From snorkelling in Antarctica to swimming with horses in Argentina, Ian Belcher explores some of the world’s most extraordinary ways to take a dip.
It is no ordinary swim. As I surface in dazzlingly clear water and pluck the snorkel out of my mouth, I discover I have an audience of two Gentoo penguins waddling across snow-covered rocks against a backdrop of 600-metre high ice cliffs. As we eyeball each other, a distant groan, crack and rumble announces thousands of tons of ice calving into the deep dark Southern Ocean.
As holiday experiences go, it’s dramatic, awe-inspiring and slightly intimidating. How could it be anything else? It’s the first plunge on the first commercial trip to offer snorkelling on the White Continent. Over a week’s voyage through the vast maize of ice, islands and inlets on the Antarctic Peninsula, we’ll take twice-daily dips into an aquatic world splattered with bergs and seething with wildlife.
It’s not just thrilling, of course. It’s cold. Very cold. You can’t be serious cold. To survive – and to actually enjoy – swimming face down in water between 1°C and 3°C (and a couple of degrees colder around icebergs where glacial melt blends with saline), we’re relying on cutting edge technology. The boffins at Waterproof Expeditions, who run the snorkelling on Aurora Expeditions’ cruises, have developed state-of-the-art dry suits. Forget big floppy Michelin Man gear, these have three super stretchy layers of nylon and synthetic rubber with comfortable seals, accessorized with neoprene hoods and gloves suitable for a sub-zero cat burglar.
And that’s just on top. Underneath I’m dressed for a winter hike rather than Mediterranean dip. My base and mid-layers of Icebreaker Merino wool are paired with thick Sherpa climbing trousers and thermal socks. It’s a chance for my fellow snorkellers to display clothing one upmanship worthy of Monty Python.
‘What are you wearing today?’ asks an Australian guest as we clamber into one of the inflatable Zodiac boats that deliver us to the snorkelling sites.
‘Two thermals. Two socks’
‘That’s all? I’ve got three thermals.’
‘Up to you,’ says another. ‘I’ve three socks and three thermals, including a lightweight jacket. I don’t do cold.’
They’re all perfectly prepared, if a little competitive. Water can intensify heat loss 40 times – a danger the correct clothing can cut by nearly 90 per cent. But it takes more than hardware to stay safe in so hostile an environment. The queasy two-day rollercoaster of crossing the Drake Passage from Southern Argentina to Antarctic has already provided the perfect opportunity for safety lectures. The week of cold water immersion can apparently reduce our core temperature by up to a degree, so we must be aware of the creeping lethargy of silent hypothermia.
More immediately we’re instructed to always snorkel with a buddy, regularly search for eye contact with guides in the nearby Zodiacs and never swim underneath an iceberg. I’ve even been advised to trim my nascent beard to guarantee a watertight seal ending any hope of returning home modelling chisel-jawed explorer chic. ‘There’s no room for risk-taking,’ stresses Martin McGrath, the trip’s lead diver. ‘You’re doing something very simple in one of the most dangerous places on earth.’
Now, our minds prepped, our bodies protected, we’re ready to tackle the Southern Ocean. Only one area is left exposed to the elements: the skin between our face mask and chin. ‘To start it’ll feel like meat being tenderized,’ smiles McGrath as we prepare to slip overboard in Mikkelsen Harbour. ‘Once it’s numb, you won’t feel a thing.’
It’s not the most enticing sales pitch but excitement trumps pain. By a million miles. Every time. The Antarctic maybe monochrome but slip beneath the water and it’s a different world. In a small shallow bay off D’Hainaut Island with a perfectly symmetrical ice bridge and tuxedoed auditorium of penguins, we drift over orange lichen, red kelp, and ochre weed populated by tiny transparent fish.
Each day delivers a fresh surprise. Twenty four hours later we swim along a corridor used by Adélie penguins and after pizza lunch – cold breeds ravenous hanger – snorkel off the Argentine Islands, floating alongside huge rectangular rocks: a sub-aqua Wailing Wall of honeyed stone juxtaposed with black, purple and turquoise limpets. Actually it’s not the highlight. That comes an hour or so later when we visit the Ukrainian scientists at Vernadsky Research Station. Their homemade vodka makes short work of any brewing hypothermia.
Other sites reveal diaphanous jellyfish, krill and 20cm-long mustard and pink ribbon worms, while Deception Island finds us snorkelling above huge curved bones – the remains of a brutal whaling industry that also left rusting tanks and decaying buildings on the island’s black volcanic beach: a rare manmade mark on an untainted landscape.
It’s intoxicating stuff but the biggest thrill awaits: snorkelling around icebergs. You’d imagine we’d be spoilt for choice, after all the damn things are everywhere. But it’s not that simple. Far from it. Safety dictates that we must find a small, slowly melting, rounded berg that’s grounded and low in the water. ‘A million tonnes of ice can pivot on an area less than a metre square,’ warns McGrath. ‘The slightest wave and it might lift and roll. Never enter a crack or tunnel, or swim underneath.’
On day four we arrive at what promises to be the perfect site. Pléneau Island wind and currents have created the Iceberg Graveyard: a subzero architectural museum with countless Greek columns, Venetian windows and Gothic arches frozen in time. Yet remarkably, after two hours motoring around in a Zodiac, circumnavigating and bumping potential candidates, we don’t find a single safe berg.
