Ice Bergs, History and Politics

February 3, 2015

Antarctic Sound, Antarctica.

Dear Friends,

Antarctic Sound, at the very northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, is packed with history and ice.  The ice is the reason for the history.  It’s named for a whaler turned research vessel, the Antarctic, that was crushed in the ice here in the winter of 1903.  The ship was part of the Swedish Antarctic expedition which, in turn, was part of a larger international effort involving the British and Germans.  Each country had a team winter over in different parts of the continent take weather and magnetic readings and collect fossils.   They were also to map as much of their sectors as they could.  At the end their job was to compare data.  Because of ice the Antarctic could not travel as far south into the Weddell Sea as planned so let its team off Snow Hill Island at the north end of the sea (the same sea that would crush Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance a decade later.) The ship returned to Argentina for the winter.  Before it left Ushuaia the next spring to pick up the wintering party it sent letters to the Swedish and Argentine authorities telling them that if they didn’t show up by a certain date where to look near Snow Hill Island.  That float saved their lives.  The ice was bad that spring and the Antarctic could not reach Snow Hill Island so left some of its party on Hope Bay in Antarctic Sound to try to reach them overland by sled with supplies.  After dropping off the Hope Bay party the Antarctic was trapped in ice and crushed.  The party on Snow Hill Island spent a second winter in Antarctica.  The rescue party and the crew of the Antarctic also spent a winter that they were not prepared for in separate locations.  They lived on penguin and seal.  But because they had filed a float plan, when they didn’t show up, Argentina dispatched a rescue ship.  All were saved except one man who died of a heart attack.

Dr. Paul Carey of our expedition team (and a UAF graduate) lectured on this survival story.  The ship showed a National Geographic Film on Shackleton’s expedition so we were well aware the history of the area.  The stone shelters the crew of the Antarctic built to protect themselves still stand, as does the prefabricated cabin built for the team that had planned to winter over for one winter, not two.

On Hope Bay near one of the stone huts the Argentines have built Station Esperanza that not only has researchers but families with kids. a school, clinic and post office.  They even have an elected mayor.  They do this, mostly as a way to prove that they occupy part of Antarctica and to strengthen their territorial claim.   At one point in the 1970s they posted a pregnant woman there so they could claim that Argentina had a native born population on Antarctica.  Whenever you have an Argentine base you can bet a Chilean base is not far away.  Chile decided that if Argentina was going to have the first baby born in Antarctica Chile would be the first nation to have a baby conceived there.  Their plan went awry when they learned that a Canadian woman working with her American Husband on a US project became pregnant in Antarctica in the 1940s. (The US does not claim sovereignty over any of Antarctica and recognizes no national claims.)  Chile’s base on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula is Base Bernardo O’Higgins.  The Antarctic Treaty of 1961 is silent about territorial claims, saying that they will be settled in the future, but does call for all countries to cooperate in their research and to make their stations open to all other signatories.

The Century Travelers Club is club open to folks who’ve been in 100 countries.  They had a meeting on board for members and people who this cruise would qualify for membership.   I’m not a member, (although looking at their form I qualify) and have no real interest in ticking off boxes.  Gut they were meeting in lounge where I was sitting so I eavesdropped.  Visiting this part of Antarctica can really help boost your count.  The century club has produced a list of countries (and dependencies) that you can visit to qualify.  Britain, Chile and Argentina all claim sovereignty over the Antarctic Peninsula so with one visit you can check off 3 countries.  I love geographic anomalies.

Antarctic sound is known not only for its history but for its ice burgs.  There are several ice shelves in the vicinity where glacial ice extending out to sea.  They float on seawater.  Because the surface of the sea is flat these glaciers, as they reach out to sea, become flat.  When a large chunk of ice breaks off from the shelf it becomes a flat top, or tabular, ice burg.  Some of these are huge.  We saw one more than a mile in length.  In some areas of Antarctica these ice burgs are country sized.  They float north until they encounter the Antarctic Convergence, the place where very cold Antarctic water meets the warmer sub-Antarctic water.  Then they usually break up.  Looking out onto the sound there are flat topped burgs that have melted at different rates.  It’s like looking over a plain of mesas of different heights and with erosion patterns.  Instead of the reds and browns of the American West they’re shades of blue and white.

Antarctic sound was windy and rough but when the Captain put Prinsendam into the lee of this monster ice burg.  The burg cut the wind and it became pleasant to be on deck.  The captain stopped the ship and a call went out to the crew who gathered on the forecastle for a group picture.

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