On a January morning, three days after leaving the southernmost yacht club in the world—Club Naval de Yates Micalvi, in Puerto Williams, Chile—we begin our hunt for the one thing Antarctica offers in greater numbers than anywhere else on the planet: icebergs. About 200 miles from the continent’s mainland, surrounded by black, 12-foot seas, we spy our first and float by quietly, reverentially. It is easily a hundred feet tall, solid and old, its glacial ice so compacted that the air has been squeezed out, making it ever more blue. Ice is everywhere here. The 74-foot Pelagic Australis’s deck is sheathed in a thin layer of it. The boat glances off sizable pieces broken away from the 700,000-square-mile pack that surrounds Antarctica each spring. While I’ve been here several times before, a few of my teammates are seeing these big bergs for the first time. Armed with digital video and still cameras, they’re like kids on Christmas morning.
We’ve been sailing hard for nearly three full days across the notorious Drake Passage, and now we’re nearing King George Island, 75 miles off the tip of the Antarctic continent in the South Shetland Islands. Home to a dozen international science bases, it’s where I’d stashed our kayaks during a recon trip aboard the National Geographic Endeavour.