WE HAD BOARDED OUR RESEARCH VESSEL in the City at the End of the World- the Argentine port of Ushuaia. The Polar Pioneer is a Russian ice-strengthened research ship built in 1983 and refurbished in 2000 to accommodate passengers in comfort for travel to the polar regions. We would live aboard her for 12 days.
The ever-present sea birds were our only companions as we sailed for two days across the notorious waters of the Drake Passage. Wandering albatrosses, Wilsons stormy petrels, Cape petrels and brown-browed albatrosses (try saying that quickly!) kept us entertained us with their flights across the waves.
The true masters of the polar oceans, they accompanied us all the way from Cape Horn to the first icebergs, and on to the South Shetland Islands of the Antarctic Peninsula.
It was time to take our first plunge. From a small but sturdy Zodiac, we gazed across the ocean surface, which was covered with thick brash ice. Then we looked at each other, and shivers ran down our spines.
We werent strangers to cold water and we were wearing drysuits with an integrated glove system and using dry-hoods with ice caps. We also had extremely warm thermal undergarments with environmentally protected regulators but, man, that water looked so... cold!
We slipped in slowly, making sure that our equipment was functioning properly. While on the surface, we noted the serenity and stillness. Besides our pounding hearts, the only sounds were the crinkling and hissing of the icy slush that surrounded us, and the occasional boom of huge hunks of ice tearing off distant glaciers.

Then we cautiously entered the underwater world of Antarctica. At 7m or so, we glanced upwards for a moment.
It was a complete white-out, except for the ghostlike silhouette of our boat.
The chunky slush appeared an eerie bluish-white as it moved up and down in the gentle swells.
Our dive site was Hydruga Rocks, a small cove alongside one of the islands in the Gerlache Strait. Below us the seabed was strewn with small boulders and overgrown with beds of brown kelp.
As our eyes became accustomed to the low ambient light, we noticed colourful starfish in dazzling shades of yellow, red and purple.
We swam deeper along the gently sloping bottom, and encountered some of the unique fish life of this region - a small spiny plunderfish and a beautifully coloured crocodile dragonfish, bottom-dwellers that have adapted to the extreme cold.
At 20m, we found a flat, sandy plain inhabited by more starfish and an occasional sea anemone. We were constantly amazed by the amount of marine life we encountered.
Antarctica is about expedition diving. Although most of ours was along small islands and in protected bays, the sites were unexplored. Thats a rare thrill these days.

Hydruga Rocks was a prelude to diving excitement elsewhere along the peninsula. One evening, as twilight faded, we decided to dive on a 1900s whaling factory ship, the Governor.
The wrecks rusting, malformed skeleton was half-submerged and half-marooned on the shore. Most of the midships section had collapsed and was unsafe to penetrate. Because of the sharp rusting metal everywhere, we had to exercise extreme care not to puncture drysuits or dry-gloves. This was a fascinating dive into the history of whaling in Antarctica, and the bleached bones of some of the unfortunate whales captured by this vessel were still strewn alongside the wreck.
At Cuverville Island, at the mouth of the Errera Channel, we dived beside and beneath massive icebergs.
Above the water, icebergs reveal their various whites, blues and purples and strange shapes and sizes. From below, however, they are awe-inspiring. Here the ice appears as smooth as glass, and frequently scalloped from interaction with the water. Often it is a light blue colour, with occasional bits of rock embedded in the frozen mass. As we dived alongside these majestic creations, we felt dwarfed by them and captivated by their beauty.

Icebergs need to be given respect, too. One afternoon, as we cruised alongside one fairly large berg near Pleneau Island, we heard a massive underwater explosion, followed almost immediately by a strong pressure wave.
The adrenaline began pumping as we struggled to swim away from the iceberg as fast as possible. Nearby, a large section of ice had broken off from a different berg, creating this frightening underwater disturbance.
Later in the week, at Cuverville Island, a massive piece of ice fell into the water directly in front of us, again highlighting the risks of exploring these structures. Still, the dives around and under these huge formations were the highlight of our journey to the frozen continent.
Our diving included encounters with fur and leopard seals, and often we found ourselves diving alongside penguin rookeries, where visibility could exceed 10m.

Antarctica is a continent isolated by strong and violent oceans, great distance and an extremely unforgiving climate. Still, man has had an impact here, and although no nation can lay claim to this continent, several still dispute ownership of various parcels of land.
This issue may become important in years to come as mineral deposits and other natural resources are discovered, as may the impact of the increasing number of tourists visiting the continent. Despite all this, Antarctica remains a wilderness for explorers and adventurers.
Perhaps the following question, posed in 1908 by French explorer Jean-Baptfe Charcot, captures the mystery of Antarctica: Where does the strange attraction to the polar regions lie, so powerful, so gripping that on ones return from them one forgets all weariness of body and soul and dreams only of going back


The crocodile dragonfish is one of the stranger-looking denizens of Antarctic waters

the spiny plunderfish is a bottom-dweller

Diving off Pleneau Island

Starfish and urchins

colourful anemones and sea whips

a wandering albatross