For the whimsical, there's a romantic view of Antarctica that has somehow been embedded into our comfort culture. The thought of a white desert, stretching for thousands of square miles, framed by azure glaciers and a light dusting of snow falling adrift on a westerly breeze – it conjures a pristine image of serenity.
But for surfers, few have made it their work to map out the wilds of Antarctica, because the reality of existing, exploring, surviving and navigating such a harsh environment is a logistical level of complexity (and expense) unlike anywhere else on our green/blue Earth. And yes, we have swell charts for it too, see HERE.
Even just to get there, you have to board a ship and traverse the treacherous Drake Passage - a two day sail from South America's Cape Horn through what is considered the roughest stretch of water in the world. A full 48 hours of either Drake Shake or Drake Lake – and it's always a gamble which one you're going to get, with the emphasis usually on the former.
Photographer Lucia Griggi is a name most will know. Lucia had a stint shooting for the then ASP on the dream tour, swimming out at places like Tahiti's hyper wave, Teahupoo, and, you know, just about everywhere else. Lucia was also involved with the excellent The Endless Winter II project and now works in the action sport adventure and outdoor industry; directing film and photography. As it happens, Lucia was commissioned to document Antarctica's wildlife and boarded an expedition vessel bound to the far, far south.
But that innate thrill of the hunt never really leaves you, even when you kick out of the surf game. During three months in Antarctica, Lucia added a few locales to her mental surf bank. Some, circumstantial, like the slab you see as the cover shot for this article. Others include reefbreaks, righthand pointbreaks – shorebreaks with only penguins for company.
“We set sail in Malta, travelled for two weeks to Buenos Aires in South America, then it's a two day sail through the Drake Passage,” Lucia tells MSW as we sit down to recount the journey and how that titular ghost wave came about, from the safety of a coffee spot nestled in the heart of Newquay in the UK. “We loaded up the boat – of course, there's no humanity, no shops in Antarctica.”
Approaching Antarctica's South Shetland Islands, around 120 miles north of the Antarctic peninsula, it's easy to let history seep in. In the distance are the south Sandwich islands including south Georgia, where Ernest Shackleton's doomed ship Endurance set sail from, more than 100-years-ago in 1915, and was the first ship that ever moved through ice. The ship was eventually stricken and abandoned.
What's more is the wildlife on approach. Penguins, of course, who were milling clumsily around, before surfing a powerful shorebreak, and then scrambling back up the rocks for round two.
“When I first put my feet on snow, I walked up the island a bit and got as close as I thought I could, without disturbing the penguins,” says Lucia. “They're so charismatic. They build these little highways and have their own colonies, it's amazing to see. I sat down for a bit and realised. 'oh, I'm actually in Antarctica.' It felt, in a good way, overwhelming.
“We kept on sailing south into the Antarctic peninsula, the kind of north westerly region. It's the most accessible. All along that coast, it's incredible. So many little islands and glaciers, icebergs. Very otherworldly.
We weren't there for a surf mission of course but this slab.... it was right place, right time
“We weren't there for a surf mission of course but this slab.... it was right place, right time. By chance, no wave will ever break like this again. It is a forever changing landscape.
“That wave I shot, I'd just been in south Georgia, we sailed back down to Elephant Island. With all of Antarctica, it can be phenomenal viewing, but if the weather isn't great it can be totally fogged out – so the weather may prevent you getting somewhere. But this day, we'd had amazing weather and I'd been hanging out and photographing some Adelie penguins. And coming from there, it put surfing in my head, because the penguins would be in the water chasing waves. They were washing themselves and surfing in the shore dump. And I thought, right, gotta keep an eye out for waves. I'm here for three months, let's see what I could find.
“Anyway, Elephant Island, we were on a small dinghy boat and I wanted to shoot this tabular iceberg that was around 100 metres out to sea. We set out and circled around, kept a certain amount of distance because if it would have rolled, that could be tragic.
“There was a lot of swell, you could see the lines and then, as we got closer to the iceberg, I could see this wave breaking right off it and creating this slab. Well, actually, the first couple of waves, it was rebounding off that iceberg and creating almost like this wedge.
"Then, all of a sudden, on the next set, it rebounded in a perfect way that caused this incredible slab. If you were sitting in the sea and waiting for that wave to work, I don't know how long you'd have to wait for. I was basically doing what I would do in a boat at Tahiti, but with penguins, seals flapping around. And that shot...to think it just kind of aligned is insane. I wish I had a bit of a wider lens because you'd be able to see the penguins watching it out of shot.
“And the sounds! It kind of sounded like Rice Crispies. It was crackling. Not the sound of a slab hitting a shallow reef, which makes sense because we were in the middle of the ocean. If there was a surfer there, maybe they'd have got in to it, maybe not... there's not a lot of people, surfers, who have been this way.”
You can count those dedicated souls, who have made the trip to Antarctica for a strike mission, using one hand. Most notably, perhaps, is the forever nomadic Kepa Acero, who struck gold there a fair few years back. As did Ramon Navarro. Sure, it's untapped, the potential is hugely enticing (the coin needed to voyage, not so), so, I ask Lucia about the realms of exploration and surf expeditions – is it possible for mere mortals?
“I think there's so much scope to explore out there, if you've the time or patience,” Lucia says. “I went into a couple of bays and definitely found a few places that would work. There's potential, for sure.
“There was a place we visited about 10 times, on the more protected side of an island, hiked over a huge hill in deep snow to see a few colonies of penguins and I could see the reef around the island and was wondering if this could be open to waves.
“Second time I went back, it was breaking, really small, but could see a righthander just about working. Further south, it was closing out. Then when I came back at the end of the season, January time, it was working. Only a 3ft mechanical right, but it just peeled. Peeled and peeled. Kinda chilled and watched it with the penguins. Backed with glaciers. The swell would have to be significant to set it off.”
With that, I turned to our resident forecaster and all-round surf guru Tony Butt – the man responsible for writing the book on Surf Science, to implore his knowledge and come up with a working theory for best case conditions in north western Antarctica.
“The South Shetland Islands are located just off the Antarctic Peninsula at around 61 degrees south,” he said. “They receive a large amount of swell from the west, often accompanied by strong winds as the storms pass directly over.
“Swells would be generated by westerly fetches on the northern flank of lows that formed in the South Pacific. These systems typically continue to deepen as they approach the Drake Passage, resulting in large, relatively short-period swells hitting the west of the Antarctic Peninsula.
“However, the swells would be filtered somewhat before they reach the South Shetlands. Local conditions would be difficult, with very brief interludes between storms. The best situation to hope for would probably be a local ridge of high pressure coinciding with the arrival of a swell.
“Late summer or early autumn would probably be the best time of year to surf here. This is the time when ice cover is at its minimum, which could be a big problem in winter. That window of clean conditions would be easier to find, and there would probably be no lack of swell (In the Southern Ocean, swells are fairly consistent year-round compared with the North Pacific or North Atlantic).”
Ghost waves indeed, but a worthy mission if your eyes don't water at the thought of shelling out the equivalent of, say, six months in Indo. But still, the stories you could tell.