And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold;
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
—The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
We woke this morning to find the ship shrouded in a fine mist and a sharp
chill in the air. Overnight, the water temperature dropped from 53°F to 41°F. It is the first sign that we have left
the Atlantic behind and sailed into the realm of the Ancient Mariner, the
great Southern Ocean.
The captain of the Shuleykin sighted the first iceberg today.
The Antarctic Convergence cannot be seen, but it is as formidable a boundary
as a mountain range. During the austral spring, the glaciers of the
Antarctic continent begin to melt, and a flow of nearly freezing waters flush
northward to meet the warmer seas of the Atlantic. These deep, cold waters
harbor an explosion of microscopic diatoms, which feed the tiny plankton
called krill, which in turn foster an extraordinary proliferation of
Antarctic wildlife. On cue, albatrosses and petrels wheel and dive around the
ship to feed on the bounty. A small pod of minke whales makes a fleeting
appearance. An hourglass dolphin, with distinctive black-and-white markings,
cavorts alongside the ship for miles, occasionally breaching the surface in
The undulating boundary of the Convergence is sometimes marked by
cartographers, but in truth, it can't be fixed to the manmade conventions of
latitude and longitude. You sense the Convergence rather than see it on a
map; the first sign is a precipitous drop in air and water temperature,
accompanied by the fog and mist produced by the blending of the cold waters
of the Southern Ocean with the warmer seas of the Atlantic. It is a
biological frontier. Farther north, the krill that are the basis of the
Antarctic food web perish.
The melt of spring is also accompanied by the calving of great icebergs from
the Antarctic glaciers. At noon, Captain Maslennikov spots the first iceberg
on his radar. It is vast, startlingly white with streaks of cerulean
gashing its surface. It's uncanny to read Shackleton's description of the
Convergence, so close to our own experience:
"The northerly breeze had freshened during the night and had brought up a
high following sea. The weather was hazy, and we passed two
bergs, several growlers,
and numerous lumps of ice...Bird life was
A close-up of today's iceberg.
But here, our experience diverges. We have only sighted a single iceberg
today, while Shackleton was threading his ship gingerly through a sea clotted
with them. And he was alarmed: "The presence of so many bergs was ominous..."
The violent seas of yesterday have moderated, 15-foot swells compared with
20-foot waves. The "furious fifties" haven't been as treacherous as we
expected. We were braced for another of what the ship's chef Steve Allen
called a "27-plate" day, having lost that much china to the ship's lurching.
We're all adjusted now, and getting adept at fielding flying objects and
keeping dinner in front of us.
As evening falls, the temperature hovers just above freezing, and the water
drops to 38°F. Fog envelops the ship. On the darkened bridge,
Captain Maslennikov and three officers are on the watch, staring intently at
radar screens and the mist swirling over the bow for icebergs ahead. A single
glowing white beam cuts through the night ahead of the ship with an eerie
glow, like the mythical St. Elmo's Fire. Only the metallic whine of the gyro
compass breaks the silence. The unease of Antarctic explorer Frederick Cook
entering the Convergence suddenly rings true: "The sea rolled under our stern
in huge inky mountains, while the wind scraped the deck with an icy edge. It
was a night of uncertainty, of anticipation, of discomfort—an experience
which only those who have gone through the wilderness of an unknown sea can
understand." It's a story oft told by sailors in these waters.
Days before her first sail in Antarctic waters, the James Caird replica has her sail hoisted.
South Georgia Island is less than a day's sail away. We have travelled 1,479
miles, but it is only the end of the first leg of our journey. We are truly
sailing to the ends of the Earth; during our five days at sea, we haven't
sighted a single ship. We reach Grytviken early tomorrow evening, the remote
outpost where Shackleton's crew had their last encounter with civilization
before their long odyssey began.
Answer to October 23 Question of the Day:
Mapmakers in the 16th century didn't even know if Antarctica existed. But
they had a name for it anyway. What was it?
In his map of 1531, Oronce Finé called it terra australis recenter invento
sed nondum plene cognita, "the southern land newly discovered but not yet
fully known," and later maps also named it terra australis incognita.