Voyage of Discovery
Wanderlust Travel Magazine|May/June 2021
Sailing to the pristine White Continent is a privilege. So how about giving something back? We embark on a new trip that combines a mind-blowing Antarctic expedition with a bit of citizen science…
Mark Stratton

Like a rehabilitated Captain Ahab, Daniel Zitterbart led his scientists into the sort of supranatural stillness only Antarctica can deliver. I followed them in an inflatable Zodiac, cold snapping at my fingers, squinting at glossy icebergs fissured with stilton-blue veins, heading towards the spouts of vapour we could see suspended in Paradise Harbour’s frigid dawn. There she blows, as Captain Ahab would say.

Next to brash ice that glinted like rough-cut diamonds, two distant dark lines revealed themselves to be slumbering humpback whales, fat from gorging krill. Forty tonnes of rorqual, happily recovering since the 1986 ban on commercial whaling, before which they were slaughtered to near extinction by Ahab’s ilk.

There was no harpoon in Daniel’s hand, just a hi-tech $10,000 whale tag on a long carbon-fibre pole. His Zodiac manoeuvred alongside and he leaned out and slapped one of the humpbacks with the suction-cupped device (it would release after several hours). The whale started, arched and then dived, rocking the Zodiac as it went.

“It can be a little bit terrifying,” Daniel admitted later, “when these giant creatures are beneath your flimsy boat.”

Yet all went smoothly. Over the next few hours the scientists followed the tagged humpback around the ice-choked Southern Ocean bay on a quest to learn more about these secretive denizens of the deep.

ON A MISSION

Having previously visited Antarctica, I vowed I’d only return if I had a greater purpose. As demand grows (COVID-19 aside), the number of cruises heading to this pristine wilderness is projected to increase. Can Antarctica sustain higher levels of tourism? I wasn’t sure.

Attempting to add value to my voyage, I joined an Antarctic Whale Safari led by Hayley Shephard, a Wanderlust World Guide Award medallist, and operated by Polar Latitudes, a company committed to supporting scientific research. The 14-day small ship expedition aboard the Hebridean Sky was my opportunity to participate in citizen science projects that further the understanding of Antarctica’s ecology and changing environment. It was also a chance to observe German scientist Daniel and his colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts investigating humpbacks.

“This is an investigation into how baleen whales find food, with a hypothesis that it might be by chemical smell,” explained Daniel. Antarctic humpbacks feed on krill, tiny crustaceans that swarm in countless millions. Krill feed on phytoplankton, a process that results in the release of the gas dimethyl sulfide (DMS). It’s very preliminary research as to whether humpbacks can sense this DMS,” Daniel said. The aim of our journey was to gather more data.

Thus on a mission, we left Ushuaia, on Argentina’s end-of-the-world Tierra del Fuego archipelago, and sailed some 1,000km towards the Antarctic Peninsula, a swan-necked isthmus protruding northwards from the seventh continent. Easily reachable by expedition vessel, the peninsula is Antarctica’s entry-level destination, popular with first-timers.

The first two days of our voyage involved crossing the rumbustious Drake Passage, beyond Cape Horn, where mountainous seas can leave you green around the gills. Ukrainian Captain Andrey Rudenko promised “not too much rock ’n’ roll”, but the three-metre swell was boisterous enough to leave me reeling between the decks like a drunken sailor.

Regardless, our citizen science programme began immediately. We analysed seawater for temperature and salinity, contributing to an ongoing study into ocean warming and increased freshwater melt. A seabird survey took place astern – it wasn’t long before albatrosses were trailing the ship, swaying side to side like kites – while cloud observations were collected for input into a NASA database.

Passengers were also encouraged to photograph the tailfins of whales and submit the pictures to happywhale.org. “Each humpback has a unique fluke pattern so they can be identified,” said Annette Bombosch, our onboard marine mammal expert. One humpback, she told us, was recorded to have travelled 8,904km from Antarctica to Tonga. But is citizen science really valuable to scientists? “For sure,” Annette reassured.

“They benefit from this data because they cannot always be in Antarctica due to its remoteness and cost.”

A LAND BEYOND IMAGINATION

It was around 4am when we finally crossed the Gerlache Strait, the channel separating the offshore islands of the Palmer Archipelago from the Antarctic Peninsula itself. Dawn was a fuzzy half-flight when I grabbed a coffee, shrugged against the chill and joined fellow passengers on deck, wide-eyed with wonder. Within a bay of dark volcanic peaks that poked above amphitheatrical glaciers and snowfields, the tide was sluggish, congested by a graveyard of house-sized icebergs. I found myself trying to describe their shapes; Frank Worsley, Shackleton’s legendary navigator, saw ‘gondolas steered by giraffes’ and ‘ducks sailing on crocodile heads’. They can be whatever your imagination allows – although I was shaken from my own imaginings by a gunshot-like crack: a glacier calving in a slow-motion concertina, triggering avalanches upslope.

