The Polar Project » Frozen Sea

Pancake ice forming on the surface of the ocean

Day 30; February 21, 2009; Penguin Bukta, Fimbul Ice Shelf, Southern Ocean, Antarctica
Average Daily Temperature: 24.53˚ F
Average Daily Wind Speed: 14.77 mph
Feels Like: 2.38˚ F

This morning I awoke to find that the sea had literally begun to freeze. All around the ship, and as far as I could see, the surface of the ocean was covered in small discs of solid ice. Though the equinox is still a month away, which definitively marks the change of seasons, one can already see the signs of the quickly approaching winter.

Watching the Southern Ocean freeze before my eyes was an awesome sight—completely profound, if not seemingly impossible.

The discs of ice that had appeared overnight are called “pancake ice,” and they are formed in a most remarkable way. As the temperature of the ocean water begins to drop to the point of freezing, the surface water, which has less salinity, will begin to freeze first. However, as the ocean is never still, when the ice begins to form it knocks about gently on the surface waves, bumping into other forming bits of ice. The persistence of the motion means the ice plates are always colliding into one another, eroding each other’s edges which results in their round shape.

The last flights from SANAE arrived before lunch, and with everyone on board, the ship embarked on the long voyage north. As we moved away from the ice shelf, and the continent of Antarctica, the boat made its way through the newly frozen surface of the calm ocean, marking our path behind us. The petrels were darting around the ship, following our northerly tack. Icebergs towered, ever luminous, in all directions.

The panorama held my vision in earnest for the next six hours. The sunlight, which disappeared occasionally behind light cloud cover, was creating the seascape anew minute by minute. Literally, I could photograph the same direction three times within a short period, and the color of the ocean would be a gloomy gray in one, a radiant gold in another, and an icy deep blue in the third. Impossibly striking scenes passed before our eyes, every direction a new opportunity to gasp. I have over 800 photographs from this day, and have found it an entirely hopeless effort to try to edit them—each one holds a unique beauty, leaving me quite confounded as to how claim one superior to another.

Before long, the pack ice, which is the ice left over from the previous winter’s freeze, was scattered across the horizon, forming a theatrical stage upon which the light continued to play. Every moment was a magnum opus. Large flat pieces of ice in the shapes of squares or triangles became like monochromatic light sculptures. Jagged pieces, which sliced upward into the sky or downward into the sea, were like truculent brushstrokes upon the foreground. As I watched the landscape before me, I esteem more deeply the paintings I had seen at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts the day before I left on this journey—a wonderfully curated exhibition of historic paintings of the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

These artists, some of the first to see Antarctica, let alone paint it, had sought to represent the landscape with an air of emotionality—they attempted to reproduce nature accurately, but ever imbued with the human effort and adventure that led them to be there. I remember, as I looked into those paintings, wondering if they were a bit sensational in their approach, but now I believe that not to be the case at all. They are sensational, yes, but insofar as they accurately portray the real and persistent drama of the nature itself. Those paintings are more impressive to me now, having seen this place with my own eyes—I couldn’t have known beforehand the land those paintings yearned after. Now, I know.

I was fortunate to catch a glimpse of penguins amongst the pack ice several times throughout the day. On one large flow, there were four Adélie penguins and one Emperor penguin, which allowed a clear view of the size difference. Scurrying along the ice, sometimes standing upright looking directly at you, and then suddenly dropping on to their bellies and sliding around on the ice, they seem somehow comical and noble at the same time. I also spotted a small pod of Minke Whales in the distance, their dark fins emerging elegantly from the water as they surfaced for air.

At dusk, light continued in vain to pursue the expanding darkness. Several times the vista before me would be entirely a dark grayish blue, save for a single iceberg in the distance, which would be fully illuminated in the warm brilliance of the remaining sunlight. Perfectly horizontal lines of light would appear and disappear in seconds. The day, indeed a masterpiece in color and light, finally dissolved into night with the sun setting on the last remaining pack ice before we reached the open ocean. Behind me, Antarctica would still be illuminated, but in my growing distance, I could no longer see it.
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