Jamie Laffery sails the treacherous waters of the Weddell Sea along a route attempted by an ill-fated 1902 expedition.
In Antarctica, your journey is where the continent allows
It was a question that barely needed asking, and one that was met with fervent affirmation when it came: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have received a radio communication saying that favourable ice conditions in the Weddell Sea, on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, mean that we can try to reach Snow Hill Island. It's home to the only emperor penguin colony on this side of the continent, what do you think?"
When the clapping and clinking of glasses subsides, our expectations can hardly be tempered by the crew's caveats: the famous penguins may have already left the island; the ice conditions might change; and this is only the second time in the history of the Antarctic Dream'ssoutherly voyages that an attempt is possible. The first one failed.
To the 56 passengers on board this converted Chilean naval vessel, none of that matters: if there is even a slight chance of seeing the emperors then we are willing to take it. That they were never on our original itinerary - a classic route down the west of the peninsula - makes it all the more appealing.
We are now roughly following the Swedish scientist-explorer Otto Nordenskiold's fraught 1902 expedition through the perilous Weddell Sea to Snow Hill. "The weather had changed as if by magic; it seemed as though the Antarctic world repented of the inhospitable way in which it had received us the previous day, or maybe it merely wished to entice us deeper into its interior in order the more surely to annihilate us," wrote the Swede at the time, though he could easily have been writing on board our own ship today. "At all events, we pressed onward, seized by that almost feverish eagerness which can only be felt by an explorer who stands upon the threshold of the great unknown."
Our first stop on the continent proper is at the Esperanza research station. This is in Hope Bay, so named because hope was the only commodity available to three crew members stranded here when Nordenskiold's expedition turned to disaster. Today it is home to a very modern Argentinean research base.
While the Swedes survived the long nights of winter by building a stone shack and roasting penguins, the 10 families who are semi-permanent residents today have a school, a small church and, improbably, a tiny casino. In 1978 Emilio Palma was born here - the first human ever to enter the world on the white continent. His birth, coupled with this continued habitation, was intended to bolster Argentina's claim to its slice of Antarctica, part of which overlaps with territory claimed by Chile. The reason why they'd want it is complicated, but the white continent was once very green, so it's not unreasonable to believe that there is an ocean of oil beneath its protected, frozen crust.
Whatever their true motivation, the residents of the Esperanza station enjoy a relatively comfortable life, especially during the austral summer when it never gets dark and the average temperatures nudge just above freezing.
Conversely, in 1903, when Nordenskiold was finally reunited with his men who had wintered in Hope Bay, he thought he had discovered an aboriginal people living in Antarctica. Trudging through the white vastness several kilometres south of this spot, the captain saw three figures on the horizon and believed that the black-haired, dark-skinned men were of a native tribe.
When they offered a relieved "hello" in Swedish, though, the greatest scientific discovery of the age was discarded. Instead, by pure chance, he had stumbled across his countrymen, who had been staggering south in rags, making a final, desperate attempt to find their party. The spot of this miraculous rendezvous is still known as the Cape of Well Met, and is one several important sites in one of the most unlikely, and least-told accounts of Antarctic survival.
However, it's a fantastic tale in a place where the extraordinary is the norm; Antarctica is full of statistics that are almost incomprehensible. It's no surprise that it's the coldest continent but it's also the driest, windiest and highest. The average altitude is higher than Asia despite the Himalayas and higher than neighbouring South America with the Andes.
Meanwhile, the sea is laden with colossal tabular icebergs that are much larger than the one that sunk The Titanic. Many of them would dwarf The Titanic itself - in early 2010 a chunk of ice larger than Rhode Island snapped away from the Ronne-Filchner ice shelf. It eventually broke up and floated into the Weddell Sea, where the remnants often stand 40m above the water and their lengths are typically measured in kilometres.
Sadly, while the warming sea has made our journey possible, it's also viewed by some of the crew as a further sign that the global climate is changing, and that this part of Antarctica is suffering the most dramatic changes first.
As icebergs loom over our tiny ship, bobbing along on the clearest sea in the world, they look like floating shopping malls. The white down here - the whitest white imaginable - is consistently brilliant, but the blues are otherworldly. Looking at the guts of these great icebergs, just below the surface of the sea reveals shades of blue no one can remember seeing before. It confuses our brains, as does dusk/dawn when sunset and sunrise roll into a single, great inferno of peach and gold that lasts for five hours.
