At first I was a little uncertain how it would all go. Would the ice cut up the board, would it puncture, would the extreme cold cool the air inside the board and make it too soft? None of these would prove catastrophic but then there’s the wind. Katabatic winds can pick up in a matter of minutes as cold air tumbles off surrounding glaciers and ice covered peaks. Flat calm can quickly become a maelstrom of wind, water and ice with winds gusting over 100 km/hr (60m/hr). With the sea temperature sitting just below freezing (saltwater won’t freeze until about -1.6/1.8C), being in the water for even a short period isn’t an option. As with whitewater kayaking, you need to dress for the swim so my Gore-Tex Meridian dry suit was just the ticket. Even on a good day in the Deep South you need to take precautions. I had acquired a French made Mark 5 Zodiac with a 50hp engine as my safety boat, crewed by Pernille Søegaard, one of the best (and best looking) drivers around.
Life and work in Antarctica is based off a small ice strengthened ship where we offer boutique trips. We spend our days exploring the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Bay’s, channels, harbours, all packed with the necessary elements for an adventure. For half my season I’m lucky enough to head the sea kayak adventure component on board. We take a small team of 10 passengers (max) and explore the various back channels, iceberg graveyards and coastal penguin rookeries. Six seasons of guiding has allowed me plenty of time out on the water doing what I believe is the best job on the continent. Being small, quiet, and travelling in small groups affords you more intimate interactions with the environment more frequently. The penguins come closer, the seal’s more inquisitive and then there are the whales. Incredible!
The element I was most excited about SUPing in the Antarctic was the view point. Sitting in a kayak means you spend most of your time looking across the water, but stand up paddling gives you a much better point of view. Standing taller you can see more of what is happening beneath the surface. Combine this with the water clarity and you have a winning combination.
Antarctica is out of this world. It doesn’t feel like a remote part of earth, it feels like another planet. Snow and ice covered peaks fall into the sea. Glaciers calf and shed their ice into huge bays and small inlets. Penguins tentatively enter the water and then swim gracefully out to sea in search of krill. Couple this environment with a SUP and you get to traverse an amazing environment with the peace and independence it deserves.
I had teamed up with Toby from Moana SUP boards in New Zealand. He set me up with their inflatable touring/racing board, the Kekeno 12’6”. Built to be rigid, tough and fast, I was curious to see how it would handle the cold water and ice. At 12 psi it was rock solid even in the sub zero temperatures. As my confidence grew, I began to thread and bash my way through the brash ice (smaller pieces of ice from broken and decaying icebergs). After seasons of speculation, it was great to get out and explore from the vantage of a SUP.
Our paddle destination was Orne Harbour on the Western Antarctic Peninsula. It looks like two leaves from a clover have been cut into the peninsula. Spigot Peak stands tall above the bay. To the west lays the Gerlache Strait, the inner waterway we use to navigate our way further south.
Perfect conditions had a left us with flat calm seas, the significance of this wasn’t lost on me. I have a blue bird day to stand up paddle in Antarctica, the windiest continent on earth. Orne Harbour is home a small rookery of Chinstrap Penguins. As a raft of penguins porpoised past, they paused from their return trip to swim next to (and under) me as I glided through the ice. Watching penguins in slow motion on BBC is great, but having them swim, dive and porpoise around you live and up close is amazing. The melodic splash as they re-enter the water after each breath, the grace at which they fly and carve through the water. All too quickly they turn and head for home, the rookery nestled on the point. Being midsummer meant they were in the middle of raising young, and there were hungry mouths to feed.
Not wanting to have all the fun myself, I radio back to Pernille to ask if she’s interested in a paddle. “Is a penguin waterproof?” In a flash she pulls the zodiac in beside me and we trade places. Already geared up, she attaches the leash and heads off to discover SUPing the frozen continent for herself. Having swapped paddle and SUP for zodiac and camera, we continue to explore more of the bay until the wind started to pick up. Nothing last forever and it’s especially true of the weather down here. With wind gradually building it was time to wrap up and head back to the safety and warmth of the ship.