Part II: The Southern Ocean
In the morning, the windows were full of birds. Cape Petrels in the hundreds swooped in unison in the air currents bending around the Ocean Diamond. Albatrosses floated off the stern. The fog had cleared and we’d crossed the Antarctic Convergence where the cold nutrient rich waters of the Southern Ocean begins to teem with life.
As we entered into the waters of the South Shetland Archipelago, the water came alive, practically roiling, with porpoising penguins diving for krill. Chinstrap penguins glided beneath the surface by the dozen, then burst through the surface for an airborne second – a throwback to the longer flights of their ancestors. In every direction birds swam in flocks beneath the waves.
The sky was a sunny blue, but bluer still were the undersides of the icebergs beginning to dot the horizon and pass us on all sides. At their core, a deep, unnatural azure, so intense it vibrated. Was this the compressed ice of a thousand years past? Or had these goliaths simple broken off part of the sky in their moment of violent creation and tucked it into their frozen hearts.
Sometime after breakfast, a trio of humpback whales were spotted off the starboard side. Captain Peter slowed the boat to quietly follow them, though there was no doubt they knew we were there long before we saw them. They rose and dove rhythmically, spouting, diving, sheets of water pouring off gracefully curving flukes.
Diminutive penguins imitated the majestic whales, following in their wake with quick darting plunges, first in then out above the surface.
The profiles of the icebergs were soon dominated by the land masses of the South Shetland Islands and the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula began to take shape. If I’d expected miles of flat sea ice, or rolling mounds of snow and rock, the reality was dramatically different. It was as if we were gliding in and amongst the tops of the world’s highest, most rugged mountain peaks. Because there were no trees or buildings by which to judge scale, it was impossible to estimate the height or distance. They seemed both massive and impassible, and near and approachable. Dozens of thick heavy glaciers ground their ways down steep valleys, expelling blocks of ice the size of buildings directly into the channel. As these blocks rolled and floated away to become icebergs, penguins climbed on board to get a good view and catch a lift. Some turned their heads curiously towards a passing block of ice that was moving unusually quick.
It appeared to be covered with some type of penguins unlike themselves, with black tubular beaks that clicked and flashed, covered with a slick yellow skin.
We first dropped anchor near a place called Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands. It was on these islands, at Elephant Island, where Ernest Shackleton landed after escaping the ice in the Weddell Sea. He overcame enormous odds in a desperate bid to save the men of his expedition, only to find himself on a desolate coast with no means of escape other than to walk over 32 miles of mountainous glacial terrain. He and two of his crew did just that.
Zodiacs were prepared for landing and we threw on as many layers as the ice continent seemed to call for. We skimmed towards the island and disembarked on a rough pebbled beach. Chinstrap penguins waddled around us, peering up at the intruders as they made their way too and from the water. Some stopped to investigate but mostly they went about the business of feeding their young. Coming down from their rookery for them was easier than climbing up. Their little webbed feet are clumsy on land, and they scramble over snow banks and hop from rock to rock. On the way down they need only point their beaks downhill and slide of their bellies. We couldn’t help but assume they were having fun.
Halfway up a hill to visit the rookeries ourselves, we started shedding layers. We’d arrived in the Antarctic on a beautiful warm day and realized we’d over-estimated the polar chill. This would change in the days to come.