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Day 3: Far from reach of man, watching Mother Nature in action

By Kerry Sanders, NBC News Correspondent

If you're wondering how we were able to travel to and around Antarctica, it was all aboard the Ocean Diamond, a so-called 'expedition ship' operated by Quark Expeditions. It’s not an ice-breaker but it's fortified to withstand hard knocks against the ice floes and icebergs that dot the water.

Crew members revealed their skills as they piloted the 400-long foot vessel through the narrow Gerlache Strait, the channel that separates what is known as the Palmer archipelago with the larger Antarctic peninsula. The glaciers on land are sliding, ever so slowly, into the ocean here.

Ice breaking off a glacier
Ice breaking off a glacier

At times, I heard what sounded like gunshots echoing through the region. Those 'gunshots' were actually huge chunks of ice breaking off and falling into the water. It's a process known as calving, and it’s a spectacular sight -- and sound -- to witness.

Calving is not an easy thing to document, but a fellow passenger was not only at the right place at the right time, but she also had the camera skills to catch the ice falling off an iceberg as she passed nearby in a Zodiac inflatable boat.

To my eyes, it's an astounding show. But to Mother Nature, it's simply routine. Calving is a natural process that has gone on since the beginning of time. It is effectively a result of gravity, although the images of it taking place seem to have come to represent the physical manifestation of climate change. 

The Ocean Diamond expedition ship
The Ocean Diamond expedition shipNery Ynclan / NBC News

On Danco Island, Minke whales, Leopard and Fur seals and Gentoo penguins went about their routines, but for an outsider like me it made for a spectacle. At one point, I watched a Minke whale breach the surface and then roll onto its back. (Sorry I did not get that on camera as I was pausing to simply enjoy the sight.)

When my cameraman Kyle Eppler and I got to mountainous Danco Island, we had the goal of making it to the top.

It was a climb over loose rock, shale, and in other spots, slushy snow, until the higher altitudes. Near the top of the 45-minute climb, the snow was hard pack. Still, it was tough to negotiate, especially during the moments when my boot would break the crust, sinking me knee-deep into snow.

But the hike was worth it. On the backside of the mountain, far from the Zodiacs that are powered by outboard motors, at a distance that no one else had walked, I stood with Kyle and drank in the view. We also noticed the sounds. A crack of ice here. A Gentoo chick pestering its father or mother for more food there. The wind sweeping across the mountain tops.

From left, Kerry Sanders and Kyle Eppler of NBC News on Danco Island
From left, Kerry Sanders and Kyle Eppler of NBC News on Danco IslandNery Ynclan / NBC News

We're used to living in a world polluted with noise from machines, computers and our fellow humans, but that felt like a world away. Of course, it didn’t last 10 minutes. We soon heard the ice crunch as a guide from the ship approached us. Then her radio crackled with the voice of a team leader, announcing the time the last Zodiac would leave. Our moment was gone, but I’m certain for that instant I’ve never been farther away from our modern world.


Day 4: Sleeping outdoors in Antarctica