Antarctica’s Bounty

Finally reaching 77 degrees 45 minutes South two weeks after leaving Bluff has engendered a feeling of relief more than anything, given we’re one of only two private ships to get this far south this season, the ice ring at the north of the Ross Sea being so stubborn. Even so we’re still 6 miles short of Hut Point where McMurdo and Scott bases are, thwarted by the ice shelf and unfortunately that will have to do as limited time and worsening weather are conspiring to make prevent even the ship’s hovercraft to transition that last 6 miles.

 
Yesterday though was a boomer, testimony once again on just how quickly the weather does pass through this part of the world. Foul the day before yesterday, then a stunning blue sky day, only to be followed by foul again today. Making the most of the precious fine day we were able to get the toys out and have a day of play – motorbiking across the sheet ice is a blast, although getting too close to the edge when a sheet shear strikes, rendering you and your machine suddenly alone on a floater, adrift from the mainland, is not as hilarious as it might seem. We were relieved when our Honda postiebikes performed on cue, firing up faithfully in minus 15 degrees.

 
Together with some scuba diving under the ice sheet, kayaking around the ice channel plus golf and tennis on the sheet it was a day of full activity although once again it’s the wildlife that really provides the highlight. From the Emperor Penguins whose inquisitiveness compels them to pop out of the ocean and come skidding across to see what you’re up to and follow you around until bored, to the Minke whales that cruise just off the ice sheet keeping a supervisory eye on everyone, there is something pretty special about being a visitor in this most far-flung of earth’s natural habitats.

 
And just up the Sound sit the historic huts of Shackleton and Scott, well preserved courtesy of this frozen environment, precious few visitors and the restoration efforts of the Antarctic Heritage Trust. Sited on the coast and at the foot of spectacularly impressive Mt Erebus, the Nimrod Expedition hut was the supply base for Shackleton’s attempt to get to the Pole before Scott, but which turned back some 180 kms short, and the Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans which was the base for Scott’s successful but fatal expedition. Certainly just getting a taste of the wind-chill embossed temperatures at these supply depots, gives one a new respect for all the explorers of the Edwardian era whose unsophisticated clothing of animal fur and wool was expected to insulate them from the -400C and colder temperatures. Little wonder Scott was driven to exclaim of the Pole, “Great god, this is an awful place’, and Amundsen similarly, “It’s the most terrible place on earth”. We’ve had the luxury of staying in the ship for the bitter days, and venturing out only on the fine – a level of comfort those first and subsequent explorers have deliberately eschewed for the challenge of exposure to the extremes.

 
Which brings me to the second aspect of why Antarctica’s weather – and in particular its annual cycle of sea-ice expansion and contraction – is so important to the whole world, not just to intrepid explorers and adventurers. Last week I mentioned the ocean conveyor belt that originates here as a result of the annual see ice freeze and in effect redistributes heat from the equator to the poles. But as well as that influence the sea ice contraction here each summer exposes ice algae and plankton in the surrounding water to a huge bloom over a short window of about 50 days. This massive amount of energy from the sun converted via photosynthesis to plant life, is the start of a food chain that is of similar global significance to sea-life as the ocean conveyor is to climate.

 

Shrimp-like krill feed on the algae and plankton – the estimated stock of krill is 500 million tonnes! Then the krill become the food for birds, penguins, seals and the baleen whales. Thus comprises the conversion of sunlight to animal body weight – the fat layers during this feast being their essential store of nutrient over the long winter for the permanent residents, while other species that harvest this Antarctic energy each summer, migrate north to mate and breed.

 
The central role then that Antarctica plays in global climate, sea life and the aspirations of those challenged by its extremes, makes this continent pretty special, despite the reality of its virtual desolation.