Sadly, all of that has given way by the next day when we reach Paulet Island, home of the second shelter built by the men of Nordenskiold's troubled party. The captain and five crew were successfully dropped off on Snow Hill Island, farther south, but it was as his ship, The Antarctic, tried to return to the Weddell Sea the following spring that it was caught by the ice. While three of the men journeyed to Hope Bay to try and raise the alarm, the rest of the Antarctic's crew decided to see out winter here on Paulet.
The ancestors of the 200,000 Adélie penguins and the odd Weddell seal provided the sustenance for their survival, and after more than nine months here, the party lost only one man, Ole Wennersgaard, to a heart attack. Amazingly, no one went hungry, nor died of exposure.
Our experience could hardly be more comfortable. Fat from a three-course lunch, we venture onto a rocky beach to make our way through the teeming penguins. "They look like mad men, staring at you intently, trying to warn you about some mortal danger," says the boat's resident ornithologist Rodrigo Tapia of the blue flashes behind the little birds' eyes.
These days, while people don't regard the Adélies as a potential meal, the patrolling leopard seals think of little else, especially when the new chicks take to the sea for the first time. Before that, the penguins have to fend off swooping attacks from the wicked skuas that constantly seek their eggs.
Paulet is a noisy, chaotic place, quite at odds with so much of the silent continent. For most of my time in Antarctica, it's a picture of serenity, and never more so than when I find myself standing on the bow of the ship, completely alone. As we continue south, floating chunks of soft ice are easily bunted and crushed by the Antarctic Dream, which isn't actually an icebreaker, but does have a reinforced hull. Watching them shatter below I mutter: "The Titanic says 'hello'."
Ahead, Snow Hill sits on the horizon. Nordenskiold and his men were forced to spend two winters there when their ship failed to return. Everyone survived there, too, and despite everything they endured, the trip was viewed as a success: spending so long in Antarctica allowed them to compare year-on-year data, and to make dozens of new geological discoveries. As the Swede's mission was only ever scientific, he would look back on the whole thing with satisfaction, even though the Swedish government effectively bankrupted him by sending him the bill for his eventual rescue.
More than 100 years later, Antarctica still plays its own game. Though our target destination - and quite possibly a rookery of emperor penguins - is within sight, the Weddell Sea's ice starts to get thicker. Nudging small icebergs into open water is one thing; pushing them into each other produces a different kind of impact altogether.
At around 2am, standing alone in the golden glow of dawn (or possibly dusk) I am the first to be heartbroken when Captain Ernesto Barria orders the ship to turn around.
I turn to face the bridge, open handed, to say: "What gives?" But already I know there's no way we can continue. As recently as 2007 the MS Explorer, a dedicated Antarctic tourist ship, was sunk through a combination of hard ice and an inexperienced captain's poor decision-making. (At least everyone on board was rescued.)
When the rest of the boat is informed of this development, even that knowledge offers scant consolation. However, the following morning, I stumble across this quote from the great Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, during one of his nearly-but-not-quite expeditions to the South Pole in 1909. It sums-up our own captain's dilemma perfectly: "I must look at the matter sensibly and consider the lives of those who are with me. I feel that if we go on too far it will be impossible to get back ... and then all results will be lost to the world ... Man can only do his best, and we have arrayed against the strongest forces of nature."
As the last few days of the expedition play out we have close encounters with humpback whales, are mobbed by thousands of gentoo penguins, and are consistently undone by the beauty of the world's least populated continent. Before long, our disappointment starts to fade. In a way, it seems appropriate that, despite all our modern advantages, it was ultimately Antarctica that dictated our journey, just as it did for Nordenskiold and his men.
If you go
The flight Return flights with Continental Airlines (www.continental.com) from Dubai to Ushuaia cost from Dh12,350, including taxes.
The voyage An 11-day cruise on the Antarctic Dream (www.antarcticdream.com; 00 56 2481 6910) costs from £5,400 (Dh30,627) per person. All cruises leave from Ushuaia in the Argentinian part of Tierra Del Fuego. This season's final expedition departs on March 6; cruises resume in November.