Steve Roden retired in 2017 and now devotes much of his time to photography. More of his work can be seen on his website: steverodenimages.myportfolio.com, and a Portfolio of his Tasmanian landscape photography was published in Issue 88 of Tasmania 40°South.