AN AWAKENING SUN LIGHTS UP THE WHITE WORLD that stretches ahead of us. A glacier extends its arms across the horizon. Mountains rise and break the soft sky.
Our location is 64 41S, 62 38W when we see the Antarctic continent for the first time. As we travel away from our expedition vessel, the zodiac that carries us penetrates deeper into a wilderness of icebergs. And then, against the face of a glacial abyss, a tail lifts out of the water. Its a humpback whale.
Known for their displays at the surface, humpbacks breach and slap, misting plumes of water upwards.
Humpbacks are easily recognised by their long pectoral fins and knobbly head. Their name is derived from the humping motion they make when they dive.
I strap on my fins, mask and snorkel. Peter Szyszka, our dive guide, manoeuvres the zodiac to ensure a close encounter. We await his OK sign.
There! Not more then a couple of metres away, a fountain hits the air. Soon the whale will be under us.
I am already immersed, gazing into an endless water column. Then a white flank appears, reflecting bright rays of light. I am snorkelling with a humpback whale! Her lumbering body draws past me, dissolving in the distance.

IT HAS TAKEN US ALMOST THREE DAYS to reach the Antarctica Peninsula from Ushuaia, Argentinas southernmost city. Our journey will take 11 days altogether. Were using an ice-reinforced expedition vessel that can carry 45 passengers, and is fully equipped for Polar diving.
A Waterproof Expeditions container on the front deck keeps our drysuits warm. Further forward, four zodiacs rest beneath the towering bridge.
A day earlier, we passed the South Shetland Islands, about 75 miles north of the peninsula. Due to the mild climate, these sub-Antarctic islands are home to many birds, such as albatrosses, skuas and penguins.
A quick equipment test on Halfmoon Island gave us the opportunity to see a rookery of more than 4000 chinstrap penguins. But our first polar dive occurs on Deception Island, the centre of which is a caldera flooded by the sea, a black beach inside it betraying the islands volcanic origin.
An abandoned whaling station stains the view. Beside the factory lie the remains of a research station, destroyed by volcanic eruptions in the 1960s.
As our captain manoeuvres the ship into the natural harbour, we gear up. A crane lifts the zodiacs into the water and we hop onboard via a mobile staircase. With a loud noise, the outboard engine pushes the boats out into the caldera, until we stop at one of the crater walls.
Trace metals cause beautiful waves of red and orange.Ready asks Peter. Cold icy water splashes into my face, and for a second it feels as if 100 knives have penetrated my skull.
A swell rocks our heavily laden bodies slowly back and forth. I have little time to orientate myself, as four huge fur seals make me jump behind my buddy. Theyre not planning to let either of us get away!
But soon I relax, because these eager creatures are gentle. Their brown bodies perform a shadow play. They dance, and in some weird manner speed forward before pulling back.
Then one gets too cheeky, and briefly sets his teeth into the lens of my camera. Surprised by the cold greeting of his
own reflection, his big black eyes stare straight into mine. And suddenly his presence becomes tangible, bringing us together. What an amazing experience!

