As the long chill of twilight descends, floating pancakes of ice appear on the waters surrounding Antarctica. Eventually the surface of this sea will freeze solid, doubling the size of the continent and isolating the south of the planet in an almost impenetrable shell of ice up to six foot thick.
Carving a path through the midst of this frozen sea, the icebreaker Nathaniel B Palmer appears more like an alien craft than a research vessel. Travelling further south than any other vessel has ever successfully attempted in winter, its crew’s goal is to reach the Ross Ice Shelf. But even with state of the art equipment this is a dangerous journey. Icebergs trapped in the ice shell pose a constant danger, and scientists must brave the ice to extract core samples for onboard analysis and further research.
In the dark of the polar night, ferocious katabatic winds gusting one hundred miles an hour lower the temperature by forty degrees as scientists battle to extract the samples. In this environment it seems little could survive.
Yet nearby, a colony of 25,000 male Emperor penguins huddle together waiting for spring. Theirs is a stoic three month vigil guarding precious eggs while the female penguins feed at sea. Unable to feed or leave the warmth of the huddled group they can only await the dawn, and an intricate chain of events which will ensure their survival.
Under the pack ice a remarkable sequence of events is captured on film. Giant icebergs, conceived hundreds of miles away on the polar cap, are born at the crumbling shell of the ice rim surrounding Antarctica. Held captive in the frozen sea, the icebergs leach a complex combination of trace elements, creating the richest water in the world and the perfect breeding ground for the algae which form underneath the ice shell. Hundreds of thousands of tiny shrimp-like krill gather to graze on the algae, and the brief polar bounty begins.
At an enormous krill banquet, emperor penguins dart like skyrockets to the surface in dazzling displays of underwater pyrotechnics, crabeater seals graze languidly, and humpback whales arrive to partake of the bounty, while the predatory leopard seals stalk unwary penguins caught up in the feeding frenzy.
As summer draws on, rising temperatures and winds fragment the ice shell, releasing the icebergs to continue their long journey. Some will die quickly, pushed back by tides to be battered and broken against the shore. The same tides guide other bergs to small bays where they form fantastic floating sculptures preserved by the very environment which holds them hostage. Others still are carried offshore where, eventually becoming top heavy and unstable, they begin a cycle of dramatic rolls which signals the beginning of their demise.
As the sun sets on the Antarctic summer and the long twilight begins, ice crystals again begin to form on the sea surface, as ocean and sky are separated once more by an icy sheet. Life again appears suspended here on the very edge of the world.