Monday, January 16, 2012

Antarctica Reached

I imagine Columbus after five weeks crossing the Atlantic. He would have been scanning the horizon to no avail for days, if not for the honour of it, then for the lifetime remittance that Queen Isabella promised as reward to the first European to see the new world. And then the horizon shifted and a mirage of green became defined and someone on the Pinta fired a canon and then everyone saw it.

I open my eyes at 5 am, dress, and step out the door on the deck of Polar Pioneer. I think already I will see the continent. I think I missed the moment of seeing Antarctica appear out of the mist. But as I look out off the bow, I see only sea and sky. The ship trudges stubbornly on through the Southern Ocean.

There is always hot water in the urn in the galley and I make some English breakfast tea and head to the bridge. I'm told we passed an iceberg at 4 am and that we're close to land. There are three members of the crew on the bridge including the captain and I take it as a sign that there may be more to look out for today. I don't know who sees it first, but there is a quick conversation in Russian and then I hear the word in English: iceberg.

It would be unlikely for Antarctica to be the first thing any sailor would see heading south. Before land, there will always be icebergs. They've been known to migrate as far north in the sea as 26o30' latitude (reported by the iron sailing ship Dochra in 1894) which is between Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro but most of them stay closer to home – white wannabe islands doomed like the grey hair on my head to recede into nothingness one day.

The one ahead is a distant white spot on the horizon. It is a tabular iceberg and it likely calved off the continent and could already have travelled for miles and years. As we draw nearer, it becomes more defined. It's a huge fragment of a broken Greek column lying tilted in the black sea. Off the port side of the ship, another outline comes into focus. It's the edge of the Antarctic peninsula—Lavoisier Island. We have arrived.

We are heading for the top edge of Adelaide Island and the Antarctic Circle and because the inside passages are still clogged with pack ice, we keep to the west edge where the sea is open. Anyone who travels these waters regularly knows that the fastest way through ice is around it. More icebergs appear as we motor south and they awe me with their mass and with the intricacy of the patterns on their surfaces. And here is what I think of as a kind of idiot moment – icebergs are ice. I have always thought of icebergs as, well, kinda snowy. In my my mind and in photos they're often white so I've been thinking of them as big floating igloos. But icebergs are more like supertankers carrying a hold full of cast iron wrapped in cast iron. They're not igloos, they're blue steel battering-rams and even the smallest iceberg would knock a hole in an aircraft carrier and sink it.

Gary explains the idea of “ice blink” and “sea sky”. There is often low cloud in Antarctica and experienced mariners learned that the cloud ceiling appears white above vast stretches of ice because the light reflects off the surface, whereas a dark sky indicates open water where the light is swallowed by the sea.

We are still fifteen nautical miles from the Circle when the pack ice wraps its arms around us and because we are determined to get at least that far south, the ship plunges into it. At first, we move into brash ice which thickens as we press on. And then the ship is pushing aside larger floes until we're deeper in and the surface ahead becomes solid and then lines burst out from our bow like cracks in the plaster from Sylvester's head while Tweety-bird flutters unharmed.

For three hours, a gaggle of passengers stands on the bow, swooning over the way the ship pushes through, and cheering when the Polar Pioneer shoves aside a knucklehead of ice like a bouncer making way through a crowd.

And then the engines stop and we drift just a little further as champagne glasses are passed around. The ship's whistle is reluctant at first, but the crew knocks it back to function and there is a collective cheer to celebrate the arrival at 66o34' south – we are over the Antarctic Circle.

We've been in Antarctica a few hours and a few weeks worth of life has happened.

Polar Pioneer is the first ship this season to get over the Antarctic Circle and there's a reason for that: the pack ice won't let us much further. That's not quite true. We could wrestle our way through and into Crystal Sound (which had been our hope) but in this ice, we travel at two or three knots so the question becomes whether it is worth it in terms of time and fuel to storm on, or whether it is better to head back North awhile and get inland there.

We turn around and motor back where we've come from. To make up for Crystal Sound, the ship stops when we get back to open water. We're going to get into zodiacs and kayaks and explore the ice floes. In twenty minutes, I'm geared up in my dry suit and life jacket. So my first experience in the kayak in Antarctica will be in the open ocean. The unloading happens quickly and I have little time to be nervous. One minute, I'm on the stern deck and the next I'm paddling away from the ship and through chunks of ice taller than me. I feel like a mosquito in a margarita as I coax the kayak along. My brother is in the cockpit in front of me and he is as speechless as I am. We're following the line of boats ahead and when I look over my shoulder, I can no longer see the ship. It would be so easy to get lost out here and there are so many opportunities to die. There are no waves, but there is a long swell that floats us up and down—the kind of roll you only get far out at sea. And yet it is also deeply peaceful. The zodiacs are somewhere else and all I hear is the mash of paddle dipping into the brash and the crunch of ice off the kayak bow. Around a small iceberg and the group stops. There are several Adélie penguins on an ice flow. They're resting from a feed and seem largely unconcerned about psychedelic kayaks—blue, orange, red. We're so far out of place we can't possibly be threatening. We paddle further and find two more Adélies on a piece of ice that is about four meters square and this time we're treated to a little show as a crabeater seal decides to climb aboard. Crabeaters don't eat penguins, but they don't seem to know that. They squawk and toddle toward the edge of the flow but stop when they see kayaks (wait a minute, were these here before??) then turn around and squawk some more. Judd, our kayak guide, gets a message on his radio. The zodiacs have spotted a humpback whale so we take off after it. It is only when I am back in my cabin hours later that I have a chance to wonder whether it makes sense to chase down a humpback whale in a kayak.

When we arrive at the spot the whale was last seen, it has sounded and we begin to paddle back toward the ship. There is a rush of air as if someone just punctured a bagpipe, and I see mist from the whale's blowhole behind a raft of ice. It sounds again and I paddle the rest of the way to the ship, but half an hour later, after I've shucked all my kayak gear, I venture out on deck and the whale surfaces. It is feeding off the bow and I watch it until it dips below the pack ice and swims away.

Everyone is animated at dinner. We're sailing north now, away from the sunset. And anyway, the sun will not set but will feint toward the horizon before arching up again. I am so visually overstimulated that I think I will never be able to look at a tv screen again. My nose and cheeks are burnt by wind and cold and by reflected light off the ice. I need some sleep and I know my dreams are going to shimmer.


  1. Thank you for such an incredible post Jay! You are giving us all a wonderful peephole through which to see this magical place.

  2. what an adventure!

    I am now at small Mexican village, La Manzanilla, scorched by strong heat daytime, attending Argentine Tango seminar, then reading your story at opposite extreme. Me gusta mucho! (Mitsu)