Day 28; February 19, 2009; Penguin Bukta, Fimbul Ice Shelf, Southern Ocean, Antarctica
Average Daily Temperature: 20.93˚ F
Average Daily Wind Speed: 35.1 mph
Feels Like: -31.72˚ F
Dawn both elated my soul and dimmed my heart, as this sunrise marked my last day on the continent of Antarctica for this journey. I had been up all night, again, attempting to observe and capture the ever-changing nature around me. The base was completely silent, deep in the arms of Morpheus. I, bundled in all of my gear, took the video camera outside to record the light from our massive star, which was proclaiming the day on the southern horizon.
Facing east into 30-knot winds, I sat on the ground in the tumult of wailing wind and fiercely blowing ice crystals. My body swayed in the chaotic pulsing of the wind’s force while I anchored the camera as best I could and began my 30-minute recording. The strong morning light refracted off each frozen water crystal and magnified itself throughout the snowy distance. The world around me was almost painfully radiant—as if the ice itself was ablaze. What a sublime and ethereal world Antarctica is!
This was the same phenomenon I had experienced my first day arriving at SANAE, and now on my last it seemed somehow fitting to be experiencing it again; a full circle. Cycles are the hidden breath of our being—the innate rhythm of traversing time. The closing of one cycle always denotes the opening of another, and as I looked out across the luminous layer of snow that hovered almost two feet from the ground, my own body seemingly suspended in its westerly flow, I surrendered to the cold, the wind, and my last moments on the Ice. Antarctica has shown me so much of its magnificence—I’m ever stunned and awed by its force and sovereignty.
Upon my return from outside, I rushed to put the remaining things into my bags and joined Thomas and 1stborn, and headed off to the heli-pad. It would take three days to transport everyone from the base to the ship, save the ten people remaining for the winter, and we had been scheduled to depart on the very first flight to the ship. Having secured the sole window seat in advance so I could photograph the landscape during our hour-long journey to the sea, I peered out of the bulbous aperture and watched as the helicopter leapt upward into the air currents. Neall and Kevin, our pilots, were generous with our flight, and we had a great tour of the nunataks and their wind scoops en route to the ice shelf. Beyond the mountain range, we passed over massive geometries of crevasses, and the elongated patterns of cloud shadows stretching, as if lines, across the snow-covered landscape.
With my eyes lost on the horizon, my mind turned inward, and before long emotion overtook me. I was leaving Antarctica, and the deep feeling of loss that emerged surprised me. My affinity for this land had been immediate and absolute, and my departure from the ice continent filled me with enormous sorrow. Tears flowed in gratitude for the pure beauty and grace of my experience here, and for the gifts Antarctica had bestowed. It is, indeed, a privilege to come to this land and experience its phenomenal nature. Antarctica shall never leave me.
My melancholy transformed instantly as the ice shelf became visible below, revealing the birthplace of icebergs. From this vantage point, I could see clearly where staggeringly large areas of the shelf had just broken off, and where others would soon follow. These ice islands, entirely unmoored, drift freely northward on their lonely voyage out to sea, where they continue to break down and melt as they traverse the latitudes toward warmer waters.
The sight was literally breathtaking—hundreds of colossal icebergs floated effortlessly along the coast, despite their sheer mass. Tiny air bubbles caught in the ice layers make the icebergs particularly buoyant, causing them to rise even higher than the surface of the shelf itself once they are freed from it. Amazingly, the visible area of an iceberg—above the ocean’s surface—displays only 30 percent of its actual size. The remaining 70 percent lies hidden under the sea.
It is a wondrous experience to see these remarkable forms scattered across the horizon, appearing as impossible mountains. Their surreal, luminous grandeur seemed in stark contrast to the grey-bronze sea. As I marveled at their amorphous shapes, the sun streaked golden light behind the thick clouds, painting the dark water with a warm shimmer.
We had begun our descent, and quickly the red deck of the SA Agulhas Research Vessel appeared below. We landed with the ship at sea, the watercraft rocking in the waves as I stepped off the helicopter. Finding my balance, and attuning my body to what would be two weeks aboard this ship, I looked back toward the continent. The icebergs, which I had seen from the air, were now towering around us, their presence insistent and hypnotic. The ice shelf behind them glowed brightly in the now midmorning sun.