Ice, ice, baby... (5) Antarctic scenery

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March 20th 2008
Published: March 20th 2008
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If stepping ashore at Cape Adare was magical, walking down the gangway and straight onto a vast plain of snow-covered sea ice which stretched away to the distant foot of the Campbell Glacier was breathtaking.

We’d spent the first few hours of the morning on the bridge or out on deck watching incredible scenery unfold around us. As we breakfasted, the ship rounded Cape Washington and the simple magnificence of Mount Melbourne, and entered Terra Nova Bay. In the distance were the ice cliffs of the Campbell Glacier’s tongue, and beyond that the peaks of the northern end of the Prince Albert Mountains. It was a stunning day. In compensation for the wind and grey skies of the day before, the sun was shining in skies that were a delicate shade of blue with only high wispy cloud, and the sea between the ice formations, old floes of pack ice and newly-freezing ice fingers and pancakes, was picturesquely still. It was one of those days where the proverbial team of monkeys, if released from the task of typing the complete works of Shakespeare, could have taken award-winning photographs. The scenery positively hurled itself through the camera lens.

The temperature was dropping further. We’d woken to Jack Frost patterns on the inside of our porthole, and the ship’s bow was a modern art masterpiece, ropes and equipment soaked by the previous day’s huge seas now covered in thick layers of ice.

After one failed attempt, Captain Gena managed to “park” the ship by the simple tactic of ramming her into an ice floe. She wasn’t going anywhere for a while; the gangway was lowered down to the ice. After ten days on board, the idea of simply stepping off the ship to go for a walk was alien, too good to be true. Like kids on a school outing, we stood at the bottom of the gangway wondering what to do and where we were allowed to go. Steve had fetchingly donned his red’n’yellow life-saving outfit over his cold weather gear and stood protectively beside a warning flag he’d placed on top of one of the poles that lined the area around the ship. Apart from this area which had been broken up by the Marina Svetaeva as she rammed the ice, we had the whole of this white paradise to ourselves… plus a few Weddell seals lazily looking up at the cause of the noise which had interrupted their sunbathing. There was even a lone emperor penguin, entertainingly (or frustratingly, depending on your perspective) appearing on one side of the ship or the other, slipping into the water to change sides every time a helicopter appeared.

I went for a walk… or, rather, an uneven stomp, occasionally sinking to my knees in the unpredictable snow which blanketed the sea ice. The air may have been crisp and invigorating - or, to put it more simply, b***** freezing - but moving around with so many layers of clothing quickly warmed me up. I paid my respects to the local Weddell seals, one deciding that the newly-arrived paparazzi were too annoying, and slipped through its ice-hole in search of a restorative morsel. Another seal a few hundred yards away seemed actively interested in the visitors, moving towards a few of us who heading for the foot of the Glacier, and then tolerated our sitting and lying on the snow nearby, watching him. I was hypnotised by the stillness around me; the only sound, our seal companion’s breathing.

We couldn’t get right up to the Glacier, we discovered. Having thought that our floe was fast ice - ice attached to the shore - we found that we were actually on a huge floe of pack ice, afloat and with clear water between it and the Glacier. Standing at one rumple, where our floe was crunching into the next, brought home to me this landscape’s impermanence. I could hear the sea ice move, as well as the groans and creaks of the Glacier so near, yet so far away from us.

A couple of people in advertently took this one stage further, with first hand experience of their part of the pack ice breaking away, and had to be rescued by helicopter. Later in the day, their errant floe had bashed back into the main pack, the splintering still impressive from the air.

During the extended morning, the two Steves operated scenic flights up and over the Glacier, taking us in turn on round-trips of twenty miles or so. As well as allowing us to peer into the crevasses in the Glacier, this gave us an incredible view over the rest of Terra Nova Bay, and made us appreciate quite how small our own “enormous” floe was, and how tiny the ship rammed against it.

In the distance was the recently-deserted-for-the-season Italian station, the Mario Zucchelli base. We landed there that afternoon, the Zodiacs once again having to battle with sea ice, this time new-forming pancake ice, fortunately still with a slushy consistency that the Zodiacs could still vanquish. It was eerie wandering around the empty base, particularly as a motor continued to hum and scientific instruments to beep, notwithstanding the absence of immediate human control. At the edge of a path, a lone skua chick cheeped pathetically, dragging its wing; it wasn’t clear if it was related to one of the three or four circling adults, nor if the wing was actually injured. Over the hill, I managed to escape the insipient rumble of the ship’s engines, and lay back on a granite rock-face, drinking in the now-monochromatic view. The sun was palely visible through high cloud that had now thickened; Mount Melbourne only just visible in an outline which barely divided the same-colour sky and snow. In the small inlet below me, the pack ice had broken up into oddly geometric shapes, outlines stark against the slate grey water.

Two days later, after a morning visiting Shackleton’s hut on Ross Island, and an afternoon watching a large pod of orca cruising the ice edge, and a trio of minke whales dive underneath us as we stood on an old ice floe near the Ferrar Glacier, we were back on the mainland, this time in Taylor Valley, one of Antarctica’s “dry valleys”. Again, our view was dominated by glaciers, this time, the Canada Glacier and, in the distance, the Commonwealth Glacier. Flying there in the early evening, the light was gorgeous, a warm tinge colouring the grey-brown landscape and further emphasising the chill blues of the Canada Glacier which was, by then, in shadow. We were limited in the area in which we could roam, and had to take great care even within the permitted zone not to tread on the tiny, delicate and well-camouflaged mosses, the only signs of life in this incredible environment. There had been other living creatures here, but only accidentally and a long time ago. A couple of seals must have taken a very wrong turn when searching for the sea, their now-mummified remains looking incongruous on this inland landscape. One carcass, a little bony but otherwise complete except for its vacant eye-sockets, is estimated to be three or four hundred years old; the other, more than a thousand years old. Nothing scavenges, nothing cleans up, in this extraordinary, near-lifeless place.

At the foot of the Canada Glacier, there is a narrow chain of small, shallow lakes. This being such an exceptionally arid place, the ice in these lakes seems dry, almost sticky, rather than damp, to the un-gloved touch. It was oddly easy to walk over the surface, although deliberately skidding across was also a fun option for the young-at-heart. But the most mesmerising feature of these lakes was the transparency of the ice and the patterns within it. Each one was different. In one, the ruler-straight criss-crossing cracks were clearly visible all the way to the bottom of the lake; in another, bubbles trapped in the blue ice made amazing patterns; in yet another, the ice had formed leaf-shapes, each edged in delicate snowflake-like crystals.

I could have stayed there for hours, daylight no constraint in this land of the midnight sun, and thanks to the flight schedules, I did manage to stay there longer than most people. It was a very peaceful environment, the twenty-first century an irrelevance in this place where time has no meaning.

As with the rest of our trip, it was a privilege to have reached the Dry Valleys, and we fully appreciated how lucky we were to been there… and even more so when one of the helicopters broke down the next day. If it had malfunctioned just one day earlier, we could not have flown into the Dry Valleys; for safety reasons, Aurora would not have run flights with only one helicopter.

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5th June 2010

These are Fantastic

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