Little can prepare you for this, Antarctica’s frosted monochromatic world; its overwhelming coalescence of cold, beauty, purity and stillness. But then there are the bluebird days, when the continent’s unpredictable weather yields sunshine, and everything is blue except your mood: the sky, the ocean, the diaphanous ice refracting the colours above. However, seven years on from my previous visit, the snowscape was now washed with more red and green algae, symptomatic of warmer melting days. Only the week before I arrived, the peninsula hit record summer highs of 20°C.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM WANDERLUST TRAVEL MAGAZINEView All

FINDING MANA IN French Polynesia

Five archipelagos, 118 islands, countless patches of ocean heaven... With our trip planner, we help you get your head around exploring the pristine Pacific

10+ mins read
Wanderlust Travel Magazine
May/June 2021

Searching for WILD SPAIN

An increasing number of rewilding projects in Europe means we no longer need to travel far to watch big predators in their natural habitats. Wanderlust goes on a Cantabrian bear hunt...

10 mins read
Wanderlust Travel Magazine
May/June 2021

Voyage of Discovery

Sailing to the pristine White Continent is a privilege. So how about giving something back? We embark on a new trip that combines a mind-blowing Antarctic expedition with a bit of citizen science…

10+ mins read
Wanderlust Travel Magazine
May/June 2021

St Augustine, Florida

Introducing the USA’s oldest city… we discover the history and wildlife beyond the beaches of the Sunshine State

6 mins read
Wanderlust Travel Magazine
May/June 2021

Alaska

For a deeper understanding of Alaskan culture, experience indigenous traditions first-hand alongside its native population

4 mins read
Wanderlust Travel Magazine
May/June 2021

6 More Places To See European Bears

Bear-watching opportunities are growing throughout Europe – Lyn Hughes finds six more countries where you can go in search of them

2 mins read
Wanderlust Travel Magazine
May/June 2021

7 Steps To Planning An Ecofriendly Trip

In this exclusive extract from Wanderlust’s new book, How to Travel Guilt Free: Essentials Tips for Ethical Travellers, Hazel Plush provides some top tips to make your next trip a green one…

3 mins read
Wanderlust Travel Magazine
May/June 2021

25 Places Plotting A Greener Future

While travel’s on hold, enlightened destinations are looking towards more responsible forms of tourism. We look at those vowing to build back better…

10+ mins read
Wanderlust Travel Magazine
May/June 2021

Luang Prabang's 7 Best Sleeps

Its rich culture and elegant architecture has made this Laos city a cool classic. Here are seven sustainable stays from which to enjoy it

4 mins read
Wanderlust Travel Magazine
May/June 2021

Taste The History Of Hawaii

Say Aloha to a rush of Pacific flavours. Modern-day local Hawaiian cuisine is a fabulous fusion of different cultures – but if you truly want to experience the islands’ real soul, look no further than traditional luau…

3 mins read
Wanderlust Travel Magazine
May/June 2021
RELATED STORIES

SPOTIFY CO-OWNER EK SAYS KROENKES REJECT BID TO BUY ARSENAL

Spotify co-owner Daniel Ek says a bid to buy Arsenal has been rejected by the Kroenke family which owns the London-based Premier League club.

1 min read
Techlife News
Techlife News #499

WATCHING THE WATCHERS

Let’s stop freaking out over kids’ pandemic screen time

4 mins read
Mother Jones
May/June 2021

BIDEN TELLS EXECS US NEEDS TO INVEST, LEAD IN COMPUTER CHIPS

President Joe Biden used a virtual meeting with corporate leaders about a global shortage of semiconductors to push for his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, telling them that the U.S. should be the world’s computer chip leader.

4 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #494

Branching Out

Daniel Jankins Academy Teacher Incorporates Hands-On Lessons in Agriculture, Sustainability and More

3 mins read
Central Florida Ag News
March 2021

An exclusive interview with DANIEL KORDAN

Daniel Kordan is one of the most influential adventure and landscape photographers worldwide.

9 mins read
Lens Magazine
February 2021

Haim Sweet Haim

“It’s just me, with no bells and whistles,” explains Este Haim of the bass behind her trio’s acclaimed music

7 mins read
Bass Player
March 2021

MILAN DESIGNERS HIT RESET BUTTON DURING DIGITAL FASHION WEEK

Fashion is off the hamster wheel, taking a deep breath that is allowing some freshness to seep into the once relentless cycle.

4 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #488

Put Your Self-Compassion on First, Then Assist Others

I am a good, kind, and ethical person, but I feel that I sometimes lack compassion. Maybe that’s because in the family I grew up in we were not taught to think of others. I would like to know how I can become a more compassionate person.

4 mins read
Spirituality & Health
Jan/Feb 2021

Striking Simplicity

Patek Philippe’s new 6301P features not only a grande sonnerie with a petite sonnerie and a minute repeater, it also comes with a patented “seconde morte” jumping subsidiary seconds.

7 mins read
Watch Time
February 2021

ONE-HIT WONDERS “STAY”

MAURICE WILLIAMS’ “STAY” celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2020, his sole Top 40 hit as a singer, which reached No. 1 in November 1960 by Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs. In the prior decade, Maurice had been a member of the R&B group The Gladiolas, with the doo-wop song “Little Darlin’,” which was successfully covered by the Canadian doo-wop quartet The Diamonds, reaching No. 2.

3 mins read
GOLDMINE
March 2021