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Reaching A23a – The World’s Largest Iceberg in Antarctica

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All Around the World with the Most Travelled Indian

By NITIN GAIROLA

Continuing with my desert stories let me tell you one about how lucky we got in our recent trip to Antarctica, which of course is a desert due to its extreme dryness as I had explained in my previous two articles. It is a cold polar desert, the largest in the world and also one with the lowest precipitation or rainfall anywhere on Earth. In that trip we were not supposed to go anywhere near the largest iceberg in the world, which has made headlines since November of 2023 when it started floating northwards from the frozen continent. But in the end we did see this ‘iceberg of icebergs’ in a bizarre twist of fate.

Being treated to scientific lectures

But first things first – how large can the largest iceberg be? Is it the size of a bus, a building, a stadium, or how about an entire neighbourhood block? Now what if I told you that the world’s largest iceberg is 3 times the size of New York City and it goes by the name of ‘A23a’. That’s 3,900 square kilometres which is also 3 times the size of Greater London and more than 1.5 times the size of Delhi National Capital Region (NCR).

The Drake Shake on Drake’s Passage.

So the reason why this mega tabular iceberg made the headlines recently was that while A23a was formed from the Larson Ice Shelf on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula in 1986 itself, it was on 23rd Nov 2023 that it got unstuck from the ocean floor and started moving upwards, or should I say northwards. Since then there have been many doomsday articles on the impact of this Iceberg on the Antarctic ecosystem and its larger impact on the world when it melts. There have also been some deeper scientific articles published on A23a such as on BBC, New York Times and the like.

The raw beauty of an Iceberg.

In Nov ’23 when this happened, the iceberg was expected to completely leave the bounds of the frozen continent by around March 2024 (which is pretty much now) as it floated north towards the wildlife haven that are the sub-Antarctic South Georgia Islands. Scientists are worried that the mega berg would disturb the wildlife there by blocking a significant part of their food source. This would disrupt the entire food chain, not sparing the tiny krill or the mighty elephant seal.

Feeling fulfilled the next day.

Coming back to my trip, it was pure chance that I had booked the Antarctica tour (many months beforehand) for late December last year i.e. less than a month after the berg starting floating north. But there was no way a passenger cruise ship carrying tourists was going to be taken anywhere near this Iceberg. It was not even close to being on any passenger’s ships itinerary and till such time had only been seen by a handful of research vessels. But as fate would have it, we had very bad weather at Cape Horn, which is the southernmost tip of South America which we had to pass to reach Antarctica via the dreaded Drake’s Passage. The bad weather and choppy seas made us miss the cruise around Cape Horn.

Approaching the Wall of Ice.

Now the captain of our ship had a problem on his hands (but thankfully not the ‘all hands on deck’ kind). The problem was that he was stuck with glum and grumpy passengers, who really wanted to see all the wildlife in that amazing part of the world. In fact the mood in the ship was gloomier than the weather outside. But to our absolute surprise (and shock), next day a call was taken by the captain that instead of going on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, he would take us on the eastern side first, so that the passengers could witness A23a that had moved up north in the past one month of floating free. This change of plan was to have no impact on the rest of the itinerary on the western side of this white landmass, since we had enough days ahead of us to see all of it and still the ship would reach the sub-Antarctic Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas) on the scheduled arrival date. You would not believe how thrilled all the passengers were when this announcement was made and you could sense the anticipation in the air. Drinks were being ordered again too and people were naturally in good spirits.

Nitin’s first sighting of A23a.

Later as we were nearing the iceberg, the educators and researchers on our ship made an announcement that ours was the first passenger ship ever to see the largest of icebergs. So far only few research vessels had viewed it. That made it all the more special for everyone on board and we just could not believe our luck. Suitably, more drinks were ordered by the passengers. So as we approached this giant A23a, I could see a wall of ice on the horizon. Can you imagine the entire horizon having three shades of blue – the sky on top, the thin line of the iceberg in the middle and the azure water below? It was a very strange view indeed to see the wall of ice covering the entire horizon from east to west. As we neared this ice ecosystem, the weather started turning for the worse and we had very small and sharp pieces of ice biting our faces (imagine little ants biting your face).

With Bob – The Geographer.

We knew we had reached a place that is not seen every day. It will always remain one of the highlights not only of the Antarctica visit but of my entire travels around the world. I am a systematic traveller and plan a lot but it is such moments of serendipity that I love most about travel. In our case reaching A23a was so unusual that we even received certificates a few days later, signed by the captain which confirmed that we had reached this monster berg that the whole world was talking about.

With Caroline-The Penguin Expert.

Another pure chance was that I, along with my partner Richa and Abhik Dasgupta (a fellow Indian passenger and now good friend), had become the first Indians to see the world’s largest iceberg simply because the research ships in this area so far were British and Chilean. Of course, this is no feat of exploration at all and just pure luck in which we were passengers who reached a very remote and hostile environment in the relative comfort of a vessel. But it did call for celebration later that night.

The mood for the coming days in the seventh continent had been set. We were so charged up to see the far end of the world that missing out on Cape Horn had become a thing of the past. We didn’t know that time that in the coming days in Antarctica we were to be treated to a spectacle of wildlife like never before, way more than when I was on the other polar side of the world in the Arctic. Here we are talking about colonies of penguins as large as 100,000 members in one place, which means the penguin colony was literally changing the colour of the landscape. We also saw Orcas (Killer Whales), Albatrosses, Seals and so many Whales that after a while there was no shrieking when one was spotted. All this is a story for another week but with A23a, we saw the effects of climate change or global warming first hand. And we saw what few had ever seen or will see. It was a privilege.

(Nitin Gairola is from Dehradun and has travelled the natural world more than almost any Indian ever. He has set world travel records certified by India Book of Records, has written for Lonely Planet, and holds National Geographic conservation certifications. He is also a senior corporate executive in an MNC and in his early days, used to be a published poet as well. More than anything else, he loves his Himalayan home.)