Cruise Report: Antarctica

Grandidier Channel

From the National Geographic Explorer in Antarctica

Leopard Seal (Hydrurga leptonyx)
Leopard Seal (Hydrurga leptonyx)

Hmm, where to start? Oh, how about the Antarctic Circle! With minimal pack ice for this time of year the National Geographic Explorer was able to motor, on its maiden voyage to the Antarctic, as far south as 66 degrees 30 minutes south latitude. With early morning plans to skirt the west coast of Renaud Island we found ourselves in relatively calm, open water until we reached that imaginary line in the sea.

Following our crossing and a few short blasts from the ship’s horn, we headed north again in search of “fast-ice.” Fast-ice is simply sea ice (frozen ocean water) that is still attached to some body of land providing a flat, (hopefully) stable platform on which to stretch our sea legs. On our approach through Crystal Sound on the western coast of the Peninsula we encountered several fields of heavy pack ice which we steered into with the hopes of finding more stable fast-ice beyond. While our first few attempts came up short we did come across a Leopard and a Crabeater seal hauled out on the flows below. Despite the awesome power displayed by the NG Explorer as she split and shattered the 1-2 meter thick ice at her bow, these two species of seal showed little concern towards the approaching behemoth.

Testing the fast-ice
Testing the fast-ice

Exiting the pack we veered N.E. to sample the leeward side of Larrouy Island with hopes of finding our desired ice there. To our good fortune (and the foresight of captain and Expedition Leader) we did indeed encounter a perfectly flat, featureless expanse of snow covered fast-ice and proceeded to nose into the distinct line marking its edge with the dark, open water. Instead of the sharp staccato associated with cracking freshwater ice, our progress through the void sounded more like we were driving into a large slushy. Being first-year ice, it had not had enough time or cold weather to solidify into the brittle, hard substance associated with Polar mishaps. On the down side, the slushy conditions and deep snow on top prevented us from dropping our gangway straight onto the lunar-looking surface and strolling atop the abyss.

OK, plan “Q!” Determined to leave the ship today we eventually received clearance to drop our zodiacs and explore the ice edge. Cruising at sea level within this landscape was something to remember. Constant change is the only way to describe what we were up against as leads in the ice would vanish as quickly as the snow squalls would come and go. The way the small group of Antarctic Blue Eye Shags would change their perch on each round of zodiac cruises. How the stark, geometric surface of the pack-ice transitions so brilliantly into its submerged rim of turquoise.

Change and contrast. A land filled with it and one we are not soon to forget!

— Eric Guth, Expedition Staff, National Geographic Explorer

View itinerary details.

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