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My Antarctic adventures: Marine scientist shares his love of the White Continent

Author: Vicky Mayer

Published on:

Dr. Damon Stanwell-Smith, Head of Science and Sustainability at Viking Expeditions, shares his emotional connection with the Antarctic in his World of Cruising column.

"I was an Antarctic Diver." A simplified description of my early career yet when mentioned in social settings nearly thirty years after I first successfully applied for work as a marine biologist with the British Antarctic Survey, I still feel a tingle of excitement and the sense of immense privilege to have had the opportunity to experience the greatest wilderness on the planet.

In 1992, I graduated from a marine biology degree at university and was immediately plunged into the extensive preparations for deployment to Signy Base in the South Orkney Islands.

This included spending the summer in the Northern Orkney Islands, training in commercial diving within the deep and swirling waters of Scapa Flow. I couldn’t quite believe I was being paid to explore this diving Mecca of scuttled warships and Celtic mystery.

After the course, I spent a weekend with friends by the coast on the South of England. It was October, and we were jumping in and out of the seasonally frigid sea, and I was the one complaining the most about feeling cold. I was teased about my impending choice of subaquatic career and was privately crushed by shivering doubt that I was making a monumental mistake.

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However, the Southern Ocean beckoned and I was swept along with the regimented excitement of the long flights south, then boarding an ice-strengthened ship across the fearsome Scotia Sea to eventually reach our island home for the next three years. Lots of adventures followed – of discovery and self-discovery – with thirteen colleagues and many thousands of penguins and seals.

My research investigated the planktonic, drifting larvae of the underwater invertebrate animals that thrive in Antarctic waters and I immersed myself in endeavouring to understand their way of life.

However, my overriding memory of that time is the morning ritual of donning a neoprene drysuit and breathing apparatus and lowering myself through a hole chain-sawed through the sea ice. Swimming down, down. I can close my eyes and it is as vivid as yesterday, recalling those wind-swept icy sledge trips to our dive sites and the calm blue world beneath.

By 2005, my Antarctic love was expressed through seasonally working on an expedition ship as a specialist guide and expedition leader. This is where I first met Jorn Henriksen, now Viking’s Director of Expedition Operations.

Being in Antarctica is a visceral experience, and so hard to describe to those who have not (yet) had a chance to visit. Credit: Shutterstock

Jorn and I were requested to supervise the in-water safety of a world-record swimming attempt in Antarctic waters by the remarkable athlete and ocean protection advocate, Lewis Pugh. Watching Lewis as he meditated prior to his record- breaking swims vicariously evoked my own profound emotions of connecting with this wildest of briny places.

Being in Antarctica is a visceral experience, and so hard to describe to those who have not (yet) had a chance to visit. My partner Hannah has always patiently listened to my tales of polar adventures, yet my words and the media images of the White Continent cannot truly convey its majesty.

And so, in 2019, we travelled south together and were married, in the old Whalers church in Grytviken, South Georgia. We continued on to the Antarctic peninsula, and it was a joy to see my wife splash into the sea for a most brief of ‘polar plunges’. Once again, memories of diving under the ice fill my mind.

I am now sitting at my desk in Cambridge in 2021. Remotely, I am working with Viking colleagues to prepare our expedition vessels in readiness for voyages next year and beyond – and I am once again reflecting on cold waters.

My wife has found that swimming in our local rivers has been her salvation. I am once again teased for finding the local waters rather too cold, and yet I still dream of the White Continent.

To meet Damon and discover the Antarctic, book a Viking ‘Antarctic Explorer’ roundtrip cruise on Viking Polaris from Buenos Aires via Ushuaia, the Drake Passage, Antarctica and Cape Horn. The cruises take place in various dates throughout November 2022, 15 days, from £14,795. See for more information. You can catch him on Viking TV too.

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