Picture this – Christmas morning and you’re overlooking a place called ‘paradise bay’, a spectacular coastal inlet dotted with awesome icebergs of all shapes and sizes. A white blanket of snow dominates the landscape on shore, presenting a stark beauty. A hot sun casts a saffron hue and renders glaciers electric blue. The ocean is completely motionless. The air is profoundly silence. An eternal sunset at the bottom of the world illuminates you and your body becomes the earth…
The next day would see this picturesque bay plunge into a grey abyss and become a frozen sea of ice. It was hard to believe I had been swimming in it earlier, in water where one’s life expectancy is a mere three minutes. As you can imagine, Antarctica does not disappoint in terms of life experience; seeing your first iceberg, the world’s largest penguin colony, a dip in volcanic hot springs by snow and the occasional suicidal mountain decent.
One day we encountered a family of 6 orcas taunting a seal. The whales would leap from the water generating waves in order knock the helpless seal of his pathetic growler of ice. The infants were learning to hunt. It became game of cat and mouse; catching and releasing the poor creature before eventually ripping his carcass to shreds and rationing his organs.
3a.m – an S.O.S call is intercepted by our ship, the Polar Star. Hours later an announcement screeches across the intercom, telling us to look outside. I awake to see a most awesome sight, a towering vessel stranded by the encroaching ice.
At its side “Vavolov” was spelt in Cyrillic, she was a Russian research ship. Everyone scampered outside to view the spectacle. We slowly muscled our way to her rescue and positioned ourselves in front of the immobilised mass. A dozen heavy gauge steel wires were fastened to her and the commanded power of 15,000 horses attempted to pull her from the brink of annihilation. Such exertion was straining the cables to their limit; a snapped cable could kill or maim. As our chariot thundered, an emphatic and sinister cacophony permeated the air. Gradually, emancipation was realised! But freedom was short lived. Mother Nature’s grip now threatened both ships, and it wasn’t long before we would encounter a similar fate. We had ceased. The polar star was the second most powerful icebreaker in the Antarctic and although it had ferried us through the most violent conditions on earth, she was no match for this deadly freeze. Fear and desertion was etched into the faces of those around me. This was it. Only one hope remained. The Vavolov, having escaped the clutches of the ice pact fired up its engines and with an almighty crash, ploughed into the back out our ship; destroying much of the rear railings. Combining the brute strength of both mighty vessels, we managed to solider through the rigid mass of ice that boxing day. It was to the first of many narrow escapes on my journeys, some of which would prove far more perilous.