With the mist hanging over the ship like a cold, grey curtain, we crept forward slowly in the pale light.
“What would I see?” I wondered, for I was on the fringe of Antarctica, the coldest, highest, driest, windiest and emptiest place on earth, at least according to the information that I had printed off the internet prior to joining the ship.
Suddenly though, every preconceived idea was thrown out as the fog swirled, thinned and cleared and we sailed into the most spectacular scenery that I’ve ever seen. Gaunt black mountains with heavy snow mantling their peaks, looking like giant slices of thickly iced wedding cake, stood sharp-etched against a cerulean sky filled with wispy white clouds. Blue and green tinged glaciers clung to the steep sides, inching their way to the sea. Icebergs of all shapes and sizes drifted around, stark white in the cobalt water. The silence was almost complete, occasionally broken only by the plaintive call of seabirds or the rumble of a distant avalanche.
I stood, transfixed by the immense panorama surrounding me and could not help but think of the early explorers who had sailed this way more than one hundred years ago. Historians are still unsure as to who actually discovered the continent but right then I didn’t care – I was living a dream! But, I still marvelled at their courage for we were edging our way south through a channel unexpectedly ice-choked as a slight shift in wind and currents moved the floating ice towards the ship. Towering ice-cliffs hung alongside the channel as the sky changed to a threatening pewter colour. Then we rounded another bend and instantly were in the midst of a sixty-knot gale. Cathedrals of ice presented a savagely beautiful sight as they disappeared and reappeared in the swirling turbulence of snow and spume. Around another turn and tranquillity prevailed once more. Crystal Sound, so aptly named, presented a most spectacular sight. Perfectly calm, clear water mirrored a sparkling frieze of distant mountains and seabirds appeared to double their number as their reflections accompanied them across the water. Magical vistas were unfolding all around me, from vast panoramas of breath-taking mountains to small-scale views of drift-ice upon which reclined seals. Flocks of penguins stood in serried ranks on the ice, looking nervously into the dark water. Suddenly they became more agitated as a small pod of Orca made their way between the ice-floes. These fearsome black and white whales, superbly built for life in these cold seas, swam languidly past. The male, whose tall dorsal fin I estimated to be close to two metres high, was accompanied by three smaller females and one calf. They were unconcerned by the passing ship and the clear water afforded a perfect view of their streamlined shapes. A short while later a massive tail broke the surface as a Humpbacked Whale sounded. Another awe-inspiring sight in a day spent in a white wonderland – truly a day of magic!
As I revelled in the unparalleled beauty I pondered the future. Antarctica has been the centre of interest for some time because of the immense mineral wealth locked beneath the ice and snow. It has also become ever increasingly popular as a tourist destination and annually thousands of thrill seekers make their way ashore – sometimes with little supervision and no idea of the damage that can be done with one misplaced foot. There is another more insidious danger threatening this valuable, brittle environment. Changes to sea and air temperature brought about by human activities have wrought changes to the global climate, leading to an increased melting of the ice-shelves around the continent. On my first trip south, falling snow had greeted me at a number of landing places. On this occasion, in exactly the same places, I went ashore in light rain. “For how long would this fragile and endangered region survive?” I wondered as I again dashed for shelter inside the ship. Once more the weather changed – this time to thick fog, howling wind and heavy snow. True blizzard conditions!
W van Rijssen