The Din of Silence
A single white bird, a snow petrel, glided over the ice traceable only by a dark shadow betraying its fleeting form. The darkest thing on sheets of white, it drew our attention. We’d been at sea for ten days by then, twice the average time, due to how much ice has melted off the mainland creating a floating sea of icebergs. For hundreds of miles we carefully navigate our way through floating white cities and blankets of pack ice. Lone seals perch on drifting floes and scattered penguins dive in and out of the freezing water. The crew take their turns in the crow’s nest deciphering a path through the frozen patchwork and deep reverberating sounds rumble through the boat as it hits the larger floes.
Over a hundred years have passed since Scott’s expedition in the Terra Nova and yet the journey to Antarctica remains a challenging one albeit for different reasons. They were hit by violent storms losing several dogs who were flung overboard and two ponies who were lost to injury. Further South their ship was held in ice for twenty days before being released and they finally arrived at Ross Island some thirty seven days after leaving New Zealand.
Snow dust blows from iceberg tops in a freezing stream of mist; icing sugar trailing off a cake in a sudden draught. We reach the white desert, Antarctica, a monochrome vista of slate grey skies, snow and black volcanic rock from old eruptions of Mount Erebus. Yards from the shore stands Scott’s hut weathered grey by salty air and freezing blizzards. Even the wildlife conforms to black and white and shades of in-between; birds, seals, whales and penguins inhabit a no-nonsense world, serious and sublime, dangerous and indifferent.
Inside Scott’s hut lie the frozen bones of a dog on its lead and piles of whale blubber still oozing fat. There are few places on Earth where you can wonder into someone’s home and find it almost untouched in a hundred years. Their food supplies, wooden crates and tins, stacked up and frozen in time. A dead penguin lies on Scott’s desk, its soft cream micro feathers ruffling gently in the wind brought by the unexpected visitors interrupting the silence of the shelter. We disturb a shrine, a shrine for the ambitions of men who sought to conquer the most unconquerable land on Earth. A land that doesn’t shelter or nourish but shifts and distorts with every snowstorm. Men stick their flags into the wilderness and from the deep icy caverns there is a great roar. We are but snow crystals blowing in the gale of time.
I was invited by a small expedition cruise company to join a research and tourist trip to Antarctica. Due to the unprecedented and ever-increasing amount of melting ice in the surrounding sea, this was the last such trip the company did.