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The Planet Ice Project: Antarctica

Into the Antarctic
By James Martin - January 19th, 2007

Editor's Note: 

Writer and photographer James Martin, author with Mark Twight of Extreme Alpinism, has turned his attention to the vanishing ice of planet Earth. Embarking on a new book, Planet Ice, Martin will blog exclusively for GreatOutdoors.com over the next two years as he visits the polar regions, the last of the Equatorial glaciers, and the ice of more temperate mountains, to document how they show, all too clearly, the devestating results of global climate change. For this, his first dispatch, he heads for the melting ice of Antarctica.

It had been ten years since I had sailed past the South Orkney Islands. At that time a few icebergs were grounded off shore and several more rode the currents eastward. Now, the sea was full of ice, the remnants of broken ice shelves along the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. I was delighted and appalled. This was a photographer's dream and an environmentalist's nightmare. I photographed for several hours as we trolled through the frozen wreckage.

I was one of ten guides working for Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris on a trip across the Southern Ocean, visiting the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, and the Antarctic Peninsula on the Vavilov, an upgraded Russian research vessel. This is a dream gig. Most cruise ships devote far too little time on shore; photographers demand lots of time to work on getting shots and insist on landing when the light is ideal, at least when conditions allow.

We embarked from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego near the southern tip of Argentina, cruising in the placid waters of the Darwin Channel. After a few days in the Falklands, rich in wildlife but lacking any ice, we continued to South Georgia Island where mountains rise two miles into the sky and Alaskan-scale glaciers calve with immense roars.

This austere environment is surprisingly full of life. Wandering Albatrosses unfurl their 12 foot wings to ride the wind as far as the coast of Brazil to feed their chicks. Elephant seals lounge on the beach after diving thousands of feet down to feed on squid. King Penguin rookeries populated by tens of thousands of birds are noisy and aromatic where one witnesses scenes of parental care and comic disputes. South Georgia is a frigid Serengeti where nothing will eat you.

We had to watch out for katabatic winds. Cold, heavy air pools over high icefields. The air rushes down the glaciated valleys like an air avalanche reaching hurricane levels in a matter of minutes. Our group would be pinned on the beach; zodiacs could flip in the wind. Luckily, we missed them this time.

After passing the South Orkney iceberg graveyard we approached the South Shetland Islands near the northern tip of the Peninsula. Once again, the water was full of ice, from small rotted lumps of ice to gigantic tabular bergs. The sun slowly under a cloud bank. The ship ran near the shadow of the cloud so some bergs glowed orange in the last light against a dark, foreboding backdrop. The show continued for hours until the last light left the horizon.

We awoke at Paulet Island where we expected to find a Adelie Penguin rookery, but the birds had left early. Conditions are changing quickly. The Adelies are moving south as the temperatures climb and Gentoos, which prefer warmer climes, are moving in to take their place. Green plants are beginning to appear where only lichens lived in the past. Ice shelves the size of small states break away and block penguins from access to food.

The cruise south along the western edge of the Antarctic Peninsula is an aquatic mountain trek. The mountains are an extension of the Andes with ice covering any flat surface and flowing down most steep rock. Glaciers ring the bays and disgorge millions of tons of ice. Fin and Sei whales patrol the bays and Orca sported with the ship in open waters. The climbers among us gazed longingly at hundreds of unclimbed peaks.

We reversed course near the Antarctic Circle and retraced our route back to the Shetlands before crossing the Drake Passage. The weather gods smiled on us as they had all voyage. After two days we glimpsed Cape Horn, which signified we would make landfall by morning and soon enjoy the many pleasures of Ushuaia.


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