The Magic of the White Continent with Mike Unwin

Mike is a UK-based, award-winning freelancer travel writer and wildlife photographer. Mike visited Antarctica in February 2020 on board Scenic Eclipse. Below, he recounts five of the most memorable experiences from his ultra-luxury discovery expedition voyage.

Navigating south of the Antarctic Circle for the first time

Crossing 66° 33’ 39 south is unusual – most cruises generally stick to the northern reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula, above the fabled line of latitude. But, on this cruise, a perfect weather window allowed our leader to flip the itinerary and head straight for Hanusse Bay – a point further south than many of the Scenic Eclipse crew had ever ventured before. The change in plan owed much to the capabilities of Scenic Eclipse – a Polar Class 6 vessel – the closest a luxury ship gets to an icebreaker.

Getting up close and personal with the harsh landscape

An awed hush descended as we nudged slowly among the bergs. We had left the cosseted, hi-tech bubble of our ship behind and the extreme nature of our surroundings was suddenly real. During our first landing at Detaille Island, we poked around an abandoned British research station known as Base W. The quarters, little more than sheds, have remained untouched since their abandonment in 1959: sleeping bags unzipped and HP sauce bottle on the table. At Enterprise Island, the rusting wreck of a whaling ship, abandoned in 1915 after it caught fire, is now claimed by noisy Antarctic terns.

Off Prospect Point, I went kayaking, joining a small party exploring the mirror-calm waters by paddle power. Seals raised whiskered muzzles and penguins broke off their preening as we slipped past. Around us, the floating ice crackled like the clicking of tiny fingers, while periodic muffled thunder revealed the calving of some unseen glacier. In Fournier Bay, a zodiac cruise through the floating brash ice took us close to feeding humpback whales, which waved signature tail flukes against their wedding-cake backdrop.

Witnessing orcas hunting a fin whale with her calf

“We appear to be witnessing a major predation event,” announced expedition leader Danny Johnstone, sending guests flocking to the deck. At first, we spied the high dorsal fins of the orcas, ploughing through the swell like bucking broncos. Then we noticed the towering blows of an enormous fin whale and her calf, fleeing for their lives. Our captain tried to keep track as the spouts and splashes change direction. Eventually, with the action heading for the horizon, we were obliged to resume our course – to discover what more this magic land had in store for us.

Soaring above the magical landscapes

From the air, we watched family groups of humpback whales logging at the surface, white pectoral fins swept back in repose, while the glacier loomed beneath in all its massive, fissured glory. The scale was hard to process: below our dragonfly gaze, Scenic Eclipse was a mere pond-skater, the White Continent extending beyond the limit of our imaginations.

Beneath the surface with Scenic Neptune

After taking to the skies, the next day I watched the same ocean frothing over my head as Scenic Eclipse’s submarine began its descent. Alongside five other guests, we peered through convex picture windows as the sunlit surface receded and our spotlights illuminated the darkening depths. Soon we were suspended at 430ft down, above a seabed festooned with corals, sponges sun-stars. An ice fish squatted in our lights. “Just think,” said submarine pilot Anthony Gilbert, “we’re the only humans ever to have seen this little patch of the planet”.

These are excerpts from Mike Unwin’s article ‘We’re the only humans ever to have seen this little patch of the planet, here in Antarctica’ for the Daily Telegraph. You can read the full article here


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