Our World Blinded by the white in Antarctica

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

I like earning the privilege of being in Antarctica.

I like this rollicking ride south across the Drake Passage ... leaving the finger of land at the southern tip of South America and heading for the thumb of Antarctica.

From the “bottom” of the globe, Antarctica looks like a stingray. The Antarctic Peninsula is the tail pointing northwards to the Americas — a ridge of rock ... more-or-less an extension of the Andes with the 1000km of the Drake Passage in between.

I boarded the ship at Ushuaia — one of my favourites. It is an end-of-the-world town in Tierra del Fuego — literally, the end of the Earth, and came down the Beagle Channel, thinking of Charles Darwin, who was here on a ship commanded by Robert Fitzroy, just as Darwin would sail the Western Australian coast and a Kimberley town at a river crossing would be named for the same captain.

The land birds peter out in this sea of mountains ... too far ... too deep ... too unpredictable.

And now there are the moments I have waited for.

Whales breach.

Penguins speed past like wind-up toys — dozens of them flying in little arcs over the water, then vanishing underneath (the same arc, but opposite, and wetter).

And I am mesmerised by a wandering albatross completely at home here in a world of mostly monochrome. Its wings end in delicate tips, which mimic the surface of the water. As it rises over crests and drops into troughs, its breast is an unchanging distance from the surface.

Yes, it is a privilege to cross the Drake Passage.

Stephen Scourfield tells Matt Layton why Antarctica is so cool. Duration: 10m 02s

wildlife encounter

I will be in Antarctica again in comfort, in a great ship, the National Geographic Explorer.

And I will be out again in Zodiacs to see some of the 300,000 breeding pairs of gentoo penguins, and chinstraps, and Adelies.

Crunching through the brash ice, we’ll see Weddell and crabeater seals lying around on small icebergs.

I’ve seen a leopard seal swimming like a torpedo then hoiking itself up on the side of an iceberg, trying to roll a seal off.

I’ve walked carefully through a penguin colony to watch elephant seals lying in a big wallow, steam rising off them. One raises his head from the mass of bodies, throws his big, pink mouth wide and belches a long stream of fishy steam.

frozen palette

In the frozen bowl at the bottom of the planet, there is blue and grey and white and infinite options within them.

Among the growlers and bergy bits ... ice blue, royal blue, China blue and cobalt.

In the straits and channels ... steel blue, slate blue, sky blue.

Out deeper, away from the ice, it is midnight blue and Prussian blue and the brilliant deep blue of ultramarine.

And even the whiteness of Antarctica varies, from blinding white to featureless white, to reflective white, to pure white.

White as washing.

White as a geisha’s face.

And then, creamy white, yellow white, honey white, grey white, blue white, and white-white. (Yes ... really ... white-white.)

blinded by the white

At first there are just a few big snowflakes, swing-boating down like feathers, soft as down. But within a couple of minutes, it is snowing hard.

Things change fast in Antarctica.

I am on the Peninsula itself. 

I have climbed up a headland in knee-high snow, to look out over this most beautiful continent.

A couple of minutes more and the wind has picked up, driving the snow in almost horizontally.

It sticks — to jackets, to rubber dinghies, to penguins ... to anything in its way.

And within just another minute it has formed thick, white royal icing.

Yes, things change fast here.

Five minutes ago, it was clear, and now it is a white-out.

Five minutes more and the wind drops. Big snow flakes fall gently and slowly, adding to the squeaky carpet.

On the way back to the ship, it lies on the salty surface, making it milky, creating a crust.

On board, at the steely centre of this silken cocoon, I stand alone in the snow, at the bow, watching the delicate patchwork of snow on the water.

I hear the soft scrunch of it as it is parted by the hull, compressed and swept past.

The snow and ice of Antarctica is a reflective surface, throwing up a light so intensive and invasive that it has the potential to bring illumination within. 

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