As with all things in this life both grand and mundane, our adventure has reached it's final chapter. And like any grand adventure, the ending has not failed to deliver.
Early in the morning about 5 days ago our ship slowly came to a stop for our last CTD station. The morning greeted us with a dense fog casting our blue world into a gray haze. Walking up to the bridge with coffee in hand, I looked out the windows past the bow of the ship. As my eyes focused out through the fog, I saw the object responsible for rousing me from a short slumber.
There directly in front of us was a wall of ice such as I had never seen. They tell me it is 150 ft tall, though I wouldn't have questioned it no matter the height. We were almost a half a mile away, but I felt as if I could hit it with a stone.
We had reached the Ross Ice Shelf.
Nothing could have prepared me for the scale of this wall. It's not just the height, however impressive, but the length. Looking out in either direction, the ice stretches to the horizon. This is the end of the line for the great glaciers of Antarctica. As they march from the inner continent, they slowly glide out over the water and eventually calve and crumble into the sea. For all of the massive icebergs we passed, they pale in comparison to this ice shelf. I've been told that the ice covers an area about the size of France. (Thanks Google)
For the next 36 hours we followed the ice shelf ever further southwest. We raced ahead at a respectable speed of 11-12 knots aided by currents eager to join us on our desolate journey. With no more stops for science, we had a new mission: get to McMurdo as quickly as possible. Even though we were not more than a couple hundred miles away with 5 days to go, we would soon be reduced to moving only slightly faster than the glaciers making their way to sea.
Yesterday shortly after breakfast, we received a call from the bridge to alert us that Ross Island just came into view. To be more specific, they could see the top of Mt. Terror.
What a bad ass name.
Mountains have an interesting way of appearing much closer than they actually are. Even after the mountain came into view, it was another 6-7 hours before we finally seemed to be along side it. At over 20 miles away, its snow covered, windswept face gave the appearance of being covered in a wispy cloud flowing over the surface.
As we slowly wrapped around the island, Mt. Erebus crept into view. Mt. Erebus is actually an active volcano standing at 3,794 m, today it had a constant plume of steam escaping into the cold Antarctic air. Despite a scheduled interview, the draw to be on deck was to strong. I spent most of the next 4 hours admiring and photographing everything.
Sometime after dinner, the reason for our fast push south became apparent. It started with some light ice, nothing out of the ordinary at this point. Soon the ice became thicker and more dense. With the ice, we were greeted with an endless supply of seals and penguins. While the penguins don't seem to appreciate our presence, scurrying away and slipping into the sea, the seals mostly look at us with lazy discontent, at best.
An icebreaker, the Polar Star has traveled from the Arctic to McMurdo to open a channel for our ship and a resupply vessel due shortly after we leave. The channel does not extend all the way out to open ocean, so we will have to find our own way through the ice until we can utilize their efforts. If the weather turns or the channel freezes over, we could find ourselves delayed for days.
Soon the ice proved too thick for our ever slowing pace. We began the long and slow process of ramming the ice, the bow of the ship climbing up onto the slab until the weight of the ship causes the ice below to give way. Advancing until we could go no further, the ship goes into reverse to allow the ice to clear the bow so we can repeat the maneuver. Over and over again.
We no longer travel in a straight line, instead the captain and his crew use their knowledge and experience to follow fracture lines and identify weak points in the ice. I go to bed sometime after 2 am, the ship traveling less than 1 knot an hour. Sleep does not come quickly, the rhythmic roll we experience while at sea has been replaced with an erratic, jarring jolt and the sounds of breaking ice.
When I awake in the morning, the first thing I notice that I am no being tossed around in my bed. When I flipped on the TV and changed the channel to the ship's bow camera, I quickly understand why. We have made it to the channel.
When I thought of a channel, I'd imagined a nice clear open water path carved through the ice. Clearly this is my first time on an icebreaker. The channel IS visible but there is hardly any water to be seen. What lies ahead is a path of broken ice around 6ft deep. As we travel along, the ice quickly reclaims the void left by our ship. Just beyond our stern there is no evidence of our passing.
Going up on to the deck, I saw the first signs of humanity outside of the ship since New Years Eve. On top of the only barren mountains in front of us, I could make out antennas... Then I heard something that has been absent for the last month, the din of a helicopter as it approached and the faint sound of a military supply jet as it flew off to unknown lands.
Through all of this, the science teams were hard at work packing up all of their invaluable samples and stowing all of the equipment carried aboard to run their tests. Greta and I were also scrambling to capture a few remaining interviews and to document the madness. We all found time to go out on deck bask in the indescribable beauty of this frozen land. Everyone had a camera in hand, I would always make sure I had at least two.
Somehow with all of this commotion, I never even felt the ship stop. It wasn't until people came down to the lab to tell us we had arrived that I even noticed. It was after dinner, maybe 7:30 pm or so.
We had crossed the endless sea of ice and made it to the southern most place on earth a ship can go. We have seen mountains, volcanoes and ice shelves that only a handful of lucky people will ever have the chance to see. I have done my best to capture this beauty, but I must offer an apology because their is no way to ever do any of this justice. How do you capture the scale and beauty of this place? We can shoot with higher resolutions and more megapixels, but no lens can replace the visceral experience of being here.
I am writing this at nearly 4am from the Ice Tower with a 360 degree unobstructed view of Antarctica in a frozen sea with mountains stretching out for hundreds of miles. It almost feels like going to sleep would be such a waste of my remaining precious time down here. We will spend all of today on the ship, this will be my last day of shooting video. When we get to land tomorrow, I will bring one still camera. Other than that the day will be for me. With only one day to spend on land after a month of trying to capture it all, I am going to let myself be present in the moment to really cherish this special privilege I have been granted.
Don't worry friends, I will make sure to tell you all about it.