Now that we’ve had our two days cruising along the Antarctic Peninsula and nearby islands, I can’t quite recall what I expected. I do know that as the white lines on the horizon emerged from the grays of the ocean and sky, I was mesmerized. We were fortunate because the first approach of the continent was on the starbord side of the ship, which is where our room is. We sat, wrapped up in all our coats and blankets, on our balcony, focused on the emerging walls of ice and glaciers. The seas were relatively calm, so the ribbon of whites and silvers slid slowly by off in the distance. I felt hypnotized, couldn’t keep my eyes off the view, lulled into tiny reveries; delicious hypnosis.

But the sky was very gray, and the ice was distant. I did wonder if this was all that we’d see. I shouldn’t have worried. We slowly made our way into what they called Paradise Cove. We were surrounded by rocky cliffs and peaks, glacier faces, ribbons of layered ice, icebergs, swirling clouds and cold cold air. The sea, protected by this ring of Antarctic mountains, was very calm. Clouds rolled over the rocks. Vivid azure ice shone through fissures in the ice. Our photos and videos will have to try to show a bit of what we experienced.

I have been wondering what it is that makes this experience so rich and fulfilling — at least for me. It is a combination of the wordless immediacy, the scale, the awe and wonder. No words for that; it is the unfiltered feeling of being in the place, buffeted by what we see, hear and feel in the cold air. This is why I can just stand there and absorb for hours on end: just being with this stark, immense and mysterious landscape.

I wondered what it would be like if the sky had been clear, with blue sky behind the peaks and full sun on the ice and rock. I couldn’t resist going online to find a photo of Paradise Cove on a rare blue-sky day, with the rock and ice reflected in the water; undeniably stunning. But our day included clouds and mist that hid and revealed the black and white of the mountains. During the day, the light shifted subtly, quietly changing the view, adding and taking away depth and vistas. We learned that the weather here is much of the time like this, and very often less accommodating, with fog, storm, wind and thick clouds. So we were fortunate to be able to see a sliver of the Antarctic mainland in its more customary dressing. That online image of blue-sky Paradise Cove showed the naked continent, almost the abstract idea of Antarctica. We, however, experienced an enveloping of the Antarctic environment, full surround, dynamic, alive.

Someone commented that photos of this landscape look like they are just black and white, colorless. They compared that, in Alaska, you see the blue-gray of the sea, the green of the surrounding hills, the white of glaciers and ice; and that is a rich mixture. For me, this tight contrast of many blacks, silvers and whites, with the tiniest edges of sapphire, keeps inviting my eyes and mind in. The patterns are harsh and beautiful. The striations of ice speak to the myriad of piled seasons of ice and snow. The fissures in the banks of ice, still during our short visit, are snapshots of flow and breakage.

I came to Antarctica because of the idea of the place: supremely remote, immense, too large for non-explorers like us to experience more than with this glancing approach, deadly, inexplicably full of sea life, like another planet. As we stood on deck, under the cold clouds, facing this landscape, this idea of Antarctica filled my mind. The awe of the place is immediate in the senses and enriched by our ideas of the place.

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