In Search of Ice, Icebergs and Icefields
Article and photos by G. G. Connor OBE
My fascination with ice and icebergs stems from my lifelong passion for the Titanic. Of all the controversial facts surrounding the vessel and I can assure you there are many – the most contentious to me was, Why did the very experienced Captain E. J. Smith drive the then-largest man -made vessel at night into an icefield some 70 miles long by 12 miles wide, at a speed of 21 to 22 knots? Contrary to popular belief, it was an icefield, not a solitary berg, which appeared out of the darkness. Today, it is universally accepted that icebergs, after fire, are the most dangerous hazards at sea – more so than storms, collisions or fog. Icebergs have been described as metamorphic because of their very dense crystalline structure and they are virtually indestructible and unyielding.
In 1988, the Institute of Marine Engineers invited me to talk on the Titanic as a contribution to their 1989 centenary year. In researching the vessel, I found there were voluminous facts and statistics on the vessel itself – her propulsion systems, passengers, crew, even down to her menus and provisions – but very little information was available on the second major player in the tragedy, namely the Titanic iceberg.
Penguins rest on an iceberg. Notice the huge, flat berg in the background.
During my research, one statement made during the British Inquiry by Captain Rostron of the Carpathia, the ship which rescued the Titanic survivors, fully caught my imagination. He said:
“I sent a junior officer to count the icebergs. He counted 25 between 150 and 200 feet high. He did not count the many smaller ones. There were dozens and dozens around us and a huge icefield as far as he could see.”
The only times previously I had glimpses of pack ice and bergs was as a passenger on an aircraft flying on the polar route from Europe to Japan and, although five miles up over the high Arctic and the North Pole, they were a magnificent sight. In order to comprehend the Titanic syndrome more fully, I needed to see bergs at close range, so I decided to go to Iceland and Greenland to hunt icebergs in the Arctic. I was unable to find any bergs in Iceland, but I found many in Greenland. During the last one million years, there have been at least four Ice Ages. Greenland is no longer green; it is nothing more than a mountain of ice, two miles deep at the center. The enormous weight of the ice cap squeezes the ice below into glaciers, which move down the fringes of the mountains into fjords, from which the icebergs calve or break off into the sea.
Seabirds fly above loose ice. A large icefield is visible in the background.
We landed at a small airport on the west coast of Greenland called Narssarsuaq and what an experience that turned out to be, as the pilot had to navigate the aircraft between bobbing and swaying icebergs making their way out to sea. We eventually landed safely on an extremely short runway with an enormous glacier at the end. Shortly after, we boarded a small vessel and headed down the fjords. The sight of your first berg at close range is a magnificent experience. Their shapes can be fantastic and their colors embrace all the shades from white through blue and green to translucency.
One of the most spectacular sights I have ever witnessed is when bergs split due to erosion caused by warm sea water and the air, with the four-fifths below the water line, and turn turtle to find a new center of gravity. Because of this phenomena, my stay in Greenland was not without excitement as, on one occasion, our little boat got trapped between a number of floating bergs and, for a short period, I thought there was going to be a Titanic re-run – but we eventually did escape without be crushed by overturning icebergs.
The experience gained by my journey to the Arctic enabled me to complete and deliver my lecture on the Titanic, but I still had a great desire to see an icefield comprising large areas of pack ice and giant icebergs. So in January 1992, I went to Antarctica to fulfill my desire. It was Aristotle who postulated the existence of a large southern land mass in the 4th Century BC, but it was not until 1774, when James Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle in the Resolution, that human beings got within one day’s sailing of the mist-shrouded Antarctic coastline without knowing it. Up until the 1950’s, only a small number of explorers, scientists, whalers and sealers had ventured so far south. Be that as it may, I felt elated for, apart from icefield hunting, I was now on my way to that part of the Southern Hemisphere where my boyhood heroes – Drake, Cooke, Weddell, Ross, Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen – had ventured.
Our aircraft landed in the Chilean city of Punta Arenas, where we joined the vessel which was to take us down the Strait of Magellan, named after the Portugese navigator who discovered this passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans in 1520. From there, we sailed south via the Beagle Channel of Charles Darwin fame to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, past Tierra del Fuego, Cape Horn and into Drake’s Passage toward the Antarctic Peninsula.
Our journey took place during the Southern Hemisphere’s Austral summer, when temperatures were moderate and the sun barely set. During the first part of the journey, the scenery was truly magnificent, sailing down the fjords between snow-capped mountains with large glaciers. It was akin to cruising through the Swiss Alps. This dramatic backdrop was brought to life with the sights of giant condors, seals, Antarctic geese and numerous other seabirds.
High cliffs are a feature of this iceberg.
Most passengers were on deck to view Cape Hornas we ventured south. Prior to this, we had been lectured by the expedition leaders on how the Southern Ocean, which lay ahead, could be the most tempestuous in the world, but here we were, all drinking gin and tonics as we passed Cape Horn! We had been told how powerful winds continually race around the Cape reaching hurricane force, sometimes supplemented by huge waves unimpeded by land formations.
