Beneath the eerie, desolate world of Antarctica lies a calm, unexplored ocean and a rich, extraordinary ecosystem all of its own, where the leopard seal, the supreme predator in the food chain, hunts unchallenged.
The stirring sun lights up the blistering, opaque world stretching out in front of us. A monolithic glacier casts a shadow over the horizon. Mountains rise up and touch the tender sky. Our location is 64º 41’ S, 62º 38’ W when we see the continent of Antarctica for the first time. As we leave sight of our expedition vessel, the dinghy that carries us penetrates deeper into a wilderness of icebergs. And then, against the wintry abyss, a tail lifts out of the water.
It is a humpback whale. Known for their displays at the surface, they breach and slap heavily, sending misty plumes of water upwards. Humpbacks are easily recognized by their long pectoral fins and knobbly head. Their name is derived from the humping motion they make when diving.
I swiftly strap on my fins, mask and snorkel. Peter Szyszka, the leader of our Waterproof Expeditions dive, maneuvers the dinghy for an up-close encounter. We only have to wait for his ‘OK’ sign. Without warning, not more then a couple of meters away, a fountain spurts into the air. Soon the great beast will be under us. A white flank appears, reflecting blinding rays of light. I am swimming with a humpback whale. Her lumbering body draws past me, dissolving into the distance.
It has taken me almost three days to reach the Antarctic Peninsula from Ushuaia, Argentina’s southernmost city. I am spending 11 days in total aboard an ice-reinforced expedition vessel capable of carrying 45 passengers, fully equipped for polar diving. A container on the front deck keeps our dry-suits warm. Further forward are four inflatable Zodiac dinghies to enable us to get both into the water and onto land. A towering bridge oversees it all from where our captain has set course for world’s end.
A day earlier we passed by the South Shetland Islands, about 120km north of the peninsula. Due to the relatively mild climate, these sub-Antarctic islands are home to many birds, including albatrosses, skuas and penguins. A quick equipment test on Half Moon Island gave us the opportunity to see a rookery of more than 4,000 chinstrap penguins. But our first ‘real’ polar dive was on Deception Island.
A white flank appears, reflecting blinding rays of light
The center of the island is a caldera, which has been flooded by the sea. A black beach inside it shows Deception’s volcanic origin. An abandoned whaling station tarnishes the view with its desolate façade. Beside the factory lies the remains of a research station, destroyed by the volcanic eruptions of 1967 and 1969.
As our captain maneuvers the ship into the natural harbor, we gear up. A crane lifts the dinghies into the water and we hop onboard via the mobile steps. With a deafening noise the outboard engine pushes the dinghies out into the caldera, until we pause at one of the crater walls, where embedded metals strike out beautiful waves of red and orange.
“Ready?” asks Peter. Yes! Freezing water splashes onto my face. For a second it feels like 100 knives have found their way into my skull. A swell takes over and rocks our heavily equipped bodies slowly back and forth. I try to calm myself, but I don’t have enough time. Four huge fur seals behind my diving partner make me jump. They’re not planning to let either of us get away.
But soon I feel relaxed; these eager creatures are gentle. Their brown bodies whirr around us in play. They speed forward, and pull back. Then one gets too cheeky and briefly sets his teeth into the lens of my camera. Surprised by the cold greeting of his own reflection, his huge black eyes stare straight into mine. And suddenly his presence becomes tangible, in a kind of way that brings us together. It is an amazing experience.
Diving in Antarctica is not without danger. Water temperatures drop below zero and hypothermia is a real threat. We are also likely to deal with uncharted waters – not to mention dive sites – and there are no decompression facilities. In these circumstances strict dive protocol is necessary. “The maximum dive time is 45 minutes, and nobody dives deeper then 20 meters,” Mike Murphy, our expedition leader says during the mandatory briefing. “Whoever disregards the rules, does not dive,” he adds.
His huge black eyes stare straight into mine
It sounds tough, but is for our own safety. We dive with two first stages, both coated with a cold water seal, to avoid and manage freeze- ups. Of course we use dry-suits, plus many more layers underneath. It reminds me of our outward journey. A vague sign of astonishment had appeared on the face of the ground staff when I checked in the 59kg of dive equipment at the airport. “Where are you going?” she asked. “To the South Pole!” I said proudly.
