Humpback whales and icebergs: A kayaking adventure in Antarctica

A deafening blast of air broke the calm, making us stop in our tracks.

Our kayaking group fell silent as a giant humpback whale surfaced 10 metres away from us, rearing its blowhole and distinctive dorsal fin out of the water.

We were just off Petermann Island in Antarctica, where humpbacks are regularly sighted.

A lady next to me, from the UK, shed tears of emotion as the mysterious mammal slowly glided away.

In the distance, I could see it flick its beautiful fluke before it dived down back into the blue.

The whale encounter was an emotional experience. These creatures have such majesty and make the onlooker feel so small.

It was just one of many magical moments during our kayaking trip that will stay with me forever.

To get to Antarctica, we’d boarded Oceanwide Expeditions’ newest ship, the 170-passenger Hondius ship which launched last summer.

The polar cruise company runs kayaking programs on its boats – for amateurs and experts alike – and these are worth doing if you have a thirst for adventure.

For me, it’s a wonderful way of exploring these remote icy landscapes, with no sounds disturbing you, just the gliding of your paddle.

For the Oceanwide Expeditions trips, I recommend booking the kayaking option early, as there are limited places and these fill up quickly.

During our 10-day Learning and Discovery voyage to Antarctica, kayaking trips were running in the morning and afternoon, weather permitting.

As part of the kayaking package, we were kitted out with all of the appropriate gear including wet suits, waterproof jackets, neoprene booties, spray skirts and life jackets.

After a two-day crossing of the Drake Passage – one of the world’s most ferocious stretches of water – we finally got to the Antarctic coast and activities got underway.

For the passengers onboard the Hondius who weren’t kayaking, there were hiking and zodiac cruising options.

We, as kayakers, could also choose to do these if our arms weren’t feeling up to it.

Being out of the kayak is also better for getting photographs as cameras can get wet and GoPros aren’t as effective when it comes to close-up wildlife shots.

Our first paddle in Antarctica was unreal.

Nine of us set out with two guides to navigate the icy waters around Detaille Island, which is located below the Antarctic circle at 66°33’S.

The outcrop is home to an Adélie penguin colony and a now-defunct British base which dates back to 1956.

What to pack for an Antarctic adventure

I visited Antarctica at the beginning of February. The temperature hovered between 10 and 3 degrees Celsius while we were navigating the continent.

In Ushuaia, the Argentinian port town where we boarded the boat, it was around 16 degrees Celsius and in Buenos Aires, where I transited through to the UK, it was just below 30 degrees Celsius. Here are some of my top picks for what to pack:

  • Canada Goose Elmwood Parka £1,050 – An amazingly warm coat with lots of pockets for storage and a longer length to protect your legs from the cold. A wired peak on the hood and built in glove-like sleeves. A worthy investment to prolong your time outside, suitable for -25 degrees Celsius
  • Columbia Women’s Heavenly Shorty Omni-Heat Boot £70 – Easy-to-slip-on faux fur-trimmed boots, with gripped soles and a thermal-reflective lining. Great to wear out on deck, with heavier duty boots provided by Oceanwide Expeditions for onshore excursions
  • Smartwool Smartloft 60 Jacket £125.99 – Good to wear indoors on the ship, with a breathable merino wool fabric and a flattering fit
  • Canada Goose Hybridge Mitts £125 and Training Beanie £95 – Both items extremely warm, windproof and fared well while kayaking
  • Lululemon Snow Warrior Park £298 – A warm goose down insulated parka which is more budget-friendly. Covers the thighs and has a pocket to store phone
  • The North Face Trevail Jacket £190 – Perfect jacket for wearing on board and keeps you warm for limited periods out on deck for any wildlife sightings
  • Osprey Transporter 95 Duffel £130 – A roomy and waterproof piece of luggage, also very comfortable to wear as a backpack. Easy to store away in your cabin
  • Boardies from £60 – Bikinis and swimming shorts with funky prints that add a splash of tropical to the chilly shores
  • Merrell Bare Access XTR Sweeper £70 – A vegan-friendly shoe made from largely recycled materials. Extremely lightweight and easy to pack with a slim sole
  • Smartwool Women’s Merino Seamless Strappy Bra £49.99 – A comfortable sports bra, that soaks up sweat and reduces odour
  • Lululemon On The Fly 7/8 Pants £88 – The most comfortable soft fabric pants for long haul flight journeys. Wash well and crease-free
  • GoPro Hero 7 £319.99 – Suitable for 10metres underwater without casing. Great for filming while kayaking with smooth 4k video.

