The sun bounces off the water, turning the spray bursting from the whale's spout into glitter. The giant creature swoops back beneath the water, its tail standing perfectly upright for a moment before disappearing completely. An appreciative "ooh" oozes from us bystanders watching from our luxury ship's deck, as we take a celebratory sip of champagne.
We're all giddy with excitement and no wonder. This is Antarctica, yet here we are in T-shirts and sunglasses, watching half-a-dozen curious whales play in the sunshine right beside us. Not the empty wasteland I'd been expecting, but a sun-drenched paradise that's a world away from the grisly tales I'd been reading pre-departure. Not the frostbite, exhaustion and near-death experiences Mawson and his team had; not the storms and hunger poor ill-fated Scott and co got, either.
No – today, and for most of this past week at the peak of the Antarctic summer, there have been blue skies, sunshine and high temperatures (because two degrees counts as high at the bottom of the world). The sun, it seems, can completely transform this ice-covered continent from wild and unforgiving, to nothing short of delightful.
The vantage point from which we're watching this afternoon's wildlife show, the sophisticated APT-chartered Ponant ship Le Lyrial, has certainly helped up the delight factor. Just two hours earlier we were enjoying a barbecue lunch on the open wooden deck by the swimming pool, clinking glasses of rosé in disbelief at how lucky we were with the weather. Our captain had told us earlier that this was the best week of the entire season in terms of weather, and our smugness was palpable.
This day, our last on the Antarctic Peninsula, had begun as blissfully as it was ending, at Cuverville Island. As we slid off the side of our black rubber Zodiacs and onto the shingle beach we sucked in a deep breath, relishing the rather revolting scent of penguin guano we'd become strangely fond of over the past six days.
Cuverville is home to the largest Gentoo penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula, with about 6500 of the cute critters populating this two- by two-and-a-half-kilometre island at the northern end of the Errera Channel. Their copious poo combined with the thin ice covering the ground had made our walk along the beach treacherous. But watching the sun crawl over the surrounding mountains and into the bright blue sky made any tumbles worthwhile. Feeling that early morning Antarctic light – a light more crisp and luminous than any other on the planet – on your skin, makes you feel as though you've been touched by the hand of God.
Inside the penguin rookeries at the end of the beach, however, things weren't so peaceful. Half an hour had slipped away as I watched, horrified and mesmerised, as aggressive skua birds terrorised groups of panicked penguins as they swooped at their unguarded eggs and weak chicks. There were penguin parents running from their young, teaching them how to fend for themselves, and partners waddling from the sea up to their mates to take over parenting duties atop their pebble nests.
Then, a sudden low growl echoed across the island: a glacier flipping over, stealing the show entirely and reminding us that Antarctica is a place in continual flux. Perhaps this – the constant melting and carving of the Antarctic landscape – is part of the reason why many travellers to this frozen continent say it shifted their perspective on life in some way.
On the slow walk back to the Zodiacs I fell into conversation with one of the expedition guides, Australian geologist David Heydon, about what exactly makes this destination such a transformative one. We throw around some ideas about the important lessons it teaches you about emptiness and austerity, or the calming and restorative effects of its inherent simplicity.
"I think the fact that us humans have agreed to preserve and protect this big chunk of the world for science and peace [according to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty], just makes you feel hopeful about the future of our planet," Heydon said. And on this near-perfect day, with the sun-scattered ice sparkling all around us, it was impossible to disagree.
Air New Zealand flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Buenos Aires via Auckland. From there it's a three-and-a-half-hour flight to Ushuaia, where ships depart for Antarctica. See airnewzealand.com.au
APT's 15-day Classic Antarctica tour starts from $16,490 per person. See aptouring.com.au
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of APT.