Trip to an Antarctic ice cave – Archana Dayal

Location: 70.76°S 11.73°E, East Antarctica (Schirmacher Oasis, Dronning Maud Land) Temp.: -15°C Time: 15:30 hrs (21:00 hrs IST) (Yeah, our clocks run 5 hrs behind!) Sitting in the East View Lounge of Maitri, the second Indian Antarctic base, whose history is so rich and has such a strong presence when it comes to the very first of Indian Antarctic Expeditions. This lounge with its various musical instruments, comfortable black sofas overlooking the hills was once a green house. Winter members grew fresh green vegetables which were both a visual treat as well as a delight for those cold winter days where all one saw was the white oasis. A blizzard’s raging outside, visible through the many white paned windows. Visibility’s poor. My living module (a yellow cargo container!) is barely visible. I can see the drift snow being blown by the very strong winds blowing in from the continent. These winds are known as Katabatic Winds. These are strongest in coastal Antarctica and blow from inland to the coast. Had to walk in this wind, to get to the warmth and comfort of the station! The drift snow felt like ice pricks on my cheeks. Maybe it was trying to cut through me since I blocked its way! Lovely music drifts in my ears. My head nods to the music. I am glad for the protection that the station provides. I am now about to put down the events of the day. An experience, so memorable that it brings tears to my eyes when I picture it in my mind’s eye. It all started with a plan that involved a GPS survey and a visit to this ice cave that everybody at the station raved about. A place frequented by the ALCI tourists and the Novo station members. Five of us set off (me after having stuffed myself with five vadas:), unfazed by the advice of our station members to not step out for the wind outside bellowed at 30 knots. But, wanting to make the most of my very last few days on Antarctica (my first love!), I decided to go out. After some time, one gets bored even by the comfort of the station and longs for some action! Undeterred and with a spring in my feet, I set off happily along with the others, excited as I longed to see this “wondrous” cave. Was this cave truly that marvellous and special? Well, I was soon to discover and how! So, off we go. We walk over boulders and rocks which are so sharp that they look like pieces of a mountain blown off by dynamite! I soon run out of breath as I balance myself precariously and walk on these rocks. Wind speed is 30 knots and so it pushes us back and forth as we walk. Mother Nature treats us like puppets! Pulling our strings, having fun! I try to channel her force by changing my movements, so that I move farther on plain ground but slow down while on rocks. “Fat chance!” exclaims Mother Nature and off I go tumbling and tripping! The rocks are not as beautiful as the ones in Larsemann hills. But hey! They are Antarctica’s rocks! What made the rocks special at Larsemann, was the contrast of colours between the various patterns. If a rock was layered black then shiny red pieces stood out on it. Garnet, is what I heard they called it. It was my favourite rock at Larsemann. Saw huge boulders of it too. Felt like lugging it all back home! Most of the rocks here were dull in colour with a few patches of rocks that stood out in orange. Lichens, algae is what I saw growing on them. Yes, life! Frozen lakes could be seen in the depressions between the hills. These hills were different too. The hills at Larsemann are described as low rounded coastal hills. The ones here- not at the coast, but 100 km inland, pointy and dry.
A frozen lake in Antarctica

A frozen lake in Antarctica

Boulders and rocks, 100 km inland in Antarctica!

Boulders and rocks, 100 km inland in Antarctica!

Then there were these white patches and colourful lines on the rocks. I stopped to examine it. Skua or penguin poop or bicarbonate? This place is a treasure trove for geologists, I wonder. Walking along the periphery of a lake, I spot water that’s frozen in between the rocks. Had picked up one of these the other day. They look like trophies which seem to be left behind for us by Mother Nature for having taken the pains to carry out our field work in Antarctica!
Frozen water

Frozen water

Me with the trophy!

Me with the trophy!

Water bubbles trapped in ice, if one looks carefully!

Water bubbles trapped in ice, if one looks carefully!

We reach the slope that we need to descend in order to reach the ice cave. As I walk down, I notice this feature on the ice shelf. Something I have been chasing and yearning for, for the past two months. Yup, you guessed it right! Cryoconite holes! A short description for readers: these are unique ecological niches where microbes thrive. “Cryo” means ice and “conite” means dust so cylindrical melt holes with sediments and microorganisms. Hundreds of them! And, huge ones too since I could see them from the top of the hill! Beautiful blue cryoconite holes, of all sizes! One could shop for cryoconite holes here with a lot of choices too! : various shades of blue and all sizes! There were so many, I could swim in them! Reason of their existence here: the sediment that gets deposited by the wind from the hills that I came trekking all along.
Cryoconite holes

