By the time we meet Le Boreal's captain and expedition leader for our first briefing, the calm waters of the Beagle Channel are a distant memory. We are sailing across the Drake Passage, the wind is forecast to hit 60 knots and the gist of the briefing is to expect the unexpected.
"We take time to see as much as possible, and stop meals or lectures to announce wildlife sightings or a spectacular sunrise," says Captain Marchesseau. "Chocolate mousse or killer whales? It's your choice."
He outlines the plan for our Antarctic voyage; we are going to cross the Antarctic Circle and head as far south as possible into Marguerite Bay. Conditions to the north are "not so good" and the Weddell Sea is already inaccessible because of the ice.
Expedition leader Louis Justin gives a succinct explanation about the IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) and why its rules are so vital for protecting Antarctica's wild and fragile environment. He also explains that the animals we will see are in their moulting season, which makes them hungry, itchy and grumpy because they are confined to land until their feathers or fur are ocean-ready again.
Before we leave the lecture theatre to collect our parkas and boots and decontaminate anything we will wear or carry that will come into contact with the land, Captain Marchesseau stresses the importance of attending daily briefings. "My best advice is to listen to all announcements and put the daily program into the bin!"
At the glamorous welcome reception that evening, the officers stride up to the stage accompanied by their signature tunes. Ship's doctor Celine Pelzer's is Staying Alive, chief engineer Emmanuel Paro's is Mission Impossible and the captain's is the theme song from Pirates of the Caribbean. This is because he was awarded the Legion of Honour for his role in the 2008 hijacking of Le Ponant by Somali pirates – and also because he has a great sense of humour.
We head off for a decadent gala dinner in La Licorne restaurant bearing more captainly words of wisdom in mind: "Our home is definitely on the move. Remember, Veuve is the French cure for mal de mer."
As I have never suffered from seasickness I complacently ignore the Stugeron I packed "just in case", only to regret it the following morning. And much as I love French champagne, the only cure is to lie very still for a day and eat green apples.
We cross the Antarctic Circle (66° 33' south) in the middle of the night and the 6am announcement informs us that we are in Marguerite Bay. Four officers are on iceberg watch and glacial winds are blasting off Bongrain Point at 50-plus knots. The decks are covered in ice, the sun is shining and the landscape is, quite simply, sublime.
Mountain ranges are covered in icing-sugar snow, vast crenellated icebergs are tinged with brilliant turquoise and inky blue streaks and the pewter ocean is broken by whitecaps and wild wind patterns. Sea-spray flies past our balcony window (we're on deck six) – later I am amazed to see our cabin steward, wearing her short-sleeved uniform, cleaning the outside glass. It's about 2 degrees.
When the wind has dropped Le Boreal anchors off Bongrain Point, on one of the Pourquoi Pas Islands, and we set off in Zodiacs for a wet'n'wild ride. We pass spotty Weddell seals basking on bergs and are surrounded by hundreds of Adelie penguins and fur seals as we walk along the rock-strewn shore; it is surreal. Bird expert Catherine tells us about the different types of "pingwings" we see over the following days and at one of the recaps does a brilliant impersonation of their calls.
On the journey further south into Marguerite Bay, a minke whale is spotted surfacing off the bow of the ship. Then the captain announces that we are sailing at 68° 40S – the furthest south Le Boreal, indeed any Ponant ship, has ever ventured. This thrill is compounded by a magnificent, mesmerising sunset that lingers for hours. It is the final voyage of the season, at the end of February, and it never really gets dark; the sun sets about 10pm and rises again at 4am.
Gleaming black-and-white killer whales swim past the ship as we head into The Gullet, a stunningly beautiful narrow channel between Adelaide Island and Graham Land. The ship's bow is wedged into thick sea ice and the crew lays on a champagne reception – on the ice floe – to celebrate the 68° 40S record. It's another extraordinarily surreal experience but, oh la la, the ice is freezing so fast that the Zodiacs can't transport everyone back on board. A group of revellers (mostly Australians) becomes stranded, the ship is slowly turned around and after several hours the passengers are walked back to the ship. That afternoon, the hard-working expedition team leaders pilot Zodiacs past glistening, mountainous icebergs to Longridge Head, where we set foot on the actual Antarctic Continent for the first time. We see fur, crab-eating and leopard seals – the latter regularly dine on penguins and it's disconcerting to see them so close to each other.
