Everything in Antarctica relates to the wilderness of water. In hundreds of textures and forms, water distinguishes the environment as different than any other place on the planet. Rare moisture in the atmosphere crystallizes in the sky and creates magical multicolored clouds. Wispy vapors fall as snow on the continent and give rise to massive sheets of ice that make a tedious march back to the sea.
On the continental fringe, glaciers pile up to form towering bluffs filled with menacing crevasses. Huge cracks enlarge and their hinges to the continent weaken and break. Once free, icebergs begin a new maritime existence. As they drift, cracks are broadened by scouring winds and sea caves grow from carving surge. A few birds fly over the ice and some creatures swim beside them, but never in history had there been an attempt to swim inside of this terrain.
For over a month, we stared in awe at a magnificent parade of individual bergs that scraped along our boat. We landed on bergs, walked on them, set up tents on their shelves, ran boats through them and dived on the ice walls that dropped endlessly to the depths. We collected marine life samples and examined the racing currents that streamed in their wakes. But, it was at Cape Hallett that my husband Paul and I jumped into the crackling blue water to explore the inside of a grounded iceberg.
We cautiously entered a collapsed area to find a gaping fissure that extended out of sight. Sheer white walls dropped interminably in a narrow crack. We swam into the fracture and drifted down to the sea floor. As we hit 130 feet we discovered that the berg was undercut. Below the mass, we found a dazzling world of colorful tunicates, sea stars and curious creatures. Brilliant reds cast a glow on the ceiling of ice just over our heads. The allure of the teeming life entranced us to further explore the expansive cave.
We slipped silently through the underbelly of the berg with our closed-circuit rebreathers, hearing only the occasional fire of our oxygen valves. We found tiny columns and ridges that fixed the berg in position. The forces of great currents carved conduits and passageways through the ice and brought nourishment to the plentiful life. Large scalloped hollows textured the walls like dimples on a giant golf ball.
On our last dive inside the ice, the Antarctic summer was coming to an end in the brief full moon twilight. The current accelerated at a horrifying rate during our dive, so we turned in retreat. Getting out of the cave became a frightening swim for our lives. There was nothing that enabled a handhold. We needed to get off the sea floor but the walls were slick ice. Small ice fish burrows were the only offering that gave us an opportunity for rest. They were just large enough to insert a single digit. I moved up, finger by finger, evicting the tiny fish out of their dens, sending them into the siphoning cave. We edged up slowly to safety.
That night while the current gathered speed, I drifted off to sleep. In the violent flow of water, our vessel was ripped from the anchorage outside the cave. Surprised, the Captain relocated to a safer refuge. As he shifted the boat, I heard a shrill scream echo through the boat. There was no mistaking that this was a call for everyone on deck.
Our aging berg had been strained from relentless ocean waves beating its extremities. A vibration began to build within the tired ice. The yawning tremor warned of cataclysmic forces soon to be unleashed. The rhythmic creaks crescendoed into a sonic boom and from the center outwards, it began to crumble. The larger half of the behemoth heaved up and rolled on its side. Then like a screeching voice that shatters a crystal glass, it disintegrated, leaving only a wake of crumbled shards drifting in the sea. Silence returned and all that was left was a battlefield of ice lumps and a stunned crew.
We realized that Mother Nature had given us ample warnings of her force. It was time to run north and escape the winter freeze that could easily trap us for a season. As we skulked out of the Ross Sea, I was reminded that good explorers need to know when to cut and run, regardless of the rewards that await total success.