From its icy peaks to its extraordinary wildlife, Antarctica is an adventure that remains with you for a lifetime. The West Australian’s Stephen Scourfield accompanied an RAC Travel group to this breathtaking wilderness.

It is late in the Antarctic season, and for us that is good. We are here not only to touch the seventh continent, and briefly experience the great white land, but particularly to see marine mammals.

Expedition cruising from Ushuaia, on the island of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of Argentina in South America, begins in November and runs through to March, when penguin chicks have fledged, seals are feeding themselves full to fatten up for the coming winter, and whales are feeding on a big krill feast, ready to migrate north and breed.

While there is pretty much constant light in the middle of the summer, by the time our RAC Travel group boards Akademik Sergey Vavilov in March, for One Ocean Expedition’s last Antarctic voyage of the season, there is a changing palette of light as the day progresses from dawn to dusk and dark night.

…for One Ocean Expedition’s last Antarctic voyage of the season, there is a changing palette of light as the day progresses from dawn to dusk and dark night.

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A photographic journey

It suits us well, as many of the 21 travellers accompanied by tour leader, Karen Plummer, and I, are keen photographers.

And we had begun our photographic journey together some weeks before departing, at a get together in the RAC offi‰ces in West Perth, to run through photographic basics and to talk about gear.

In Buenos Aires, as we prepared to leave for Ushuaia, we ran through the photographic basics again, ready for all those penguins and whales, and the complicated exposures that come with “one hundred shades of white”.

Heading south, the 1000km of the Drake Passage is kind to us, with a low following swell, and low following wandering albatrosses.

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The onboard experience

The Vavilov is a Russian polar exploration ship built in Iceland — a serious ice-strengthened ship ideal for such expeditions. With an advanced stabilisation system and thrusters that help it in fine manouevres, it is run by an experienced Russian maritime crew under Captain Valeriy Beluga, and the One Ocean expedition team led by Boris Wise, who equally has a wealth of extreme travel experience, particularly in Alaska.

Among the expedition crew are specialist naturalists like the ever-enthusiastic Brian Keating, and nature photographer David Jenkins, a whale specialist.

And just as the ship is strong, it is comfortable. Deck seven is a bit of a treat, for, on one hand, there is a bar and lounge with big windows and a high view over the passing ocean and scenery, and, on the other, the bridge, which is mostly open for guests to visit and spend time.

Cabins are comfortable and of varied configurations, from triple-share cabins with shared bathrooms to doubles with their own facilities. But everyone settles into their own space, and are well looked after by the English speaking crew, who are mostly from Russia and former Soviet countries.

Meals choices are from a menu, and the fare is fresh and varied. The enormous lettuce bowl becomes quite a talking point. There is always fresh salad available alongside the main courses, and this bowl is always full of fresh green leaves, right up to the end of the 11-day voyage.

All of this, of course, is what One Ocean Expeditions does for everyone, and they do it well — from the quality sailing suit and boots we are all lent, to the helpful briefings to the lectures in the presentation room on everything from the importance of krill to early expeditions for which Antarctica is famous.

And the RAC Travel group is also invited to private sessions, in which we work specifically on photography and talk about writing travel stories. We set times when we will meet for discussions (much to the intrigue of some other guests on board).

These discussions add other aspects to the RAC Travel trip that other guests don’t get. What’s more, during our few days in Buenos Aires before flying south to Ushuaia, we had quickly become friends and an extended family of sorts, and these sessions give us moments to come together as a group, while at other times we might enjoy the wider community of the ship.

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Intimate animal encounters

Photographer David Jenkins also organises for the keenest of our photographers to be on a separate Zodiac inflatable dinghy with him and I, for more photographically focused sessions.

Of course, for all the lectures and meals and comforts of the ship, that’s what we are here for — to pull on layer upon layer of clothing, and get off™ the Vavilov, and experience Antarctica.

And it is these expeditions that are most precious. In Mikkelsen Harbour, we land to spend time at a Gentoo penguin colony. In Wilhelmina Bay, we cruise in the Zodiacs through the floating ice (like driving through a big, swelly cocktail) and have an extraordinary hour with five whales, which keep circling to come back and see us — them coming to us, in an extraordinary moment. In Paradise Bay, we land at Argentina’s Almirante Brown Antarctic Base, and climb the snowy hill behind to overlook a landscape white with snow and grey with ocean. And then we cruise in the Zodiacs through brash ice and watch a leopard seal swim like a torpedo, and crabeater seals lying around on small icebergs. At Hannah Point, we walk carefully through a penguin colony to watch elephant seals lying in a big wallow.

Hannah Point is on Livingstone Island, in the South Shetland Islands, scattered north-west of the Antarctic Peninsula. We are on our way home. There is big weather out in the Drake Passage, and Captain Beluga skilfully spends the night in the lee of the islands, working his way north, before ducking out and charging back across the Drake.

And on the last night on board the Vavilov, the RAC Travel group meets for our last farewell to the great white land.

It’s over but, well, it’s not quite over. For soon after we are back in WA, emails start to pass between the “Vavilovians”, keen to keep these new friendships alive. And within us all, there are the vivid memories of the trip of a lifetime. And in that way, it will never be over.

We cruise in the Zodiacs through the floating ice (like driving through a big, swelly cocktail) and have an extraordinary hour with five whales.

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Where is it?

Antarctica separated from Australia 30 million years ago and is located over the South Geographic Pole. While Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ocean, the Arctic is frozen ocean surrounded by continents.

Best time to go

The Antarctic season runs from late October until March. While it’s hard to generalise, early season is pristine, mid-season has penguin chicks and late season is best for whale-watching. One Ocean Expeditions offers ‘Camping on the Ice’ during prime summer months for thrill seekers. It also has specialist programs including sea kayaking, ski touring, snowshoeing, hiking and photography.

Antarctic essentials

You need to be mobile enough to get in and out of Zodiacs for shore landings. Once ashore you can be as active or sedentary as you wish. Buy evacuation insurance – a part of most travel
insurance policies. Always take your own supply of essential medications. Getting to Antarctica means crossing the famous Drake Passage. If you’re prone to sea-sickness discuss with your GP before departing. One Ocean crew will assist on board as well. We also recommend brushing up on some polar explorer history from Ernest Shackelton to Douglas Mawson and Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

What to take

Waterproof clothing – jacket, pants and boots – is provided on many ships so you may only need to bring good, warm waterproof gloves. Take two types of gloves: a skintight pair and thicker gloves you can pull on and o while taking photos so your hands don’t freeze. The temperature is about the same as an Australian ski resort, so make sure you have an insulating top layer of leece or wool, thermal underwear and a warm hat and sunglasses for the many hours of daylight. A watertight bag or backpack will keep cameras dry. Take extra memory cards or a back-up drive for photographs. A back-up camera can be reassuring in the harsh Antarctic conditions. A keen sense of adventure is a must!

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Book your place

RAC Travel and Cruise is offering the discerning adventurer or photographer the opportunity to discover this fabled continent on a 10-night Antarctica Peninsular cruise as part of a 19-day Antarctica Peninsula and Best of Buenos Aires guided holiday departing 10 February 2017. Call our Antarctica experts today on 1300 655 898.