We hit the jackpot next day: a small berg sitting within sight of the old British base on Goudier Island inside Port Lockroy’s natural harbour. It’s rather beautiful, not only ringed by translucent emerald sea worthy of a Seychelles lagoon – a mix of algal growth and stirred sediment – but also streaked toothpaste blue with compressed glacial ice.
At close quarters, underwater it’s simply breathtaking: a vast sinuous labyrinth of fissures, caves and tunnels, glinting with purple hues. Twice I bump into slabs of transparent older ice, polished into invisibility by the motion of the ocean. Exploring this eerie sub aqua citadel at the end of the world is every bit as memorable as first sight of the Northern Lights.
It’s the type of experience you could only dream about on a normal, far larger, cruise ship. But the Polar Pioneer is no ordinary cruise ship. Part of the now disbanded Soviet hydrographic fleet – Antarctic tourism blossomed after the USSR’s disintegration provided a supply of ice-strengthened vessels – it has an industrial rear deck with a crane, containers of diving gear and piles of Zodiacs and kayaks coated with snow.
Guests are free to wonder onto the open bridge and observe the brilliant navigation of the Russian captain. It all provides a radically adventurous perspective on Antarctica that expedition leader Howard Whelan, a man who has performed the unique double act of both scaling Everest and being a key player in the Hollywood penguin blockbuster, Happy Feet, calls ‘stepping through the looking glass’.
We’re clearly in safe hands. Despite the unnerving presence of leopard seals – one of the alpha predators killed an Antarctic marine biologist when she was snorkelling in 2003 – the biggest danger of the voyage turns out to be scenic fatigue: visual lethargy induced by the relentless parade of divine landscapes.
But then, a couple of days before flying back to South America, I see Paradise Harbour: a site to jolt the deepest ennui. Swaddled by mountains and blue-hued glaciers, its surface clinks with ice and ripples with penguins, shags and whales. All it needs is a giant slice of lemon and I’m floating on the world’s biggest gin and tonic: a supersized tipple to celebrate the divine, pristine and yes, for snorkelers, the gloriously chilled Antarctic.
Aurora Expeditions (auroraexpeditions.com), offers an 11-day Antarctica adventure with snorkelling from £8,380 per person. This year Aurora has introduced polar snorkelling in the Arctic.
Five Amazing Wildlife Swims
Prepare to expand your mind and shrink your dignity. To swim alongside some of the 4,000 or so beluga whales that congregate each summer in the shallows of Hudson Bay, you must be prepared to be human live bait. Helped by expert guides you’ll be trussed in a dry suit and towed behind an inflatable Zodiac boat with a rope looped around your ankles. Oh, and you’ll also have to sing a tune into a snorkel. It wouldn’t happen to David Attenborough. In return you can expect one of the most intense wildlife experiences known to man with crowds of the super cute, super curious whales responding with clicks and whistles as they swim within feet, sometime inches, of your face.
From around £6,210pp (not flights but including walking with polar bears), churchillwild.com
You may well have contemplated a riding holiday with gauchos in Argentina but swimming with their horses? To sample the traditional technique used by cattle farmers in the subtropical north to move their stock off the wetlands, you’ll ride bareback into the crystal clear water – don’t fret, rookie visitors are given a helping hand – until the horses are out of their depth. As they start to swim, you slide off and float alongside while holding onto their mane, performing a sort of doggy, or rather horse paddle with your other hand. Add in canoe trips and staying in the small wetlands hamlets and this is a thrillingly authentic three-day adventure.
From £1,565pp (not flights), abercrombiekent.co.uk
Learn the dark arts of free diving with the help of a South African champion – and a resident pod of 250 bottlenose dolphins off southern Mozambique. Over an expertly curated 10-day trip in the Ponta da Oura Partial Marine Reserve, lead by Hanli Prinsloo who has established or broken 11 national free diving records, you’ll learn the secrets of increasing your breath hold with specialist techniques and yoga stretches, before heading out into the dazzling Indian Ocean. A peach of a classroom, it lets you swim with the dolphins, sometimes for up to an hour, and see other remarkable marine life from sharks to rays and whales. There’s also fabulously healthy food and a stay in a stylish beach house high above the magnificent stretch of honeyed beach.
From £4,595pp, steppestravel.co.uk
Head to one of the most beautiful parts of Britain for one of the country’s most memorable wildlife experiences. The Isles of Scilly, whose powder white beaches and translucent water are a dead ringer for the Caribbean (don’t worry, the weather and sea temperature will remind you of your true location), are home to a famous colony of Atlantic Grey seals. Join them in the water off the Eastern Isles and they’ll transform from the blubbery lazy bones sunbathing on the rocks to elegant whiskered mermaids that zip around you in the fabulously clear brine. Some will stare directly into your snorkel mask from directly in front you, suggesting a free session of underwater psychotherapy, part of a unique excursion in a unique destination.
£46pp (not flights), scillysealsnorkelling.com
Australia gets a fevered press for some pretty ferocious marine life but the Lucky Country also gives you the opportunity to get up close and personal with other lovely, less intimidating critters. Trips out to the islands like Hopkins, Blythe, Grindal or Langton off the South Australian coast – an area better known for cage diving with great whites – deliver you to a colony of endangered sea lions who are far more sociable than the alpha predator and prefer to summersault and glide rather than chew surfboards. Think of it as a combo of wildlife encounter and workout for the hips – the more you twist and turn, the more they play.