Interlude: The Polar Front

[Previous chapter: The Drake Passage]

The polar front is the biological boundary of Antarctica. It is where the cold Antarctic water meets the warmer waters of the subantarctic, which lies about 60 degrees south in latitude. At this natural boundary, marine lives thrive because their food, the Antarctic krill, are abundant in this special zone of water mixing. It is from this point on that the true colors of Antarctica start to unfold.

The sea condition became much different after the Ocean Endeavour crossed the polar front. The visibility improved dramatically, and the tone of seawater changed from a uniform navy blue to a lighter, more cooling azure color.

On the third day of the journey, at around 10 am, we spotted our first piece of iceberg in distance. Broken off from a glacier, this iceberg somehow evaded the Antarctic land and floated on its own. It was hard to misjudge its massiveness even from a long distance. While the enthusiastic crowd started to snap photos of this floating mass, I gave up the desire to take photos with my compact camera. Instead, I turned to focus the birds that were around.

Besides the typical Southern Giant Petrels, another species of extremely common seabird Cape Petrel joined the band of birds that accompanied the ship. Their other name, pintado petrel, derived from their iconic white-spattered wings. Being much smaller than the giant petrels, they were faster and more agile, navigating from left to right of the stern swiftly.

At times, one or two Southern Royal Albatrosses or Black-browed Albatrosses would show up from distance. A Wandering Albatross also glided towards the ship, before disappearing out of my sight. The Wandering Albatross and the Southern Royal Albatross are two similar species, which can hardly be distinguished sometimes. However, after consulting several bird guides and chatting with our esteemed ornithologist on board, I found out that several field marks can help identify these two kinds of albatrosses. One important difference is that Royal albatrosses have a conspicuous black line between their mandibles (that is, their beaks). Likewise, Wandering albatrosses usually have black tips on their tails, a trait which a Royal albatross doesn’t have. Sometimes, a Wandering albatross can be identified by their brownish marking on their heads.

One of the most special things about a trip to Antarctica is that the schedule of a day can be extremely flexible. The crews of the icebreaker and the guides from our expedition had to constantly change from plan to plan according to specific circumstances. During lunch, we heard the news that the captain had decided to make an additional stop in the afternoon at one particular island of the South Shetland Islands, called the Greenwich Island. It not only meant that we had finally completed the transit from South America to Antarctica, but it also was the first time that the landscape of Antarctica presented itself.

Two hours after the Ocean Endeavour anchored beside the Greenwich Island, we were finally given the green light to go. Moving down the gangway of the ship and stepping onto the Zodiac that would get me to the island, I was never closer to the land that had haunted my dreams for so long.

[Next chapter: Penguin, penguin, penguin]

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