Water spouts into the air with a boom, a frigid droplet landing on my cheek – the only area of skin left uncovered. My kayak judders below, suddenly feeling worryingly precarious, the water around it rippling from the point of impact. Before I have time to think about what I’m doing, I shout at my partner in the seat in front to paddle, and we hightail it in the opposite direction. Once the coast seems clear, I find the courage to turn around and catch the final glimpse of the flukes of a humpback whale’s tail as it resubmerges, diving down to fill up on krill.

It’s 9am in Charlotte Bay on the Antarctic peninsula, and, I suppose, it’s breakfast time for these gentle giants. Our ship, the Swan Hellenic Diana, arrived in Antarctica earlier this morning after crossing the Drake Passage. As I blearily opened the curtains of our stateroom a few hours before, I snapped awake quickly, icebergs and hundreds of feet of packed snow as good an enlivener as the strongest cup of coffee.

Icebergs seem to pitch up out of the ocean like houses, some as big as shopping malls. They stud the landscape like a badly planned suburbia of frozen water, haphazard structures placed with no rhyme or reason. Smaller growlers and bergy bits (yes, those really are the scientific terms) float around in groups, little traffic jams of tiny chunks of ice. Behind it all, the land occupies the horizon, moody and commanding. Layers of snow – some of it millennia old – look as if they have been whittled off like marzipan. They seem to stretch for eternity until, suddenly, they’re interrupted by imposing, craggy peaks that reach into the sky. On the morning that we arrive, the weather is calm but grey. Wisps of cloud wrap themselves around rocky outcrops and drift lazily down to the water. It puts a lid on everything, as if we have sailed into a snow globe, and adds to the ethereal, otherworldly effect.

Otherworldly – if I had to use one word to describe the scene, it would be that. It’s as if, overnight, the SH Diana launched itself out into the solar system, landing on another planet entirely. After opening the curtains, I rouse my partner by screeching “Icebergs!” in a voice loud enough to cause an avalanche. We head straight up to the ship’s top deck, an open-air viewing platform that offers 360 degrees of the bay we’ve just glided into. We’re both rendered speechless. When Norwegian adventurer Carsten Borchgrevink, the first man to overwinter on the continent, reached the Ross Ice Shelf, he wrote “It was the most marvellous sight I had ever seen in my life, no words can adequately describe it. Imagination’s utmost stretch in wonder dies away.” It feels particularly apt to how I feel in this moment.

The silence is what I notice first, a lack of sound so obvious it’s almost tactile. A slow, almost musical moan breaks through the hush, and we turn in its direction just in time to see a gently sloping dorsal fin slip underwater. A puff on the opposite side of the ship grabs our attention; the shower of a whale’s spout dissipating in the air. At the bow, I catch two swimming alongside each other in unison. We could have stayed for hours, running from port to starboard, taking it all in, but we have a kayaking trip to get to; one we’re running seriously late for.

With hardly any time to even think about what we are getting ourselves into, we climb into our dry suits, slip on our wetsuit booties and hop into the zodiac with the ship’s kayak guide, Alison, ready to head for our first experience on the Southern Ocean. I had been terrified for many elements of this trip – the unknown, being at sea for days on end, being trapped on a boat with 200 strangers – but three stuck out to me most clearly: crossing the Drake Passage (famously the most dangerous body of water on earth), doing the polar plunge, and this – kayaking in Antarctica with no idea what’s below.

It’s not exactly an activity I’m unfamiliar with, either. I was raised by the sea and getting out for a paddle was a regular occurrence. But this place, this water, which is always spoken about with such fearful reverence, is quite a different experience entirely. Saltwater, as we were told a few days earlier in one of the ship’s onboard lectures, has a far lower freezing temperature than freshwater. This means that the ocean, which is about to be just a thin piece of plastic away from us, is actually below zero degrees celsius. It would take minutes to kill us, and it would only take one ill-advised movement to flip us in. Add in the whales whose tails could catapult us with ease, and the kilometres-deep water hiding who-knows-what-other creatures in its inky depths and it’s safe to say that by the time I’m sliding into the kayak’s seat, I’m more than a little unsettled. The humpback surfacing just metres from us does little to calm my rapid heart rate.

