Revisiting the Ross Sea
The late season voyage (February thru March 2013) of the Ortelius, with Oceanwide Expeditions, from Bluff, New Zealand to Ushuaia, Argentina, following the west coast of Antarctica from Cape Adare to the Antarctica Peninsula was not only a first for the operators and me, but I believe for almost all of the passengers who were fortunate to be on board. We found ourselves unable to land as often as we would have liked because the ice and weather conditions had become more difficult with dropping temperatures and increasing wind velocity. Grease Ice (Grease ice: when ice crystals have coagulated to form a “soupy” layer on the surface. Grease ice reflects little light giving the sea a matt appearance. See image), Pancake ice and eventually Sea Ice was nearly everywhere on the entire journey. In most respects the ice determined our course and in many places prevented safe landings. Sometimes the accumulating ice created a nearly impassable barrier and a noisy cacophony as it banged and scraped along the ice-hardened hull at normal speeds. The noise produced impressions of the difficulties faced and written about by the early explorers, but especially Shackleton when the Endurance fought its way north only to be caught fast and crushed by the developing winter ice. For me Antarctica has almost always been on its best weather behavior. There has been extreme cold for a day or two, or high winds, even catabatic winds, for short periods of time. We did land several times by zodiac, Cape Hallet, Discovery Hut and Shackleton’ Hut to name a few locations. Fortunately we were able to reconnoiter by helicopter and land at places like the Taylor Dry Valley and Peter 1st Island. At several places the Captain became concerned about the developing ice conditions and we would head out of the pancake ice for more open sea. He was being cautious, but reasonably so because no one in their right mind would want to become locked into the ice at these late dates. Antarctica can expand from a summer 4,000,000 square kilometers of ice to 19,000,000 square kilometers during the winter. Freezing seawater can happen very quickly in the extremes of Antarctica temperatures. I feel as though this was one of the best-executed adventures for the prevailing conditions I have had in Antarctica.
Traditional travel blogs usually are like diaries or calendars and follow one event after another. I will not do that, because the Daily Log of the Ortelius, written day-by-day by a different passenger and edited by Victoria Salem, the ship’s excellent Antarctic historian, is one of the most intelligent and sensitive descriptions of this or any trip in Antarctica one could ask for. I would only be paralleling the collected work of many of my fellow travelers. If you are interested in the daily details as seen by many eyes and described by half as many articulate travelers go to Oceanwide Expeditions and read the “Daily Log” of this trip. Otherwise stay with me here as I attempt the minor miracle of art and poetry to re-create a couple of the impressions I had with the most unruly of tools for a painter or photographer such as myself, words.
This is a brief outline of the course of this adventure. We departed from Bluff, New Zealand. The Ortelius stopped twice at Macquarie Island, pushed on to Cape Adare where we could not land. We tried to go ashore in the Ross Sea at several locations but ice on the shore or weather rejected many attempts. We did zodiac ashore at Cape Hallet. Fortunately we had two helicopters joyously flown by two of the most accommodating and friendly Chilean pilots that made forays to the Taylor Dry Valley, Shackleton’s Hut, Peter 1st Island and flights over ice and glaciers as well as advanced ice scouting. We did not find any occupied bases until we visited the overwintering New Zealanders at Scott Base. We were rudely rebuffed by the American winter caretakers of McMurdo Station that is within walking distance of the Discovery Hut where we visited in the zodiacs. The Captain decided not to cruise along the face of the Ross Ice Barrier because the sea was freezing up. Crossing the Ross Sea took about nine (9) days from Ross Island to entering the Amundsen Sea. All of the days of the adventure were filled with informative lectures, films appropriate to Antarctica, hearty fellowship, great food, successful whale and wildlife watching from the bridge as the Ortelius worked it way through icy seas. As we continued up the west coast of Antarctica we saw whales, seals but not many penguins or birds. There was lots of wind, subzero cold and ice. Because we had helicopters we were able to land on top of Peter 1st Island. The rarity of landing on top of Peter 1st allowed us to spend half a day there before making for the Lemaire Channel and the Peninsula. In retrospect I thought this cruise was perhaps the most insightful and evocative of any I had previously made.
