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Antarctica at Last!

Imagine sitting in a zodiac on a heaving, breathing sea of brash ice, in the middle of the Southern Ocean with 4,000 metres of water beneath. We are 500km from the Antarctic coast, 1,700km from the closest human presence in the Ross Sea. Yet again on this trip, a reminder that I have voluntarily placed myself so far from my comfort zone. From the safety of Ortelius, brash ice and large icebergs appear benign as they drift past. Their beauty dominates, along with the awe they inspire. Up close, it is their power that dominates. The ice through which we push screeches as it grips the rubber, then reluctantly moves aside to let us pass. Every few metres our guide, Elke, cuts the outboard to tilt it free of the surface and kick away lumps of ice that foul the propeller.

Ever so slowly, we creep away from Ortelius to seek out a crabeater seal one of our crew has seen on a distant flow. Personally, I would rather circle the blue, blue bergs nearer to us. For nearly an hour we weave through promising leads, often to reverse and try another path. We make the seal, cut the engine and roll with the swell. The seal opens an eye and stretches luxuriously. It is tempting to think she is observing us, but have learnt she is short-sighted out of water. The weather is kind. No wind, air temperature hovering around zero, high cloud that blocks the glare and favours the many shades of blue the ice holds. After an initial flurry of camera clicking, the shutters slow and we resume our seats on the rubber sides of the zodiac. We can no longer see out mother ship.

There is one more iceberg to visit before returning “home”. It is almost a small island of ice mountains constantly being scoured by frothy waves, deepending the central lagoon of brilliant blue. We pass beneath icicles metres long fringing one of the peaks, and the whole magnificent berg is rocked by a surge of water. I am caught between the hope that something spectacular will happen and the feeling of vulnerability being perching on the edge of a little rubber boat. “It will break up soon,” says Elke. She has read my thoughts.

We are all cold. Elke produces a much-needed block of chocolate, then turns back for Ortelius. This is not a direct route. The sea ice has thickened markedly in the past two hours, and no one talks as she, oh so skilfully, weaves the zodiac through large chunks and mushy ice. We meet Rolf on the way back. The ship has been trying to contact us since we disappeared from sight over an hour ago. Radio on the wrong channel! Back safe, hot chocolate and a tale to tell as we set sail to our next adventure.

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