Friday, February 10, 2012

The Magical Wonderland Around Spert Island

Our destination for today was not just another colony of penguins.  I would discover a mythical, magical place, unlike any that I had ever seen before... Spert Island.

Looking toward Spert through my longest lens, I could barely make out the tiny gap between the basalt cliffs.  It seemed that I could see something quite blue... the same startling blue that I recognized from the glaciers of Alaska.  Would we get a peek inside at the secrets hidden behind the rocks and pounding ocean?  Would it be just some more glaciers?

Soon, the captain dropped Sea Spirit's hook, and we boarded our zodiacs for the zodiac cruise du jour.  Better than hanging about the boat.   I suppose.

Tim and Winnie in uniform
As we approached Spert, there was indeed something blue.  And not a glacier.  Was this lonely iceberg our tour for today?  I had seen a couple of icebergs before.

Toward the cut.  I am here.  Today.  I am in the present.  I make a silent pact with myself to go forth... experience... appreciate... and learn... and live for today...

As we got closer to the cut between the cliffs, I kind of thought we'd turn back, our pathetically pale attempt to breach the forces of Nature thwarted.  The surf was pounding on the rocks, the water surging in, pausing, rushing back out to sea.  Then, I quietly breathed a sigh of relief as we passed some invisible line, an edge of the force, and the water calmed.

Always exploring in pairs for safety, we followed Pam in our sister zodiac.  (As a zodiac driver, photographer, and naturalist, she's killer.  If I ever get into trouble in a zodiac... I'll want her or Mette twisting the stick on the outboard.)

 Through the brash ice now, the vista expands.  First one berg, then a hard left turn and...

...yet another berg.

A further turn to port side reveals...
... an older floating berg.

Since water's warmer than the air above, ice bergs melt from the bottom up.    This ice berg revealed two previous lifetimes on it's right side... first, a melt that let it raise up into the air for 20m (exposing the higher indentation).. next, a chunk must have broken off its side allowing it to tilt to the left... then its current incarnation (the second indentation) occurred due to further melt down below.

Next, we came upon two magnificent pinnacle ice bergs... Beautiful !

These bergs appeared...

... to be as tall as 10 story buildings, and 90% of them are hidden beneath the surface.  We are in deep water.

I am now in complete sensory overload... the brain can only process so much.

Mette, our zodiac driver, stops the outboard.  We all become hushed, listening to the sounds of Spert. Smelling its smells.  Getting into touch with our environment..  Maybe getting into touch with ourselves.

I feel a tiny shade of wistfulness colour my thoughts as the zodiac drifts, unpowered.  My very best attempts to photograph the unparalleled splendor of this land fall short of the continent's true beauty.  Thoughts of family members, friends, and acquaintances cross my mind in these quiet moments... I so wish that they could all see this magical place.. at this very moment... and hear the water lapping at the sides of the boat... see and smell the crystalline clarity of the air about us.

We move on.  Ever onward.
We move by the pinnacles and see a possible opening between more bergs...

 Just ahead, and to the right..

 ... and following Pam, another course correction to the right leads us to

what seems, at first, to be a pair of icebergs, but a closer look shows rather shallow appearing water across the low point of a single berg, the two sides connected just beneath the surface.  No problem for the Mette and our zodiac.  If there's a fan club or facebook page for zodiacs, I'm gonna join.  Great little boats that can accomplish anything you demand.

Next, we mush on through a bit of brash ice to find an ice face marked by algae like the annual rings on a tree.  Some of the lines are darker than others indicating warmer summer seasons.

An arctic tern flies by, so far the only wildlife that we've spotted.  Arctic terns are referred to as "birds of light", due to their 44,000 mile round trip migration every year.  Northern hemisphere summer (June, July, August) for breeding, then southern hemisphere (December, January, February) for the antarctic summer.  Always heading for summer, somewhere.  Always heading for "the light".

Each turn brings a new vista...

 Each new vista's appearance changes...

as we approach...

Each of these calved bergs represents the death knell for some glacier.  Glaciers are born when a few flakes of snow fall in the Antarctic mountains. These snow flakes become packed down by the weight of a millenia of snowfalls, and are compressed into a river of solid ice. This glacier may take 10,000 years or more to succumb to gravity, advancing ever so slowly toward the ocean, where chunks as large as office buildings yield and break off the face of the glacier.  Some will become grounded in shallower water and live a long time in the colder climes.  Others will drift to the ocean to wander it's currents, finding the warmer water of the Antarctic convergence where they melt and die.  The water eventually evaporates, to be taken back into the atmosphere where it will begin its life cycle once again as another bit of light snowfall in the Antarctic mountains.  The continent breaths like a living being.  It inhales in the winter, the ice doubling the continent's size.  In the summer the continent exhales and sighs, melting sea ice and calving glaciers, and shrinking once again.

I love icebergs, even though their sheer immensity and long lives make me feel a bit...  insignificant?

This old berg reminded me of some old WWII movie, where the aircraft carrier is blown into two, and begins to sink...

Forging onward, ever onward, we break on through to the other side, break on through, break on through...

