Coming into this trip, I didn’t have any expectations of seeing icebergs. Therefore, the first one we saw from afar near the Sandwich Islands came as a great surprise; it looked like a white fortress, and further investigation with binoculars made me eager to get closer to it. We remained on station for a long time that day, and it was pretty unbelievable to stand on the deck and watch chinstrap penguins play next to the ship, while whales spouted in front of the iceberg in the distance.
When we finally left station, it was getting dark and visibility was not optimal while we passed the iceberg—the view didn’t compare to what we saw today. Today’s gray, overcast day served as a perfect backdrop for the glowing white with bright-blue undertones of the sublime iceberg. The iceberg resembled a sand dune, with its steep sides, hundreds of feet tall, marked with windblown patterns. Behind the iceberg, partially hidden by the fog, we spotted an even bigger piece of floating glacier.
Our location, currently around 49 degrees South, explains why we were lucky enough to encounter these massive pieces of floating ice. During the austral summer, the Antarctic Circumpolar current, which flows west to east around Antarctica, drives icebergs to where we saw them today. Because there is no land boundary north of Antarctica, ice from the antarctic moves northward into warmer waters, where it eventually melts.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, during the winter up to 6.9 million square miles of ocean is covered by sea ice, and by the end of the summer only 1.1 million square miles of sea ice remain. The icebergs that we saw started as massive pieces of glacial (fresh water) ice that melt slowly enough to make it 49 degree South. The amount of ice we saw, although only the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the total amount that’s out there (if you’ll excuse the expression), was enough to satisfy us!