Hail the Emperors: In Search of Penguins

Paul Goldstein visits the Emperor Penguin colony of Snow Hill Island on the Ice-Breaker the Kapitan Kehlebnikov.

As I sit in the clinical surrounds of London SW12, my thoughts of work are compromised by visions of the Southern Seas.

To do justice to the Emperor Pilgrimage is beyond pen or keyboard. Reading brochures, guide books and journals short-change the traveller, it is not until you enter its icy, precious portals that you can truly appreciate the Eastern peninsula. It does not give its secrets away cheaply, to unlock its meticulously manicured treasures costs time and it costs money, yet it is impossible to put a price on any of the numinous highlights let alone these aquamarine vignettes.

A quest like this is following that of fabled pioneers - names like Crean, McNeish, Worsley or Shackleton - battle-hardened explorers, faces hewn from granite, eyes fixed in permanent, crinkled, thousand metre stares. And how grateful every traveller should be for their pioneering exploits. Aficionados of the 7th continent refer to the Peninsular as the 'milk run'. This is harsh, but put that relatively common itinerary against this seminal voyage and you are comparing a Ford Focus with a Ferrari.

The Khlebnikov is a class C ice breaker, does that classification mean anything to you? ...Nor me, but when you realise her sister ship is capable of navigating to the North Pole it gives you some idea of her capacity for pack-ice destruction. I can never forget the bow crashing through deep ice sheets at a respectful clip, causing icy haemorrhages to leak arterial fissures into the protracted coral sunset.

To stand on deck as this mighty beast made short shrift of obstructions that would thwart any other ship was a maritime privilege. Yet ice is not an exact science and the Khlebnikov finally showed respect to her capacious host and entered the 'pay and display' just short of her target but in such a savage Eden, who could complain?

What is a regimented science is the choppers, they attended their duties like diligent worker bees hovering above their icy hive. And when pilgrims left the ship that first evening to wander among Emperors on the ice they were greeted by the much accoladed Bob Headland. Rookeries - adelies or emperors - will never be forgotten, people picked their way in and out of these enigmatic birds wondering who was on display, the domiciled birds or us.

It is a remote Eden, thankfully. To access it easily, then commercially accessorise it, would sell its precious birthright, adding to the litany of ecological terrorism too apparent elsewhere in the diminishing worldwide wilderness.

It is a place to be cherished, and among the many mysteries there is one that begs an answer: how is it that this goddess of a ship, this gutsy leviathan, has only achieved the rank of Kapitan or Captain. Surely Commander befits her better.

Celluloid or memory cards provide easily digested mementos from this expedition, but I beseech all travellers to truffle and trawl through their labyrinthine memory mainframe to eke out the magic, for it is these unique moments that put this above any other journey. For any Polar atheists out there, take it from a believer, someone who has chalked off a few areas of the globe, this is the Grail. Only fifty or so British citizens visit the extraordinary colony of 10,000 Emperors and chicks each year.

As we parted company with the Shetlands, Mike finessed his Zodiac in close to a seasoned cobalt berg. A family of proprietary adelies stood on its frozen bow. Having posed preciously they turned away, more interested in their back yard than some callow impostors. As Mike effortlessly slipped his Yamaha into gear, one of the adelies slipped off his icy perch and surfaced a league nearer the shore - this was his home, his parish - I was jealous.

Exodus has three departures on the Kapitan Kehebnikov this autumn, the final one being with Jonathan Scott on board, there are also strong rumours that Paul may charter the whole ship in November '09.

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