The Antarctic Peninsula is a frozen finger pointing towards the far tip of South America. This is the Antarctica that most travellers are familiar with, cruising up and down its western coastline from the South Shetland Islands towards the Antarctic Circle. Far fewer visitors make it to the Weddell Sea.
Last season I joined Swoop’s Antarctic Fly & Sail Combination trip to the Weddell Sea, sailing on the Greg Mortimer. It was my first trip to the Weddell and I was amazed at what a wild and epic contrast it offered to the more traditional Peninsula cruises.
Geography holds the key to understanding what makes the Weddell Sea such a special place. The western side of the Peninsula is constantly raked by the great Southern Ocean currents that forever swirl around the White Continent. As these currents are forced through the narrow gap between Antarctica and South America, their momentum creates the lively seas of the Drake Passage, beloved and feared by polar travellers in equal measure. These currents also mean that the western side of the Peninsula becomes free from sea ice relatively early in the season.
The Weddell Sea is a far different beast. It’s fed by the enormous Ronne Ice Shelf, a sheet of ice roughly the size of Sweden, that slowly crawls down the continent to calve into the sea creating vast tabular icebergs. The currents in the Weddell then act as a slow gyre, turning clockwise to trap the ice in its grip. Even in the height of summer, much of the pack ice remains in situ, ever shifting and creating fabulous frozen landscapes.
The most famous traveller who encountered its icy grip of course was the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. His ship Endurance was caught and sunk by the Weddell Sea ice in November 1915, precipitating one of the greatest survival stories of all time. Shackleton was on the minds of many passengers as we boarded the Greg Mortimer – we were excited to follow in his footsteps, but thankful to be doing so in a vessel with a high ice rating and an experienced polar captain on the bridge.
Some Weddell Sea itineraries include the option to visit Snow Hill, which is famous for its emperor penguin colony, but like many visitors short on time, I opted instead for a fly-sail cruise option flying from Punta Arenas to King George Island. After boarding we sailed straight through the Antarctic Sound at the tip of the Peninsula and into the Weddell Sea.
It was on the morning of the second day that I really started to realise what a special place I’d come to. Our expedition leader woke us up with the most amazing alarm call, announcing that the ship had pulled up alongside an iceberg. Just the word iceberg does it a disservice: this was a tabular berg almost half the size of Jamaica. ‘If you’re on the starboard side, I would suggest getting out on your balcony to take a look’ he urged us. I just remember opening up my curtain and there was a wall of ice right in front of me.
I never used to understand how people could visit an art gallery and just look at a painting for 15 minutes straight. But I found myself doing just that! I could have stared at that ice the whole day.
We were moored slightly more than 50m away from the berg – as close as the captain was happy to let us get – but the size of it was almost incomprehensible. After I got dressed, I had to walk all the way up to deck seven of the ship just to see over the top of it.
These tabular icebergs are one of the real treats of visiting the Weddell Sea, as you don’t get them on the western side of the Peninsula. For true ice lovers, there might be no better place to visit.
The iceberg was also a good lesson at how unpredictable the Weddell Sea is, but in a wonderful way. With a normal Peninsula trip, we’re used to there being a Plan A, B, C and D, but the ships can update each other on where conditions are good or the state of the penguin rookeries. As few ships sail to the Weddell there’s a lot less information to share, so you need to have plans that go from E straight through to H.
Before you travel that might sound a little worrying, but it actually makes things a lot more adventurous. The Weddell Sea definitely feels a lot more like you’re going into uncharted territory. In this case, the captain and expedition leader had seen the iceberg on the radar and decided to amend the itinerary to take a look. Not for the first time on the voyage we wondered what Shackleton might have done with access to such technology.
The next day brought even more surprises. We were out on a zodiac and made a landing between two icebergs grounded in the bay. Any landing in Antarctica is always a joy, but our expedition leader looked particularly excited. After checking with his team and multiple radio calls back to the ship he announced that we were probably the first visitors ever to step foot on this stretch of land.
Such events are almost unheard of these days, and we certainly couldn’t promise it to future visitors, but it was an incredibly humbling experience nonetheless. Before we got too carried away our guides reminded us of everything that we had learned in our biosecurity briefings on board and the vital importance of leaving nothing behind us but footprints. I’ve never been anywhere that so perfectly illustrated our need to be careful stewards of our planet.
Other places do get a few more visitors of course. We called in at Paulet Island, with its cartoonishly pointed volcanic cone and beaches dotted with more Adélie penguins we could count. The first footsteps date from the Nordenskjöld expedition of 1903, when the crew of the Antarctic ship were forced to over-winter here after their ship was lost in the pack ice – anticipating the Endurance disaster by a dozen years.
Despite the harsh elements, the remains of the crude stone hut that once housed 18 desperate men still stands. The hardships they must have gone through before they were reduced felt almost unimaginable, especially as we were able to return so easily to the Greg Mortimer for a hot meal with not a hint of penguin on the menu.
In general, the wildlife was so much more than I had expected. Most Weddell Sea itineraries are from mid-February into March to give the best chance of ice-free seas. By this time the penguin chicks are ready to fledge, so there’s a lot of action on the shore – not just with the penguins but with leopard seals ready for a meal. As well as the Adélies, we also saw chinstrap and gentoo penguins, plus plenty of Weddell and crabeater seals. Late season is great for whales, and we had regular humpback sightings and even a handful of orcas.
For all this, it’s the ice that had the biggest effect on me. Almost every time we went out on a zodiac, we would hear a thunderstorm of ice as another giant berg would break off and crash into the sea. I was so distracted by it, these amazing sounds of icebergs calving. It’s one of the most incredible sounds in the world. At another landing site there were just enormous ice sculptures on the beach everywhere. They were the remains of icebergs that had washed up on the shore to be shaped by the waves and the wind into surreal shapes: another unexpected entry for my mental Antarctic art gallery.
At the end of the trip as we sailed back to the western Peninsula and began to head into the Drake Passage to make the crossing back to Ushuaia, we learned that our last day in the Weddell Sea had also been the first anniversary of the discovery of the wreck of Shackleton’s Endurance resting 3000 metres below the pack ice. It felt like the perfect end to the trip. Our voyage had been rather less dramatic but for us just as memorable: a taste of Antarctica at its wildest and most dramatic.
Want to see these jaw-dropping tabular icebergs for yourself? Swoop Antarctica are the Weddell Sea experts: Get in touch today and let us help you plan your polar journey.