But why on earth would anyone want to go to Antarctica? To a region known for its tempestuous seas and forbidding climate? Most of us have come to witness the last pristine wilderness on the planet. With its rich nutrients, Antarctica's waters support huge numbers of sea birds, penguins and more than half the world's seals.
Otherwise, the 50-odd voyagers from the United States, Canada and Europe have mixed agendas. There are a few birders scanning the skies for polar species. There are penguin lovers who collect anything to do with penguins (corny though it may sound, on some Antarctic trips, passengers step ashore in tuxedos to pose for photos next to penguins). There are Seventh Continent Clubbers chasing the elusive Antarctica trophy. And a number of voyagers aboard have been inspired from an early age by the heroic accounts of explorers tackling the last frontier.
On our first stop in South Georgia, at Grytviken, we paid our respects to Antarctica's most charismatic explorer, Ernest Shackleton. His grave is marked by a tall granite post. The Shackleton saga about the arduous rescue of his men after their ship was crushed in pack ice is an Antarctic classic. Shackleton memorabilia is on display at Grytviken's small whaling museum, which also doubles as the post office for South Georgia.
Apart from a garrison of 20 British soldiers, the only significant population here is stray fur seals and elephant seals. Grytviken is a modern ruin of sorts littered with derelict machinery, rusted oil tanks, submerged boats. It's an eerie ghost whaling station, a stark testament to monumental greed and folly. It was set up by a Norwegian captain in 1904 and after processing some 54,000 whales, the station closed down in 1965 because there were simply no more whales left to hunt.
The earliest indications that we are heading really far south are high seas and icebergs. They float casually by, great castles of ice sculpted into bizarre shapes by wind and water. Occasionally they carry hitchhiking penguins or seals. On the bridge, as the captain steers a course through the bergs, I try to imagine what it was like for early explorers entering this forbidding realm. Captain Cook, at the helm of a 34-metre-long barque, had no engine, no radar and no GPS, only ice-laden sails to manoeuvre. Cook knew what icebergs were, because of his sojourns in Arctic waters. But these islands of ice were much bigger; heading off the edge of the known map, surrounded by towering bergs and sea ice, must have been truly terrifying.
Captain Cook didn't have the luxury of chocolate donuts at afternoon tea time. But in my mind, Antarctica is still Terra Australis Incognita, the great unknown southland -- a featureless white blob. That is, until we get into a Zodiac and step ashore and then the geography sticks. Our first Antarctic landfall is rocky Paulet Island, where thousands of Adélie penguins nest. Adélies look just like the tuxedoed penguins in Chilly Willy cartoons. Strewn along the pebbly shores of Paulet are massive chunks of glistening sea ice, which the Adélies use to cool off on. Weddell seals use them as cool couches where they bask in the sun. Lazy as they appear, these seals can dive an astonishing 300 metres or more down into complete darkness in pursuit of squid or cod. Squadrons of imperial cormorants wing overhead -- this tiny island is buzzing with activity.
That afternoon, our Zodiacs navigate a surreal maze of sea ice to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. This finger-like tip has been dubbed the banana belt of the continent, and it is indeed a balmy 0 C, because of calm conditions. This is the home of the orange-billed gentoos, a penguin species with a great deal of character. Gentoos make nests out of pebbles and they spend endless amounts of time searching for the perfect stone. When a pebble is presented to the nesting mate, a gentoo is given a congratulatory hiss and promptly dispatched on the quest again. Pebble pilfering from the nests of neighbours is rampant, and leads to furious, if somewhat comic, squabbles.