Icebergs great and small

Icebergs in the Bransfield Strait

Giant icebergs range a long way from home, from their roaring, growling birth. Pushed from glaciers out to float, maybe part of an ice shelf before splitting into massive ice cubes walking across the horizon in dazzling summer light, silent amongst the drifting brash ice.

They travel together at first, like roaming adolescents of some forgotten species out on the desert after leaving the mother tribe behind. At certain spots they appear in bunches, driven by the currents. Europa found them, glinting at dusk, guarding the western entrance to the Antarctic Sound. In other places, they ground on sea mounts and shallows, no longer sea ice but rather white islands shafted on rock gradually eaten away from below. Winter refreezes the ocean around them and they wait out the long dark, with maybe an occasional visit from penguins.

Icebergs in sunlight Bransfield Strait
Icebergs at the mouth of the Antarctic Sound

Tabular bergs float majestically on the currents. North and north again, beyond South Georgia, beyond the Antarctic convergence into the warmer waters of the South Atlantic. If the Arctic calves came as far as their southern cousins, icebergs would range off the coast of Wales and endanger shipping in the Channel. (As I write this, NASA Antarctic iceberg watch reports one at 52° 58’ South, the equivalent latitude to Nottingham. The trip log records we were still seeing icebergs at 46° south, a week after we had left South Georgia.)

Not spoiling for a fight they will give battle to any ship approaching too close. Rather they loom across the sea, angst-ridden and contemplative, capturing light and interrupting whales during their long diminuendo. Some are as big as countries, Jamaica, say or that international unit of peril, Wales, though their pristine, life-free passage does not resemble the clash of nations. Occasionally one will bristle with antenna (not that we saw such a thing), a floating outpost tracking the wanderings, grindings and slow death.

Icebergs melting in the Weddell Sea
Face icebergs in the Weddell Sea

In the far South, trapped in the freeze-thaw cycle, the bergs are fractured into exotic shapes, sudden splitting revealing the still blue-inner ice, or carved into gargoyles shrieking for release. Anyone with a camera is captivated by their beauty. (I wrote a short essay on some of the best here, and I is of course for ice in the #antarcticalphabet.) In the smoother, if storm ridden, waters of the open ocean, their edges are rounded, smoothed by the waves and wind to the shapes of old rocks, sensuous as an old landscape warmed by the sun.

Icebergs and the Peninsula coast from Devil's Island
Whale head shaped icebergs in Weddell Sea

In the empty reaches of the South Atlantic, the big ones are not the danger. They announce themselves on the radar, blocks of green clear on the black screen, solid and long lasting unlike the occasional bird or the roller high enough to be seen by the invisible spy. There are no ships for hundreds of miles. If it floats, it’s an iceberg.

The danger is the little ones, the shards of death waiting for prey. It makes for long, anxious stints on the bow watch, waiting for the glimpse of white teeth. In sunlight, or under a bright moon, the massive bergs are a thing of wonder. You don’t quite know which will be the last one, so on the journey north each one is treasured and enjoyed until, at last, the ship passes beyond their range.

Bergy bits and icebergs (taken from Devil's Island)
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