Just when he thought he had seen it all, two-time Olympic and extreme white-water kayaker Mike Dawson had his mind well and truly blown.
The plan was just to squeeze in one last kayak for the day. Circumnavigate an interesting looking iceberg and head back to the mother ship aka One Ocean’s Akademik Iloffe. The Antarctic air was freezing, but still. Brash ice knocked against our kayaks as we pushed though the choppy dark black water.
“There’s a whale,” one of the group said, although I didn’t pay much attention as the horizon in Antarctica is full of them. You get a bit blasé seeing them away in the distance so often. I had one goal in mind – get around the iceberg, and make sure my two young kayaking buddies made it safely home.
“Woah, whales. This is crazy.”
There was something about the way Alex spoke that caught our attention. His eyes were wide as a humpback whale cruised quietly under his kayak, the flash of a white fin running the length of his boat.
“I thought it was a rock.”
Next minute as we watched, the whale rose up out of the water in front of his boat and sunk back down. Our kayaks rocked in the swell. We sat speechless.
Suddenly we were surrounded by more whales than there were people as at least eight humpback whales circled around us. It looked like about seven young ‘uns and their mum.
As an extreme kayaker at home in the some of the world’s roughest white-water rivers, I’m used to just having a thin, albeit toughened, piece of plastic between me and the elements. However, the close proximity of so many 20 tonne whales made me stop and think.
You could feel their presence, you could hear loud grunty breathing; you could see them aware that we were there in the water with them.
For such a massive creature, they are so powerful. The opportunity to be so close to something that is so big, so raw and so much a part of Antarctica, and to do it from a kayak where you are just something so small, next to something so big was an incredible experience.
The whale encounter was the perfect end to a day that started with watching dawn break from a shallow ‘grave’ on the ice. A lucky break in the weather had allowed us to camp overnight on the ice. The experience took me right back to my exploring roots.
We kayaked to Portal Point, then climbed up the hill in our dry suits and all our stuff – just like expeditions I’m used to.
We had to dig shallow holes – our guide called them ‘graves’ – in the snow building up one side to be a wind break. By the time we had finished putting in the thermal mats and bivvy bags, it was dark and time to jump into our “snow beds” – which everyone preferred to call them.
Unbelievably just then, the wind dropped, the clouds parted and revealed a spectacular light show of stars. It was just surreal.
I was in the Antarctic as mentor to a group of young Kiwis selected by the Antarctic Heritage Trust for this year’s Inspiring Explorers’ Expedition. This is the fourth expedition the Trust has led, and this one involved kayaking along the Antarctic Peninsula.
It turned out to be an easy job because everyone was so eager to get out on the water and see what was on offer.
Watching everyone grow over the two weeks, and stretch themselves as they realised what they were capable of was very rewarding.
I found out shortly after we returned that I must have extolled the virtues of camping in the great outdoors more enthusiastically than I realised.
One of the group’s members Caragh Doherty, who is the head Physical Education teacher at Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate, told me the first thing she did when she returned from the Antarctic expedition was to go out and buy a tent.
“We are going to go and look for DOC campsites and go and explore Mother Nature around New Zealand,” she said. “My partner, my two kids and I have camped before but always with borrowed kit and then we’ve gone to the popular places. Now we’re going to head out simply and without the mod cons and have an adventure.”
Don’t you just love it?