Sunday, 2 March 2008

A cornucopia of snow and ice

The dark morning cloud cover lay as heavy as a blanket over Paradise Bay as we made passage towards the Argentinean research base on the mainland. Inky black clouds obscured the mountains behind Almirante Brown and stretched right across the bay to the glaciated range on Anvers Island. However, as we began to make our way up the short slope behind the research station, small chinks began to appear as the wind dispersed the cloud. Within twenty minutes we had glimpses of the Anvers Massif as the sun reflected off its icy slopes. The natural drama of the Antarctic Peninsula is heightened by the unpredictability of the weather and the snow and ice fields that stretch from the high mountain peaks right down to the sea.

After a short visit to Almirante Brown, we began our journey down the Gerlache Straits towards the Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage often strewn with brash ice from the constantly carving glaciers that tumble down the sea cliffs. The Gerlache Straits, named after the Belgian explorer Adrian de Gerlache, separate Anvers and Brabant Islands from the Antarctic Peninsula. Both sides of the channel rise precipitously from the sea to high snow fields above. Giant glaciers bulldoze their way down the slopes depositing large glacial bergs into the waters of the straits, glinting blue as the sun refracts through the air purged ice.

By the time we had reached the entrance to the Lemaire Channel, the clouds had scattered to the far side of the mountains bathing the entire area in liquid sunshine. Entering the channel stirred up images from Jules Verne with Captain Nemo guiding his vessel through the fantasy lands to an unknown world beyond. Barely a few hundred metres across at its narrowest point, with the enormous glaciers of the mainland to one side and the hanging glaciers of Booth Island to the other, the Lemaire Channel is often referred to as ‘Kodak Gap’ for its breathtaking beauty. As we slowly made our way through the ice, we approached a small sailing yacht with a bowman high in the rigging spotting for the helmsman to avoid the unseen ‘growlers’ lurking below the surface that could be lethal to a vessel of its size.

After the thrill of passing through the Gerlache Straits almost any afternoon activity would have been anticlimactic, however the afternoon zodiac cruise proved to be a real highlight of the trip. Within the space of ninety minutes we saw the most spectacular icebergs imaginable, caught sight of a pod of Minke Whales and tracked a Leopard Seal on the hunt. Iceberg Alley is aptly named as it serves as a checkpoint for many of the glacial icebergs drifting north along the coast of the peninsula. In the late afternoon calm the clouds began to close over us as the sun dropped back towards the horizon. As it began to approach the mountain tops of Anvers Island, the sky took on a creamy yellow cast and the clouds darkened to a dusky magenta.

The fickle weather conditions of Antarctica would inevitably conspire to dish us up with another helping of wind and rain, but as the sun set over the magical cornucopia of ice and snow we knew that we would have this day to treasure come what may.

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