Ok, first impressions of the southern-most continent and the Ross Sea: besides the biting, bitter cold even now in the “warm” summer months, the biggest impression I come away with is the absolute, stark contrast of the bleak, black volcanic landscape and the bright, white of the snow and panorama of cascading glaciers.
This is a place of white upon black in an infinity of patterns – a gigantic empty and convoluted chessboard devoid of vegetation – I’ve yet to see a single lichen. The lack of greenery, grasses or moss is startling to the eye and verges on disturbing. I can only suppose this is what the surface of the moon would look like with snow.
We passed Mt Erebus on our way to McMurdo Station and the furthest south this ship has ever sailed. The top of the colossal volcano was sheathed in clouds at first, and I underestimated its size judging purely by a few glaciers and bare black rock patches revealed through the cloud cover. When the atmosphere finally lifted and the top of the mountain came into view it undeniably trumped the already impressive landscape around it and nestled at its foot the imposing infrastructure of McMurdo Station housing over 1000 people each year.
Dressing up to go ashore to visit historic huts, or out in Zodiacs to look for wildlife, is an adventure in and of itself. I give myself about 30 minutes to get ready to go outside for a few hours at a time.
From the feet up I put on:
– tall merino wool liner socks
– brushed wool ski socks
– two pairs of polypropylene long underwear bottoms
– warm fleece pants
– polypropylene top
– merino wool top
– thick pile turtleneck shirt
– fleece vest
– down jacket
– foul weather bib overalls
– foul weather jacket with an extra high fleece-lined collar
– merino wool glove liners
– insulated rubber waterproof outer gloves
– fleece neck warmer
– wool and fleece-lined ski hat
– insulated muck boots
And to top it off I use adhesive toe and hand warmers inside my boots and gloves for a little bit of externally generated warmth – insurance against my poor circulatory system.
The effort is well worth it because our excursions have been fantastic insights into the history and wildlife of this isolated land. The huts we have visited were built roughly 100 years ago during the heroic age of exploration by characters including Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. To stand in a small wooden building full of artifacts used by these early explorers and imagine what it must have been like to live shoulder-to-shoulder with 15 men in the heart of a brutal Antarctic winter is tremendous.
I paint a portrait in my mind of the ruthless and never-ending strains on human physiology, biology and mental balance. I imagine the colors of the hut’s provisions must have been a comfort. Blue and orange biscuit tins, green glass spice jars, a yellow Coleman’s mustard tin, mulligatawny soup in a red can – all a balm for the eye in contrast to the wicked and wild, white world outside, the rough brown woolen clothes and spare wooden floorboards and tabletops, the black cast-iron stove and opaque blubber smoke.
In terms of wildlife, we have walked amongst thousands of Adelie penguins in their raucous colonies, come across about a dozen tall Emperor penguins molting miserably on floating chunks of ice often sharing the floe with crabeater, Weddell, and elephant seals, and have crossed paths with whales including humpbacks, Minkes, fins and orca. While the diversity of species is low – our only seabird companions for days have been Antarctic and Snow Petrels – the biomass is great, and the sheer numbers of animals are hugely impressive.
It’s been a joy to wake each day and greet the Southern Ocean in all of its different moods. Days have been blue-gray and speckled with white foam from wind and low clouds. Mornings have hailed us with fat snowflakes and chunks of sea ice forming in the rounded corners of porthole windows. Evenings have inspired me with mirror-flat glassy seas, the wake of the ship cutting ribbons of shadow into the velvet waters reflecting imposing mountainous shorelines.
Life is simple down here. The mantra is stay warm, eat your fill, do your job, sleep when you can – generally cat naps through the night between peaking waves – and above all stay alert and absorb like a sponge this chance of a lifetime to sail through the Ross Sea.