While we bashed our way through the fragments of ice, we came across seals sunning themselves and penguins plopping into the glassy waters for a dip.

The cold water was unbelievably clear, with weed, rock and alien-like plant life within view.

One thing you can’t imagine before a trip to Antarctica is how enthralling ice can be.

In this part of the world, the frozen chunks of water are completely mesmerising.

Some icebergs are like works of art, glistening sculptures carved by Mother Nature with ripples and dimples delicately catching the light.

Others mimic monstrous skyscrapers, with their giant white bodies casting a shadow over the tiny humans below.

While kayaking, you really can admire the ice in all its glory.

Some of my favourite ice appeared around Petermann Island, where we also saw the whale.

Here, we spent a good couple of hours checking our some beautiful bergs and a lively swell meant it was quite an exhilarating paddle.

Things got even more exhilarating when we attempted to kayak close to Dobrowolski Island, a tiny outcrop in the Palmer Archipelago named after a Polish meteorologist who explored the area in 1898.

The skies were grey and there was a thunderous feeling in the air.

With jagged peaks looming above, the winds started getting violent with gusts blowing up to 20 knots / 23mph.

I was already in the water at this point but my kayaking partner and I were swiftly called back to the zodiac boat and made to return to the ship as the conditions were too unstable.

It took quite a bit of effort to paddle against the brutal Antarctic breeze.

Luckily we got to do a landing instead, and it was great hiking a small hill next to Dobrowolski with dozens of seals, including a juvenile elephant seal, dotted around.

Unfortunately, the rain came down pretty hard here and we scooted back to the Hondius ship to warm up with a happy hour beverage at the bar.

The wet theme continued the next morning when we arrived at Deception Island.

The gusty conditions here meant kayaking was cancelled again but those who were brave enough went for a polar plunge instead.

Stripping down to my bikini, I ran and submerged myself in the frigid waters which hovered around 4 degrees Celsius.

It felt like my body was suddenly freezing with an icy sensation popping and snapping all over my skin.

A hot chocolate spiked with rum back on the boat helped revive matters.

We finished our Antarctic kayaking trip off on a high, with an outing around Half Moon Island, which is where the Argentine naval station Teniente Camara is located.

Here we spotted gentoo penguins straddling the stony shore and the sun made a fleeting appearance.

Giving my kayaking gear a final wash in my cabin shower before handing it back filled me with a sense of sadness it was all over.

Antarctica has a way of getting under your skin and paddling around this magical continent propelled my appreciation for its beauty even further.

Planning your own Antarctic adventure:

Oceanwide Expeditions’ Antarctica – Discovery and Learning voyage aboard the Hondius starts from €5,550 (£4,600) excluding flights.

Flights with British Airways run between London Heathrow and Buenos Aires. From there, direct flights to the port town of Ushuaia run regularly with Aerolineas Argentinas. To use lounge facilities during extended stopovers, use PriorityPass.

In Buenos Aires check into the Sheraton Buenos Aires Hotel & Convention Center for a convenient location close to the Aeroparque Jorge Newbery domestic airport and great views of the city from the bedrooms and outdoor swimming pool.

To get around the city and for airport transfers, Uber is the cheapest option.

Start your Antarctic adventure in true style with a stay at the Arakur Ushuaia Resort & Spa, which overlooks the port town. Perks include an infinity pool, hiking trails and a restaurant serving up local delicacies including King Crab, trout and braised lamb.

Regular shuttles run back and forth to the town centre.

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