The Weddell Sea

The Weddell Sea is probably the most remote, least known and least accessible sea in the world. Deemed by scientists to have the clearest water of any sea, it is a wilderness rich in history and characterised by vast tubular icebergs, wide expanses of pack ice, powerful tides and plentiful wildlife (including 200,000 strong penguin rookeries and the inimitable Weddell Seal). Captain James Weddell first sailed here in 1823 reaching 74˚ south, the most southerly point ever reached. It was also here that Shackleton’s ship The Endurance, became icebound and was crushed in 1915. With only a couple of small ships travelling this deep into the Peninsula, these expeditions hold impressive credentials.

A voyage to the Weddell Sea provides an insight into other worlds where dinosaurs ruled and continents connected. For scientists, the Weddell Sea and its palaeontologic treasures provide definitive proof that Antarctica was part of the supercontinent Gondwana.

"Supercontinent" Gondwana

The supercontinent Gondwana joined Antarctica with Australia, Africa, South America, India and New Zealand. Around 165 million years ago, Gondwana began the enormously slow process of breaking into the pieces we recognize today, and the continents, subcontinent and islands began moving into their present positions. By about 70 million years ago, the continents were becoming widely separated and what is now known as the Drake Passage opened. After making its final detachment from the Australian continent, about 40 million years ago, Antarctica settled into its present polar position and began to cool dramatically.

Antarctica was not always cold, dry and covered in ice sheets. At a number of points in its long history it was farther north, experienced a tropical or temperate climate, was covered in forests, and inhabited by various ancient life-forms.

Ancient fossils in Antarctica

Among the fossil evidence found in Antarctica that clearly supports the supercontinent theory is a deciduous conifer (Glossopteris), a fern (Dicroidium) and a terrestrial reptile (Lystrosaurus). All of these species lived on Gondwana and their fossil remains have been found in rocks of the same age in such widely separated locales as India, South America, Australia, Africa and Antarctica. Because Glossopteris’ seeds and Dicroidium’s spores could not have been blown, and Lystrosaurus could not have swum across the oceans that separate these continents, their fossilized remains offer certain proof that the continents were all once united.

An aerial view of Antarctica. The Weddell Sea is the 'bay' in the top left corner.

An aerial view of Antarctica. The Weddell Sea is the 'bay' in the top left corner.

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