I had known that coming to Antarctica would be amazing, and I had expected it to be like nothing I had ever seen, but I was just not prepared for this. It is beautiful and magnificent and enormous beyond anything I have ever experienced. It is an awesome and humbling place to be. This place exists on an utterly incomprehensible scale.
The serrated spine of the South American Andes descends below the ocean’s surface at Tierra del Fuego to wreak havoc on the currents of the Drake Passage before re-emerging from the sea as the Antarctic Peninsula. Upon these jagged peaks, thousands of years’ snowfall still rests. In some places, it is a mile deep. As the weight of today’s fluffy snowflakes accumulates, it adds to those before until the snow way at the bottom is squeezed by the enormous force into clear blue ice. Gravity pulls this ice unrelentingly down the valleys until it reaches the calving face. There, it creaks and pops before giant slabs break off and crash into the sea in an explosion of water and ice. Then they become baby blue bergs the size of office buildings that slowly drift away, sometimes for years, before melting.
Expedition entered the Gerlache Strait. As I stood eighty feet above the water on the top of the ship, it felt as if the whole continent towered over our tiny little vessel. I could look up and see the layers upon layers of snow and ice and the rock scoured clean by the abrasion of the glaciers. I could hear the ice groan and crack, even over the ship’s engines, and I could feel the biting cold of the air that had left that same ice only a few minutes before coming down to encounter me on top of a little red ship chugging its way south. I wished I had known sooner. I wouldn’t have taken so long to get here.
Expedition turned and entered a small channel. The mountains closed and the ice increased. After a few minutes she turned again to face a wall of blue ice many times higher than the ship and backed by a big, bowl-shaped valley of white. Big chunks of ice were everywhere. Expedition gingerly pushed them aside and then dropped anchor right in the middle of it all.
We had breakfast and then our groups were called to the mud room. Maryanne and I had managed to get our names on the list for an extended zodiac tour, so we were the last to leave the ship this time. (Zodiac is the brand of rigid inflatable boat used to shuttle between ship and shore)
More ice and still wow!
Our trip through the harbor was incredible. Our driver pushed through a slush of brash ice with few open gaps of water between. We came upon lots of Crabeater seals hauled on the bigger pieces and were able to get up close with them. We saw plenty of amazing ice sculpted into incredible shapes by the melting process, including one big piece that had formed three big columns.
Floating ice is tremendously unstable. As it melts, it’s centers of gravity and buoyancy are constantly changing. Sometimes the slightest thing will send them tumbling, breaking pieces off and sending water trapped underneath flying in huge jets.
Our three-column piece, which must have weighed several tons, rocked back and forth as the ripple from our zodiac lapped at its base, and then returned to where it was. Across the harbor on the other side of Expedition, a tremendous boom was heard. We looked over just in time to see a piece of ice bigger than the ship calve off the wall and plunge into the sea. A wave then radiated out into the harbor. There was some discussion on the radios about whether it would be necessary to recall the boats, or at least get people off the beach who were ashore. The ice softened the wave somewhat and it was agreed everybody would be fine. By the time it got to us, it was a gentle two-foot swell. The chunks of ice heaved up and down and squeaked as they ground against each other. The wave passed the three-column piece as if it were solid land. It didn’t budge an inch. As we were all getting ready to leave a few minutes later, it suddenly flipped completely over, sending spray and its own decent-sized wave our way. Perhaps the big wave broke a piece off of the bottom and it became slightly top heavy. The berg we had been admiring was now gone, replaced by one of a completely different shape. We were the last to see it. It’s amazing to think that this kind of drama happens all of the time here.
Oh, and some penguins
We went ashore for some more Gentoo time, including a rare leucistic one with low pigment (albino for birds). We resisted, but it’s hard not to pick one up and start petting it. We took the trail to the top, where we were stunned by the incredible views in the amazing light. Once again we confirmed that Antarctica is big and the ship is small.
As we were waiting for our ride back, we got a good look at all of the stuff the staff always brings to shore in preparation for our landing. They usually keep it discretely hidden under a pile of parkas and life jackets. Some of it was the expected, like the boot scrapers and a first aid kit. Also included were several tents, space blankets, emergency rations and fuel. If the weather turned in a hurry, they had to be prepared for us to be marooned ashore until it was safe to return to the ship. That would be a story, but I can’t imagine it would be much fun.
We returned to the nice warm ship for yet another big lunch while the crew pulled up anchor to head to our next stop.
Good visibility, sunny. Wind: Variable 1; Sea: calm; Air Temp: 3°C