The Art and Life of Ice in Antarctica

March 30, 2017   8 Comments »

“The ice was here, the ice was there. The ice was all around. It cracked and groaned and roared and howled like noises in a swound.” — The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge

One of the main reasons I wanted to take this expedition cruise to Eastern Antarctica and the Ross Sea was to see ice. Not just see ice, but actually cruise through ice. I wanted to look out over the boat’s bow and see the Sea Ice, the pancake ice, and the bergy bits. For some weird reason, sailing through ice feels like the real Antarctic to me, the one of the great heroic explorers.

Maybe it’s because I’ve seen all of those beautiful and disturbing images from Frank Hurely, the famous expedition photographer who accompanied Shackleton on his voyages. The pictures with ice crushing the Endurance or pictures of the Aurora getting caught in sea ice and floating helplessly with the floe. Granted, I didn’t want to be stranded in sea ice, I simply wanted to feel like it was possible. Weird?…probably.

The Antarctic Ice has always fascinated me as it feels as if it’s alive; moving, proceeding, retracting, and cracking. It even makes fizzing noises as air is released from the ice (aka Bergy Seltzer).  One of my favorite things to witness was how ice is formed in Antarctica on the Ross Sea; it’s a very complex yet poetic process to see how it bonds together.

ice formation Antarctica

In calm waters, frazil crystals form a smooth, thin form of ice, called grease ice for its resemblance to an oil slick. Grease ice develops into a continuous, thin sheet of ice called nilas.

Almost 98 percent of Antarctic is covered with ice, which has accumulated over millions of years. And the ice cover is moving continuously. According to the Anatarctica Encyclopedia, “If all Antarctic ice were returned to the oceans, it would raise global sea levels by about 197 ft.”

In addition to an encyclopedia, there was also a dictionary on the ship – an ice dictionary. It had everything you ever wanted to know about ice definitions. I learned that we not only saw icebergs, but we also saw Ice Feet, Ice Tongue, Ice Shelf, Pancake Ice, and of course more glaciers than you could count.

Iceberg Ahead!

We had a competition on the ship for when we would see the first iceberg and I must admit, we saw it earlier than I was expecting. And I was thinking there would be a bunch of other ice around it, but there wasn’t. It was just a big block floating along all alone in the Southern Ocean.

However the next day, we got to see where that lone iceberg came from – and we also learned that he had friends…many of them. We had entered iceberg alley near Cape Adare littered with all shapes and sizes, and even variations in colors of Icebergs. Icebergs are true works of art, each one different and crafted by Mother Nature.

Ice Floe

ross sea ice images

Ross sea bergy bits

My first experience with the ‘real Antarctica ice’ was arriving at Cape Adare where we had to push through the ice floe for the first time. Ice floe (also called sea ice) are considered flat sheets of sea ice that together comprise pack ice. Some floes may be tens of miles across. When floes are rafted together, or forced edge to edge, they form pressure ridges, which are very hazardous to ships.

I was practically giddy as the ship slowed down to a crawl and we started to play a slow motion game of bumper cars with the pancake ice. I went to the bow, held on, and proceeded to hang over the edge to see the ship breaking through the ice. I focused in on the ice-strewn water. It undulated ever so slowly as if it were breathing. Penguins scurried off of floes, as we passed on by, while seals barely looked up at our ship as we passed by their ice homes of the moment.

The next morning we were in Cape Hallett doing the same thing, pushing through ice floe. It sort of felt as if you are Moses parting the sea. You could hear the ice creak and groan as you passed through. The sun reflecting off the newly formed morning ice particles made the whole landscape sparkle like a flattened out disco ball.

Ross sea ice

In our wake… I loved to see our path disappear as quickly as it was formed.

As we passed through the slushy ice, I turned to the back of the ship where you could see our path that we had ‘sliced through’. The sea ice undulated behind us. However as we moved no more than 100 feet further the path that we slowly made seemed to quickly closed back up and if we were never there.

Ice Detour

Ross Sea Ice McMurdo Sound

McMurdo Sound blocked by sea ice.

As beautiful as the ice is, it is serious stuff. So serious that it can halt an expedition, at noted by many of the old explorers. And like the old explorers, we too were foiled in achieving our plans due to ice. There was over 40 miles of ice unusually sitting in McMurdo Sound, like a big ‘do not enter’ sign. This was abnormal as normally the ice is pushed out of the sound by January, but not this year. So instead of making it to the historic Scott and Shackleton huts or McMurdo base, we could only cruise along the edge of that ice and yield to it’s power.

“The Ross Sea is one of the hardest destinations in the world. We didn’t do anything wrong, the ice just had other plans this year. If our itineraries were repeatable and predictable then I (Heritage Expeditions) wouldn’t be here…and everyone else would be here. This trip is about the journey, not the destination,” explained Rodney our expedition leader.

I couldn’t agree with him more.
I accomplished my mission of cruising through the ice in Antarctica, and I loved every cold, hard, unique piece of it. Because after all, ice is what Antarctica is made of.

Watch a few of my favorite moments and sounds of breaking ice in Antarctica!

See my Ultimate Antarctica Packing List

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

Follow my Travels.

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.

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