Here’s a snippet from Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean to, er, whet the appetite, together with a few photos from my voyage last year to set the scene!
(Note: Extract is from pp. 85-89. I have removed the endnotes, but all quotes are of course appropriately sourced.)
Latitude 59° 27′ South, Longitude 46° 35′ West: between South Georgia and the South Shetland Islands (6 November 2017)
In the middle of the Southern Ocean, time is measured in latitude and longitude, wave height and wind speed and the proximity of an iceberg. I am feeling disoriented in this ocean, as though time and space have abandoned me. As I look westward, I imagine that I can see all the way around the world. There is no land at this latitude, so I scan the horizon, trying to glimpse the edge of the world. Beyond the limits of my vision are centuries of voyaging and hard labour, letters composed, observations meticulously recorded, measurements made, samples retrieved and minds focused southward, straining to see the first iceberg. Rime ice coats the anchor and deck, and we see our first ice island, with a raft of chinstrap penguins hitching a ride.
In three days’ time we will reach Cierva Cove on the Antarctic Peninsula, our farthest south at latitude 64° 08′ South. I will not reach the Frigid Seventies on this voyage. Even so, I am surrounded by ice. ‘Ten days after leaving New Zealand’, wrote Herbert Ponting, the photographer with Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, ‘we felt the breath of frozen seas’. Growlers are the modern ship’s main adversary these days. They are smaller pieces of ice sometimes called ‘bergy bits’, and they are masters of disguise, hiding in ocean swells and fog, invisible even to the eye of the radar. Our ship moves slowly. We pass giant tabular icebergs. They have their architectural charms and translucent blue hues, but it is the sea ice that takes my breath away. Sea ice is neither land nor sea but something else entirely. Sea ice is the littoral, the shoreline, of Antarctica. It dictates everything here – movement, temperature, colour, life and death – screeching and grinding and screaming in protest as the ship’s strengthened hull forces through it a narrow path.
‘To enter Greater Antarctica’, the historian Stephen Pyne wrote, ‘is to be drawn into a slow maelstrom of ice. Ice is the beginning of Antarctica and ice is its end … Ice creates more ice, and ice defines ice. Everything else is suppressed.’ All living things that inhabit the cold polar waters have to survive in ice, and all who voyage to the Antarctic first need to navigate through the sea ice, or pack ice, that surrounds the frozen continent. The sea ice is a vast landscape in its own right, formed from small pieces of ice freezing together to form large masses floating on the surface of the ocean. Antarctic sea ice is highly variable. In winter it is the most distinctive feature of the Southern Ocean, covering 17 to 20 million square kilometres – more than half – of the ocean’s surface. In summer it all but melts away to around 3 to 4 million square kilometres trapped within the curving coastline of the Weddell Sea. The former director of the British Antarctic Survey, Richard Laws, called it the ‘largest seasonal physical process in the world ocean’. The summer thaw releases flat-topped icefloes and calving icebergs as big as mountains which are destined to drift around on ocean currents before they too melt. Some icebergs travel as far north as latitude 40° South before meeting warmer, equatorial waters. Occasionally, an entire iceberg overturns as it loses its equilibrium, revealing ancient wind-blown, frozen sediments sandwiched in layers of deep blue ice.
According to the people of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, in about 650 CE the Polynesian explorer Ui-Te-Rangiora navigated Te-Ivi-a-Atea, his waka (canoe), from Fiji, venturing far enough south to witness the strangeness of the Southern Ocean; he saw bare white rocks rising from the sea to the sky and white powder on the cold waters, and he saw a deceitful animal from the depths of the ocean and the hair of a ‘woman of the sea’ floating on the waves. Ui-Te-Rangiora is thought to have been describing icebergs and icefloes, elephant seals and floating kelp, and the myth suggests that he may have sailed as far as the subantarctic island of Auckland or the Antipodes Islands. It seems that he was not the only Polynesian to venture into the region before the first European ships arrived. In 2003 New Zealand archaeologists found the remains of two campsites on an island in the Aucklands, with hangi (earth ovens) that date back to between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries containing the bones of sea lions, fur seals and seabirds and the remains of shell fish.
As we have seen, the high southern latitudes were shrouded as well in a Western legend – the Great Southern Land – and it fell to James Cook to prove or disprove its existence when he sailed into the sea ice for a second time, in 1772–5. Cook was not keen on sea ice. He noted in his journal that he would have preferred to sail amongst icebergs in thick fog than to become ‘entangled with immense fields of ice’. He did manage to sail to latitude 71° 10′ South without becoming entangled in sea ice, but there was no southern landmass in sight, and he correctly assumed that the enormous ‘ice islands’ that passed perilously close to his ship had broken away from some icy land further south.
When James Clark Ross entered the sea ice with his fortified sailing vessels Erebus and Terror during his expedition to the South Pole of 1839–43, he traced along narrow channels, or ‘leads’, and reached open sea before being confronted, in 1841, by what he called the Great Ice Barrier. He penetrated it, reaching latitude 69° South and the barrier was renamed the Ross Ice Shelf in recognition of his achievement. It is the largest body of floating ice in the world and is located at the southern entrance to the Ross Sea. It extends into the interior of the Antarctic continent, making it an important feature for many of the early expeditions. Ross tried twice more to reach the South Pole, but ice foiled each attempt. Ice barriers, or shelves, form from glacier ice streaming slowly from land into the surrounding ocean and floating there while remaining tethered to the land. The shelves expand each season as more ice flows onto them from the continent, and then shrink as icebergs calve off their edges. This glacial heartbeat of the sea ice is the driver of global weather patterns. Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian polar explorer, who led the first expedition to reach the geographic South Pole, paid tribute to Ross’s ‘heroic deed’. ‘With two ponderous craft – regular “tubs” according to our ideas’, he wrote in 1912, ‘these men sailed right into the heart of the pack, which all previous explorers had regarded as certain death’. Australian physicist Louis Bernacchi sailed with the Anglo- Norwegian Southern Cross expedition in 1898–1900, but witnessed no icebergs heralding the approach of the sea ice – only a dense fog hovering on the horizon, a slight fall in temperature and a dramatic change in the colour of the sea, to ‘dull dirty green’. Bernacchi described how the ice seemed to encircle the continent like a ‘mighty spell … as if to guard the treasures locked up within its bosom’.