I can barely breathe because of nerves … or is it excitement? Out across the bay, mountains thick with snow vanish into bleached skies. The sea glitters with ice.
I shrug off my robe, step out of my slippers and walk down to the water. The air is chill, the wet floor beneath my feet supremely cold. A small iceberg floats by and is soon gone, sped on by an unseen current. I shiver. No doubt about it, this is going to be cold.
There’s no time to waste. With every ounce of courage, I run, jump and leap into the air.
Seconds feel like minutes.
Somewhere to my right is an inflatable boat and expedition crew, bundled up against the chill.
Mountains, icebergs, ice.
Then confusion as I go under.
A clanging fills my ears, the water so frigid, that I feel instantly disoriented. Everything hurts, the cold like a vice. It jolts me into action.
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Surfacing fast, I swim with jagged strokes to where a ladder strapped to a pontoon leads from the sea up to our ship, Atlas Ocean Voyages‘ World Voyager. The 198-passenger vessel’s expedition team is standing by, ready to lend a neoprene-gloved hand to hoist me out of the sea.
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For the past week, this spot has been our launching pad for adventures in the Zodiac inflatable boats. Kitted up in thermals and Atlas-issued lime green polar jackets, our small group of 10 has carved a white path through diamond seas, bound for icebergs, penguins and snow-covered islands. We’ve stared spellbound at crevassed glaciers bigger than a suburb and spied seals dozing on ice floes.
This afternoon is very different. One by one, we check off the hottest ticket in Antarctica — plunging into the freezing 30-degree waters of the driest, highest continent on Earth.
The ultimate ice bath
I’m no stranger to ice baths and the health benefits they bring, from reducing inflammation to accelerating muscle recovery and switching off the “fight-flight” that can lead to high cortisol and stubborn fat.
I’ve braved Sydney’s Bondi Beach in winter, taken regular cold showers and dived headlong into near-freezing waters at the North Pole — that one on a 15-day cruise aboard the new luxury icebreaker, Le Commandant Charcot, from upscale line Ponant Cruises.
But nothing beats the heart-stopping chill of plunging into Antarctica’s waters in late spring — or the camaraderie of sharing the exhilarating moment with 86 like-minded daredevils.
Just a week ago, 138 of us set off to Antarctica on the nine-night maiden voyage of World Voyager — fast-growing Atlas Ocean Voyages’ third new ship in two years. Leaving Ushuaia, Argentina, behind, we met the roiling Drake Passage at peak shake, riding the churning 33-foot swell. In the days that followed, we staggered to mandatory safety briefings, polar boot and jacket fittings and gala dinners.
The more adventurous among us planned to kayak or camp overnight in the continent, snug in bivouac sleeping bags designed to withstand freezing temperatures. It’s the kind of luxury that polar explorers of old, like Ernest Shackleton, could only dream about. Both activities came with a price tag. The polar plunge was free and open to all.
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The bundled-up nature of the crew hints at just how cold it is. BELINDA LUKSIC/FOR THE POINTS GUY
We moseyed around the South Shetland Islands, sidling into the flooded caldera of Deception Island. The active volcanic shield had erupted twice in the late ’60s. At Pendulum Cove, the foundations of the Chilean research station were all that remained. An old whaling station haunted Whaler’s Bay, our first sighting of penguins.
The spirit of expedition sailing
On the continent, the weather turned. Gale-force winds and heavy snowfall chased away blue skies and sunshine. Barrelling down the Gerlache Strait, we hit hurricane-strength 100-knot winds and a 16-foot swell. Wind-wracked, salt-lashed seas rose and fell.
On board, the tempest barely registered, ballasted as we were by the ship’s twin Rolls-Royce stabilizers and the maneuvering of our Norwegian captain, Terje Ulset. I went to the gym and the sauna, watching the drama unfold through panoramic glass. At dinner, we lingered over cheese plates and dessert as waves rocked the ship. The Dome observatory lounge, on the top deck, was our port in a storm for late-night cocktails and cabaret.
As the wild weather continued, we pivoted. Landings were shuffled, and plans scuttled. First, the kayak, and then the overnight camp were canceled. The polar plunge looked set to suffer the same fate until day six dawned bright, white and promising.
The final countdown
We chanced frostbite on Cuverville Island, snapping photos of the cute gentoo penguins waddling to the summit. Come afternoon, it was Shackleton’s fate we tempted, powering through fractured pack ice to touch the continent in lieu of a landing.
It wasn’t long before the plunge deck was readied. We waited in the lounge for our group to be called, dressed in matching robes and slippers as if at a day spa. A pod of humpbacks entertained us. I watched the crew herd icebergs in the Zodiacs.
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Passengers wait in robes to take a polar plunge. BELINDA LUKSIC/FOR THE POINTS GUY
Down in the mud room, the excitement was contagious. There were selfies and laughter. People shuffled along in the queue, returning dripping wet and grinning. A belt was fixed to my waist, a tethering rope clipped to it before the jump. The ship’s doctor stood by with a defibrillator (a precaution, I later discovered, rarely needed).
World Voyager’s godmother, Harpreet Kaur “Preet” Chandi, had joined us in Ushuaia for the ship’s christening. Here was a woman who had skied solo to the South Pole, a two-month quest where winds howled and snow bit like sand. Did she have any words of wisdom to impart?
“Remember to enjoy every moment,” she shot back with a smile.
I’m reminded of this as I stand dripping on the pontoon, the post-plunge high already kicking in. It wraps around me like a warm blanket as I do a victory lap onto the ship, cheers and applause ringing in my ear.
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