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Postcards from the Bottom of the Earth: November 27, 2001

Shortly after Thanksgiving, we hit the northern edge of the sea ice surrounding Antarctica. It’s an amazing sight: huge chunks of ice of various shapes, colored white and blue, ranging in size from a dinner plate to the size of a football field. What is equally stunning are the taller, lone icebergs floating like islands within this sea of ice. Waves make the ice undulate up and down as much as five or six feet, almost like rolling hills or the slow breathing in and out of the ice floes.

I was a bit disappointed that it took some looking to spot my first three penguins as the ship first progressed into the ice. These were the smaller Adelie penguins, which have a maximum height of a couple of feet. After a day or so in these ice fields, we stopped for sampling. Not more than 100 yards away were two sets of three Emperor penguins--these are the biggies, ranging up to four feet tall. They seemed unconcerned about our ship, and continued to climb up and slide down the sides of small ice slopes into the water. What a blast to watch.

As we stayed on station, 4 brave souls swam around and came within twenty feet of the fantail on the back of the ship. They seemed to be feeding off whatever our propellers were kicking up from the waters below. I’ve never seen penguins so close, even in zoos, so I hope at least one or two of the pictures come out. Most of the big penguin colonies live closer to the continent, so I don’t expect to see huge numbers of them. But they should be around for most of the time we are in the ice.

We have had our first day of true sunshine yesterday, and within the ice there seem to be less wind. So it can be quite pleasant outside, despite the odd snowflakes here and there. I shot a couple of rolls of film of just the ice, but I know even this won’t convey the true nature of it all. Some seals have been spotted, but I have not seen them. My big thrill today was a pair of Adelie penguins swimming away from the ship as we passed. They swam much as dolphins do, jumping completely out of the water in leaps and bounds as they moved quickly off the bow of the ship.

The ice forms around Antarctica every winter and melts as the summer season progresses. Within the white ice, there are brown layers of diatoms (small marine plankton) that continue to grow until the ice melts and other species of plankton begin to dominate the seas below. While the melting is a sign of spring back home, it’s almost the summer solstice here.

Close to the Antarctic Circle (66 degrees south), we have essentially continuous daylight. Today it was foggy, and we moved in and out of ice, with the ship using satellite maps of the region to find the best routes to our sampling stations. We think it will stay pretty much the same as we move closer to the Antarctic continent.

We probably won’t see land, but that’s OK because we are interested in the waters surrounding the continent. As the ice forms, the waters cool, sinking to form dense water masses that move northward in a slow conveyor belt. These become the deep waters that underlie the equator and ultimately the high northern latitudes. As the ice continues to melt away, we are hoping to sample these fresh, deep waters and to see the transition in the plankton communities between the spring and early summer.

Everyone is in a good mood now that we’ve reached the ice, except for a few lone ice specialists who want to go out and sample on the ice fields. Unfortunately for them, the ice has been too thin and unstable to risk putting anyone onto it. We'll see what we hit further south.

Amazing shapes and beautiful blues both above and below the waterline of these ice bergs. (Photo courtesy of Ken Buesseler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
View from the ship of Emperor penguins as they slide to the waters edge. (Photo courtesy of Ken Buesseler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Recently formed ice berg near Antarctica. (Photo courtesy of Ken Buesseler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)