The Southern Ocean covers 36 million square kilometers [13.9 million square miles] of sea with the South Atlantic, South Pacific and Indian Oceans all running into it. The circumpolar current is four times more powerful than the Gulf Stream and moves vast quantities of water. Drake’s Passage, between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, is the narrowest gap through which the ocean must squeeze and here the current moves 140 million cubic meters [37 billion gallons] of water per second – 5,000 times more than the Amazon River. We were warned, like sailors of old, to be prepared for the roaring forties, furious fifties and screaming sixties!
Within 30 minutes of passing Cape Horn, I had retired to my cabin and was on the point of dropping off to sleep when everything in the cabin, including me, was repeatedly hurled from one side to the other. These conditions continued unabated for 36 hours, during which time we were not permitted to participate in any of the planned ship activities, with most people remaining in their cabins. On several occasions, I ventured out on deck to photograph the mountainous waves, but quickly returned to my cabin.
Then, quite suddenly, we entered a different world; the sea became very calm, the temperature dropped, mists appeared and the seabirds were more numerous and varied. All these changes indicated we were approaching and passing through the Antarctic convergence or Antarctic polar front, which arises where the sub-Antarctic surface waters, flowing clockwise around the earth, delineateAntarcticafrom the rest of the world. Whilst crossing this band of water, all the passengers were presented with a certificate similar to the one given when a person crosses the equator in a ship.
The next log book entry in our journey south was the call “first ice” from the bridge, bringing many passengers and crew on deck to witness the spectacle. First ice can comprise small pieces of pack ice (frozen sea water) and bergy bits or growlers (parts of broken down icebergs). As we continued south, the bergs became larger and larger, some as big as the Isle of Wight or more, forming part of an icefield with pack ice driven together by wind and tide as far as the eye could see.
Antarctica is known as the continent of superlatives:
1. The coldest place on earth, with temperatures of -90ºC [-130ºF] having been recorded.
2. The highest continent (average).
3. The windiest continent, with katabatic gale force winds [winds caused by a downward motion of cold air] of almost 200 knots being recorded.
4. The last great wilderness.
5. The driest continent – in some parts rain has not fallen in two million years – with all but two percent covered by ice.
Antarctica contains 90% of the world’s ice and 70% of its fresh water. If this ice were spread over the U.S., it would form a layer two miles deep. The continent of Antarctica is equal in area to the U.S.and Mexico combined and covers one-tenth of the world’s land mass. During its severe winter, this area is more than doubled with pack ice formed from sea water.
A large iceberg is photographed from a satellite. (Author’s collection)
Today, the summer population is estimated at between only 3,000 and 4,000 people, dropping to less than half that number in the winter, all living in artificially created conditions. In direct contrast, over two million people lived permanently all year round in the Arctic Circle area and it is home to some 40 land animals, many bird migrants and plants.Antarcticahas only one resident animal – the Emperor penguin, with no other resident birds and extremely sparse flora. On average Antarctica’s ice cap is 2,160 meters [7,100 feet] thick but, in some places, it reaches 4,000 meters [13,120 feet]. If relieved of the enormous weight of this ice, it is estimated the continent would rise by 500 meters [1,640 feet]. The oldest ice in the cap is estimated to be 700,000 years old. By contrast, if one were to stand at the North Pole, the pack ice would be only a few meters thick and between only five and ten years old.
Our first venture ashore in Antarctica, suitably attired in thermal and other protective clothing, was to PauletIsland. We reached the island, known for its unpredictable ice conditions and loss of ships, including Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance in 1915, by Zodiac landing craft – used for every excursion, because these large, heavy-duty inflatable boats are extremely safe and stable . Paulet Island had shore-to-shore penguins on the lower levels, boasting over one million birds.
We also visited Deception Island, a volcanic island where eruptions caused the forced evacuation of the British and Chilean bases. Next was Cuverville Island, followed by Paradise Bay, Port Lockroy and Halfmoon Island. Most of these islands were littered with out-of-use, rusty buildings and scrap metal, resembling rubbish dumps. In making so many journeys in the small Zodiacs amongst bergs both big and small, through ice floes and pack ice, I was made to realize how desperate and inadequate the Titanic survivors must have felt as they drifted aimlessly in their lifeboats on the morning of April 15, 1912. I, of course, achieved the purpose of my journey, observing many giant icebergs 200 feet high and icefields as far as the eye could see – even ice shelves from which many of the giant tabular bergs are calved.
It is interesting to relate that our vessel not only had a captain, a deputy captain and staff plus very modern radar equipment on the lookout for icebergs, both large and small; she also had four additional ice captains from Scandinavia, who were experts in such matters, working round the clock as the ship made her way very slowly through the dangerous waters. Conversely, the Titanic lookouts were not even equipped with binoculars – what incompetence by those concerned in 1912!
In the remoteness and dangerous conditions of the seas surrounding Antarctica, it made me aware what a critical part Marconi’s wireless telegraph must have played in the Titanic disaster. I parallel this with how brave Captain Rostron, the real hero of the day, steamed his vessel precariously through the ice to rescue the survivors. Captain Rostron later stated his earnest belief that the hand of God was on the helm of Carpathia as it zigzagged at forced full speed amongst the bergs on that morning.
[The editor thanks Dorothy Kendle for encouraging Mr. Connor’s contribution]
[Note: All photos are courtesy of the author. ]