This small cove at the end of a long, glacier-packed bay off the Gerlache Strait is one my favorite corners along the Peninsula. It is surrounded by tall peaks – including, on a brilliant day like today, the tallest along the Peninsula, 9,200-foot-tall Mt. Francais – and long glacier tongues leading to the sea. Standing onshore of continental Antarctica, rather than one of the thousands of frozen islands that dot the sea along the Peninsula, I study the far wall as small but powerful avalanches launch from up high. The bay is lined by a two-mile-long glacier which, if it broke off a big chunk, would send eight foot waves surging across the beach where I stand; if that happened, I’d have to run fast uphill to where the penguins, wisely, make their nests.
I’ve been to Antarctica a dozen times over the past twenty years. Sometimes it is possible to get inured, occasionally blasé, about the incredible beauty that surrounds. I try to remind myself as often as possible to take a half hour each day and just sit and revel in the grandeur of the place. Words don’t suffice in detailing Antarctica’s physical beauty. The most powerful memories I collect here are not even visual, but aural.
You often hear Antarctica before you see it. For example, the splash of feeding penguins porpoising out of the sea, sometimes in pairs, sometimes by the hundreds. The blow of a humpback whale long before you catch sight of its arching back. The thunder crack of powerful movement from deep inside a glacier; there’s nothing to see on the surface, no visual change, just the loud report of the giant ice’s continual evolution. Today, most powerfully, I listened the ice moving fast through the channel in front of me: Brash ice, glacial chunks, sizable icebergs, groaning and cracking as they headed out of the channel towards faster-moving waters.
• On a rocky, north-facing slope we spied something today that is very new to Antarctica: Grass. About twenty feet off the sea, two small patches of just-greening herb, more evidence that the Peninsula is warming.
• On another tall cliff, streaks of blue-green malakite, a rich mineral vein, a reminder of just how much mineral wealth lies beneath all this ice. As the ice continues to lessen, one of the biggest changes in Antarctica will be nations fighting over who owns what. Copper, diamonds, oil … all will become new Antarctic commodities if warming trends continue.
• I watched a playful crabeater seal play along the light-blue edge of a floating iceberg. They are one of the more curious and playful of Antarctica’s seals and, though we don’t see them everyday here, the most numerous big animal on the planet after man, some 30 million.
• Update on the M/V Ushuaia: Nothing solid, just small radio chatter. A tugboat is on the way – perhaps has already arrived – to assess the possibility of pulling the ship off the rocks. Concerns are obvious: It’s got a hole in it. Dragging it off the rocks could worsen the gash. And once off the rocks, there’s no guarantee it will be able to self-navigate back to Argentina or even be able to be towed.