I'm standing in the frigid open-air of the balcony of my suite aboard Scenic Eclipse, gazing out in wonder at a crystalline calm sea framed by a scattered skyline of icebergs of varying height and size, each clearly far better constructed and more imaginatively-designed than any modern-day block of high-rise flats.
This sparkling panorama, a pristine pageant of ice, sea and sky, presents itself shortly after the ship is spat out from the tempest that is one of the world's most turbulent ocean crossings, and arrives in Antarctica, simultaneously the highest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on earth.
Then, suddenly, below my balcony not more than two or three metres down, there's a disturbance on the surface of the water. An audible splish and splash follows a tell-tale whoosh.
Yes, a whale, not in the distance or on either side of the ship but immediately under me, has breached, revealing all of its immense body and completing its performance with a spirited flourish by spouting moist air from its blowhole.
This impromptu display continues as the creature spins around just below the treacly surface with all the uninhibited playfulness of a week-old puppy.
I'm no marine biologist but my guess is it's an Antarctic minke whale (okay, I Googled it). Somehow I manage to scramble back inside my stateroom to grab my phone, fumbling with excitement all the way, and head back to take a shaky video of my unexpected frolicking visitor. Talk about room service.
With a typical weight of 5600 kilograms, I learn that this species of whale is nonetheless the second smallest member of the rorqual group of whales. What a way to mark my arrival at the Antarctic Peninsula aboard a 13-day cruise on the Australian-owned and operated Scenic Eclipse, billed as "the world's first discovery yacht".
And this is certainly the closest discovery I've ever made of a whale in its natural environment aboard any vessel.
The "discovery yacht" tag is not at all hyperbolic as Scenic Eclipse has all the whizz-bang gadgets, including two Airbus helicopters and a submarine (yes, a submarine), and is the type of vessel you can imagine James Bond boarding (Licence to Krill?) should he ever have time for rest and recuperation.
In fact Scenic Eclipse's design and elaborate toys had rendered the other vessels berthed back at Ushuaia as dowagers, and I was thrilled to be one of only 200 or so passengers aboard - with a one-to-one staff to guest ratio - in the days before the worldwide pandemic hit.
Now, after a global shock that would have even tested 007, Scenic Eclipse is set to resume its ultra-luxury expedition voyages to Antarctica after an absence of almost two years due to the pandemic.
Somehow, after what the world has endured and to some extent inflicted on itself during this time, a voyage to this vast white desert, so far removed from the planet's troubles and yet so at risk from them, is all the more profoundly affecting and life-affirming.
DAYS ONE TO THREE: BUENOS AIRES, USHUAIA, ARGENTINA TO DALLMANN BAY, ANTARCTICA
Scenic Eclipse anchored in the cove at Damoy Point on the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Anthony Dennis
Traversing the notorious Drake Passage is the price everyone has to pay to experience one of the most existential places available to a still elite cohort of travellers.
And it immediately lives up to its reputation as passengers and crew try to come to terms with a calamity that struck our vessel as we cross this tempestuous body of water between South America's Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands.
Some time in the middle of a rough night, in a real-life case of being shaken and stirred, precious champagne bottles and glasses, and much of the contents of an impressive high-rise back-lit shelf of the on board whisky bar, are shattered, leading to the abandonment of a scheduled mid-crossing tasting session for passengers.
Such a waste, but there is no shortage of fortifying drops aboard to keep everyone satisfied for the voyage's duration. And to be clear it takes quite the force of nature to disturb anything on the sleek ship, which is fitted with more stabilisers than you could poke an ice pick at, and while I may feel slightly queasy at times, I'm not hit by seasickness during the entire cruise.
The fact is if you're going to do Antarctica in style and in lashings of comfort, Scenic Eclipse, one of the most technologically advanced vessels at sea, is your ship. It is designed for safe navigation through "sensitive marine environments" such as Antarctica with an ice class rating of Polar Class 6, the highest of any luxury vessel, and is fitted with a GPS dynamic positioning system, forward bow thrusters and an electronic Azipod propulsion system. I haven't the foggiest what any of this means but I'm prepared to view all of this technical information as completely reassuring.
As we anchor in ice-strewn coves with perpetually snow-smothered peaks as Insta-busting backdrops, I feel so fortunate to be aboard I often have to pinch myself - no easy task through my special protective polar mittens with inner-lining gloves.
Even though travelogues that attempt to describe a voyage to Antarctica are not uncommon these days, the fact is only a tiny number of people ever get the chance to visit, compared with huge numbers destinations like Venice endured before the pandemic. A snapshot? Try 20-something million tourists a pre-pandemic year for "La Serenissima" and just under 74,000 Antarctica visitors in in 2019-2020, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.
