Bowermaster’s Adventures: Paradise Harbor, Antarctica

Paradise HarborIts common knowledge among Antarctic veterans that no two days here look or feel alike. Ever.

The reality is that no quarter hour looks alike. Or can be predicted, no matter how many months or years you’ve spent here.

We spent the night in a small, protected bay about 400 miles down the coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula. The tricky thing about sailing a small yacht here (the aluminum-hulled Pelagic Australisis 74 feet) is that there are very few truly protected anchorages; it reminds me often of the coast of Maine, with its thousands of small islands, where finding safe haven is often similarly dodgy. Here the combination of rapidly changing winds and weather mean that even when you’ve securely tied off bow and stern to rocks with a pair of heavy metal lines at each end, there is no certainty that you’ll really be safe through the night.

The biggest threat, of course, is ice. A big wind comes up, a seemingly protected bay can fill with icebergs big and small, and any sailboat can be locked in within an hour, unable to move until the ice blows out again. Which might be an hour, or days.

(While most of the private boats that sail to Antarctica are aluminum or steel-hulled, as it becomes an increasingly popular destination for adventurous yachties, the greater number of plastic, even the occasional fiberglass boat, show up here, more greatly threatened by sharp-edged ice.)

This morning we are lucky; there’s no ice in the bay when we awake. We are even luckier to spend the entire day just half a mile from where we slept, hiking, sailing and filming the rare beauty of Antarctica as it changes, seemingly by the minute.Steel gray skies turn bright blue. High white clouds skid across the horizon, then disappear. Brash ice — small bits of broken-up sea ice — turn the ocean surface into what resembles a giant frozen margarita. One by one a handful of icebergs the size of small houses float into the bay, pause, circle, then continue on, pushed slowly to the north by winds and current.

From up high looking down, whether perched on the spreader 30 feet above the Pelagic’s deck, or standing atop one of the 100 foot tall glaciers rimming the shallow U-shaped Skontorp Cove — named for Edvard Skontorp, described as an “outstanding” Norwegian whale gunner — the scene is otherworldly: ice moving in and out, winds picking up then calming, high clouds casting shadows on the sunlit, black Southern Ocean.

Since the rain that haunted us the first few days of this exploration have stopped, on a day like this it’s easy to be reminded of how privileged we are to see this remote corner of the planet. Its also a good reminder of just how relevant the theme of change– the subject of the film we’re shooting here, Wild Antarctica 3D — is to this place. Ice comes and goes, sea and air temperatures change, species are threatened, and every day the changing weather is the primary topic of conversation.

Mid-afternoon I jump in a Zodiac with Graham Charles, my Kiwi friend who knows this coastline as well as anyone, and we take a long, slow ride along the glacier’s edge.

We purposely stay a safe distance away from the towering ice. Those who know Antarctic best are the ones who respect its threats most, including its 29-degree waters but particularly its ice. Only the foolhardy pull cowboy acts here — like lingering too close to glacier walls or attempting to thread through tempting arches carved in icebergs — given the harsh penalty to be paid if you misjudge.

It is a warmish day, just above freezing, and the sun has been heating up the exterior of the glacier all day, making it more vulnerable to calving. When big chunks fall off it into the sea it’s like bags of cement being tossed in, sending waves and spray rolling. When a section of wall collapses it’s like a mini-tsunami.

Just as we pass a particularly sculptured wall, sure enough, a 30-foot wide section atop the glacier wall gives out a few warning groans and then drops into the ocean. It slides at first, then seems to explode. Watching over our shoulders, the engine on full throttle, six-foot waves chase us but do not catch up. Skidding the boat onto smooth waters we put it in neutral and watch as Antarctica continues to change all around us.