The glory of ice

As we crossed the Drake Passage toward Antarctica, a guide overheard my flippant remark about the monotony of spotting icebergs from the boat’s deck and made me a bet. By the end of the trip, he said, I would be more excited to see ice than whales.

As it turns out, he was right. Antarctica’s most amazing feature is its ice, which is constantly moving and morphing into jagged sculptures and menacing barriers. It plays host to most of Antarctica’s life and at the same time is totally inhospitable – often breaking, crashing and turning over in the water without any warning.

Ice is powerful. One morning, large patches of floating ice clogged a well-traveled channel we were trying to cross and completely blocked our path to Port Lockroy and its tiny post office. We were forced to turn back.


The Ocean Endeavor is forced to turn around after floating ice blocks our way to the Lemaire Channel. But, instead of simply turning back we took the polar plunge, more on that here. *All photos by Quark guests, photo guide Dave Merron, my mom Debbie de Peyster and me.

The Endurance, Ernest Shakelton’s ship, was infamously locked in Antarctic ice, leading the crew to abandon the vessel and live on floating ice before searching for help.

Ice makes up most of Antarctica. Its spiky black mountains are blanketed in ice and snow. Glaciers are everywhere, spilling off the land and into the sea. The ocean surrounding the continent freezes in the winter and attaches the land, creating a mass that extends miles off the actual continent.


A weddel seal sits on a piece of fast ice, frozen seawater that extends from the shore where it is attached to land. This ice is host to lots of animal life and usually melts or breaks off in the summer. The sea ice has a different color than the fresh-water glacial ice in the mountainous background. Photo by Dave Merron. 

The sheer size of the ice is awesome. Most of the shore is tall, sheer ice face making it hard to land on Antarctica.

Ice breaks off into the sea in all shapes and sizes. Some blocks are flat, like a pancake, and creates a white hopscotch field in the water. Others are huge icebergs that have split from glaciers and float into the ocean.

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Once in the water, the sea helps shape the ice. In the photo above, burst air bubbles have created the pocked, bumpy surface. Only about one-tenth of the ice mass is visible above the water’s surface. Below the water, the ice’s color is often bright green or aqua blue. Melting can cause icebergs to break apart, but it can shift their equilibrium, leading them to flip over in the water. 


That brings me to my next point, the ice is alive. Glaciers are truly frozen rivers and constantly moving. A very common sound in Antarctica is the booming crash of glacial ice calving, or breaking apart. When the pieces fall into the water it can create big waves.


A glacier calves high above the water line, causing snow and ice to fall below. The booming crash echoes around the bay. 

Ice has age. Our first afternoon kayak we passed through water filled with ice chunks ranging in size from a golf ball to a microwave. Most ice is white and opaque, but sometimes a hunk of ice looks dark, almost black in the water. This is old glacial ice that dates back thousands of years and has been compressed so much over time it has no air bubbles. It looks like a diamond.
A Quark guest holds up old ice. 
Here are some more ice pictures from our trip in Antarctica, courtesy of the Quark photo journal where all guests shared their pictures. Scroll through the slideshow to see them all.

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