DIVING IN ANTARCTICA IS NOT WITHOUT DANGER. Water temperatures drop below zero, and hypothermia is a real threat. We are also likely to deal with uncharted waters - not to mention dive-sites - and there are no decompression facilities. So strict dive protocols are necessary.
The maximum dive time is 45 minutes, and nobody dives deeper then 20m, explains Mike Murphy, our expedition leader, during the mandatory briefing. Whoever disregards the rules does not dive.
It sounds tough, but its for our own safety. We dive with two first stages, both coldwater-sealed, to avoid and manage freeze-ups. Our drysuits cover multiple layers of undergarments.
The attendant had looked astonished when I checked in 59kg of dive equipment at the airport. Where are you going she had asked.
To the South Pole! I could not have said it more proudly.
A thin layer of snow covers our rigged tanks as they lie in the zodiacs. We leave all the equipment outside during the night. It gets cold anyway, and taking the equipment inside only leads to the condensation of water inside the materials, explains Mike. This is especially true for cameras.
Twice a day we leave the ship: for diving, snorkelling, cruising around, landing and hiking.
We try to stretch every minute and do everything at once.
Lets look for leopard seals, says Peter, grinning. Together with orcas, leopard seals are the supreme predator in the Antarctic food chain, and big. Females can grow up to 4m long!
They hunt for penguins and krill and, less frequently, other seals, such as crab-eaters. As February ends, so does the mating and reproduction season. Now is the perfect time for hunting.
Peter manoeuvres the boat skilfully between icebergs. Floating sea-ice grates along the rubber skin, but otherwise it is very quiet.
Then a silver fleece is reflected at the surface. The head of a leopard seal makes me think of a dinosaur - a predator from another time and place.
It has got something! Feet trapped in the seals mouth, a small penguin dangles above the waterline.
The seal shakes its head violently and disappears under water.
They soon appear again, still attached to one another, and approach the foot of an iceberg, where the water is shallow and turquoise.
I hold my breath. As far as I know, leopard seals skin their prey alive by hitting it on the water - not a pleasant sight. But then, the penguin escapes!
With breakneck speed the little bird leaps onto the slope of the iceberg. As the penguin is in shock, the seal paces viciously up and down. We can almost touch them now. This is nature in its wildest form. I feel as if I have entered an all-white Jurassic Park.
Port Lockroy is a natural, 800m-long harbour. It is early morning, and in the middle of the harbour is Goudier Island. A wooden building, black with red window frames, was once used by the British government for scientific research and military activities, and this House of Bransfield is now an historic monument under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which set the continent aside as a scientific reserve.

WE ARE DIVING THIS AFTERNOON, so dont have long to walk round the monument. It offers a somewhat primitive, nostalgic view of our presence in Antarctica.
A whale skeleton catches my eye, the curved jawbones in a perfect egg shape.
Back on the mother ship, we disinfect our shoes, a requirement for anyone who goes ashore. We head for Paradise Bay to dive along the Shag Wall, one of the peninsulas best-known dive sites.
Shags nest above the 70m-deep wall, providing nutrients for everything that lives beneath. Big leaves of brown kelp make up most of the vegetation.
By paring some of the fronds under water, we reveal a hidden forest. From the largest of animals we now switch to the smallest, a miniature world just as fascinating, just as unreal and even more secretive.
Take the giant isopod. This shrimp/ crab relative look prehistoric, and it is! Fossils show that although its ancestors existed more then 160 million years ago, the giant isopod has barely changed.
An orange anemone hanging off the wall appears almost fluorescent. A gigantic seastar with more then 30 arms spreads them wherever it can.
Earlier today, during the morning dive, we saw hundreds of pink seastars on a grey ocean floor. All these sights are surreal images. And along Shag Wall, I am fascinated by the wondrous biodiversity of this place all over again.
I try to move the floating pieces of ice as I make my way back to the boat. Theyre so heavy! You guys want to do a landing Peter asks from the zodiac.
Just above the pier stands Almirante Brown, an Argentinean research station, along with some gentoo penguins.
A hill rises behind the station. The sun is about to set, so we hurry to reach the top. Restricted by drysuits, we clamber upwards, slipping and stumbling. Still wet from the dive, the water freezes on my face.
Its exhausting, but eventually I am looking out over Paradise Bay, usually hidden between a 2000m-high mountain range and a glacier face. I stretch out my arm and catch the wind. Tears roll down my cheek; I am at worlds end...
Of the seven continents, Antarctica is the coldest and driest. It hardly ever rains. It is so cold that it is permanently covered in snow and a thick ice sheet that in places reaches two and a half miles high. Only the nunataks, the edges of the mountain range beneath, are exposed.
The ice sheet is a glacier, but one so extensive that the topography of the continent does not limit its course.
The glaciers we know are formed by the shape of mountains between which they flow under their own weight, much like a river. In Antarctica, the glaciers form ice shelves at their margins, floating on the sea but still attached. From there they shed into the water calving icebergs, sometimes with ferocious intensity.
Less then 1% of the continent is not covered in ice - cold comfort for birds that cannot lay eggs on ice. Yet a rich flora and fauna flourishes under water.
Thats because of krill, explains biologist and field guide Jamie Watts, who organises the land expeditions and lectures on the ship. Their substantial biomass feeds everything around here.
He says Antarctica has more then 300 algae species, one of which, a lichen (a symbiosis of algae and fungi) actually lives above the water - Jamie points out the pink spots in the ice.
Besides this there is only one real plant on the continent - one that absorbs its nutrients from stone!

