Ice – Antarctica at Last

by Robert Bush: November 14, 2015

blog 4-6As I noted in the previous entry, we had to leave South Georgia Island a day early to avoid a big and dangerous storm that might have made it impossible to sail to Antarctica. As we headed south, we started seeing more and more icebergs. This was especially true as we crossed through the current that circles the continent, like a river, bringing along with it icebergs from the Ross Sea on the other side of the continent. We had a rare day with blue skies and water itself was very blue, and we passed numerous intensely white icebergs of differing shapes and sizes floating on the blue water under the blue sky. As you can imagine, I have quite a few photos of these – and I will attach one to this entry.

After two and half days cruising through the Southern Ocean, we finally reached the Antarctica peninsula but not before experiencing the edge of the storm we had left South Georgia Island to avoid. Even though we were only experiencing the edge of the storm, we once again felt the wrath of 20 to 30 foot swells for about 12 hours.   To translate that statistic to life on board, a 20 to 30 foot swell means that waves would regularly break against the windows in the ship’s lounge – which is on the third story of the ship. At one point, Chris Eckstom, Franz’s wife and one of our photo leaders on this trip, went outside on the third floor walkway to take video of the storm and was hit with a wave which didn’t knock her overboard but did ruin her camera. Right after that, the upper deck was closed. As we went to sleep that night, we would experience a feeling that the boat was weightless as it was tossed up by a swell. There would be a few seconds of anticipation while we felt like we were flying, and then the boat would crash down onto the trough of the wave with a loud thump. Over and over again!!

The storm moved on, and the boat then moved into the Antarctic Sound – the waterway between the Antarctic Peninsula and the main body of the continent. This is an area that is not commonly visited by anyone other than researchers but we had the opportunity to go there because we had one extra day since we had left South Georgia a day early.

The day in the Sound, Thursday, November 12 was truly spectacular   Our wake up call came at 5:00 a.m. so we could witness the amazing sight of the huge tabular icebergs that resulted from the breakup of the huge B15 iceberg. B15 was a huge piece of ice that 15 years ago broke off from the ice sheet extending into the Ross Sea. When it first broke off, it was 100 miles long by 30 miles wide.   The remaining tabular icebergs are themselves huge – some are up to 15 miles in length.  I don’t know how high they are but they must be at least 100 feet high. And they are grounded – which means that they are attached to the sea floor, which is hundreds of feet below the surface of the water. The entire Sound was filled with them.   In fact the ship’s radar, indicated that it looked the icebergs completely blocked access to the Sound. Since our ship is the first ship in the Sound this year, and since these huge pieces of ice continually move no one really knew whether we could proceed further. But the boat slowly and carefully approached them and it turns out that while they overlapped, it was possible to maneuver through them. So the ship spent hours slowly wending its way between these towering walls of ice.

In addition to these huge tabular icebergs that broke off from the continental ice sheet, the Sound was filled with smaller chunks of ice – some formed by the freezing of the ocean water, and some formed from the calving of glaciers. We continued to see penguins – these are now adelie penguins. We would see them porpoising through the water, or resting on an ice flow.

Because the storm had moved northeast and we were protected from the residual winds by the South Shetland Islands., the sea was very calm and actually glassy. We stood on deck for hours in the bitter cold watching these huge pieces of ice and of course taking pictures of them.

Once we had cleared most of them, we continued through the Sound to see if we could go ashore, but the landing areas were covered with high banks of snow that were being undercut by the ocean water. Instead of landing, we were able to ride through the ice flows in the zodiacs – and those who had elected to use kayaks got to kayak through the snow. For almost 2 hours, we made our way through frozen ocean water – “sea ice” – as well as small and large icebergs, while being watched over by the absolutely towering walls of sheet ice tabular icebergs. It is hard to put into the words the other -worldly nature of what we saw – so I won’t try and instead I will just provide a few photos.

After our zodiac cruise, the winds and swells picked up a bit making further landings impossible and the boat headed back north to leave the Sound and turn west and south to go to our original destination – the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

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