But, even with the forced interval of the pandemic, numbers to Antarctica will inevitably grow, and a day of reckoning for travel to the ice continent is sure to emerge eventually.
Indeed, for all of us aboard, this voyage is a privilege of the highest order that is accompanied by an enormous responsibility. This is a fragile environment, made more so by the effects of climate change that are being wrought upon it.
Early on in the cruise, each passenger is required to attend a biosecurity session to ensure no non-native species of plant, seeds or animal are taken into this pristine white environment. On every shore excursion our multinational guides are almost fanatical - commendably so - in redirecting any passenger who even momentarily strays from the strictly designated walking path or ventures too near wildlife.
Not long before we left Ushuaia, as the first fearful drumbeats of the pandemic began to reverberate, news emerged that an Argentine Antarctic base had recorded a temperature of 18.3 degrees Celsius, surpassing the earlier record of set in 2015. Fortunately this appeared to have been an aberration, or moreover a warning, as it was characteristically cold throughout our summer interlude in Antarctica, which is, despite so much snow, ice and sea, the driest continent on the planet.
DAYS FOUR TO FIVE: MELCHIOR ISLANDS, FOURNIER BAY, MIKKELSEN HARBOUR, ANTARCTIC PENINSULA
Scenic Eclipse passengers observe penguins from a Zodiac.
The Zodiac is to an Antarctica expedition what a Jeep is to an African safari. These French-made nimble yet reliably rigid inflatables soon become a kind of second home to the ship itself for the duration of the voyage, delivering us to extraordinary locales with unfamiliar names, some littered with the remnants of the whaling era in the form of the bones of not only wooden longboats but also of the calcifying creatures themselves.
It's amazing how such an unfamiliar place as this one soon becomes familiar. Penguins, from gentoo to chinstrap; and seals, from fur to elephant, become as constant - though strictly distant - a companion as my fellow passengers, and it's not long before I can tell the difference without resorting to Google via the ship's excellent Wi-Fi.
After a few days, we slip into our heavy weatherproof clothing and boots for our twice daily excursions with the kind of ritual ease of a Japanese salaryman donning his suit for work each day.
As spectacular as each Zodiac excursion is, perhaps the most exciting incident occurs on the ship itself.
There's one unscheduled early morning wake-up call on any Antarctic cruise that no expeditioner could ever begrudge. It's the crackle of the personable Italian captain's voice over the ship's PA announcing that large and ravenous killer whales have been spotted hunting for food.
He encourages us to join him on the bridge to witness a kill. I frantically pop on layers of clothing and head to the bridge where I spot one eager passenger in his bathrobe and slippers.
It's a good thing that few of us have had breakfast as it's a bloodbath out there. The orcas, along with a variety of frenzied, opportunistic seabirds, have been feasting for some time on baby dolphins (or were they vulnerable whale calves?) the remains of which are still floating on the disturbed water's surface.
DAYS SIX TO SEVEN: NEKO HARBOUR, PARADISE BAY, PORT CHARCOT AND PETERMANN ISLAND
The Scenic Eclipse submarine.
Nothing can prepare the neophyte Antarctic expeditioner for the majesty of the white continent at ice-level, let alone entertaining the notion of ascending above it or descending below it.
Scenic Eclipse is uniquely kitted out with Airbus H130-T2 helicopters for utterly joyous joy flights as well as Scenic Neptune, a customised submarine for exploring the depths.
Descending deep below the surface aboard Scenic Neptune is akin to taking a type of aquatic elevator to the bottom floor of the ocean. As we slowly descend inside our snug glass capsule, a stark, strange world presents itself as we encounter large schools of krill. The deeper we plunge, the more scant and weird the marine life becomes. There is not much down here.
An even bigger thrill is Scenic Eclipse's chopper flight. After squeezing into a yellow and black survival suit, we're led to the flight deck and the waiting helicopter.
As soon as the chopper reaches its desired altitude, the complete, glorious and extravagant tableau of Antarctica opens up to us. And what an achingly lonely and remote world it is.
Talc-white icebergs tower atop the serene seascape as whales (don't ask me the species this time) traverse their ocean kingdom, diving above and below the surface with the collective, intermittent blowhole puffs spectacularly visible, like some fountain display on an ornamental Swiss lake.
Heading away from the sea towards the coast, we fly above and alongside ragged peaks and cliffs fringed by blue-tinged floating shards of ice, the only hint of colour amid this monochrome universe. Then we pass above an iceberg fronted by an even more blue coloured pool in which a herd of seals, from this elevation resembling sea slugs, cavort.
