ANTARTICA – Nature’s Masterpiece

ANTARTICA – Nature’s Masterpiece

Images and text by Dave Moran

It was the size of a huge dinner plate, motley orange with at least 45 knobbly arms fanning outwards as if in an attempt to smother the seaweed-carpeted landscape. I could see no discernible movement. The flash of my camera’s strobe struck its orange surface like napalm. My frozen fingers struggled to adjust the aperture setting on the Nikonos 15mm lens – it was hopeless – my chilled fingers were of little use! As I slowly moved along the ledge covered in an entangled mass of tumbling, twisting, green, brown and mauve, pasta like matting of seaweed, I realised my many legged (echinoderms) starfish was not alone. Had the day of the trifids arrived in Antarctica?

Henrik’s Garden of Discovery was slowly revealing the diverse life that shared their life with my starfish friend. Beautiful and exquisitely delicate, Athecata hydroids blossomed from their chimneys, their many white polyps fanning the still water for food. Bulky four arm biscuit starfish (Porania antarctica) dotted the carpet of seaweed like grazing sheep.

Twenty five minutes had passed in the minus one degree water and my hands could barely feel my camera, time to say farewell. Suddenly the brownness of the sea floor is broken by the vastly contrasting snow whiteness of a metre long eel-like creature (Nemertina proboscis worm). It seemed to have no discernible head or tail, it twists back on itself as if to wave a final farewell. My numb hands grabbed the lines hanging from the black zodiac. Henrik Lovendahl, our divemaster, took my camera and released by BC’s buckles and drysuit inflation hose and heaved my scuba gear onboard. Through a ceiling of whiteness, the sun’s faint rays touched my cheeks and already my hands were feeling warmer!

Antarctica the dream — the reality. For well over 20 years I have held the dream that one day I would stand in nature’s largest amphitheatre and be spellbound by what my eyes witnessed. Many of my friends had worked for New Zealand’s world famous Natural History film unit, based in Dunedin. Some of them had been so many times they enjoyed, I am sure, making the odd remark with a broad smile, during a discussion … ‘oh I forgot Dave, you haven’t been there have you?’ One had even slept overnight in Scott’s hut many years ago. They just loved giving me stick for not being one of the chosen few whose profession just happens to insist that you spend some time on the ice. So in the past to step on the ice of Antarctica was a relatively difficult mission to achieve. Various organisations and businesses realised that there were numerous people like me who held the same dream. There was a market and indeed a need to slightly open Antarctica’s doors to the academically unwashed——tourists!

Since its original trekking expeditions in the Himalayan Mountains in 1975, World Expeditions have developed expedition packages that now allow you to explore locations that would, in the past have required years of planning and a huge expenditure of money and time to organise. Aurora Expeditions based in Sydney, Australia, started taking expeditions to the ice during the summer of 1992-93. They were the first adventure travel company to introduce recreational scuba diving during the summer season of 1998/99. World Expeditions and Aurora Expeditions work together so that their adventurous clients can experience one of the Earth’s most fascinating continents.

2,200 km separate New Zealand from the Antarctic continent and Australia’s Tasmania is slightly further. Because of its closeness to the ice content, Argentina’s (South America) most southerly port town of Ushuaia, sandwiched between the mountain range of the Tierra de Fuego and the Beagle Channel becomes a bustling tourist town during the summer months of November through to March.

From the southern tip of South America you across a 1,000 km of open ocean, Drake Passage, before reaching the northern extremities of the Antarctica Peninsula.

My 11 day adventure from 16 – 27 February was for climbers, kayakers, divers and photographers. The two day crossing aboard the 71.6 metre Russian crewed Polar Pioneer was, to the relief of most on board, relatively calm. Your time was your own to spend either reading, listening to lectures, meeting your fellow adventurers or spending time on the ship’s stern marvelling at the variety of bird life that roam the valley and highway of the Southern Ocean. Once crossing the Antarctic Convergence, the biological boundary of Antarctica, you noticed that the outside temperature dropped markedly. All eyes were open wide for the sighting of our first iceberg.

Our expedition leader, Kieran Lawton, a biologist who has a passion for mountain climbing, ensured with the assistance of his team, that the next seven days were packed with activities to keep you forever wondering what tomorrow may bring.

My first and lasting impressions of Antarctica are very difficult to put into words. You think of all the superlatives, majestic, magnificent, they easily roll off your tongue. Imagine a place where the only sound is the rush of the wind against the fallen snow, or the faint call of a penguin chick, muffled exhalations of a humpback whale near by. Imagine a place that is almost totally virgin white, especially from a distance. Your horizon seems in harmony with itself and the sky above. Ice covered mountains descend out of what seems eternal whiteness down to glacial cliffs of white and emerald blue, the ocean the only challenger and she is also just a privileged fleeting guest to these shores of ice and rock during the four months of summer.

For the first time in your life, your senses are free of the civilised world’s clutter – multi coloured images and noise that continually bombards our sensors. For a moment you are the only person on the planet.

‘All those divers who wish to go for a dive today, see you in the bridge in 10 minutes.’ Henrik Lovendahl’s call to action became a familiar sound through the ship’s sound system during our seven days below 60 degrees South. With the outside temperature hovering between five – two degrees the divers squeezed into their drysuits in their 23 degree warm cabins before stepping out onto the spacious aft deck to assemble their scuba rigs. As a standard precaution when diving in below zero degree water we fitted two regulator systems to the ‘H’ valve configuration on our scuba cylinder. Your primary regulator was just that, it only comprised a first and second stage. Your back-up regulator had your contents gauge hose and drysuit inflation hose fitted. The divers had a variety of regulators that the manufacturers promoted as ice diving capable. Poseidon regulators have a well established reputation for functioning at below zero degrees. My primary regulator was Poseidon’s newest model, the Extreme with my secondary being their trusted older model, the Jet Stream. The Jet Stream required a small sealing cap to be fitted to the first stage so that a liquid spirit, which has a lower freezing point than seawater, surrounds the main spring. The onboard doctor helped me, by providing a wee drop of alcohol. The Poseidon regulators performed flawlessly throughout my dives.