Cryoconite holes

Cryoconite hole

Cryoconite hole

Source of 'conite' in cryoconite

Source of 'conite' in cryoconite

I can also make out stream like channels on which sediment’s deposited that run all along the shelf. My happiness turns to frustration as I realize that I shan’t be able to sample them. I hadn’t come here with this intention and therefore was unprepared! No corer, no for sampling bags. As it turned out, this was the very region that I had spotted from the Heli on our way to Maitri but which had been ruled out for sampling as it had been suggested that it was a crevasse prone area. And here I was, walking to it with no crevasses in sight, whatsoever! I decide not to give in to anger and enjoy the day. I tear my eyes away reluctantly and turn to admire the beauty of the cave. A small stretch of frozen ice separates us from the cave which breaks like glass upon us crossing it with the utmost care. We reach the entrance, and treading with caution make it to the insides of it.
Entrance to the cave

Entrance to the cave

And, that is when it all begins! The cave turns out to be a tunnel (made of ice!) that snakes its way inwards. It’s difficult for me to describe its beauty and also my feelings. But, I shall try my best! The tunnel’s narrow and presses onto us. So, we walk in a line breathing in its beauty. The white of the ice gives in to blue as we move further. I stretch out my hands, feeling the glassy smooth surface of these walls of ice.
Me inside the cave

Me inside the cave

I gape in amazement at this beauty! I am explained that this tunnel is actually a huge crack and the cup-like patterns that I see on its walls have been shaped by the wind. Feels weird to be walking through a crack! I can see particles of dust trapped in the ice. One or two dark blue bands stand out on the walls. How did they form? Wasn’t the beauty of the tunnel enough that Nature had to throw in a bit of a mystery too for us to figure out? We keep walking, crushing the fragile ice beneath our feet which makes a deafening noise. I do not like that. I would like to enjoy this place and experience its silence. Who knows, I might get some enlightenment like Buddha did? The white gives in to blue as the open sky above is closed by an ice roof from which icicles hang!
Icicles inside the cave

Icicles inside the cave

More icicles!

More icicles!

I wish I were a poet or a wonderful author who could describe all of this in beautiful poetic words or pen my thoughts in lovely artistic style. I had seen researchers walking through such ice caves on Discovery and NatGeo. Little did I know that I would get the same opportunity!! I feel really lucky and grateful and thank God. But, I also wonder, “Why me? What have I done in this life or in my previous incarnations to have deserved all this? There must be a reason, something I must realize to fulfil my destiny” I also realize the time nature must have taken to carve this marvellous structure. Nothing worthwhile happens until you give it your all, I muse. That chipping away bit by bit always works. To never give up. Words like hard work and perseverance come to my mind. This place inspires me and I breathe in the air and try to hold the silence in my heart. That I remember this beauty in times of trial and derive strength from it. This is how I would like to work in my chosen field of research. To keep at it and in the end, produce something so wonderful that the world is astonished. On a lighter note, the character Sid from the movie ‘Ice Age’ pops up into my mind. I recall the scene where he walks through an ice cave and sees fossilized mammoths and other beings. I peer into the ice hoping to spot something and am amused at this thought. Being in Antarctica is the closest you can get to Ice Age! These walls of ice also remind me of cave paintings. Will I see such marks on the wall here too?? Nothing of this sort happens but the experience is surreal to me nevertheless. The white of the tunnel gives way to a hue of blue that glows! UV light is what comes to my mind. Ah! Maybe like fluorescence. Every second counts here. I feel alive! The tunnel doesn’t seem to end. I feel many emotions altogether as I move on. Awe, wonder, bliss! I want to absorb it all. My biggest fear is that I may forget how it felt to be there. I can already feel my memory fading as I write down my thoughts.
Fluorescence!

Fluorescence!

As we near the end of the tunnel, I can see it opening up and white light emanating. I wonder if I might find God standing in a white suit, like in Bruce Almighty, at the end of the tunnel, welcoming me with open arms. I feel I am “Knockin’ on heaven’s door”! (Bob Dylan). I really hope my way to heaven would be as serene and beautiful as this ice tunnel! Nothing more, nothing less. As we head back, I turn several times to bid goodbye to my cryoconite holes. Maybe it sounds too much, but with a heavy heart, since I do not know when I would see them again… Later did some skating and sliding on one of the frozen lakes. I could see spherical white bubbles of air trapped beneath the ice. Even they looked so beautiful and pure! Could see the rocks beneath the frozen water. Wonderful feeling to walk on a lake! Soon, we got a call from the station to hurry back as a blizzard was approaching (yes, this is the one that I sat watching in the lounge and therefore narrowly escaped getting caught in!). I could see the hills getting covered by snow in the distance. Slight snow had started falling and the wind had picked up speed as well. We made it to the station in time. So, All’s Well that Ends Well!!!
  • Archana Dayal.