Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Weddell Sea

Brian Skerry, Antarctica Expedition

Our next destination after Deception Island was the Weddell Sea. We headed south along the eastern side of the peninsula where the air and water turned even colder and icebergs became more plentiful. I stood on the bow of the ship in awe watching massive tabular bergs drifting past us like city buildings painted in hues of blue and white. These waters were quite unlike any I have seen before. In the thirty plus years I've explored the world's oceans I have been privileged to cover a fair bit of territory, including arctic locations and have seen many ice covered seas. But here the scale was grander, more spectacular with gigantic icebergs up close and ice covered mountains as the backdrop.

Tabular icebergs (Photo:Brian Skerry)

It was in the Weddell Sea that Ernest Shackleton became trapped in ice aboard Endurance, eventually abandoning ship, watching her become crushed by ice and sink into the inky black ocean. The epic tale that ensued remains one of the greatest survival stories in human history, and standing here today I had an even greater appreciation and respect for all that he and his crew accomplished. I can only imagine what they would think of us here now, cruising the same seas aboard a ship with amenities ranging from a coffee bistro and sauna to satellite telephones. I am convinced that people were just built tougher in Shackleton's day.

Explorer in ice (Photo: Brian Skerry)

In the afternoon, the captain navigated the ship towards huge stretches of fast ice. This term refers to ice that has adhered itself or has been made fast to the shoreline. This ice can be extremely thick and we searched for a place where we could make a landing. Without a great deal of searching, the bridge crew located a place that looked perfect and they piloted the Explorer directly into the ice. The Explorer is an ice-class ship, meaning that her hull is reinforced for such conditions. We are not an icebreaker, but can push through even heavy ice conditions. Our bow sliced into the fast ice and we slowly came to a stop. The side gates were opened and the Zodiacs were launched for a very short ride to the ice off to the side.

Crabeater seals (Photo: Brian Skerry)

Adelie penguin (Photo: Brian Skerry)

I joined the crew for the first landing and plodded through the ice and snow around to the front of the ship stopping to photograph this unique sight. On the ship's port side a pair of Crabeater seals were resting on the ice. From a distance of about 15 feet, I crouched down and began photographing them. About the time I decided that I had more than enough frames of sleeping seals, I spied a single Adelie penguin sliding along on its belly in our direction. Using its feet and wings it swam along the ice surface, making very good speed. As it got closer, the penguin rose to its feet and waddled even closer. Clearly he (or she) was curious about us. The little Adelie walked around the seals and around us for a few minutes, then flopped back down onto its belly and cruised off. A wonderful little chance encounter, in the middle of a frozen Weddell Sea.

- Brian

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