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Postcards from the Bottom of the Earth: November 30, 2001

I thought the sunset two days ago at 11:50 pm--in the middle of the sea and floating ice--was spectacular enough to make the voyage worthwhile (beyond the science, which continues to go great). Then last night, we steamed into a coastal station just off the Antarctic continent (67 degrees south, 145 degrees east) at about the same time of twilight. It was even more awesome!

Along the coast the continent is covered with ice rising 600 to 800 feet, forming a high icy dome that looks deceptively small. The coast is a ragged set of high ice cliffs, jutting out sharply over the ocean. Our sampling station was in a bay formed by the coast and a huge glacier tongue called the Mertz Glacier. Extending many miles into the sea, the Mertz is the source of many icebergs that break off the main ice sheet and float northward (you should be able to find Mertz Glacier on many maps).

With the sky turning orange at sunset/sunrise, we were steaming along between huge floating icebergs and this ice-covered coast with this amazing glacier in front of us. The water was just on the edge of freezing, so it transformed within minutes from dark gray liquid, to shimmering crystals to "pancake" ice (round, two- to four-foot sheets bumping together) as we moved through it all. Any of these sights alone would have been amazing, but the combination and tremendous scale of it all was incredible.

It’s hard to convey such a view in words, but I can say that despite the cold (about 20 degrees Fahrenheit and windy), I spent more than 2 hours outside, staring in awe. I took more than two rolls of film, hoping that at least one shot will capture some of the magic of the moment. I’ve never seen such a spectacular sight on land or at sea.

So, there’s more to this trip than I had thought. I can’t see how any of those early explorers survived here on land for even a day, but I can now see why they came and many returned.

Originally published: November 30, 2001