This global transportation bottleneck some 600 miles wide marks the convergence of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Oceans. Its volatility, where the waves, winds, and currents all seemingly conspire against any intrepid adventurers, is due to the Drake’s position as a zone of climactic transition; the Passage divides the the cool, sub-polar conditions of the southernmost bits of South America from the frigid, polar regions of Antarctica. Creeping down the latitudes to reach the most favorable passage, either around the Cape or down to Antarctica, means weathering by turns the “roaring 40s,” “furious 50s,” and “screaming 60s.” Even Charles Darwin, who famously made comprehensive studies of the flora, fauna, and topography of these regions aboard the HMS Beagle in the mid-1800s, was sensationally seasick while rounding Cape Horn.
Other than the worry that my scientist friends would think that I was an idiotic redneck my biggest worry was crossing the Drake Passage. The Drake Passage is notorious for being some of the roughest waters on the planet. David has seen 40 foot waves in the Drake but some say the waves can get upwards of 60 feet. The biggest thing I had ever experienced? Eight footers in the Gulf of Mexico.
Apparently, grabbing the entire foot of the Magellan statue in the square at Punta Arenas (read about it here) worked. As much as I hate feet, I’m glad that I touched the golden foot because our forecasted weather was for 3-5 footers and sunny weather. This weather is unheard of. Seasoned veterans said that they had never seen conditions this good in their entire lifetime of coming to Antarctica.
After months of mentally preparing myself for being thrown around the ship, strapping myself into my bunk, dealing with an endless sea of vomit from sea sick people, etc. this was the ultimate letdown.
However, we had the most beautiful crossing – we barely even felt a thing. I spent time out on the deck with the rest of my crew building some nets and enjoying the sunshine. No one was miserable! Everyone’s been knocking on wood because we still have to get home…
We were also really lucky to sign up for shifts for the launch of “XBT’s”. Aka shooting little missiles from a gun (really wasn’t a gun, that I found to my dismay. I was expecting some cool explosions and a loud bang when in reality you simply pull a pin out and it kind of topples awkwardly over the rail) into the water that helped to map temperature and salinity gradients as well as help to discern the bathymetric profile within the Drake Passage. I never really paid attention to much in Oceanography but props to Mr. Coleman (Bob Ross of the ocean) because this was some pretty interesting stuff.
On New Year’s Eve we enjoyed a nice few games of bingo! I even won a round – part of my prize consisted of a toothbrush cover and temporary tattoos of puppies in shoes. We all celebrated at midnight with a dance party and sparkling apple juice on the bow of the ship (no alcohol is allowed underway or on the ship at all- just at port).
The next day we had the typical cabbage and black eyed peas meal in the galley (the cook is from Texas so the food is great). The boat was teeming with excitement because for the first time in 3 days we were about to reach land. We dropped some folks from NOAA’s branch of Antarctic research off at a little field camp at Cape Sheriff. Seasoned veterans the the science crew spending a season at the cape hopped into zodiacs loaded with supplies and helped set up camp. The scenery was beautiful – but there was more to come the next day as we were set to sail through the Neumayer Channel – one of the most picturesque places on the continent.
After dropping our seal studying friends off at the cape, we were headed straight for Palmer Station which is located on Anvers Island. I can’t even begin to describe the scenery to you. It was like placing yourself in a post card. A really freaking cold post card.
I kicked off the morning enjoying a light snow and a coffee with my bearded fellow on the bridge. It was nice to take in all the scenery together and a perfect way to start the morning!
Mountains towered on both sides the ship – the channel was so narrow, you feel like you could reach out and touch them.
Penguins swam next to the ship, curiously checking out our orange hull. Humpback whales surfaced in the distance (a juvenile even surfaced right next to the ship). I’m not much of a mammal person at all…but seeing that was kind of cool.
A majority of the people on the ship spent the entire day on the bridge taking pictures. One of the engineers joked, “If I had a dollar for every picture taken today up here, hell I’d be rich!” He would have been $658 richer by the time I finished with the day…but multiply that by about 20 excited scientists. My roommate probably took a couple thousand photos at least. You could never have enough pictures of this place – it is just so beautiful.
After my camera batteries were nearly dead and I couldn’t stand to be social anymore – I ventured to the back 01 deck for some quiet time. I spent the rest of my afternoon laying in the sun…with NO JACKET…enjoying a good book. It was hard to pay attention to the book as we continued to pass by aqua blue icebergs (some carrying very cute, and clumsy penguins) and even more mountains.
We even passed a huge iceberg full of seals, and one lonely penguin. I thought for a minute there I’d have to put my kindle down and watch some National Geographic style carnage unfold…and of course document it for all my dear readers. Sorry guys – nature is nature and carnage happens regularly out here in the Antarctic.
Our trip through the Neumayer channel came to a close as we pulled up to Palmer Station – an American research base where we’ve been docked for the past few days now. We were greeted by two VERY large icebergs and a very large penguin colony (there were babies!) as we pulled up to the station.
The next edition of this blog will detail the good times and eclectic folks we met at Palmer Station…it even includes me being buried almost waist deep hiking up a glacier and taking a zodiac ride where we were almost flipped by a surfacing Humpback whale. Maybe if I have time during our many net tows and MOCNESS tows (please read that in Dr. Alvarado’s voice all my TAMUG friends) I’ll be able to get plenty of pics to give everyone a run down of what life on the ship is like.
Stay classy my friends. If you need me I’ll probably be downing a fifth of Jack at Palmer Station and stalking some penguins. This….is the life.
–The Girl with the Big Bass