Icebergs pitch up out of the ocean like houses. They stud the landscape like a badly planned suburbia

Almost as quickly as it bobbed up, it disappears again. I sit, clutching my paddle for dear life, and shaking like a leaf. “Alison,” I call. She looks up from her position just ahead, and gestures for me to go on. “Let’s say I did want to head back to the zodiac, is that something I could do?” She laughs and tells me yes, of course, but to wait five more minutes. I give myself a stern pep talk and paddle in the direction of an iceberg, a pair of penguins lazily idling around its rear.

This is probably a better time than any to tell you that the deep ocean is one of my biggest fears. I have recurring nightmares of being left out in the open water, bobbing on the surface with no idea what’s below. Paradoxically, being near – or on – the ocean is when I feel happiest. It’s these two sides of me that are battling for control as I travel through this icy waterscape, and I try to tune both out, instead focusing on the flow of the paddle. “Left” I yell to my partner up front. “Right. Left. Right. Left! Left again! Ok left again! Yep – now just avoid that big piece of ice right there.” Shockingly, most of all to myself, I make it to the end of the experience and inelegantly heave myself back onto the zodiac as our guide watches on bemused. I look down at my hands once I’m seated on what is comparatively terra firma; they’re still vibrating with adrenaline.

A few days earlier, while crossing the Drake Passage, we had been given a lecture by one of the expedition guides on the great Antarctic explorers over the centuries. It is widely believed that Captain James Cook was one of the first people to ever get near the continent of Antarctica in the early 1770s. While he never reached land itself, he figured that all of those icebergs must have come from somewhere, but that there was a high chance that somewhere was too far south and far too inhospitable for humans to survive. And so, with the continent’s value deemed low, exploration of the area halted until 1819, when the first period of proper Antarctic exploration was ignited. Some of the continent’s most iconic elements were named in the missions that took place across the subsequent decades; the Ross Ice Shelf, which was first happened upon by British Royal Navy officer James Clark Ross; Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, which were discovered by American naval officer Charles Wilkes; and the Weddell Sea, named in honour of Scottish explorer James Weddell who captained the first ship to enter the sea in 1823 – the furthest south any known explorer had ventured at the time.

It wasn’t until the late 1890s, however, that what’s known as the ‘Heroic’ age of Antarctic exploration really kicked into gear. Over this period of time, a series of explorers – Adrien de Gerlache, Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton, to name a few – made some of the most formative scientific and geographical discoveries of Antarctica in human history, including reaching both the geographic and magnetic South Pole. They didn’t come without their drama, of course, and their reasons for completing these expeditions ran the gamut from pure scientific inspiration to basic human ego, but, regardless, their trips undoubtedly paved the way for humans to finally begin to understand the sheer power and impact that Antarctica has on our planet, its climate and future.

These days, the continent is a little less of a mystery – and far easier to get to (well, comparatively anyway). The 2022-2023 season saw over 100,000 visitors travel to Antarctica – with over 70,000 of those being ‘landed’ visits, while some 33,000 were ‘cruise only’ visits. Only 800 were ‘deep field’ visits, where travellers travel into the continent proper rather than around its coastline. Each year there are around 5,000-6,000 ‘residents’ of Antarctica, comprising scientists and staff at the various research stations dotted around the ice. Of these, usually, only around 1,000 stay year-round, enduring the brutal winter season.

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) have strict regulations in place to allow visitors to travel to the continent with as little disruption as possible. Restrictions are widespread and, in the case of cruise ships, include no two ships being allowed to park in the same location; speed limits within Antarctic waters for the protection of whales and other sea life; and, crucially, a limit on the size of ships allowed to make landings. In order to actually disembark your cruise ship and step foot on the continent of Antarctica, you need to be travelling on a vessel carrying fewer than 500 passengers. This means that boutique expedition ships – like the SH Diana – are often the boat of choice for travellers hoping to properly experience Antarctica without foregoing the luxuries they may be accustomed to. I’m not sure Shackleton was able to warm up in an outdoor hot tub after trekking through the ice in frigid temperatures for days on end.

Another key difference between those who risked their lives to travel to the bottom of the world at the turn of the 19th century and, well, me, is the equipment we’re working with. On a tour of the bridge (the navigation hub of the boat, where the captain and his team work around the clock), it became evident that this is a vessel uniquely crafted to handle these often treacherous ocean environments. From state-of-the-art radar equipment that can pick up obstructions in the water (anything from icebergs to sailboats) multiple kilometres in the distance, to stabilisers that help keep the boat feeling level in rough waters and an ice-strengthened hull designed to plough through medium-grade sea ice, it was clear that while I may have been terrified of the Drake Passage, there was never any chance those rough waters would pose any significant threat to the ship. It’s hard even to consider how perilous the journey would have been in 1890 for men in sailboats just a small fraction of the size.

