By Joan Larsen
In the Ross Sea portion of Antarctica, the large American McMurdo base has been clothed in darkness for six months. Those “wintering over” spent the time frozen in by the ice until the spring months. Most of my many journeys to the frozen continent were on the Russian icebreaker, Kapitan Khlebnikov, the most powerful icebreaker ever seen in Antarctic waters. It is capable of breaking through ten feet of ice in a single forward thrust.
With 90 adventurers as passengers, the Kapitan Khlebnikov was going to attempt the first-ever-in-the-world semi-circumnavigation of the continent, and the spirits of the experienced passengers were at an all-time high. Late spring had come. Sunshine reigned 24 hours a day. In the first week out – in a ship with both Zodiac rafts and helicopters for our use – the passengers found themselves in the heaven of dreams, taking advantage of every moment to glimpse the changing beauty.
The massive icebergs were a floating parade of Adelie penguins running across the ice like little head waiters in their black-and-white garb, seemingly waiting for us to arrive. Stunning beyond our recall.
As the days turned to weeks, the need for the powerful icebreaker became apparent. More often than not we only saw frozen-in icebergs, seals, and heavy ice in every direction. We often took to the air in helicopters. It was the only way.
And so it was that our ship became the first that year to have the strength to break open a lead that would allow the smaller U.S. supply ships to follow in our wake to McMurdo. Spotting sea lions and penguins basking on the ice is not uncommon, but catching a close-knit group of killer whales “spyhopping” as they are here is a rare sighting. They are looking around as they take in enough air to last them one hour of swimming. The icebreaker had given them enough open water to come up for a breather all at once, giving the passengers a once in a lifetime picture of these beautiful creatures.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home”.