Now, as I stand on the deck of our ship, I see a thin layer of snow covering the rigged tanks in the dinghies. We were advised to leave all the equipment outside during the night. “It gets cold anyway, and taking the equipment inside only leads to water condensation,” Mike says. This is especially true for cameras.
Twice a day we leave the ship: to go diving, snorkeling, cruising, landing onshore and hiking. We – of course – try to stretch out every minute and do everything at once. “Let’s look for leopard seals!” Peter says with a grin on his face. Together with the orca, the leopard seal is the supreme predator in the Antarctic food chain. They are also huge – females can grow up to four meters long. They hunt for penguins and krill, though less frequently eat other seals, such as crab-eaters. As February comes to an end, so does the mating and reproduction season. Now is the perfect time for hunting.
Peter powers the boat skillfully between the icebergs. Floating sea ice grates along the rubber skin of the boat. Otherwise, all is quiet. But we are fortunate. A silver fleece lights up the surface. The head of a leopard seal makes me think of a dinosaur – a predator from another time and place. And this one has something: a small penguin dangles above the water with its feet trapped in the seal’s mouth. The seal violently shakes his head and disappears below the waves. Then both appear again, still attached to one another. They approach the foot of an iceberg, where the water is shallow and turquoise blue.
I hold my breath. I have heard that leopard seals skin their prey alive by hitting them on the water. It is a brutal, unforgiving sight. But somehow, the penguin escapes. With breakneck speed the little bird leaps onto the iceberg. As the penguin flees in shock, the seal glides angrily up and down. We can almost touch them now; that is how close we are. Nature in its wildest form. I feel as though I have entered Jurassic Park. But here everything is white and, despite the cruelty of nature, it all somehow seems in harmony.
Now is the perfect time for hunting
Port Lockroy is a natural harbor along the Antarctic Peninsula. After our whale and seal adventures it is time for some cultural heritage. In the early morning we pass Goudier Island, in the middle of an 800m-long harbor. A wooden building, black with red window frames, stands on top of the island. Once used by the British government for scientific research and military activities, the House of Bransfield is now an historic monument under the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1959 to set the whole continent aside as a scientific reserve. The building gives me a somewhat primitive and nostalgic view of our presence here. A whale skeleton catches my eye. The curved jawbones shape a perfect egg, once covered with baleens.
Back on board the mother ship we disinfect our shoes, standard protocol for those who have gone ashore. Then we head to Paradise Bay, where we will dive along Shag Wall, one of the peninsula’s most famous dive sites. Shags nest atop the 70-meter-deep cliff, providing nutrients for everything that lives beneath. Big leaves of brown kelp form most of the vegetation. Slowly we descend. Opening up the algae, we reveal a hidden forest.
From the largest of creatures we now switch focus to the smallest. But this miniature world is just as fascinating, just as unreal, and even more secretive. Take the giant isopod. Not only do they look prehistoric, they actually are. Fossils show its ancestors existed more than 160million years ago, and it has barely changed.
An orange anemone shines almost fluorescent, hanging of the steep wall. A gigantic sea star with more than 30 tentacles spreads its legs wherever it can. It is an unusual and beguiling creature. Earlier today, during the morning dive, we saw hundreds of pink sea stars on the grey ocean floor. All these images are surreal. And being there, along Shag Wall, I am again fascinated by the wondrous biodiversity of this otherworldly destination.
“You guys want to do a landing?” Peter asks from the Zodiac when we finish our dive. I try to move the floating pieces of ice as I make my way back to the boat. But they are formidably heavy. Once back on board Peter takes us to the pier, near the cliff. Just above the pier is Almirante Brown, an Argentinean research station, and some gentoo penguins. A hill rises up behind the station.
An orange anemone shines almost fluorescent
As the sun prepares to set we have to hurry to reach the top. Restricted by dry suits we clamber upwards, slipping and stumbling as we go. Still sodden from the dive, the water freezes on my face. Exhausted, I make it to the summit and look out over Paradise Bay, hidden between a 2,000-meter- high mountain range and a awe-inspiring glacier. I stretch out my arm and catch the wind. Tears roll over my cheek; I am at world’s end.
Of the seven continents Antarctica is without doubt the coldest and driest. It almost never rains here, and is so cold it is permanently covered in snow. The constant snowfall has created a sheet of ice that in some places reaches four kilometers thick. Only the nunataks, the rocky peaks of the mountain range buried beneath, are exposed.