I have been to Macquarie three previous times…the scones and cup of tea provided by the small staff manning the station have always been appreciated. The rangers of Buckles Bay had trained dogs this time: Trained to seek out destructive rabbits and rats, but to be friendly to penguins, seals, albatross and other birds. The island is undergoing rabbit and rat eradication because of the damage they do to the environment and native wildlife. It was as if the eradication program was known to the King and Royal Penguins who seemed friendlier this trip. For example at Lusitania Bay our zodiacs were approached by hundreds of King Penguins who came out to have a look and swam close by us like inspectors for the greeting committee that was not far behind the first couple of fast swimmers. The life cycle of the Kings keeps them in their colonies whereas all other penguins, including the Royal Penguins on Macquarie, have an annual cycle between nestings by going out to sea for an extended period. There were a few Royal Penguins left behind by the general exodus because they were still in molt. On the other hand the Kings were still in residence. It takes them about two years to complete their mating and chick raising cycle, because they are all on random start dates the result seems to be that many pairs are always present in a colony. I could see eggs, chicks and immatures at the King Penguin colony and only a few Royal Penguins were present finishing their annual molt.
Macquarie is often described as being in the Southern Ocean and maybe it is. The center of the island sits at about 54 degrees South Latitude and to be within the Southern Ocean it would have to be at least 6 degrees further south by world geographic standards. A number of authorities including the Australian Government, the World Wild Life Fund and numerous writers on Macquarie, all say it is in the Southern Ocean. Regardless of where Macquarie is it still took several more days non-stop crashing through the Southern Ocean to reach the Antarctic Continent and Cape Adare on the Ross Sea.
Getting to Antarctica is a challenge by most people’s criteria. Once there being able to go ashore or to spend some time inland can be beyond the original challenge. Fortunately we had two helicopters to use. It turned out that most of the manned research stations had been abandoned for the winter. We were able to fly into the Taylor Dry Valley and explore the environs including the Canada Glacier. The valley has no snow or ice and curiously thousands of years ago it was filled with an enormous glacier itself. It is one of the coldest and driest places in Antarctica. The Canada Glacier on one side of the valley has “no melt stream” at its face. I walked up to the Canada Glacier and discovered there was hardly any of the normal glacial debris one finds on the edges of glaciers. The glacier even though it is moving, stays in approximately the same place because as it moves slowly forward it evaporates at the front end into the extremely windy, dry and extra cold air. Apparently this has been the case for centuries…a moving, without movement glacier. Dry valleys have been one of my destination goals for many years. Helicopters are for more of these challenging goals. In retrospect getting to a dry valley seemed for many years beyond reasonable expectation (which on any trip can be easily frustrated in Antarctica). Besides landing in a dry valley and see another glacier that is not exactly like a glacier one would see anywhere else would be a definite challenge to a future traveler.