The other most important piece of gear, besides the gear that allows you to breathe underwater is your gloves. Most of the divers opted for dry gloves though some used thick wetsuit gloves, which they filled with warm water before each dive. Dolphin Products have developed a system of fitting dry gloves to their drysuits or as in my case to other brands of drysuits. Most of the divers, especially those using cameras, experienced varying degrees of difficulty in adjusting F-stops, strobe settings etc after about 15 minutes into their dive. If you intended to bracket your pictures and bracketing is a manual operation as opposed to being automatic, you struggled to achieve this relatively simple operation, due to the loss of your ability to feel with the tips of your fingers. All very challenging!

Can you imagine the Creator looking down on his final masterpiece and thinking, time for a bit of outrageous fun. What better than to throw around a few icebergs and do a heap of creative sculpturing. To add to the excitement, throw in a few humpback whales and curious leopard seals. He did just that at Iceberg Alley beside Plenéau Island at the southern entrance of the Lemaire Channel at around 65.06 degrees south.

Icebergs are alive! Constantly evolving, their physical appearance is sculptured by sea and wind erosion. As if not satisfied with their external beauty and yearning to reveal their hidden excellence they unpredictably roll over to reveal their softly undulating, golfball dimpled under bellies of white blueness. You are wise to treat them with respect.

As we slowly cruised through this Walt Disney labyrinth of fairytale shapes, we were startled by a swirling appearance approaching our zodiac. The two metre plus leopard seal mouthed the black pontoons of our seemingly fragile craft. Who’s observing whom? Or was he just playing? All of a sudden there were two, cameras clicked, our pontoon-sitting bums moved slightly inboard! But we were not on the menu; there are plenty of penguins nearby to fill the largest of tummies! Whoosh – the mist blurs our vision, the leopard seals had been replaced by the unforgettable closeness of a humpback whale. Yes, God had created a special playground – and we were sadly just fleeting players.

‘Divers to the bridge, time to go diving icebergs!’

As the two black zodiacs gently snuggled up to a wall of ice, three leopard seals intermingled as they investigated these floating black intruders. Henrik reassuringly advised that there has never been a reported incident of a leopard seal attacking a diver. We divers were keen to keep it that way! On entering the water, it was empty except for a wall of ice descending to a silt-laden bottom 15 metres below. Our berg was grounded, which is comforting to know, due to their unpredictability of flipping over. Have you ever been on a dive when your senses tell you that you should not be there? Diving down a wall of dimpled ice in minus one degree water has your senses screaming – this is not normal!

It was fantastic! The ice is so smooth, there is nothing to grip hold of, black specs dot the bluey whiteness, small rock particles trapped in time as this iceberg once a proud section of a glacier scraped clean an Antarctic valley’s floor when dinosaurs roamed the planet. The silt-dusted bottom reveal pure white wandering nudibranchs and a beetle like creature a member (I think) of the amphipods family – a living fossil? After emerging from an ice cave within the iceberg I headed back to the zodiacs with my diving buddy, fellow New Zealander, Graeme Bowkett. We were the last divers in the water.

Beautiful – beautiful brown eyes. Oh those eyes – so open wide – so inquisitive, a body so soft and supple, yet so powerfully strong. No not Graeme! – a leopard seal seemed to appear out of nothingness, our hearts skipped a beat – oh no – no film left in the camera – we looked on in awe – then in a heart beat we were alone once more. It was a privileged moment that Graeme and I will never forget.

The evenings aboard were never dull, you could either return to your cabin after dining on the culinary delights of the chefs, Bill and Tina, or settle in the bar for a few after dinner drinks, which on a number of occasions, seemed to develop into a full on party!

As the days clicked by, I just had to squeeze in a lasting ambition; put on a pair of crampons for the first time and go climb a mountain – well a small hill I guess!

It’s another story within a story, like the adventurous kayakers who went paddling off into the whiteness for five days. Kieran Lawton the ship’s expedition leader, tied a sash around my middle, snapped on a carabeena, checked my crampons, thrust an ice axe into one hand and a rope into the other and said ‘Dave, you’ll be fine, just take it slowly over the crevasses!’ Due to a whiteout we never did make it to the top and I learned a lesson from one of the world’s most experienced mountaineers – ‘respect the mood of the mountain’. Tashi Tenzing, who like his grandfather, Tenzing Norgay, has stood on top of the world’s highest peak, Mt Everest, Chomolungma. Tashi said to us ‘The mountain is unwilling for us to climb it today, we respect that, we go back down now – there is always another day’. It was an honour to meet this man, who fully appreciates his roots, and the Sherpa’s spirit deep within his body.

As the Polar Pioneer’s bow headed for the jagged teeth of Cape Horn, signalling our departure from the ice, I had a feeling of sorrow that I was leaving a place I may never have the privilege to visit again, a place so incredibly complex yet so incredibly simple and stunningly beautiful.

I also had a warm feeling of contentment; I had been fortunate to have lived my dream. To be surrounded by nature’s solitude which seductively creates an awareness in you that this place on our blue ocean planet is too precious for man to leave his permanent footprints in the snow.

For information on next summer’s expeditions contact, World Expeditions

New Zealand: Ph.0800 350 354. Email.

Australia: Ph. 02-9264 3366. Email.


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