(Nearly) Stuck in the Antarctic Ice

by Rob Tully Customer story

(Nearly) Stuck in the Antarctic Ice
Antarctic Peninsula

Ship: m/v Ortelius

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea

We are at the bottom of deep sleep, gently lullabyed throughout the night by the rhythmic swaying of the Ortelius on a glass smooth Ross Sea plying its way through oily ‘new’ ice, the wafer thin pancake crystallization atop a black sea, prelude to the more grown up ‘pancake’ ice which will be our morning’s visual breakfast.

Indeed on this our 13th day of our Antarctica cruise we’ve been traversing the arc of our intention, Terra Nova Bay, for many not-quite-dark-out hours, the last two in Lady Newnes Bay, next over from where the Italian base, Mario Zuchelli, perches in the Terra Nova on the edge of the continent, one of four research stations dice-rolled onto the edge of the Ross Sea, the other three Germany’s Gondwana, the Kiwis’ Scott, and the Americans’ McMurdo. In this morning light the sky is a vast upside-down pewter bowl resting over the plate of a placid slate sea, a sea which on closer inspection from slowly adjusting eyes is revealed to be an Escher tapestry stretching infinitely in all directions from the ship, a repetitive mosaic of pancake ice, the pancakes strangely luminous orange taupe disks nestled side by side, each one a further step to that thin horizontal line so impossibly distant where the sea weds the sky…..the gentled pancakes are Antarctica’s lily pads, Neptune is nature’s Monet, the Southern Ocean is his wide-stretched canvas.

Pancake ice in the Ross Sea
Pancake ice in the Ross Sea


In this morning light, yet bottomed in deep sleep, evanescent dreams currenting about us, Greg’s words, calm, relaxed, informal, engaging begin their slow descent downwards through the depths like the spent bodies of departed sea creatures to our unconscious selves, yet stilled in an ocean of quietude: ‘Good Morning, good people’.....though measured and low-toned the shock wave begets our first morning thought: ‘where the hell am I ?’, followed some long moments later by: ‘oh yes….at the very bottom of the earth’.

We jostle into breakfast, genuflecting first at the hygienic wash station, breakfast the first of three inviolate fixed points triangulating our day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, predictable, definite, unquestionable occurences, around which may swirl all manner of broken plans, squelched forays, upset projections…..but of this we can be certain, there will be breakfast, there will be lunch, there will be dinner….this breakfast is the first Rabelaisian spread, a spectrum of culinary delight fit for kings, today’s fresh salmon the crowning glory, pinnacled as it is atop such colorful largesse. Attention to the palate is not happenstance. Though Napoleon knew long ago that an army travels on its stomach, arctic adventure cruise companies had to relearn the lesson, now axiomatic that a well-fed camper is a happy camper, regardless the lengths that imperious capricious arctic weather goes to spoil visits to her inner sanctums. Central to the quest of culinary excellence is of course the head chef, in our case our own Austrian Chris, argumentative, combative, irascible Chris, the creme de la creme of his druidical ilk. Fortified by breads, fruits, cereals, eggs, sausages, multiple cups of coffee (with cream), need I go on, we are now thrumming reeds of vibrato energy, eager for the day’s unfolding, anticipating of exceptional sights, sounds, subjects.

This morning we must keep our excitement in check as we are yet 60 or so nautical miles from the Italian station in Terra Nova Bay, a morning’s cruise before any possible sighting from the crow’s nest, land-ho !! As we sliver through thicker and thicker sea ice, Christian, trusty guide, is drafted to provide the morning’s 10:00am erudition, a detailing of Amundsen’s south pole escapade on the Fram, Nansen’s ice-floating ship recently freed from north polar ice, passed on to Norway’s next legions in order to uphold Viking honor. His talk, meticulous, fluent, densely-informed, caulks the empty nooks and crannies of our polar knowledge while leading our thoughts away from endless and fretful nipping at the variety of outcomes possible to our this day’s goals. Indeed Christian is but one of a stable of stalwarts, Gary, Victoria, Pablo, Julian, Delphine, who weight our polar experience with sure knowledge and perspective, deepening, widening, enlarging that experience, ensuring that we leave intellectually fortified on all things historical, biological, geological, environmental, natural. Gary (or Dr. Gary as he is more formally known) transfixes us with a perfect blended malt of natural science cum personal and direct experience, an inexhaustible fount born of decades of in situ polar research and residence.

