In the Arctic and Antarctica, 'seeing the light' is a core part of the experience

A stiff sub-zero wind shears across the bow, lit by the midsummer twilight that lingers over the Antarctic Peninsula. Inside, in the warmth of the observation deck and bar, we're in raptures after a pod of humpback whales chances to feed, of all places in this vast Southern Ocean, beside us. The drinks flow as the view slowly dims of snow-caked crags and blue-white glaciers swirling between them.

Quite suddenly, the ship turns in the ice-strewn swell and up ahead is our first Antarctic sunset. It's little more than a rosy glow wedged into a gap on the horizon between thrusting peaks – black sea below and steel-grey cloud above: very subtle. We rush to the bow with our phones, oblivious to the chill. A chunky petrel, flying beside us in the ship's lee, takes fright and swoops off like a stunt plane breaking formation. Then someone notices another sunset behind us. There's a collective gasp and we rush towards it. 

Most probably this phantom second sunset is simply a reflection of the first on the near-vertical screens of ice around us. But it says something about the other-worldliness of Antarctica – separated from the tendril of Tierra del Fuego by 1000 kilometres and the world's most feared sea crossing – that we were prepared to countenance the existence of a solar doppelganger. 

On this midsummer journey to the Antarctic Peninsula on the Ponant line's Le Soléal, we're travelling around the latitude of 64 degrees south. A few hundred kilometres further towards the pole, we'd enjoy 24 hours of midsummer sunlight. But even at this latitude the January sun doesn't so much set as siesta, and after it dips out of view for an hour or two, the sky never really darkens. All night long a pale glow betrays the sun's presence, out of sight but never out of mind. 

There's no sight without light and to see is to know. The Greeks, who understood this, gave the gift of reason to Apollo the sun god. Light has its place in the Christian tradition, too, in which the "light of the Lord" is the conduit for a different kind of knowledge: faith.

That evening in the Antarctic zone, I begin to think of light in these old, half-forgotten ways. But the urge to sleep – behind drawn curtains and a mask designed for long-haul flights printed with the words Don't You Dare – brings home another self-evident truth. Just as we are creatures of intermingled reason and imagination, we crave darkness and light in equal measure. 

My thoughts might not have taken this turn if I hadn't, a week earlier, trudged along a path bordered by hip-high snowbanks in Lapland, Finland, deep in the Arctic Circle. I was at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, four days after the sun first emerged like a newborn from its long polar night. It appeared around midday, shyly, and took a shallow path along the horizon before sliding out of sight. The soft blue glow that it left behind lingered an hour or so before the black velvet of a starless night descended as decisively as the curtain that closes a show. Soon the snow began to fall in fat pillowy flakes and the night sky went as grainy as an old TV with bad reception. The black boughs of the fir trees glittered with their mantle of frost and everything was hushed.

The Hobbit-sized entrance to my glass igloo was a little squishy; I had to crouch to enter. Turning off my reading light, I settled in beneath the stars. I'd been told this was not a great time for the Northern Lights, but in the depths of the night I was woken by an alarm, which at first greatly irritated me. I opened my eyes to find a green veil draped above me, dancing and shimmering with a mystic pulse of its own. There were voices outside – amateur photographers, setting up their tripods to capture the celestial event – but I was content to lie back, hands behind my head, and gaze at one of the great wonders of the remote regions with a sense of my own profound insignificance in the grand scheme of things.

The globe's tilted solar rotation renders the poles as black-white mirror images: the North Pole is cast into obdurate shadow as its polar opposite, in the true sense of the word, blazes in unceasing light. But the polar chiaroscuro is not the only contrast between the Earth's extremities. Near my igloo, the Indigenous Sami people still herd reindeer; the Sami have no Antarctic equivalent.

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The ancients named the Arctic from the Greek word Arktos, or "bear", in honour of Ursa Major, the constellation known as the Great Bear that presides over the northern polar firmament. The Arctic remains the habitat of the polar bear, while Antarctica harbours the penguin. If I met a penguin in a blind alley, it would look me up and down and waddle past. Polar bear, different story. When God is said to have decreed, "Let there be light", He forgot to add a caveat: "Let the poles be denied light for a few months each year, and in compensation enjoy endless light six months later."

On the night of my first Antarctic sunset – an image in reverse of that fleeting Arctic sunrise – I had journeyed along the meridian. I might have lost my bearings completely if the Antarctic summer didn't feel, in so many respects, like a winter. The days were long and lingering but the snow, in my bipolar state of mind, had become a constant; a white consort. Weeks later, my dreams were still lit by the full glare of an Antarctic summer and the blue glow of the Arctic winter; by the same sun – yes, only one – in different moods.

The writer travelled as a guest of Collette and Ponant, see gocollette.com

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