Before long, it's time to return to the ship, the sole man-made presence in a steely grey ocean with matching skies. I've managed to falteringly capture much of the flight on my phone, but those visuals remain faithfully recorded deep in my memory.
DAYS EIGHT TO 13: DAMOY POINT, HIDDEN BAY, DECEPTION ISLAND, HANNAH POINT, USHUAIA, BUENOS AIRES
King penguins spotted during a Scenic Eclipse excursion.
After so many days on the ice it's almost a shock to encounter the austere, exposed dark chocolate landforms of the South Shetland Islands archipelago, home to one of the safest harbours in Antarctica. It's the first time in more than a week that we've seen such little snow and ice.
In one of its last Antarctica hurrahs on this penultimate seasonal voyage, Scenic Eclipse visits Deception Island, the caldera of an active volcano which seriously damaged resident scientific stations in the 1960s. Later we land at Hannah Point, a narrow peninsula with cliff edges rising to up to 50 metres and home to enormous and vociferous colonies of gentoos and chinstraps and elephant and fur seals.
It's interesting to note that a relatively small percentage of the passengers elect to sit out the Zodiac excursions.
Soon we will plunge back into Drake's Passage, en route to Ushuaia and then to Buenos Aires. As it eventuates, this time the passage is surprisingly and blessedly forgiving. Not a dram of whisky is harmed in the crossing, as innumerable toasts are offered to what has unequivocally been, the voyage of a lifetime, minke room drop-ins and all.
ANTARCTICA BY NUMBERS
Size of Antarctica in square kilometres, Including all of its islands and ice shelves (this makes it almost twice the size of Australia. The Australian Antarctic Territory, by comparison, is 5,896,500 square kilometres or 42 per cent of Antarctica.
Average elevation in metres of Antarctica (Australia's average elevation is 330 metres).
Height in metres of Dome A, or Dome Argus, the highest point on the icecap located in Australian Antarctic Territory at 80°22′ S, 77°21′ E.
Percentage of Earth's fresh water held by the Antarctic ice sheet in 30 million cubic kilometres of ice, with not a drop to drink.
Highest recorded wind speeds in kilometres per hour recorded in Antarctica. These winds, known as katabatic winds, flow down the continent's coastal slopes under the influence of gravity.
The lowest temperature in Celsius ever recorded on Earth. It was registered at Vostok, in the Australian Antarctic Territory, in 1983.
Source: Australian Antarctic Division
FIVE MORE EXPERIENCES ABOARD SCENIC ECLIPSE
Ten different dining choices, from casual to formal, are available aboard Scenic Eclipse.
Despite there being a maximum of 200 passengers aboard there are multiple and excellent dining choices, ranging from the French-themed Lumiere restaurant to modern Asian-style dishes at Night Market @Koko's.
The 550-square metre Spa Sanctuary offers indoor and outdoor spaces from Scandinavian-inspired plunge pools, to saunas, steam rooms and relaxation areas, all complimentary for passengers. There's also a lavish yoga and pilates studio with activities that include meditation sessions.
The experts from the 16-person on-board discovery team provide regular lectures on subjects such as "Giants of the Southern Sea: which whales we might see (and why they are awesome)" and "The World of Krill" (more interesting than it may sound).
After a cold but captivating Zodiac outing, warm up in Scenic Eclipse's Observation Lounge and Library. This is the place to recline into leather seating over a book or a board game and to view the spectacular sea and landscapes through special Swarovski telescopes.
The social focus of the ship, as well as the venue for the group gathering point for daily excursions, is the stylish and capacious lounge and bar space where your every beverage whim, from champagne to coffee and wine to whisky, is satisfied and mixed with stellar views of the icy world outside.
A 13-day Antarctica cruise aboard Scenic Eclipse from Buenos Aires and back includes accommodation in spacious "all-verandah" suites, butler service, up to 10 on-board dining experiences and the services of a 16-member specialist polar discovery team and more. A complementary expedition parka and use of special polar boots are included. Fares from $18,056 a person with "super early bird" offers available, providing first choice of suite and preferred departure date. Scenic's "super early bird offers" can save you up to 20 per cent on selected suites and 2022 departure dates.
Scenic has taken measures to ensure the wellbeing and safety of those aboard its ships. All passengers and crew must be fully vaccinated to board Scenic Eclipse with rapid antigen tests and temperature checks a necessary feature of each voyage. Advanced heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems operate on board, providing 100 per cent fresh air through a three-stage air purification.
For more information on the 2022 and 2023 expeditions of Scenic Eclipse, phone 1300 947 491, contact your Scenic travel advisor or see sceniceclipse.com
Anthony Dennis is editor of Traveller. He journeyed to Antarctica as a guest of Scenic.