We’ve moved into—and almost through—the furious fifties with the screaming sixties awaiting our imminent arrival. By now we’ve spotted our first iceberg and the hype was real. I fell into the trap as well. But you can’t blame me—seeing an iceberg in person is truly something incredible to behold. Sentinels of ice drifting through the ocean many times larger than the ship, demanding respect as they slowly creep through the barren thaw. It’s incredible how revered the iceberg is even hundreds of years after sailors first encountered the behemoths. Even in the Agulhas II we give them wide berth. The very first one was passed in the early hours of the morning with nobody really having seen it. The next day we got to see a few for ourselves.
The same day we saw the images above, Steve and I went to the bow of the ship (the front end) as evening began to set in. The air temperature was -2.5ºC, a light snow started to fall and the only wind present was created by us moving through the air on the water. It was as though the ship was just gliding upon the surface, carried along by some unseen force threading it through the frosty waters. It was so quiet that we could hear water lapping up against smaller pieces of hard ice, called growlers, as we passed them. We could even hear when the odd growler met with the bow. It was an eerie, surreal experience standing at the very front of the ship, the cold stinging any bare skin, as we moved through what would normally be a chaotic maelstrom of madness. I’m constantly at a loss when I think of how the original explorers of the antarctic navigated through this icy minefield in wooden vessels without radar, without the ability to break ice with their hulls and without engines. It must have been a truly gargantuan task with minimal guarantees.
We have already spotted some fascinating sea life out here. Penguins and a seal floating by on ice floes watching us as we pass, some blue whales (which I had the misfortune of not seeing myself), two unidentified whales we spotted off the starboard stern and the great antarctic birds. Those who have visited me at home will know that I consider my parents’ pet bird, a conure, to be the avian form of Beelzebub himself. However, a bird like the albatross or the giant petrel in free flight beside the vessel is something incredible to behold. How birds so large can look so effortless and graceful in flight is beyond me. They aren’t shy, either—they fly so close to the ship that you can get a true appreciation for their immense size.
As for science, our floats have all been deployed except for one faulty unit and XBT deployments have been suspended with all the ice passing the ship interfering with the equipment. We have now been roped into helping out Clinton Saunders’ engineering team with their ice ops. We record ice thickness, ice concentration and ice-breaking vibrations at two-hour shifts, twice a day. So we’re still keeping busy. Ehlke also has to make ice observations for her studies and so we maintain a camera facing the ice beside the ship for her too. The oceanographers and engineers (the ship-based scientists) are all busy as we head to the ice shelf while the base scientists are bored with sailing and just want to get to the shelf so they can get started on their work. We, the oceanography team, are more than happy with the sailing, though! It’s already been such an incredible experience and it’s only going to get better from here.
The ship will reach the ice shelf in the next two to four days. We can look forward to ramming the ice, seeing leopard seals charge the vessel and penguins flee before it. Thereafter, we meet the ice shelf.
Before all of that, though, we will cross into the antarctic circle, 66° 33′ 39″ south, where the sun doesn’t set in the summer. Then it will begin—the longest day.