PLENEAU BAY IS ALSO KNOWN AS THE ICEBERG GRAVEYARD! shouts Jonas Sundquist over the engine noise. Its our last day in Antarctica. I had signed up for the Polar Diving speciality, and Jonas is our instructor.
The water is flat-calm, reflecting mirror images of the icy statues that fill the bay. Leopard seals enjoy the sun on the ice floes, tilting their heads to acknowledge us.
Jonas stops the zodiac as we approach a table-shaped iceberg. Most important is to know whether the iceberg is grounded or not, he says.
He measures the depth with a small yellow instrument. An iceberg is more likely to get grounded in shallow waters.
Thats what you want, he continues. When an iceberg floats, you should estimate the likelihood of it rolling over -something you dont want to happen while diving next to it!
If the iceberg has rolled over recently, the ice on top shows a pattern of dimples affected by the seawater. Signs of snow on top of the berg tell you that it has not rolled over recently. Its best to avoid those mountains.
I am a little nervous. For once, our dive-site has legs, too.
Under water, we enter another realm. The icy blue colours mesmerise me. The skin of the iceberg feels soft. Just below the waterline, I see the dimples Jonas told us about. Slowly they fade into deepening ridges that travel all the way down, as far as I can see, the black shadows eventually mixing with dark blue water. It looks spooky.
My computer now displays -2°C! My breathing rate has increased, and I am struggling to get horizontal. Whats going on It feels as if the iceberg is slowly pulling me down towards the icy blue. I guess the ice does mesmerise.
Then, out of nowhere, a leopard seal appears. You must be kidding! I push my back into the iceberg, grabbing my buddys hand. This is even spookier.
The seal is so fast that every approach comes as a surprise. Close your eyes to relax in such a situation, Peter had told me. I do this, and immediately my heart rate drops. Still shut, I realise that I want to be here and nowhere else. It works!
I open my eyes, and the seal is right in front of me.
An old picture, taken by Alfred Langsing, shows an endless landscape with several tracks running across it.
The ski-prints and ski-pole wisp marks were left by Robert Falcon Scott in his first bid to reach the geographic South Pole. He is pulling a sled - they refused to use dogs. A small line measures the distance, and the tiny footprints of an Adelie penguin cross the tracks that once sealed their fate.
The picture was taken in 1911. Somehow I feel as if I am following in their footsteps, a century later but still subject to the same harsh environment. Its nice to realise that we will always be guests in this alien world.

SLOWLY THE SHIP MANOEUVRES through Lemaire Channel, one of the most beautiful views on the peninsula, and thus known as the Kodak Channel. On the back deck, we celebrate with food, vodka and Russian music.
Then something remarkable happens. A minke whale lifts its entire body out of the water, just tens of metres away. And again! And again! Shes coming to say goodbye! I hear somebody shouting. These are leaps of happiness.
And this is how a perfect journey comes to a perfect end.
The next day, the sky colours lead grey. On the bridge, I finally start to feel the cold. With great force, the bow of our ship crushes into the waves of the Southern Ocean. The Drake Passage is about to be crossed.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly to Ushuaia in Argentina via Buenos Aires.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Waterproof Expeditions organises 11-day dive and photography-related trips to the Antarctic Peninsula four times a year. Depending on weather, the aim is to leave the ship, in this case the mv Professor Molchanov, twice a day by zodiac. Divers can do up to 10 dives plus snorkelling, preferred with whales and leopard seals.
WHEN TO GO: The Antarctic summer, from November until March. November days are long enough to take pictures at midnight. In March you may see the Southern Lights.
PRICES: Return flights with Aerolineas Argentinas cost from around £800. Waterproof charges from 4650 euros per head for a twin standard cabin with full board, including landings and excursions, and 825 euros for the dive package. www.waterproof-expeditions.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: Below Freezing by Lisa Eareckson Trotter (Wild Guides).