'Tis the Season to Go to Antarctica

Exploring the icy continent during its short summer season
By James Martin - December 17th, 2010

Editor's Note: 

The season is a short one, but any visit to Antarctica is an unforgettable experience. Come along as correspondent James Martin, author/photographer of the new book Planet Ice, makes his fourth journey to the icy continent. Martin used his time there earlier this month to monitor climate change, and to record the astounding wildlife and landscapes of the Antarctic Peninsula in images.

Sometimes, it's what doesn't happen that matters. On my recent trip to Antarctica with Joseph Van Os Photosafaris, our group crossed the Drake Passage twice, taking two days each way. A storm had passed by before we crossed to the Antarctic Peninsula, a 750 mile traversal of what can be the roughest water in the world. Just before we returned, the Clelia, a luxurious stabilized ship, was disabled when the rogue wave knocked out the window of the bridge, swamping the bridge, disabling their communications and tossing passengers out of their bunks. Our return was smooth sailing,  but two days later the largest storm in decades hit the Drake with waves exceeding 35 feet. Timing is everything.

Good luck followed us as we made our way down to the Lemaire Channel. We visited gentoo penguin colonies, small groups of chin straps, and a few adelies. For some reason seal sightings were rare, but we did have a close encounter with a yawning leopard seal on iceberg. These predators resemble seagoing Komodo dragons.

The mountainous peninsula is an extension of the Andes and cruising through them is like voyaging through a drowned world. Ice blankets the peaks, and sometimes a solid wall of glacier ice continues unbroken for miles.  

 The Antarctic Peninsula has suffered more rapid temperature increases than most places in the world. The penguin colonies are moving south to avoid muddy conditions that can kill the chicks before they hatch. The collapse of the ice shelves is reducing the food supply for wildlife. These changes are not readily apparent, but over time we will see clearly what is going on even at a human timescale.


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