I break on through... the doors of perception.  I'm seeing a side of this tiny blue planet, and a side of life that I've never personally seen before.  I ponder at that which I see and think is real, and wonder if others in the boat see the same thing?

It finally occurs to me.  It's not what you look at, it's what you see.  In icebergs.  And in life.

This is cool.  Yeah, I know, bad pun.  The dimples in this "golf ball berg" were formed by the same currents of water that melted it, then allowed it to roll over for us all to see and appreciate.
Again: cool.

A berg that once floated free (rounded top used to be on bottom) has now grounded, and is being worn away by the waves.  Although trapped, it'll live longer.

This old berg is starting to show a bit of graceful aging, bless her heart.

Always turning right can be a good thing.  (In a boat, not necessarily in politics.)  It'll eventually get you back to the ship.  In this case the right turn was really short-lived, and we ended up bearing left through a narrow canyon that was hiding in plain sight, just ahead.  And that, in turn, lead to...

Sometimes you just can't get through.
Tempting.  But in Antarctica, as in life, just being tempted don't mean you oughta try it.  Might squeeze through... might all end right there.  When I was younger - much younger - I would have steered a course, full speed ahead, right for the tiny gap.  I know.  Another bad pun.
Survival.  I am thankful for it.

Sometimes, you can.
A little further on, patience is rewarded.  I don't know how these arches were formed, but it was totally thrilling to go through, waves and tide heaving, zodiac lurching forward, pausing, and lurching further... "the time of your life".

A little further on, we came across this fellow.  If he looks cross, I'm sure he was.  I would have been.  Damn.  Guy can't even haul out, warm up, and have a nap around here.  This neighborhood's getting too crowded.  Maybe if I turn my back and ignore them, they'll go away.  And NO FISHING DAMMIT!

We came upon these bergy bits grounded on a shelf in the shallows near the cliffs.  They reminded me of ice cream treats.  Three sizes guaranteed to please the most discriminating desert palate, but considering the amount of ice beneath the surface...  probably not going to get one back to the ship.

A turn to the right and we were barging through these bergy bits.. the heftier ones we steered around, the smaller ones we just powered over.  They made quite a grating sound as they scraped and bumped underneath the floor of the zodiac.  I remember thinking  a) do we have extra shear pins for the prop, and b) isn't that hard on the prop?  (Note: later, looking at one of the outboard props back aboard the ship, it looked as though the blades had been fashioned out of sheet metal with pinking shears.
Props.  The renewable resource... on the Sea Spirit anyway.

While we couldn't get the ice cream bergs back to the ship, we could take some iceberg ice back for bragging rights over drinks later...

The harvest
Ice from bergs can have trapped air bubbles that are thousands of years old.  They appear white to our eyes, as the sunlight entering the ice is scattered by the bubbles.  In very old ice, the pressure has been so great as to completely express the air out, allowing light to penetrate deeper into the ice.  Colors in the red area of the spectrum are absorbed by the ice 6 x more than colors of the blue spectrum.  Thus very, very old ice appears quite blue.  This ice that can be tens of thousands of years old.  It is a pure as water can be, and with the salt rinsed off the surface, lasts all evening for your favorite libations.

Shunning the blue ice, I harvest some white ice.    For later.

The clarity of the water reveals the depth of the ice.  For each meter of ice you see above the surface, there are 8-9 meters below.  I can see ice extending to depths so much deeper than my camera can image.  Inside, I whine like a little girl "It's just not fair!"  Mere pictures just do not convey...

Mind your heads, we're making a turn to port side.

An arctic tern does a fly-by of a long grounded iceberg.

The vertical striations on the berg in the foreground illustrate the paths that were carved by escaping bubbles as the melting occurred.

A storm petrel flys by.  For some strange reason, Mette is suddenly reminded that our zodiac tour was scheduled for only two hours.  It's been three hours, and we're a long way from Sea Spirit.  Radio reception is scratchy and broken.  Unreadable.  We are out of radio contact.  Stupid radios.  All but two zodiacs, Pam's and Mette's, have probably been safely hoisted back aboard.  Captain and crew leaders are wondering "Where the hell are those two rebel naturalists?"  Are they okay?  Are they in trouble?
The storm petrel.  I can see the fear of the coming storm on Mette's face, and can imagine it on Pam's face.  There IS a storm coming back aboard the Sea Spirit for Pam and Mette.  Where had the time gone?  Didn't anyone need to get back to the boat for sustenance?  Or to pee?

We haul ass.  One last look back to try to burn the memory... of the sunlight on the icebergs, the feel of the water, the smell of the salt, the camaraderie of all aboard our rebellious pair of zodiacs... into our brains forever, for, as of this day,

I am changed.


I have a new perspective about myself, and my relative significance to global order or chaos.  I can continue to be part of the problem.  Or strive to be part of the cure.

That's why I'm writing this.

(As an aside, later, at de-briefing, tiny bubbles of air, tens of thousands of years old, are released as the ice melts in my drink.  I breath in antiquity, as I sip my Scotch.  The storm is probably over.  Life is good again, for all.  As it should be.)

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