I ask myself, “why am I hunkered down in my parka with teeth chattering, leaning out over the railing trying to be the first?” Simply stated, I don’t see many icebergs on the Mississippi so I want to be the first to spot one. Once into colder waters your senses become a little more sensitive to the light, smell, taste – it’s as if everything is on heightened alert. The seabirds are closer, more daring as they soar close to the ship. The deep waters come alive with a school or is it a flock of porpoising penguins. Is a penguin a fish or a bird? It makes you wonder as you watch them fly through the water. The ship heads toward the islands and the icebergs at a steady clip. With eyes glued to the binoculars I make a constant sweep of the horizon in search of that first hint of white. If you are there early in the summer season (November) chances are that you will see the icebergs relatively quickly. Later in the summer season (February) you will have to cruise much further south to find them. It first appears as just a glimmer on the horizon and having never seen one, its hard to tell if what I’m seeing is just light on the water or an actual chunk of ice. Almost like a mirage on a desert, the water and light play tricks on your eyes. As I cruise closer…the ice reveals itself.
The size and scope of the “chunk” of ice is constantly unfolding as we cruise closer. It seemed so small to begin with…almost disappointing but keep in mind that 90% of the ice is below the water. Having passed the ice we continue on to the peninsula. Enroute we thread between the South Shetland Islands and spot our first landing site. Up ahead is a massive, dark, volcanic outcropping that has been weathered by the ice, relentless winds and water; but yet provides a safe harbor for our ship as we prepare to go ashore.
But wait, before we hastily head to shore there is a myriad of clothing and gear we must wrestle into. First the long-johns, then the 2-3 pairs of socks, jeans, turtleneck, sweater or sweatshirt, wellies(boots), parka, hat, gloves, camera….what have I forgotten? Camera goes in the backpack with the different lenses and filters along with the video camera, don’t forget the extra pair of gloves or mittens, sunglasses….all this preparation has exhausted me. I then find myself sitting in my cabin waiting for the expedition leader to give us a briefing once the team has scouted the landing spot. We are in luck – just a gradual slope to the beach of pebbles with no snow or ice. The island is littered with colonies of gentoo penguins and elephant seals. Instructions are repeated on how we must maintain a safe distance from the wildlife and not disturb them. The tension and excitement of landing on my first Antarctic soil is all consuming. Just the idea of climbing down into a zodiac with all this gear and clothing is numbing. The true nature of Antarctica is about to reveal itself.