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Taking the Plunge: Swimming in Antarctica

Whalers Bay, Antarctica.Whalers Bay, Antarctica. Image: Superstock

Whether foolish or fearless, Emily Payne is determined to swim the icy waters of the Antarctic

Black ash has settled on the enormous glaciers rising from the shingled beach. It’s below freezing — the peak of the Antarctic summer — and light snow is falling from the sky. Rusting oil vats, the remnants of a whaling station, lie upturned on the shore, giving shelter to snoozing fur seals and paddling skuas. But the calm at Deception Island is misleading.

In the 19th century, whalers designated this horseshoe-shaped South Shetland Island their refuge from the bitter polar weather. Later, scientists followed suit. But Antarctica had other ideas. In 1967, a string of volcanic eruptions forced the British, who had established a base in 1944, to withdraw and eventually abandon it. Since then, attempts to find permanent shelter here have been thwarted by natural explosions.

Hurtigruten’s MS Fram edges through a 650ft gap in the rock, named Neptune’s Bellows after the whistling noise and roaring winds in this relatively narrow channel. Entering the caldera is like arriving at a totally altered, albeit still freezing, world. After the monstrous Drake Passage crossing — a three-day ocean rollercoaster from Argentina — and a raging snowstorm at Esperanza on the Antarctic Peninsula, there’s peace and unexpected sunshine. It’s not surprising the whalers relished this placidity.

We moor at Whalers Bay at Port Foster, and along with a 25-strong expedition group, I hike to a viewing point and stare out at this monolithic landscape. There’s nothing but ash, ice and, over the glacial peaks, the sea. It’s the biggest, most arresting and alien thing I’ve ever seen.

My heart starts hammering on the descent. I can already feel myself chickening out. I’d decided, since leaving the port at Ushuaia, that I’d swim in Antarctic water. It would be one of my life’s great moments. But I’m now beginning to realize it was just foolish showing off.

Even so, I stride purposefully towards the pebble-bottomed sea, awkwardly removing heavy clothing as I go. Looking around, I see everyone else is very much fully-clothed and several people are gawping. Soon I’m standing in a flimsy excuse for swimwear on the water’s edge, watching a gaggle of gentoo penguins looping through the waves. They’re making this look way too easy.

I hobble ungainly into the icy surf, tripping over stones, and a group of Japanese women take photos of me and chuckle. An elderly man calls out: “Are you mad?” I get to waist-deep and stop. Then my inner monologue counts three, two, one… GO! Hitting the water — which can only be described as deafeningly cold — is like taking an ice-cold shower and then getting into the freezer.

Once fully submerged, it takes just one second to realize I’m getting out.

PUBLISHED IN THE FALL 2014 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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