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Antarctic Dawn - First Glimpses


The first morning we are within hailing distance of the Antarctic Peninsula looks much like all of the last day. A dim light, fog banks starting a few hundred yards off the ship, and an intermittent pelting by small ice crystals. Peering out my cabin window, the weather has all the hallmarks of a late November in the Chesapeake. I venture out, dressed for home weather.

It is still early; the group of specialized ultramarathoners are gathering for their odd hobby but seem to be moving tentatively. We spent much of the last day absorbing frantically the various details of climbing aboard the Zodiac ferries, how to walk, how not to pollute. These ultramarathoners are expected to be off the ship before the rest of the travelers awake, but here they still are. I step out onto a small deck that overlooks where they will load to see if I can follow the incipient action.

Instantly, I am transported far from the Chesapeake. A steady, howling wind compels me to reach for a railing. The deck, slippery from snow, feels incredibly perilous and without any hold for my shoes. Images of myself pitching over the edge of the ship are hard to shake from my mind. Moving across the black ice-like surface, I grab hold of the railing with both hands, wondering why I am outside in the equivalent of my under clothes.

Through the clouds of mist white patches of light catch my eye. Icebergs loom off the side of the ship, islets of white in odd geometric shapes, looking to teeter or roll. Beyond them are the edges of real solid land - the first we have seen in two days. There is no way to gauge height or distance in the morning gloom, although imagination allows me to believe that they are much further away than they are, higher than I can see. The icebergs - floating ice chunks larger than five meters in diameter and born from ice shelves or glaciers - hug the shore for the most part. Smaller, broken bergs approach the ship, like puppies testing their limits, but clearly our captain has given wide berth to the dangerous bergs themselves.

Everything is a shade of white or gray, especially pronounced as the day brightens and the sun breaks through for odd moments. The gray trends towards brown and black as it reveals as rock outcroppings of the massive mountains of the shore. The white, limned in blue or a light gray or an occasional green, is snow - snow on mountains, snow on icebergs, snow on glaciers. The snow here falls at a desert like rate of 5 centimeters a year, compressing over thousands and millions of years to form the great ice sheets and glaciers that cover the continent. But white is the signal of the new, fresh snow and it is everywhere. Sharp, bright white in the sunlight, dull grayish white on the shaded side of the icebergs, white speckles of over wash on the waves as they churn continuously. And white, in a dizzying pattern of difference, on the handful of birds that still find us interesting. Below all of this white, grey, and black, is the greenish blue and grey of the water beneath us, Dark and light shades of these rapidly oscillating colors carpet the half of the surface that overlook to see landward.

Within an hour or two, a return visit to the deck reveals the reason for the ultramarathon ultra wait: the wind has rocketed up to a crisp 30 knots, and whitecaps abound. The word from the crew is that the landing party - the group that sets up the marathon course - couldn’t land because the anticipated site had several feet of snow, many small bergs close in to shore, and a wind that would defeat even the most intrepid of runners and Zodiacs. Standing garbed in a more appropriate outfit the weather still seems far to intense for human experience. The wind roars and water is picked up from the waves and hurled onto the deck, looking for observers to soak. By this time, the ship’s crew has abandoned this landing attempt, upsetting the carefully laid plans of the expedition leader, and sets sail for more hospitable waters for another attempt.

As we sail through the Gerlache Straight for the first time in the daylight, the icebergs and mountains alternatively loom and then recede from our view. This is the first time most of us have seen this landscape -beautiful, serene, raw. There is a sharp contrast from the comfort of the interior of the ship, passengers clutching coffee, reading novels, talking in hushed tones - and the wildness of the exterior. All of this is likely to change radically when we finally begin our expeditionary activities, but for now all is anticipation.

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