It wasn’t until the late 1890s, however, that the ‘Heroic’ age of Antarctic exploration really kicked into gear

Fear is, of course, subjective, and I think it’s smart to possess a healthy dose of it when travelling to Antarctica – inarguably one of the world’s most extreme environments. When it comes to nature, fear seems to go hand-in-hand with respect, and understanding that as a human you are simply defenceless against its ever-changing, fickle state. With my daily reservoirs of fear well and truly emptied after our morning kayaking, the resounding emotion I feel as we move into our afternoon’s activity is excitement. Departing Charlotte Bay, we set our coordinates for Portal Point where we will be officially stepping foot onto the continent of Antarctica. A thorough briefing the evening before had drilled into us the etiquette of interacting with these environments, including giving any animals we encounter a wide berth, sticking to the marked trails and ensuring only our heavily disinfected boots touch the ground. With avian flu doing the rounds, cruise ships are having to take extra precautions to ensure they don’t contribute to its spread into the continent.

As the zodiac slowly navigates towards land, I take in the scene before us. Slabs of grey rock sit punctuated by chunks of ice and what at first glance appear to be boulders but, as we get closer, begin moving – Weddell seals. At least 15 of them, lazing all over the bay. We pull into the cove and I swing my boots out, sliding a little as I officially land on the continent which remains such a source of mystery for much of the world.

Sitting on the west coast of Graham Land, Portal Point was named because it serves as the gateway to the overground route to the Antarctic Plateau. As we make our way along the flagged path set up by our guides, I bump into our expedition leader, Antony Jinman. He’s visibly excited, gesturing to a small black-and-white form at the edge of the snowy outcrop to our right. “There’s a juvenile emperor penguin over there,” he tells us. “I have no idea what it’s doing there, it’s incredibly strange to see one here, especially at this time of year. I’ve only seen one or two before in the seven years I’ve been coming to Portal Point. You guys are lucky.” We make our way up the steady incline towards the peninsula, carefully avoiding stepping off the track, lest we fall into a crevasse secreted under the snow. As we reach a safe viewing distance from the rare penguin, it opens its flippers and shakes its head, before returning to its sleeping state. Just a few metres in front, behind the remains of what was once a refuge hut (it was deconstructed and transported to the Falkland Islands Museum and National Trust in 1996), a group of seals bark and titter at each other across the rocks.

This is, of course, not the only penguin we see on our trip – far from it. We walk around hundreds of Chinstrap penguins the following day when we alight at Hydrurga Rocks, and dodge the putrid shit of thousands of other Gentoo penguins at Jougla Point, a former whaling station that sits across an inlet from the famous Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy – a functioning post office and gift shop operated by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust. But something about the lone Emperor penguin seems to so wholly personify the magic of this landscape – a part of the world where humans are scarce and nature plays out in its most primitive of ways. Even in the most surprising, unpredictable of places, the natural world still manages to delight you with something as simple as a penguin who got a little lost on his way out to sea.

I spend hours looking out at it all. The following morning, after watching a frisky seal chase down an unsuspecting photographer who got a little too close, and two other adventurers from our boat dressed in matching head-to-toe, fuschia-pink outfits and bunny hats perform a perfectly synchronised dance to the camera in front of a rock covered in hooting penguins, we return to the boat in less than ideal weather conditions. Ever-growing choppy waves spill over the front of our zodiac, drenching the unlucky sacrificial lamb at the front, as our guide Filip deftly navigates the rapidly turning wind to get us back to the ship in one piece.

The afternoon’s landing is cancelled due to the deteriorating weather conditions, but I don’t even mind missing out on exploring another corner of Antarctica because I’m perfectly happy to huddle under a heater, simply watching – looking at nothing and everything at the same time. I’m especially unbothered about the missed expedition when the evening briefing rolls around. Jinman fills us in on the plan for the next day – our visit to Port Lockroy and the Penguin Post Office, a cruise through the Lemaire Channel and, finally, the moment that has captured my night terrors for weeks; the polar plunge, a rite of passage of sorts.

