In the Bay of Whales, an indentation in the massive Ross Ice Shelf, we sailed as far south as any ship has ever been. This was the location from where the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen launched his successful expedition to be the first to reach the Geographical South Pole on December 14th, 1911.
Like many Coastalwatch followers I am an advocate for the importance of the ocean environment and arguably no area is more important as a driver of ocean currents, global weather systems and as a feeding location for the whale population that we see each year along the Australian coast than the Southern ocean.
Significantly after six years of international negotiations the Ross Sea will include a 1.55 million kilometres squared marine protected area from December 2017. So overall I felt very privileged to be given the opportunity to work and to photograph there.
Our expedition team consisted of naturalists, an atmospheric physicist, glaciologist, geologist and an ice pilot. Together with a very experienced ship captain and crew that made for some very educational discussions in the officer’s mess and on the bridge.
Contrary to what many people might think it’s not that cold in the summer months and let’s face it we had the ability to retreat back to a warm ship for a beer while checking email if conditions outside took a turn for the worse. So we weren’t exactly doing it tough down there, the contrast with the conditions faced by the early explorers couldn’t have been any more extreme.
We got lucky with a glorious afternoon for sea kayaking in Terra Nova Bay but just after we headed back to the ship we were reminded of how harsh the conditions can be when a katabatic wind blowing off the Antarctic plateau arrived with gusts screaming at 80 knots whipping the ocean into a shimmering whiteness.
Amid the hustle and bustle of ship activities it can be easy to forget about the otherworldly expanse of the landscape that lies beyond the protection of the reinforced steel hull. Surprisingly it’s not a silent landscape. I love paddling in Antarctic waters; it’s an opportunity to get amongst the ice, away from the ship, to see the icebergs up close – but not too close because they can roll without warning– and to sit and listen to the sound of creaking and popping as ancient air bubbles are released from within the ice.
The sound of squawking Adelie Penguins is often not far away either in the Ross Sea. To visit a rookery like the one at Franklin Island is to be immersed in a sensory overload of stinking Penguin guano combined with the raucous calling of chicks wanting to be fed by a parent.
Penguins are endlessly fascinating to watch and photograph. There are strict guidelines for viewing wildlife in Antarctica and Penguins should not be approached closer than 5 meters on land but they are very inquisitive birds and will often wander straight past you if you sit and observe them quietly. Penguins are only on land for a few short months of the summer in order to hatch and raise their chicks. It’s a frenetic time for the parents. The behaviour seen at a rookery will depend on exactly what time in the process you happen to be there.