Victoria pumps life into the corpus of polar history causing it to break-dance across our visual imaginations before relaxing once again into moribund statuary as the wind (very) gradually slips out of her verbal sails. Pablo and Delphine paint the broad strokes of Antarctica’s being, while Julian strengthens our photographic skills in capturing that persona. Midway through Christian’s delineation we become aware of a different sound to the engines, a different movement of the ship, not at all compatible with the 2M ice we found ourselves forcing a not very hopeful 1 knot per hour through just prior to our disappearing into the bowels-of-the-ship lecture hall, the sea ice consisting of huge great slabs latticed together, squared off against us like a Green Bay front line, massive chunks clumped together like albino brahma bulls in a too-small pen, the pen in this case being the Texas-sized spread of the Ross Sea. What is this new sound ?? This new movement ?? Then we know.

The reconnoitering helicopter has returned. We are stuck, stymied, stuffed, stopped, snookered. Our direction is no longer towards Terra Nova Bay, we are fleeing it, the ice implacable, untamed, we in our guerilla ship must outrun, flank, live to (as)sail another day. Yes, ice is the ever-shifting thin red line. It is bigger than we are. It defines our days, our itinerary. It tells us where we can go, when we can go, what we can do. It tells us this not in advance, its battle plans are closely held, it advances, retreats, metamorphs its form, puts in surprise appearances, outwits, and ever encumbers…..but we are happy in this adversary, we love her shifting beauty, we revel in her changing guises, we welcome all her attempts to foil, she is why we are here.

Now all plans change, we are pointed across the Ross Sea towards McMurdo and Scott’s hut and Erebus, ETA tomorrow morning, a day of contingencies ahead, underpinned by 4B roulette…..Bedroom, Bridge, Bow, Bar. Making many rounds to each depending on the spin of the emotional wheel, we punctuate these perambulations with additional venues, the sauna, dining hall, top deck, lecture hall. We might even start to hallucinate phantom aches, pains, fevers, sea-sickness necessitating a visit to our resident angel of mercy avec medical credentials, the incomparable Veronique. And so, after lunch reliably stakes its claim to its portion of our day, our alternate reality begins.

First up is the next episode of ‘Frozen Planet’, David Attenborough’s brilliant photographic exploration of the top and bottom of our planet, which is which take your pick. Is there any irony in the fact that our immediate direct experience of the implacability of the ice is providing us with the opportunity to doubly if indirectly steep ourselves in further knowledge of that implacability. This last episode later prompts innocent questions on the bridge leading to one of Gary’s incisive impromptu tutorials, this one on the birth and various developmental stages of ice itself. Ice begins as an oily film (at least it looks that way) thinly floating on the sea top, known as ‘grease ice’, which resolves itself into disks, which segue into larger ones of recognizable circular ice, the ‘pancakes’, tufted in white at the turned-up edges. These in turn coalesce in their 10’s and 20’s into larger ‘pancakes’ 3,4,5,6, 7 feet in diameter but which in jockeying about lose their rounded shape, become more polygonal, and compress themselves higgledy-piggledy together.

This is brash ice, further compression of which eventually results in the loss of individual definition of the mature pancakes, ergo sea ice (if you are yet with me on this). Now let us flavor this concoction with small (relatively speaking) chunks of ice of less than 1M in height, derived as they are from decaying icebergs, themselves mega shards of the continental ice shelf. These are ‘growlers’. Now liberally sprinkle with sizable chunks 1-5M in height known as ‘bergy-bits’, also derived from bona fide icebergs. Finally of course, toss around a few icebergs themselves, noting in passing that these have a totally different history from that of sea ice. Our difficulties in getting to Terra Nova Bay further provide a window for Christian’s 2nd exposition of the day, this on, wait for it, the Terra Nova,

Scott’s ship to the antarctic for his anti-climatic arrival at the pole, pipped at the post by the wily Amundsen. Retrospectively reassured by Victoria at the 6:30pm re-cap that 02March is traditionally a day of disaster, we are on to fine dining episode three, where, in the nick of time, we are roundly introduced to all staff, these long-suffering patient saintly souls, without whom of course the ship and all its inhabitants could not function, nay, would perish. Easing into the post-prandial home stretch, we 9:00pm gather in the lecture hall for the final part (of 7) of ‘The Last Place on Earth’, film circa 1985 of the Scott-Amundsen race (let’s call a spade a spade) to the south pole. Mysteriously episode 6 in which both Scott and Amundsen actually ARRIVE at the pole (not in that order) was skipped, thus in one clean maneuver, effectively deep-sixing the point of the entire series (one wonders if this the outcome of one as yet disgruntled englishman somewhere on board).

Done in from the day’s extensive undertakings, a handful hale and hearty slope up to the bar, the final evolutionary step in a day’s progress, muted murmurings of dreams for the morrow over a drink or two (politely put) until all have plateaued on an induced state of quiet enchantment. May the stately Ortelius gently rock them ever more.

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