Polar snorkelling in Antarctica with Aurora Expeditions

"Not for the faint-hearted" is how Aurora Expeditions' website describes polar snorkelling. Which is concerning because when it comes to near-freezing temperatures, I am most definitely faint of heart. Yet, here I am, fumbling awkwardly with a pair of fins on the rocky shoreline of the Antarctic Peninsula while steeling myself for water that's hovering around three degrees. Nearby, a dozen gentoo penguins look on with curious bemusement.

Aurora Expeditions has offered polar snorkelling on its Antarctic expeditions since 2014. But this is the inaugural voyage of its game-changing new ship, the Greg Mortimer, so this one-off outing is a dry-run for when it will be offered on future trips.

To ensure it really is a dry run, I'm wearing a bright-red $3000 dry suit made by Swedish diving specialist Waterproof, which has reassuringly tight silicone seals around the neck and wrists. I'm also sporting thick neoprene mittens, boots and a fetching black neoprene hood. While the finished ensemble looks like something Bond might wear on a covert mission, the grimace-inducing process of squeezing into it was more like a Mr Bean sketch.

Overseeing this excursion is guide Peter Szyszka, a Polish bear of a man who's been diving for 30 years. Clearly oblivious to the cold, he spends almost the entire voyage in a pair of shorts.

"It's cold when you first get in," he says, "but then you go numb."

With these reassuring words ringing in my ears, I cautiously edge backwards into the frigid water. To my utter amazement, it's not that bad. Two pairs of thermal underwear plus the warm air trapped inside my dry suit are a remarkably effective insulator. And then I put my head in. You know that piercing pain you get when you eat ice cream too quickly? Imagine that over your entire face.

After less than a minute, my faint heart is ready to call it a day. But then I spot a white flash out of the corner of my eye. And then another. The penguins that were watching us earlier are now in the water, fizzing around like tuxedoed torpedoes. The spectacle is so mesmerising that I somehow forget about my freezing face. That, or it's just gone numb.

After giving us a few minutes to practise our technique in the shallows, Szyszka bundles us into a Zodiac and heads towards a group of three small icebergs floating in the bay. This time we tumble in backwards off the side, SAS-style, which would have looked much cooler if I'd remembered to put my snorkel in my mouth first.

It's one thing learning from a text book that 90 per cent of an iceberg is underwater; it's an entirely different experience seeing it with your own eyes. I circle slowly around each one in turn, captivated by the eerie blue mass hanging silently beneath the surface. From above the waterline, icebergs look pure and majestic. Underwater, they seem ominous and menacing.


By the time Szyszka calls me back in, I'm the last one to get out. Astonishingly, I've been snorkelling non-stop for 25 minutes. After being hauled unceremoniously back into the Zodiac, I remove my mask and attempt to tell him what an incredible experience it's been. But the ice-cold water has temporarily rendered me speechless. It's OK. He can see it in my eyes.



LATAM flies to Ushuaia from Melbourne and Sydney via Santiago and Buenos Aires. See latam.com


Aurora Expeditions' new ship, the Greg Mortimer, is the first passenger vessel to use an X-Bow hull, which is said to be revolutionary for its fuel efficiency and handling in heavy seas. The 126-passenger ship has been designed specifically for polar exploration and features virtual anchoring, hydraulic viewing platforms and a floating activity marina. Antarctica trips start from $US10,900. See auroraexpeditions.com.au


Polar snorkelling is available as an optional activity on Aurora's voyages to the Arctic and Antarctic. No previous experience is required and all equipment is supplied. Passengers typically get five to 10 outings per cruise. Cost from $US640 per person.



Rob McFarland was a guest of LATAM and Aurora Expeditions.