If “remote” has a geographic icon, then Antarctica’s Ross Sea must surely be it. If you’re an adventurer who seeks to explore the planetary edges few have ever visited, a cruise to this nether region (in utmost comfort, of course) is your ultimate trophy tack on the map.
This is a wilderness of whiteness, a semi-frozen sea of gargantuan glaciers and fantastic tabular icebergs broken off from vast ice shelves. Inland, the Dry Valleys—accessible only by helicopter—present a seldom-seen supernatural world of wind-sculpted rock formations and countless petrified skeletal animal remains. While the Ross Sea region makes up a bare two percent of the Southern Ocean, it is one of the world’s last truly pristine ecosystems.
The wildlife that calls the Ross Sea home took millions of years of fine-tuning to be able to survive in the harshest of all climates—above and below the water. The diversity of species and their numbers are staggering. Spot your share of 24,000 whales, 300,000 seals, and millions of seabirds—all supported by millions of tons of Antarctic krill served in optimum chilled conditions.
Now for the penguins...The largest of their species, the emperor, is the only one that breeds during the planet’s most brutal winter—beautifully documented in the film March of the Penguins. About 240,000 emperors raise their families in the Ross Sea environs. If conditions permit, helicopters bring you close to the colonies to witness and photograph the birds nesting on the ice.
At the base of the sea lies Ross Island, where Mt. Erebus rises 13,000 feet above the landscape. This island is home to the famous McMurdo Station, the largest of more than two dozen scientific research centers in Antarctica. Weather and ice conditions permitting, you’ll also have the chance to visit Cape Royds and view the hut built by Ernest Shackleton, now neighbored by thousands of Adelie penguins—the southernmost penguin colony on the planet. Nearby on Cape Evans is the well-preserved hut of Robert Falcon Scott, built in 1911. To stand in the very footsteps of these two giants of Antarctic exploration is indeed an emotional experience.
This Antarctica cruise to the continent’s southernmost accessible point takes longer than the traditional peninsula journey, and raw weather conditions often dictate a flexible itinerary. But a Ross Sea voyage claims an adventure category all its own, and its rewards transcend the boundaries of imagination.
Note: Ross Sea voyages depart from New Zealand or Australia. Most stop at the exquisite Sub-Antarctic Islands to explore the wildlife and profuse endemic flora and fauna of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Straddling the 180º meridian about 2,600 miles south of New Zealand, Antarctica’s Ross Sea was first charted by British explorer James Clark Ross in 1841. With McMurdo Sound as its most navigable waterway—and the gateway to the continent—this remote geographic region harbors one of our planet’s last intact ecosystems and boasts a century-long history of exploration that remains unrivaled.
Norwegian adventurer Carsten Borchgrevink was the first to winter in Antarctica. In February 1899, with his Southern Cross crew of ten men (and 75 sled dogs), Borchgrevink built camp at Cape Adare and spent the next year assembling volumes of geologic information, surveying the magnetic South Pole and collecting specimens of botanicals and marine wildlife. But by the time Borchgrevink returned to England in 1900, the world had fixated its attention on Robert Falcon Scott and his pursuit of the South Pole in 1901. It wasn’t until 1930 that the English finally rewarded Borchgrevink’s groundbreaking work with the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographic Society.
During the first two decades of the 20th century, Antarctic expeditions in the Ross Sea were numerous and their leaders legendary. After Borchgrevink came Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary and Vivian Fuchs. The conquest of the South Pole in 1911 remains one of the greatest races in history. When Scott and his team anchored off Ross Island in January and set off to reach the South Pole, he wasn’t aware that his rival, Amundsen, setting off from the Bay of Whales, had already planted his flag five weeks earlier on December 14.
Travelers on an Antarctic Ross Sea cruise can visit the huts along McMurdo Sound. Terra Nova, Scott’s 1911 hut, still contains much of the expedition’s equipment. Shackleton’s 1907-09 hut at Cape Royds now stands near an Adelie penguin rookery—where thousands of the birds comprise the world’s southernmost colony. In February, 1956, the U.S. opened McMurdo Station, among whose missions it is to study world climate and regional ecosystems. In austral summer, the station’s 85 buildings include housing for about 1,250 researchers and staff.
Physically, the Ross Sea region is a rugged, icy wilderness punctuated by dramatic features. Victoria Land bordering the sea is dominated by the soaring 2,200-mile-long Transatlantic Mountain Range, which divides the Antarctic into east and west. The Dry Valleys, the continent’s only region free of ice and snow, has not seen precipitation for, some speculate, two to four million years. Rising nearly 12,000 feet above the cluster of volcanic islands, Mt. Erebus (Greek god, son of Chaos) is the world’s southernmost active volcano, erupting continuously since 1972.
The Ross Sea Ice Shelf, the planet’s largest, borders terra firma for 600 miles—at 182,000 square miles it’s the size of France. And under the 24/7 summer sun, when temperatures nudge past the freezing mark, the massive ice pack breaks into giant puzzle shapes. Below these frigid waters lies a marine world that teems with life and enough nutrients to sustain all of it, including the millions of seabirds, penguins and mammals that depend on its pristine conditions. Ninety-five species of fish live here, along with orca and minke whales, and Weddell and Leopard Seals. A third of the planet’s Adelie and emperor penguins thrive here, along with many other seabird species.
At McMurdo Sound, studies of Antarctica’s global climate effects have lead to a surprising and profound discovery. Freezing polar winds that cause the Ross Sea surface to freeze push the salt below the ice. This “heavy” water sinks to the ocean’s floor and is then forced out into ocean basins around the world. Climatologist Gerd Wendler explains: "Seventy five percent of all the bottom water, wherever you are, comes from Antarctica." What traveler wouldn’t want to boast an Antarctic cruise to the source?