Antarctica is a place where a photojournalist can fall in love with a boat, a view, and some fluffy brown chicks.
Standing on the bridge of the 6450-tonne Russian scientific ship Akademik Sergey Vavilov as it negotiated the Lemaire Channel off the Antarctic Peninsula, the intensity of Captain Valeriy Beluga’s concentration was obvious. With the constant whirr of the gyro-compass in the background, Beluga spoke quietly to the helmsman as they guided their ship through a mountainous white, ice-locked landscape, carefully avoiding icebergs.
We had been at sea for two weeks, on a 19-night Peregrine Expeditions voyage to Antarctica out of Ushuaia in South America. The Vavilov’s crew weren’t in crisp white uniforms. But while the scientific survey vessel wasn’t stylish, it was comfortable and, more importantly, stoically reliable.
As we sailed 6300 km east through the Atlantic Ocean to the Falkland and South Georgia islands, then to Deception Island and on to the Antarctic Peninsula, I grew to love the Vavilov.
On the two-day voyage east to the Falkland Islands, cape petrels and black-browed albatrosses rode the air around the ship as a pod of hourglass dolphins rode on the Vavilov‘s bow wave. Whale plumes revealed a group of fin whales. Growing to more than 26m, they are the second largest animal on Earth.
The Vavilov entered Stanley Harbour buffeted by strong winds, carefully edging up to a tanker to bunker fuel — 360,000 litres of oil for the long voyage south — while the Zodiac runabouts broached choppy seas, taking day trippers to Port Stanley.
On the sixth day of the voyage, South Georgia Island, its snow-capped rocky mountains skirted by glistening white glaciers, rose out of the Southern Ocean as if the peaks of the Himalayas had been cut off and dropped there.
It was a Tolkien-like panorama.
Our Zodiacs entered the small bay at Elsehul, where we saw large numbers of fur seals and penguins. This, we thought, was nature in the raw. This, we were to learn, was nothing.
That afternoon, we landed on the beach at Salisbury Plain to be greeted by 250,000 king penguins and thousands of fluffy brown chicks, the size of footballs.
The sight was extraordinary, the animals fearless.
We carefully walked past the hulks of sleeping elephant seals, their pups sloshing around in black wallows of muddy penguin guano.
Some of us just sat on the ground, mesmerised.
We began the next day at 6am with a muster on deck in falling snow to be ferried to the beach at Fortuna Bay.
It was the start of a two-hour hike over a snow-covered mountain saddle to Stromness Harbour, where Sir Ernest Shackleton arrived with fellow expeditioners Tom Crean and Frank Worsley on May 20, 1916, after a 16-day open-boat sea voyage.
They then made a 36-hour, non-stop hike across unmapped mountains and crevassed glaciers to seek the help of South Georgia whalers. Our trek was in a snowfall, which, for a time, reduced visibility to a few metres. A malfunctioning GPS made for a few tense moments.
Grytviken was a grim counterbalance to the previous day’s experiences. Here, from 1904 to 1965, more than 54,000 whales were hauled up the slipways and butchered.
The buildings and gantries of the derelict Norwegian whaling station are rusting back into the bay, along with the hulk of the grounded 245-tonne harpoon ship Petrel.
We drank a graveside toast to Shackleton in drizzling rain, assembled in front of his granite headstone in the small beachside cemetery.
All photos © Vincent Ross. All Rights Reserved.