If you have spent time experiencing the generally accessible, smaller areas of Antarctica a more extended voyage like this one can give substance to what you know intellectually; Antarctica is a huge continent. Crossing the Ross Sea (about 9 days), let alone the Amundsen Sea (about 6 days) and Bellingshausen Sea (3 days plus Peninsula time), each of them for days and days and days brings home the enormity of the ocean around the continent and the landmass itself. The three seas that we crossed are a small part of the Southern Ocean. The coastline that began with Cape Adare and continued with snow and glacier dominated mountains along the entire course for thousands and thousands of kilometers gave me an unfolding panorama of the gigantic wilderness. Even if confronted with a small portion of a place, like the Great Ross Ice Barrier (all by itself is 600 kilometers long and 50 meters high), Antarctica can dwarf almost any other similar experience you might care to name. I feel I should be cautious in describing it that way, because places like the Grand Canyon, are enormous and dwarf most other human experiences too. I have hiked and helicoptered over portions of the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the summer and winter, slept in the Ngorongoro Crater, followed the migrating herds across Kenya and Tanzania, stood on the edge of the Platte River in Nebraska as the tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes and millions of other water birds arrive for the night and depart with the dawn. This is to give a few of nature’s examples, not to mention works of man himself. At the time I thought I had a grasp of the size of the Antarctica. The scale of this trip while not the whole of the continent was at least a third of the coastline. On this trip, I had the opportunity to sit on the bridge days at a time, or in other safe places on the ship, and observe this never-ending, passing grandeur. I was also lucky in that I was with a group of fellow adventurers who had the best attitudes, were extremely well informed and travelled. The adventure staff presented relevant programs every day that were fresh, informative and heightened every one’s interest and insights. The lateness of the season provided the cherry on top of the sundae in that the weather was very cold, much more windy on a regular basis and we were often at ice risk, except for the superb Russian captain and his ice experience.
Bergy bits and Pancake ice (Pancake ice: circular pieces of ice from 12 inches to 10 feet in diameter, and up to about 4 inches thick with raised rims due to the pieces striking against each other. Formed from the freezing together of grease ice. See image.) had been gathering in force since we originally entered the Ross Sea, but as we departed the peninsula area for Ushuaia they had nearly been organized into the solid phalanx of a disciplined ancient force. By now, weeks after landing in Ushuaia, I am certain their legions have become an army whose reach is hundreds of miles from the anchoring coastlines out to sea. In some places I watched the sea ice encircle the bergy bits and pancakes with the rapid deployment of slushy, grease ice, that thickened to ice cube depth almost immediately, but could become a meter thick within a few days. Wind could move the whole jigsaw puzzle of ice around and it would breakup and reform in new formations until it became a permanent and immoveable barrier. At various times the Ortelius would slow to a few knots and push through the shallower depths of this expanding coverage. Sometimes her course was to sail further out to sea as we proceeded toward our destination. The helicopters were used to scout more desirable passages. In the protection of the Lemaire Channel up the inside passage of the Peninsula we were less constrained by ice conditions. Many years ago on a icebreaker I traveled in the opposite direction in the spring and the Captain and Expedition staff were concerned we would not be able to pass the inland passages or Lemaire Channel because the winter ice would still be defending those places from invasion. That did not turn out to be the case at the time, but one feels much less concerned about the ice on an official icebreaker than in a smaller ice hardened research vessel.
Without the protection and shelter of the great army of sea ice, certain algae would not grow anywhere else to feed the vast numbers of creatures who graze on it. (For those of you who might not know these algae grow in vast quantity on the underside of the ice, deriving energy from the filtered sunlight that penetrates the ranks of the ice. See image.) Without these billions and billions of organisms the whole Southern Ocean would be barren. That barrenness would leave our planet with less oxygen and more carbon dioxide. We would perhaps not have enough air to breathe. I have left out the contribution of krill to the chain of life. That would introduce a much too complex set of interrelationships than my non-scientific approach intends.
Descriptions are like vain attempts to make real that Antarctica is an enormous place and the sea ice is a significant physical part of it. Like a true icebreaker the imagination can hopefully clear a channel through the very nature of those 19,000,000 square kilometers of surface ice. Icebergs float and sometimes get caught up in sea ice. Icebergs are on the ocean and freely moving, except for those captured and held fast by the sea ice. They come from the rivers of ice draining the center of the continent where the ice can easily be 2 miles thick, but it is their dimensional and sculptural beauty, enormous size and potential threat to the ships that describes them. It is the sea ice that is unconsciously an entrapment of everything within its grasp when winter begins. Before its end, however sea ice also provides the foundation of life to the ocean creatures of the Southern Ocean. The Ortelius adventure introduced me to sea ice as it was being re-birthed for its annual tasks. It is bergy bits and much more.