The Ross Sea

The Ross Sea, oft the shores of Antarctica, lies about six days’ sailing southward across the Southern Ocean from Tasmania or New Zealand. For most of the year, the Ross Sea is covered by pack ice (frozen sea), which can stretch hundreds of miles out from the coast. Visits must therefore be made in summer, when the ice has melted enough to allow ships to approach the shore.The journey south is frequently rough but always rewarding. After about four days sailing you’ll see icebergs. They come in an infinite variety of shapes and range from the size of a table to that of a city. Where the cold waters of Antarctica meet the wanner, ES northern seas, nutrient-rich water upwells, forming the Antarctic Convergence—an immensely rich feeding ground for seabirds and marine mammals. These waters are home to the millions of Adelie and emperor penguins that you will see resting on icebergs, along with crabeater and Ross seals. Large numbers of orca, minke, humpback, fin, and sei whales live here, too. Tens of millions of seabirds live on the Southern Ocean, from majestic albatrosses that feed on squid, to tiny, darting petrels that pluck plankton from the surface of the ocean with their clawed feet.

The Ross Ice Shelf

As the ship enters the Ross Sea, the Transantarctic Mountains dominate the view to the west, rising straight from the water to an average height of over 9,000 feet (2,750 m). At the northern tip of the mountains, the volcanic peninsula of Cape Adare pokes into the Southern Ocean. To the south, the flat expanse of the Ross Ice Shelf meets the sea in 100 foot (30 m) ice cliffs. Its seaward margin is 500 miles (800 km) across, from Ross Island in the west to Marie Byrd Land in the east. This is the phenomenal wall of ice that early explorers named the Barrier.

West of Ross Island, McMurdo Sound gives access to the Barrier. In late summer, it is sometimes possible to cruise right up to the largest Antarctic research station, the US McMurdo Base. New Zealand’s Scott Base is nearby.

It was from Ross Island that Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton made their epic journeys toward the South Pole early in the century. The huts of Scott and Shackleton are still standing, lovingly preserved by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust. Mount Erebus (12,450 feet [3,797 m]), an active volcano, looms behind them, vapor rising from its summit.

Visiting tourists live on board ship and are taken in inflatable boats to visit various sites along the coast, such as penguin nesting colonies. Visitors must take great care as the Antarctic environment is extremely fragile. In summer, the temperature averages -10°C to +1°C (14°F to 34°F). The sun barely sets in summer and the days are prefaced by glorious apricot, orange, and pink skies as the sun dances close to the horizon for hours on end.