The first of John Harrison’s 54 trips to Antarctica wasn’t planned. It took place two decades ago, two days after snagging a cruise deal. The 65-year-old’s first glimpse of the Peninsula was of the South Shetland Islands. “They rise straight from the sea to steep, jagged peaks clothed for most of the year in snow from shore to skyline,” he says.
Since then, he returns seasonally as an adventure cruise guide, driving Zodiacs in the Falklands, home to the world’s greatest population of black-browed albatrosses. When the weather worsens, he is constantly aware of the lives on board that he is responsible for. Katabatic winds that fall off a mountain in Antarctica can accelerate, and lift boats over the water like a Frisbee. On one occasion, even his 5,000-tonne icebreaker couldn’t withstand a hurricane in the ice-filled Weddell Sea.
Among those Harrison meets are world experts in marine birds, geology and, once, a doctor studying the impact of the Apollo moon landings on the human body. Human interest was one of the reasons that propelled him to write Forgotten Footprints: Lost Stories In The Discovery of Antarctica. “I wanted to write a book that would tell the stories of the men who first shone light on the places visitors saw on their trips.”
Harrison spends 15 hours daily on excursions and his fondest memory is being alone on the water at 3am, with nothing but the stars and the sound of the ocean slipping underneath his boat.
His advice to travellers: time your visit well if you’re there for the penguins or whales, and don’t be intimidated by the thought of endless blizzards – trust the expert staff. “There’s nowhere like Antarctica. Mankind’s footprint here is almost negligible. The virgin landscapes are renewed each savage winter, so every spring is like the first.”
PHOTOS: CELIA ANSDELL (MAIN PHOTO), JOHN HARRISON (SELF-PORTRAIT)
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.