New York Times LENS Blog: Dispatch from Antarctica #3
February 22, 2012
I woke up several times in the night to the sound of ice chafing loudly against the hull of the ship – growlers, as they’re aptly named. In the morning, I peered out the porthole of my shared, dorm-sized cabin to check our conditions. The open ocean of the previous night was replaced with pack ice and bergs, but our sights were nonetheless set toward the invisible boundary of the Antarctic Circle.
The ice grew steadily heavier through the morning, cleared, then got heavy again as we navigated the Crystal Sound. Anticipation was building as we came within reach.
At 66º 24’.9 S, 66º 50’ W, the ship slowed, then stopped. We were a mere eight-and-a-half nautical miles from this monumental line in the snow. But the sea was clogged with ice, and there was nowhere to go but backward. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek adage attributed to Shackleton came to mind:
Better to be a live donkey than a dead lion.
We had no goal other than the satisfaction of crossing this figment of a boundary. There was something wryly funny in learning that the circle itself changes position, like a chair pulled out from under you just when you’re about to sit down. Different rules apply at the poles. Unlike the Equator or the Tropics, the polar circles move with the solstices in tune with Earth’s orbit.
Last night I wondered if I had taken Shackleton’s message in the spirit in which it was intended when I took a polar plunge, an Antarctic rite of passage. Diving, I went headfirst into the Antarctic Sound dressed only in a bathing suit, emerging moments later through the shock of pure cold, the water palpably heavy and almost viscous at 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
It is yet to be seen what’s ahead. Tomorrow we visit Elephant Island, a day ahead of schedule. I’ll be on the bridge at 7 a.m., waiting to see how the day unfolds and hoping to get what I came for: a shot at reaching this inhospitable spit of land, of glimpsing the oldest-known moss bank on the planet.