The ice sheet is in fact a glacier, but so massive and widespread that the topography of the continent doesn’t limit its course. The glaciers we know are formed by the shape of the mountains, where they flow under their own weight, much like a river. In Antarctica the glaciers form ice shelves at their margins, floating on the sea but still attached. From there they carve icebergs into the water, sometimes with ferocious intensity.
Less then one percent of this continent is not covered in ice, but this is cold comfort for birds unable to lay eggs in such difficult conditions. Despite the harsh circumstances a rich flora and fauna does flourish – underwater. “That’s because of krill,” says Jamie Watts, the biologist and field guide who organizes land expeditions and lectures on board the ship. “Their substantial biomass feeds everything around here.”
He tells me that Antarctica has more then 300 algae species. One of them, a lichen, which is actually a symbiosis of algae and fungi, lives above the water. Jamie points out pink spots in the ice – I had wondered what they were. Besides that there is only one real plant on the continent. And even that one that has to absorb its nutrients from stone.
“Pleneau Bay is also known as the iceberg graveyard!” shouts Jonas Sundquist over the engine noise. It’s our last day on the wondrous seventh continent. I signed up for the polar diving specialty course, which might come in handy when diving near icebergs for the first time. Jonas is our instructor. The water is still and reflects mirror images of the icy statues that fill the bay. Leopard seals enjoy the sun by lying on the ice floes. They tilt their heads to acknowledge our company.
It's our last day on the wondrous seventh continent
Jonas brings the dinghy to a stop when we approach a table-shaped iceberg. “The most important thing is to know whether the iceberg is grounded or not,” he says. He checks this by measuring the depth with a small yellow instrument. An iceberg is more likely to be grounded when the water is shallow. “That’s what you want,” he continues. “When an iceberg floats you should estimate the likelihood of it rolling over – something you don’t want to happen while diving next to it! If the iceberg has rolled over recently, the ice on top has a pattern of dimples affected by the seawater. Signs of snow on top mean it hasn’t rolled over recently. Best to avoid those mountains.”
By the time we find a suitable iceberg, I am ready to start the adventure. I am little bit nervous: this time our dive site is moving too. Underwater we enter a totally different realm. The icy blue colors mesmerize me. The skin of the iceberg feels soft. Just below the waterline I see the dimples Jonas told us about. Slowly they fade into deepening ridges that travel all the way down, as far as I can see. Their black shades eventually mix with the dark blue water.
It looks spooky. I look at my computer – the temperature display says minus two degrees celsius! That is cold. I become aware of my increased breathing rate and I struggle to get horizontal. What is going on? It feels like the iceberg is slowly pulling me down into the icy blue. I guess the ice really does mesmerize. Then, out of nowhere, a leopard seal suddenly appears.
I push myself back into the iceberg, grabbing my dive partner’s hand. The seal is so fast that every approach comes by surprise. “Close your eyes to relax in such situations,” Peter had told me. I close my eyes and immediately my heart rate drops. Still shut, I realize I want to be here and nowhere else. It works. I open my eyes and the seal is right in front of me.
I realize I want to be here and nowhere else
An old picture, taken by Alfred Lansing, shows an endless landscape with several tracks running across – the white plains of Antarctica. The ski tracks and ski pole marks were left by Robert Falcon Scott on his first attempt to reach the geographic South Pole. Behind him he pulls a sled – for traditional reasons the British expedition refused to use dogs.
A small line measures the distance, and perpendicular to the tracks are the tiny footprints of an Adelie penguin. The picture was taken in 1911, yet somehow I feel I am following in their footsteps, albeit a century later, but still subject to the same harsh circumstances. Humans will always be guests in this alien world.
Slowly the ship moves through Lemaire Channel, one of the most beautiful spots on the Peninsula, and so photogenic it has been nicknamed “Kodak Gap”. On the rear deck we celebrate with food, vodka and Russian music. And then something remarkable happens. A minke whale lifts its entire body out of the water, just a few meters away. Then again. And again. “She is coming to say goodbye!” I hear someone shout. These are leaps of happiness. And that is how our perfect journey comes to a perfect end.
The next day the sky turns a leaden grey. On top of the bridge I finally start to feel the cold. With great force, the bow of our ship crashes into the waves of the Southern Ocean. The Drake Passage is about to be crossed once more.