Cruising the Ross Sea in Antarctica

March 20, 2017   11 Comments »

“One does not discover new lands without consenting to leave sight of the shore…”
–Andre Gide

We left sight of shore 12 days ago. We bobbed and swayed through the Southern Ocean and finally the jagged peaks of the Admiralty Range came into view. The captain slowly navigated us through the sea ice closer and closer to Cape Adare and the continent of Antarctica.

I had been to Antarctic Peninsula before, but this was different. This time I journeyed through the Southern Ocean from New Zealand arriving at historic Cape Adare on East Antarctica – the route of the famous explorers. Cook, Ross, Borchgrevink, Mawson, Scott, and Shackleton all made this same journey through the Southern Ocean multiple times to go deeper into Terra Australis incognita – the unknown southern land. And now, here I am following in their wake, an Antarctica route few people take. Approximately 40,000 tourists visit Antarctica each year, and only 500 of them come through the Southern Ocean to the Ross Sea.

“You better like being lonely, as you will likely see no other tourists or boats in the Southern Ocean and Ross Sea.”

In 1841 Sir James Clark Ross was the first to enter what is now known as the Ross Sea and discovered Ross island as well as the Ross Ice Shelf, Mount Erebus and Mount Terror (both named after his ships). If you want to get a feel for the explorers of old and what they went through, then East Antarctica is where you want to be. The history on this part of the continent is plentiful.

Eastern Antarctica

Ross Sea Ice Mcmurdo sound

The beginning of the ice that blocked our entry into McMurdo Sound

Much like the explorers of old struggled to get to land (or sometimes escape) due to pack ice, so did we. The ice is different every year and the storms blow it around making many areas unreachable. There is nothing guaranteed when you come to East Antarctica…nothing. We were unable to even get into McMurdo Sound (location of the historic Scott and Shackleton huts as well as US Research Base) due to miles and miles of unusual pack ice that blocked any entry into the sound. It would have required an icebreaker and days of slow navigation. We also struggled to land at historic Cape Adare (we tried twice). We were first foiled by dense sea ice, and then a week later by katabatic winds. Instead we finally had to be satisfied with anchoring and simply experiencing Cape Adare from the ship.

However, we were able to get to places the ship normally doesn’t get to due to atypical summer weather patterns. We landed at Inexpressible Island and were able to go around Coulman Island as well as the Balleny Islands – lands that are normally iced in, but this year they were open.

With the ship at anchor the expedition team took zodiacs to land with the 48 passengers in them. Sometimes we ended up extremely wet simply trying to get out of the zodiac. But it was worth it; every landing we accomplished in Antarctica was full of history of the explorers who came before us, or full of penguins!

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Antarctica packing is much more than just ensuring you have warm clothes! Before you go, make sure you have all of these Antarctica items!

Ross Sea Landings

The Ross Sea is the most pristine area of anywhere on the planet. After Sir James Clark Ross crossed the Antarctic Circle in 1841, it took him 11 days before he saw land again (it took us 1 day!). He made his first two landings on islands we went to on this trip, Possession Island and Franklin Island. We really did follow in his footsteps, and even though it was modern day exploring, it was still as unpredictable and challenging as ever.

Possession Islands

We cruised into the Ross Sea and anchored among icebergs at Possession Island. Discovered by Sir Ross, these small, rugged, and rarely visited islands lie off the shore of Cape Hallett and are surrounded by views of the Admiralty Mountains. The surf was too strong and steep to land on the island, instead we zodiac cruised around icebergs and observed the giant Adelie Penguin colony that had rookeries way high up onto the steep cliffs of the island. Penguins dove around our zodiacs and the sun dipped low, but never below the horizon as we cruised late into the night with the midnight sun.

Coulman Island

We continued south down the coast around Coulman Island. We had the rare opportunity to go through the channel between the continent and Coulman Island – a first for everyone on the ship including our veteran Captain and Expedition Leader who have been coming to the Ross Sea for 20 years!

Ross Sea Coulman Island

Coulman Island Reflection in a perfectly still Ross Sea

As we rounded the island the breeze died down and we had a perfectly flat Ross Sea, leaving us stunning mirror reflections of the island. After coming through such rough seas to get here, I never imagined this pure, flat Ross Sea in Antarctica – it was a bit eerie. After dinner I headed out on the decks to soak up some 11PM sun as we slowly made our way through the slushy pack ice while viewing leopard seals and a few lone Emperor penguins on icebergs.

Inexpressible Island

We had the rare opportunity to do a landing on Inexpressible Island (formerly Evans Cove), an island full of boulders, history, stunning views, and penguin rookeries. Six men of Scott’s Northern Party were trapped on this island for an entire winter with only 3 weeks of food supplies. They miraculously survived the winter by building an ice cave and eating seal and penguin. In November, they then hiked hundreds of miles back to hut point to join their expedition party who had presumed them all dead. As I looked at this harsh landscape, the historic plaque, and the little plot of land where their cave used to be, it sent shivers through my body. The human spirit to survive is a miraculous thing.

I asked our expedition leader’s opinion on if I should hike the ridge or go see penguins – as I really only had time to do one. “I can get you penguins again, but I can’t get you a view like what’s at the top again.” Done – I would hike the ridge. My legs and lungs burned as they got used to moving and ‘working’ again after being confined on the ship for a few weeks. The views of the Priestly Glacier and mountains were one of a kind. I sat on a boulder and wondered how to interpret the name ‘Inexpressible’. Inexpressibly bad or inexpressibly beautiful? Regardless, like all of Antarctica, it’s a land of extremes.

