The Frozen Continent

Men Wanted: For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.

-Ernest Shackleton

The Sapphire Princess was already racing through the Drake Passage by the time I woke up the morning after leaving Ushuaia. We’d left the end of the world behind us and had now set course for its bottom: The Antarctic Peninsula. An announcement from our captain warned that he was making an attempt to outrun a storm, which promised twenty foot swells if it indeed caught up with us. Murmurs had been circulating the ship for the past couple of days. Everyone was wondering if we would be crossing the “Drake Dragon, or the Drake Lake,” as many guests on board described it. Cruisers who had made the journey before could be heard recounting harrowing tales of goliath waves battering the ship, while others remembered peaceful waters and watching seabirds drafting in the ship’s wake.

All of these stories, while possibly embellished for dramatic effect, are in essence true. The Drake Passage is notorious for containing the worlds strongest ocean current. The Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans all converge in this region, which also happens to be the shortest stretch of water between Antarctica and any other landmass. This makes it the fastest and easiest route to travel to Antarctica, but can come at the cost of a day spent hugging the toilet for those prone to motion sickness. Anyone traveling to Antarctica knows to expect one of two things: an uneventful, calm sailing, or an adventurous thrill ride.

I made sure to prepare myself by taking regular doses of motion sickness pills, but as the day drew on, it seemed less and less likely that my precautions had been necessary. By this stage in the cruise, I had managed to acquire a decent set of sea legs, and walking around the ship was much easier for me than even a few days earlier. The melodramatic experience I had been imagining for months quickly turned into business as usual, and I spent the time at naturalist lectures, and of course eating in the ship’s various restaurants. At the end of the day, I jumped at my first opportunity to go to sleep because I was planning to be outside by six the next morning to catch my first glimpses of the Frozen Continent.

My alarm sounded at five thirty the next morning. The first thing I did was fling open our curtains to take a look at what might be outside the window, only to be met with a view of white fog. Undeterred, Vince and I jumped out of bed to begin bundling up in our winter gear. We’d set out everything we needed so that we could be out of our stateroom within ten minutes of waking up. I slung both of the cameras I’d brought with me over my winter coat and donned an over-sized rain jacket on top of everything else. Notwithstanding the fog, I was going to be outside to see whatever could be seen.

We shuffled up to deck eight and said good morning to some of the birders that we’d met while hanging around the ship’s bow over the past several days. The fog persisted all around us, and the atmosphere seemed preternaturally quiet despite the constant hum of the ship’s engines. A few painted petrels flew in dance-like patterns over the surface of the inky Scotia Sea. We should be able to see Elephant Island by now, but the only thing in sight was the fathomless, gray blur of low-hanging clouds.

Seemingly out of of nowhere, the morning silence was broken by the sound of air bursting upward from the water. My eyes darted in the direction of the noise and found a hanging pillar of mist above the back of a fin whale that had just surfaced. As quickly as it had appeared, the whale sunk back below the waves, but the show was just beginning.

Every few minutes, a new column of mist would shoot upward from the water, followed by the gentle lifting of a whale’s back, starting near its head and ending with a view of its eponymous fin. This process took several seconds because the fin whale is second only to the blue whale in length, with adults of the species reaching over eighty feet long.

Soon the whales were joined by chinstrap penguins, porpoising through the waves. They were so close to the ship that we could see them underwater before they even breached the surface. Penguins are incredibly fast and strong swimmers, and they looked like tiny torpedos zooming through the water, leaving a trail of bubbles in their wakes. It didn’t take me long to realize how difficult it was going to be to capture any of this with the camera. Everything was happening so fast, that I barely had time to react, leaving me with hundreds of frames of little splashes of water where a penguin used to be.

By now some of our group members had joined Vince and I on deck, and our friend Braeden started pointing out seals floating at the surface.

With so much wildlife splashing about below us, I had almost forgotten about the invisible Elephant Island that was still hiding behind a shroud of mist. Elephant Island is known as the first landmark when traveling to Antarctica from South America. It is also a setting from the incredible feat of survival that Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance accomplished, so it holds historical as well as geographical significance for Antarctic visitors.

Just as I was beginning to believe we wouldn’t get to see the island at all, the fog lifted to reveal an inhospitable sliver of rock and ice seemingly floating in the hazy atmosphere.

The island revealed itself for a few brief minutes before the fog enshrouded it once again, as though no land had ever been there at all. After the fog resettled, our captain announced that we would start sailing toward the South Shetlands in hopes that we would be able to see something other than gray fog. I took this opportunity to go inside to eat breakfast and properly get ready for the rest of the day. Funnily enough, I didn’t notice how cold I was until I went back inside and warmed up with some hot chocolate and then a steaming shower.

A few hours (and a few more mugs of hot chocolate) later, the ship was approaching King George Island. We piled on our winter gear once again and trekked back over to the bow where there was already an anticipatory crowd gathered. The fog had lifted higher in the air and now it hung just at the highest points of King George Island instead of engulfing the entire landmass. Glowing light cut through the clouds in places, illuminating the island’s icy shores as we entered Admiralty Bay.

Admiralty Bay is notable as the best anchorage in the South Shetlands because it is protected on so many sides. We floated through its calm waters, drawing closer and closer to towering, blue glaciers which finally gave me a real picture of the immensity of the Antarctic landscape. We were surrounded by ice now, and the ship, which had appeared so large and grand, suddenly seemed more like a rubber duck floating in a swimming pool; a tiny bit of flotsam against the unfathomable forces of nature.

There are several research bases in the bay, and they also lent a sense of scale to the towering ice.

Admiralty Bay is an important nesting area for many bird species, including three species of penguin.  In fact, we saw some penguin colonies along rocky shorelines, but they were so far away that they looked like pebbles scattered along the beach.  It was impossible to even identify the species from our vantage point, although they could have been gentoo, chinstrap, or adelie penguins as all three of these have known colonies in the bay.

Once again, I forgot to notice the cold in the face of such a spectacular landscape. We floated amidst the glaciers for a couple of hours, and I spent the entire time completely enraptured by the ice. Words and images simply aren’t enough to convey the soul-crushing beauty of Antarctic ice. Any human form of expression is humble and insufficient in the face of such a raw, limitless, and frankly dangerous force. Tears welled in my eyes as they followed crevasses upwards until the line where ice met cloud, and earth married sky.

I stayed on deck watching Admiralty bay even as we sailed away and it shrank in the distance. Dusk was falling as we headed back out to sea, although full darkness would never set in since we were visiting during the Antarctic summer.  The sun would dip below the horizon and rise again a few hours later. We sailed onward through this liminal space of dusk melding straight into dawn, making more progress southward toward another day spectacular day in Antarctica.


  1. Thank you, Kaiti, for the continuation of your fascinating journey!
    Excellent writing, and painting with words create images that stay
    in memory for a long time.


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