Traveller Stories: An Incredible Antarctic Cruise with Greg Mortimer

Majestic scenery abounds in the Antarctic Peninsula | Eve Ollington
Majestic scenery abounds in the Antarctic Peninsula | Eve Ollington

Since Dale Jacobsen was a child she always dreamt of visiting Antarctica and in January 2013, she finally fulfilled that dream and embarked on the Ross Sea Explorer with legendary Australian mountaineer, Greg Mortimer. 

From landing on a volcano via helicopter at 2am, to coming face-to-face with penguins, below she shares the incredible story of her Antarctic cruise! 

My Antarctica Cruise Adventure

If, like me, you are fascinated by ice, mountains, penguins—all those things that are Antarctica—and you dream of going, then just do it. Jump aboard an Antarctica cruise You won’t regret it. Since I was a little girl of eight, I just knew I would go there one day.

My turn came in January 2013 when I stepped aboard Ortelius to spend the next 32 days sailing from Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego) to Bluff (New Zealand) under the leadership of Australian mountaineer, Greg Mortimer. We sailed through mist, snow and sunlight into a surreal world of mountains, glaciers and icebergs. I truly have never seen anything more awe-inspiring or beautiful.

Peninsular Fairyland

I have always said I would not just go to the Antarctic Peninsular; my goal was to travel further south and see the historic huts of McMurdo Sound. However, the Peninsular was like a fairyland of blue crystal palaces that floated by. I have always been in love with blue ice. It was there in spades.

I awoke at 2.45 on the morning of day 4 and knew we had arrived as the boat no longer rocked and there was a quiet stillness. I looked out my porthole. Can you imagine the thrill of seeing craggy mountains passing by, all covered in snow and ice with glaciers tumbling into the water? A small berg came into view with half a dozen Adelie penguins waving their flippers.

I woke my cabin mate, for we had made a pact before going to bed, and we dressed in warmies and went up to the bridge. Not many people were awake. I went out on deck and started the camera rolling, ignoring the nip in the air that chilled my fingertips.

Of course, I couldn’t return to sleep, and others gradually joined us on deck. I had always thought the paintings of sailing ships surrounded by albatrosses and ghostly towering bergs in the heroic era were romanticised, but as the birds and mist swirled around us, I realised they weren’t. If the Lemaire Channel isn’t the most beautiful place on earth, I don’t know what is. I said so to Greg who replied: ‘Well, one of them.’ So we must have some wonderful experiences ahead of us.

Later that same day I had my first Zodiac ride to Pleneau and Petermann Islands. Until then, I wasn’t particularly interested in penguins; it was the ice and mountains I had come so far to experience. That is until a Gentoo penguin waddled up to me on its little pink feet. The rocks were covered in nesting pairs, each with a couple of grey fluffy balls at their feet, demanding to be fed. Even the noise and smell didn’t stop me from filming. I was frustrated by my inexperience at hopping rocks and trudging through snow and dodging skuas – I felt a lot like the penguins, really.

We crossed the Antarctic Circle the next day amid snow flurries sailing through a guard of honour of magnificent bergs. Now truly in Antarctic waters, we raised glasses of champagne (at ten in the morning) to the Circle and James Cook, who did it first. The colour of the sea changed overnight to a deep grey and the size and shape of the bergs became less sculptured and more dense and tabular.

Landing on a Volcano at 2am

Signing up for this expedition came with certain expectations: visiting a place that would be familiar through vicarious travels with Mawson, Shackleton, Ross, Amundsen – stepping in their footsteps – but nothing prepared me for landing in a helicopter on the flanks of the volcano that is Peter I Island in the early hours of the morning.

This mountain rises in the middle of the Bellingshausen Sea, a long, long way from anywhere. We met in the bar at midnight to make a decision. To put off a possible landing till morning could risk losing the window of clear, calm that had opened that day. We all agreed to go for an ‘all-nighter’ to attempt a landing. Zodiacs were out of the question, with only two landing sites, both on steep rocky shorelines on the western side with a heavy swell and 20k winds. The only other option was by helicopter. I was thrilled at this prospect. It would be another first for me.

I stepped from the helicopter into another world, truly pristine. Towering above the ridge was Mount Lars Christensentoppen, 1,640 metres of pure andasite capped by ice that slumped in places, threatening to tumble into the sea. Pure white snow crunched beneath my feet as I followed the line of red flags guiding us up the ridge, clear of crevasses, away from the 200m cliffs. My cheeks tingled, my glasses fogged, my pulse quickened, and my mind calmed. Determined to absorb every last nuance of this adventure in the mystic 2am twilight, I slowed my pace, letting others pass.

McMurdo Sound – the Holy Grail

It took over two weeks to reach the Ross Sea; a time spent spotting birds and whales, motoring through brash ice in Zodiacs, attending lectures in the theatre of University Ortelius, getting to know our fellow expeditioners. We almost didn’t make it as thick one- and two-year ice blocked the entrance to the Ross Sea. At the last moment, the wind changed direction and blew the ice north.

As we approached McMurdo Sound, the enormity of it all overwhelmed me: the history; missing my mum who had passed away a few months before; fulfilling my dream; the continent – so much more powerful than I could ever have imagined. I needed to be by myself, so went to the bow and tried to come to grips with it all. Of course, I couldn’t. I cried a little but was not sure for what. Perhaps for the girl who so desperately wanted to come here, or for the adult who promised she would.

To step into the McMurdo historical huts is akin to bumping into Scott and Shackleton themselves. The huts are just as they had left them, complete with provisions that are supposedly still edible, and holey socks hanging from a line. I love pioneer huts almost as much as I am obsessed with Antarctica. The New Zealand Heritage Trust is doing a fantastic job restoring and preserving this important history.

We anchored in McMurdo Sound for five days, and I barely slept. It wasn’t so much the 24 hours of daylight as the way the light played with the glaciers and mountains, always changing; every change needing to be photographed. We took the helicopters into the Taylor Dry Valley where I wandered for hours in utter silence. Another special place seeped into my soul.

I felt a deep sadness as we turned north, leaving the ice behind. Macquarie Island made up for it to some extent. It is a wild and wonderful place, and I sat on the coarse sand with king penguins nibbling my boots.

Landing in Bluff, 32 days after boarding Ortelius, all I wanted to do was turn around and head back south. I slept on dry land that night and missed the heartbeat of the engine; I missed the rocking.

Why Antarctica?

People often ask me ‘Why Antarctica?’ when I tell them of my life-changing expedition. I reply: ‘Because it is the most magnificent, awe-inspiring place on the earth. Because every corner you turn, you are greeted with the bluest ice and majestic mountains.’ I guess people either get Antarctica or they don’t.

Being a writer, this adventure was always going to end in a book. 'Why Antarctica? A Ross Sea Odyssey' is available as an iBook and on Kindle. View the book trailer on YouTube.



Inspired to embark on your own Antarctica cruise? View the range of Antarctica cruises on offer that are not only active but take small groups sizes for a more intimate expedition.

Antarctica, Cruising, Traveller Stories

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