Gentoo and chinstrap penguins inhabit the next anchorage, in Port Charcot; nearby Petermann Island is home to a breeding colony of about 3000 pairs of gentoos. We leave Petermann late in the evening and sail (very slowly) through Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage just 560 metres wide. Spotlights sweep over surrounding icebergs – the scene is breathtakingly dramatic and, as the captain likes to say, "Dear passengers, once again the show is outside on Le Boreal today."
Next morning, in the sun-spangled waters of Wilhelmina Bay, four humpback whales are feeding. We sit spellbound for at least an hour in our Zodiacs, observing them from about 20 metres away as they flash their tails and spout stinky fountains of white mist high into the air. Naturalist Miles explains that humpbacks' lungs are about the size of a Volkswagen, they weigh up to 40 tons and propel themselves at 300 kilometres an hour from below the ocean to breach the surface.
The bi-lingual, multi-cultural expedition team members are not the only experts on Le Boreal. We meet Laurent Mayet, founder of Le Cercle Polaire, an NGO dedicated to the protection of the Arctic and Antarctica; he and fellow member Bernard Kouchner deliver an illuminating lecture about the NGO's work. Former prime minister Bob Hawke is Le Cercle Polaire's honorary president and will be joining Mayet on a Ponant Antarctic voyage this November to spread the message.
Whalers Bay on Deception Island presents yet another face of the Antarctic landscape. Rusty fuel tanks and collapsing wooden buildings are all that remains of a British scientific base that was wiped out by successive volcanic eruptions in the 1960s. Memorial crosses stand over the original graveyard site; long before that, Whalers Bay was a Norwegian whaling station. It is a solemn reminder of the unforgiving nature of this remote continent and the awe-inspiring spirit of the early pioneers and explorers. Our last stop before returning to Ushuaia is Livingston Island. Walking around Elephant Point we see great heaps of elephant seals "in wallow" – they huddle together, writhing, snoring and grunting, to get rid of their moulting fur in a mutual body-scrubbing process. Great terns are nesting on the shoreline, which is significantly less snow-covered than more southerly points – not for long, though.
The Drake Passage crossing is remarkably smooth and there is much excitement as we approach Cape Horn, an unscheduled addition to the schedule. Setting foot on the fabled headland is unfortunately not possible because recent storms have destroyed the wooden landing structure but cruising past is an incredible thrill, even for those who have seen it many times.
As Captain Marchesseau said at the start of the voyage, it's all about expecting the unexpected.
Air New Zealand flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and the Gold Coast to Buenos Aires. Phone 13 24 76, see airnewzealand.com.au
Between November 2017 and March 2018, Ponant will have three ships sailing in Antarctica – Le Boreal, Le Lyrial, and Le Soleal. Domestic flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia are included in most fares. Fares for the 11-night Emblematic Antarctica voyage start from $11,752. See au.ponant.com
Sally Macmillan travelled as a guest of Ponant.
No country owns or rules Antarctica. Under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty signed by 12 countries, the Antarctic continent is "… a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science". It's unique and complex; for a full explanation, see antarctica.gov.au/law-and-treaty.
Although temperatures have been recorded at minus 89.2 degrees, many studies show that the Antarctic peninsula is experiencing warming faster than the rest of the world. It has been estimated that if all its ice melted, global ocean levels would rise 60 to 65 metres.
BIG AND DRY
The world's southernmost continent is its fifth-largest; at 14 million square kilometres it's twice the size of Australia, surrounded by the Southern Ocean. It is also technically a desert; some areas receive less than 75mm of rain, which is almost as dry as the Sahara Desert.
Antarctica has a summer and winter, and is totally light and totally dark around the summer and winter solstices. Average monthly temperatures range from 1 degree to minus 15 degrees and cruises operate in summer, between November and March.
NO PERMANENT RESIDENTS
About 4000-5000 people stay on scientific bases in summer, 1000 in winter and 30,000-40,000 tourists visit in summer. Antarctica has never had a native population.