After a record-breaking shopping trip (no, really, our boat spent the most any group of Swan Hellenic cruisers ever has on souvenirs from the Penguin Post Office), we set our coordinates for the Lemaire Channel. Just 2000 feet wide at its narrowest point and seven miles long, the Lemaire Channel earned the nickname of ‘Kodak Gap’ due to its sheer photographic nature. Protected by Graham Land to the east and Booth Island to the west, the channel is hewn from steep, snow-capped cliffs. As we approach the strait’s entrance, the sun finally breaks through the clouds for the first time on our journey, bringing every element of the passage into high definition, from the indentations on the rock to the thick, compacted snow covering most surfaces.

I make a beeline for the swan’s nest – the small standing area at the bow of the ship – and watch as the cliffs seem to close in on us as the boat navigates towards a seemingly impassable stretch of water cluttered with icebergs and floes. The tannoy crackles again, this time with the captain informing us that the waters may be too hazardous for us to travel through. Somehow, though, we make it. I stand affixed to the bow, the only distraction the occasional crepitation as a bergy bit collides with the ship. About halfway down, a cascade of snow and ice detaches from the cliffs and calves off into the water, sending ripples nudging into an iceberg. The wonder of it all is almost enough to distract me from what’s coming next – the polar plunge.

Just a few feet in front of the penguin, a group of seals bark and titter at each other across the rocks

As we return to the mouth of the channel, I chase down the ship’s affable barman, Silvester, to request a loin-girding martini (or two). I’m about to face my biggest fear, jumping into icy, miles-deep, inky black water, completely alone. I have had recurring nightmares about this moment that have run the gamut from an opportunistic killer whale waiting below the surface as I jump, to a yet-undiscovered prehistoric super-shark coming up for a nibble. Either way, by the time the boat pulls up at Una Peaks, colloquially known as Una’s Tits for their resemblance to the top half of the female anatomy, I’m borderline catatonic, and relying heavily on liquid courage.

The speakers announce that we’re in place for the polar plunge and that we’ll be called down in our colour groups. So I settle in on the top deck, clutching my third martini, to watch as person after person launches themselves into the water, anticipation growing with each splash. Then, all of a sudden it’s our turn. The energising tones of Lizzo pump through the speaker as the rapidly moving queue gets closer to the door until I’m standing with ten toes on the top of the ladder, looking my biggest fear in the face. Letting out a banshee scream, I jump.

It isn’t the temperature that I notice when I land, nor am I even thinking about the multiple little horrors my brain had constructed. Instead, I feel a complete and undeniable euphoria at overcoming something that has occupied my brain for so long. “I did it! I did it!” I shout as I climb back up the ladder, shivering, into the waiting bathrobe. In less than two minutes, the whole debacle is over and done.

I had spent the entire trip terrified of the water, letting my fear consume me when we were kayaking, to a point where I struggled to enjoy this basic activity that should come so naturally to me, and it felt like finally jumping in swept away those cobwebs, and I stopped being so scared. Sitting in the pool afterwards, slowly defrosting and taking in the craggy peaks in the distance, watching growlers roll past in the current and penguins fly through the water, I was certain I had never seen a single scene so impressive in my life.

On the morning of our last day, I wake to the bed rolling from side to side and the boat grunting. Flying to the curtains once again to see what is going on, I am greeted by a whole lot of nothing. Thick, murky fog obscures anything from view, and the water below looks angry, surging around the boat in direct contrast to the glassy conditions of the day before. After moving backwards and forwards like a pendulum for half an hour, the boat finally stills.

At an emergency briefing after breakfast, Jinman lets us know that the conditions are too bad for us to enter the narrow strait that leads into the natural harbour of our planned destination, Deception Island. Strong winds and an incoming weather front mean that we need to get into the Drake Passage as soon as possible to get ahead of what could be difficult sailing conditions.

And so, it’s goodbye to Antarctica. It feels anticlimactic in many ways but ultimately serves as a telling example of how this environment is ever-changing and full of surprises. Whether it’s a confused Emperor penguin, a hungry whale, or simply an incoming bout of bad weather, Antarctica remains as unpredictable as ever and we are just visitors at the mercy of the icy continent’s many whims. 

The Antarctic Peninsula Discovery Cruise starts at £6,660pp. Find out more at swanhellenic.com.