It's one thing to look at a remote place on the map, and quite another to experience it in three dimensions, with sound effects, rich smells, and a windchill factor. In this case, close to a raucous colony of king penguins, on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.
The site reeks of guano. A chorus of trilling and trumpeting fills the air: thousands of penguins huddle together like delegates at a vast convention on coffee break. The trouble is, they have no name tags. A parent returning from a fishing foray is faced with hundreds of hungry chicks, all with exactly the same fluffy brown coat, standing in crèches. But each chirp of a chick is unique. A slapstick chase ensues as ravenous chicks demand the parent regurgitate food from its bill and the adult sorts out the imposters with vocalizing.
There is something profoundly comic about king penguins. The way they walk upright, their proud bearing and puffy white chests, their silvery coats, their bright orange ear-muffs. A trumpeting male struts his stuff before a female, performing a head-swaggering courtship walk. A squabble breaks out between rival suitors in one sector, and three penguins duke it out, battling each other with flippers and bills. And then, panic in the ranks as a bird swoops in low overhead, causing shrill alarms to go off. The pirate is a skua, a gull-like predator fond of poaching penguin eggs or scrawny chicks.
This penguin drama plays out just metres away from us. We are eyeball to eyeball with wild penguins that have no instinctive fear of terrestrial predators. In fact, curious chicks will waddle over to inspect camera gear or peck at your boots. It's hard to put words to the thrill of this primeval encounter: it's biblical, the dawn of creation, Eden with icicles.
The king penguin was first described for science in 1775 by naturalists aboard the Resolution, Captain Cook's vessel. Previously, it was thought to be a fish with feathers, then it was declared to be a bird without wings.
South Georgia was claimed for England by Captain Cook in the course of a mission to determine if a great southern continent existed. Cook circumnavigated Antarctica in an incredible three-year odyssey. He never sighted the continent, but concluded that it must be south of 60 degrees latitude. He surmised it would be frozen land and useless to England. He was right on the first score, but wrong on the second. Within a decade of the news of his discoveries, sealers descended on South Georgia. Over the next 40 years, they decimated the fur seal population, selling the pelts for a handsome profit in China. Searching further south, sealers were almost certainly the first to set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula, in 1821.
Once the exclusive domain of explorers and scientists, the white continent now hosts a new breed of adventurer, voyagers armed with binoculars and rubber boots. Access to Antarctica dramatically changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, the cash-strapped Russians hit on the ingenious idea of chartering out polar research vessels to Western operators as expedition cruise ships. Our vessel, RV Akademik Ioffe, belongs to the National Academy of Sciences. Built in Finland, with an ice-strengthened hull, it has conducted oceanographic research at both poles. The ship, complete with Russian crew, is chartered by Toronto-based Marine Expeditions, the world's leading cruise ship operator to Antarctica. While this vessel has none of the dining-room frills of a conventional cruise ship, the food is superb, with gourmet dishes whipped up by a Canadian chef.
In a sense, the ship is still in research mode because we're definitely on a learning curve. On board is a lecture staff, naturalist, glaciologist and polar expert. Days at sea are filled with lectures and videos about wildlife, icebergs and sea ice, polar exploration. Voyagers aboard have liberal access to the bridge, where sightings include the odd fin whale or hourglass dolphin, and scores of sea birds, among them, the majestic wandering albatross, thought to be the soul of a drowned sailor.