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Crossing the South Polar Front – A Journey into Antarctica’s Enchanting Realm

(This is a multi-part article. Be sure to read the entire series of 2023 Antarctic Journal from the beginning of my adventure!)

The South Polar Front — a thick fog hugging the water where the South Atlantic Ocean meets the ocean currents of the Antarctic continent.

We crossed the South Polar Front on a Wednesday. (Other names are the Antarctic Polar Front and the Antarctic Convergence.) From that point forward, calendars are meaningless. It’s now the Antarctic. Forces other than schedules and deadlines rule.

A view from our ship of a single iceberg on the horizon in the distance.

The front is an invisible amoeba-shaped boundary encircling the Antarctic. Here the South Atlantic Ocean meets the currents associated with the Antarctic continent. An upwelling of waters contributes to one of nature’s shortest food chains: plankton>krill>whales. In my narrow experience, the sea calms at the front and fog descends. The churn of the ship’s engines sounds more lonely than comforting. I half-expected a ghost ship filled with skeletons to appear out of the gray at any moment. When we emerged, we spotted our first iceberg on the horizon.

A view across the ships bridge towards South Georgia Island
Approaching South Georgia Island

People live on South Georgia Island for only a few months to serve the expedition ships and researchers. Narrow beaches and tussock grass provide homes for elephant seals, fur seals and enormous colonies of King Penguins.

A rat eradication program completed in 2018 once again allows a brown songbird called a pipit and a cryptic-brownish tan duck called a pintail to nest and raise young. At the once-busy harbor at Grytviken, the wildlife shares space with the ghosts of more than 175,000 whales and 6,000 seals that were hunted and processed here for oil between 1904 and 1965.

Until about 1978, more than a million whales were killed in the Antarctic and taken to similar processing plants. S. Georgia authorities have chosen to leave Grytviken’s rusting oil-harvesting factory intact as a reminder of the reckless slaughter. Only Iceland, Norway and Japan continue to hunt whales on an industrial scale, but today in the Antarctic the animals find refuge in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. On this trip, we were happy to spot Right, Fin, Sei, Minke and Humpbacks in the Scotia Sea between S. Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula.

a juvenile fur seal on the shore
A juvenile fur seal

At Grytviken, visitors tiptoe through the fur seals lounging everywhere – they’re not bashful about attempting a playful bite at a leg here and there – to see Ernest Shackleton’s grave. (The young seals especially like it when people run from them. A chase! Fun!!) The headstone is appropriately angled directly toward the South Pole. A shot of whiskey in his honor is available at the cemetery, too. This is where I encourage you to read ENDURANCE by Alfred Lansing, an incredible story of survival and Shackleton’s flawless leadership.

Visiting the Falklands had been effortless. But nature calls the shots at S. Georgia. We made smooth landings at St. Andrews Bay for our first (massive) King Penguin colony and at Grytviken. But then the weather changed. The towering mountains and the glaciers below create their own weather system. The result is 65-75-knot katabatic winds. That’s when things get interesting in a Zodiac.