PHOTOS: Dr. Mark Rothschild
After reading “Shackleton’s Way” about British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, I was anxious to do my own photographic exploration of the highest, driest, coldest, and most isolated landmass on earth.
In 1915, Shackleton and 22 of his men were stranded on Elephant Island, located in the South Shetland Archipelago and considered the gateway to Antarctica, after his ship became mired in ice. Fortunately, our more modern ship, the Sea Explorer, was able to navigate the icy waters and give passengers stunning views of the beachfront where king penguins frolicked and sea lions hunted for food.
Antarctica is one of the most peaceful places on earth. The beautiful, clean landscape was punctuated only by penguin grunts and ice cracking as our small boats, known as zodiacs, were lowered into the water near Point Wild. Point Wild is a beach named after Frank Wild who was second in command on Shackleton’s expedition. The peacefulness was interrupted when a predatory sea lion attacked a penguin, a gory sight that stunned even the most seasoned photographers on board.
Our ship proceeded through the Antarctic Sound en route to Brown Bluff. Peering at the pristine landscapes from the ship’s deck, multiple tabular icebergs were visible. These were sheets of ice that had calved off any one of countless glaciers that lined the shore.
Having reached Brown Bluff, the zodiacs were lowered, and we motored to shore where we were greeted by the chirping sounds of thousands of gentoo and adélie penguins. These cute creatures reveled on the beach in front of the stark backdrop of a towering volcano that rose 2,450 feet.
As our ship meandered into the Antarctic Sound surrounded by D’urville, Joinville, and the Dundee Islands, it became obvious our vessel was engulfed in a large sheet of ice. This made a zodiac excursion impossible, a common occurrence in the fickle and highly variable environment that characterizes this southernmost continent.
The next day we penetrated deep into the Antarctic Peninsula where Neko Harbor is situated, lined by alpine glaciers and mountains. On the beach, numerous gentoo penguins scurried about. Our group trudged up a steep, rocky incline until we reached a flat landing area. As we rested, a tremendous boom rang out. Directly across the bay, a large ice sheet had calved off a glacier, and was gaining momentum on its way down to the waters of Advord Bay. A closer look at the glacier revealed large crevasses, all lined with an aqua tinge that varied depending on lighting conditions.
Proceeding down the peninsula, our ship anchored in the southern end of the Errera Channel. The zodiacs were lowered and we made landing on Danco Island. On our approach, we saw many rolled icebergs (icebergs that had tipped over), crevassed glaciers, and surrounding mountains. Our onshore greeting party consisted of 1,600 breeding pairs of gentoo penguins.
We entered the Cierva Cove under a threatening sky filled with cumulonimbus cloud formations. There were numerous icebergs of diverse geometric shapes that took on an interesting turquoise hue against the gray skies.
As we departed the Antarctic Peninsula, the spirit of Ernest Shackleton permeated my consciousness. After having experienced the harsh southern environment and threatening seas of the Antarctic Convergence, it is almost inconceivable that he and his crew survived some of the most adverse physical conditions imaginable. The heroic age of human exploration of the Antarctic lives on.