Postcard to Myself            Bradley Stahl photo


Icebergs are almost as unique as penguins but far more dangerous. When we neared the first point of land on the Antarctic Peninsula, the ship’s watertight doors were closed for safety. One of them was right next to my cabin on Deck 1. When it was closed, I had a much longer route to cover before arriving at the to the public areas. I discovered the first night after the door closing that there was a corresponding door on the deck below, where the crew tended the engines. At the crew change, great metallic crashing and electronic beeping accompanied each crewmember as he opened and closed the door. I felt secure that if we did hit an iceberg (images of the great rip down the side of the Titanic come to mind) we would not sink, but I did wish the crew would pass through the safety door in groups rather than one at a time.


At the tip of the Trinity Peninsula, the northern most point of the Antarctic continent, we entered Antarctic Sound, a passage known as Iceberg Alley. Wind and currents conspire to keep the passage reliably full of tabular icebergs, their sparkling bulk several times the size of our vessel. They look like floating boxes, very square and level, and are the spawn of the glaciers that creep into the bays. When the compacted glacier ice is thrust off the land, it floats, becomes unstable and breaks off. The weight of years of falling snow compresses any air trapped in the ice below, making the ice very dense. Put this ice in water, and it fizzes as the air expands. It floats with only one seventh of its bulk above the surface. After wind and sea work on the shapes, icebergs can be very dangerous. As they lose bulk above and below the water, they become unstable and can turn over suddenly, reorienting themselves to the new distribution of mass. The sculptures ranged in color from clear to an intense sky blue.

As the ship made its way among these giants, I felt the need for some comparison. One of the naturalists told me an iceberg we were watching was probably 70 feet high, but that was only a number. I needed a person or a known object up on top. I had the feeling that it was really much bigger than I could imagine, but with no comparison, I wasn’t really appreciating its full bulk. I’d heard some were the size of large counties.

Brash Ice

The other type of iceberg is formed when the annual freeze breaks up in the spring. These are much smaller, and often one side is low enough for the seals and penguins to haul out for a rest. Crab eater seals only use icebergs for their naps, and never go ashore. Penguins often hitch a ride on a comfy northbound iceberg later in the season, staying aboard for the two weeks or so while they molt.

The wind blows the big icebergs, the smaller “bergy bits” and the slushy brash ice around, and ship captains are aware of the possibility of being trapped as the pack shifts. Our vessel got caught two years before and was rescued by an icebreaker that happened to be in the area. Our last day before the weather changed, we were scheduled to try to go through Lemaire Channel, the

We made our way through a high canyon to the edge of the brash ice, where the ship halted while we peered through the passage we would not challenge. Having learned the lesson, the captain turned around to find our night’s anchorage another way.