Gondwana in Terra Nova Bay

With Mt. Melbourne looking over us, we arrived in Terra Nova Bay early in the morning. Named after the 1910-13 British Antarctic Expedition, the iceberg filled bay has more human activity than most areas around the Ross Sea thanks to research bases located there.

I woke up to horizontal clouds, like a zebra striped sky as the zodiac left the ship and headed to shore at Gondwana. It was a momentous occasion as I stepped off the zodiac this morning and onto land – it was our first official landing on the continent. And as expected, it felt like the first steps on the moon; rocky, cold, and desolate. Houston – can you hear me?!

We had 3 hours to explore around the area so I hiked around the old German Base which is currently not in use. It was small, cute, and functional – but sad to see no one utilizing it. There was even a little sauna perched out on the rocks near the bay, complete with a balcony overlooking the rocky coast. I looked in the one dirty window. There were a few sentences scribbled on the door with a marker that I could barely make out. It read, “The best sauna view in the universe! “ There was a little part of me that wanted to stay at this empty base and make it a summer home – sauna and all!

Italian Base in Terra Nova Bay

“Bongiourno! Welcome to Baia Terra Nova,” the tall man said as he extended his hand as we got off the zodiacs. For the first time, we had human beings greeting us as we landed. We visited the Italian Summer Research Station. The Stazione Mario Zucchelli started in 1985 and currently has 87 people living/working there from October to February. They welcomed us with Italian coffee and showed us around the base for the afternoon. It was strange to suddenly be thrust back into civilization with helicopters flying overhead, but fun to see this side of Antarctica.

Franklin Island

Franklin Island Ross Sea Adelie Chicks

Fuzzy Adelie Chicks wait for their parents to feed them.

This rugged island, deep in the Ross Sea, is home to a large Adelie Penguin colony and other nesting seabirds and sleeping Weddell Seals. We landed there early in the morning and immediately were assaulted by the smell of guano (penguin poop), which will wake you up faster than an espresso in the morning! We were given 3.5 hours to simply roam around this giant rookery with thousands upon thousands of penguins. The biggest commodity in Antarctica is time. Having the chance to simply sit for hours and observe the penguins was a real luxury.

Feathers were flying in the air like snow since the older chicks were still molting and getting ready to go out to sea. There were also younger fluffy chicks in the colony who were entertaining to watch as they chased adults for food. The adults basically regurgitate food and feed that to the chicks, a fascinating process to watch, and even a little gross at times. I must have looked like a giant penguin as I had a little curious chick follow me around for a while (watch for yourself!), I fantasized about taking him home, but I think all he really wanted was some regurgitated food which I wasn’t about to provide! This was one of my favorite stops as walking and sitting among penguins just leaves you awestruck.

Cape Adare’s Ridley Beach

Ross Sea Cape Adare historic huts

Ridely Beach and the historic huts.

The ice maps looked positive, there was a big storm that pushed all of the ice out of Cape Adare in the last few days so we came back up to North to try a landing one more time at Ridley Beach. It’s the sight of the largest Adelie Penguin rookery in Antarctica, over one million birds. But beyond birds, this beach is filled with history. It is the home of Borchgrevink’s Hut, the oldest in Antarctica, used for the first expedition to the Antarctic continent in 1899. Cape Adare is also the first place people set foot on the continent back in 1895.

The pack ice was indeed gone from the area however, as we neared Cape Adare we ran into a snowstorm and heavy winds. The captain navigated through iceberg alley in low visibility and big swells. As we turned the corner into Robinson Bay we suddenly were protected by the wind and the sea became calm. However, the waves were still too strong to do a landing, but we all enjoyed views of the huts and the Adelie Penguin colony from the decks of the ship as clouds loomed overhead.

“Sometimes in Antarctica the weather is the sight to see.”

Ross Sea Storms

The storm as we approached Cape Adare the 2nd Time for an attempted landing.

Balleny Islands

“More people have summited Everest than have seen these islands,” said Rodney our Expedition Leader as we laid eyes on the rarely seen Balleny Islands. Normally surrounded by pack ice, it’s typically impossible to get near the 3 islands that make up the Balleny’s, but this season they were completely clear of ice.

Louis Bernacchi, sailing past the Ballenys in 1899 on the southern Cross Expeditions wrote,

 “I can imagine no greater punishment than to be left alone to live forgotten and die forlorn on that desolate shore.”

Balleny islands

Balleny Islands

The islands are basically blanketed in feet upon feet of snow and glaciers making them look a bit like a giant meringue pavlova dessert. Around the steepest cliffs, the snow cover had broken off and left bits of rock exposed. It was hard to get perspective on this immense snowy landscape. But it left us all in awe as we slowly cruised by the islands.

We explored everything we possibly could in the Ross Sea with our available time. The unpredictability of the weather and ice dictated our itinerary each day just like the explorers of old had to contend with. But no matter where we went, we all knew that very few people get the opportunity to see this part of the world, which made every landing and experience special beyond belief!

How to get to the Ross Sea Antarctica

Heritage Expeditions is one of the few companies that offer expedition cruises into the Ross Sea.  This small family owned company has been doing it the longest and know the area better than anyone. I cruised for 28 days on the Wake of Scott and Shackleton Itinerary.

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Check out some great Ross Sea reads before your trip!


I was a guest of Heritage Expeditions on this trip, however all opinions are my own.
This list contains some affiliate links. If you choose to purchase items through these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of running this site

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