Monday, February 8, 2010


When Holly and I came out on the top deck, within a few miles of Elephant Island, about 61 degrees South latitude, and 54 degrees West longitude, the northernmost island of the South Shetland Islands, there were ice bergs off the starboard side (right) and a blast of icy wind that froze the skin.

We dressed in layers of warm underclothing, ski coverall pants, thick gloves, wool socks, and the kind of head gear any respectable burglar would wear.

As my eyes and nose were the only thing exposed to the elements, and I was dressed all in black, Holly said, I looked like a Ninja. I took that as a compliment – but, of course, I’m a guy.

The not-well-planned-ahead challenge was how to take off the gloves to push the tiny buttons and turn the gauges to capture digitally the incredible sights spread all around.

In addition, I was trying to mark latitude and longitude on a hand held GPS – not that the captain’s equipment wasn’t state of the art, and not that he didn’t share his findings. In fact, he made frequent oral and written postings of every relevant statistic you could possibly imagine about weather and location and what we could expect. We also had a raft of experts to supplement and observe what we were seeing. But it’s not the same as having a device that makes the measurements instantaneously, by steps you take, by doing it yourself. At least, that’s how I felt about it.

After gathering ourselves, Holly and walked forward to the tip of the spear, the prow of our ship, where the wind and cold were more severe and the view was equivalently spectacular.

We couldn’t take our eyes off the bright blue ice of a nearby berg, off port side, against a field of gray sky and churning waters.

Looking closely, we saw that the berg had squatting tenants, first appearing like dots, then moving, and then you realized there were penguins aboard the berg, who somehow climbed to the upper reaches of these gargantuan ice crystal creations.

As our ship turned in toward and past these ice bergs, and bergy bits (not to be confused with the still smaller growlers), they appeared differently at different angles.

The character of a berg begins with its birth and release from its parental glacier, “calving” they call its separation, and how this is accomplished, the stresses and fractures that the icy offspring undergoes, affects its size and shape, as does the wind, water, islands, ice floes, and whatever else it brushes and bangs against once it has been released from the glacier.

If you have the patience to just be quiet and observe for a time, to embrace the peace of the moment, despite the harsh cold, you’ll appreciate a natural aesthetic in the shape and variation of this lumpy mass of countless cold hexagonal ice crystals, made into a berg, now turning slowly in the icy arctic waters.

Words are a poor expression to capture the exalted feeling when tasting this ice cold ocean air, feeling it sting your hands, while surrounded by bergs and white cliffs and clouds and open water in every direction.

The most striking observation I found besides the feeling of vastness was the relative absence of color.

Yes, there are colors, the glacier blue, green tints, mineral impurities, marred brown patches, and refracted sunlight through the waters.

But color is the more dramatic by its sparseness. Color is an accent.

I would compare the experience to Anselm Adams’ famed black and white nature photographs although these images are of the sea in an atmosphere that blurs the sharp images that Adams preferred.

What you see is a dark gray sea, rising and falling, defined principally by black brush strokes and lines and shifting blocks of black shadow that contrast sharply with the white swells and swirls at the heights and valleys of the ever-changing seascape waters.

Where land and ice meet, the air, the snow, fog, mist and clouds obscure the curved horizon that is distinguishable mostly by the lighter shade of battle gray.
Not all the time, but there are extended periods when the seas, bergs, snow, cliffs, land, clouds, mist and sky seem to merge into each other’s domain, challenging your perception to distinguish one element from the other, solid from liquid and from gaseous substances, as they participate in some indescribably glorious union, that is so complex as to appear chaotic, while allowing but one conclusion to reconcile the observation, and it is that what we’re observing is truly interconnected and interdependent, and we are necessarily part of this grand natural order.


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