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.
I left Texas with a heavy heart after telling my favorite little fish at work goodbye and hugging my family tight. I thought about how much taller my two nephews would be when I returned. I hoped that orange Julius (our cat) didn’t feel abandoned. I worried that he might have chosen to run away, but let’s be real the only thing that fatty runs for is food being dropped in the bowl. I shoved my face full of Whataburger and Dr. Pepper as a last meal.
Security through Houston was a breeze and I even had time to do some people watching at my gate (See my last post here). However, the first flight began with a rocky start. I was crammed into an express jet that had an overhead that wasn’t even able to fit my carry on. Typical. Frazzled and panicked that I’d have to check the bag that held the most important shit I had to pack for this trip, the flight attendant let me unpack the bag and fit the contents into the overhead (you’re welcome for me transporting your camera, David, it was the culprit). For a minute there I was that bumbling idiot “You can’t check my bag, you can’t have it!” But don’t worry guys – this isn’t where the post ends. The scene from Meet the Parents did not end up becoming real life for me.
I definitely looked like a frazzled idiot. I want to thank all the folks on that flight for their help. Also not thank you to the women in the back who whispered back and forth about blessing my poor little heart. For all my non-southern readers, this basically means “Screw you” in southern speak.
Also, let’s take a minute to talk about stress sweat. Readers – we are past the point of awkward comfortability in this blog. You already got a chance to read about how at the age of 23, I peed my pants (And if you haven’t you can read all about it here).
Stress sweat is a real thing. My poor hoodie at this point of the bag debacle had rings down to my side. Embarrassing. The poor guy next to me probably thought he had to sit next to the stinky kid. I swear I smelled like peaches because my dove deodorant has never failed me!
Dallas (DFW) –> Santiago, Chile (SCL)
Then came riding the tram in the DFW airport which was much like being in a Guatemalan taxi (which I’ve never been in but my friend Corbin decided to coin this phrase and it stuck). It only took me a couple rides to get to the correct gate. The flight itself wasn’t bad, it had Wi-Fi, movies, and even a charging port. This was the really long, overnight flight (about 9.5 hours).
Dallas (DFW) –> Santiago, Chile (SCL) CONTINUED
Let’s talk for a bit about trying to sleep on a plane. As a person who can easily sleep sitting up in class, in a shark cradle on a rocking boat, or even just passed out on the floor, I could not sleep on this flight. It was the most uncomfortable thing on the planet. I joked when USAP (United States Antarctic Program) sent me a little sheet about relieving cramps, improving circulation, and discomfort while flying. The cramps were real. I think I slept for about 2 hours. The food was actually pretty decent. A fellow scientist here got an upgrade to first class – which we were all completely jealous of…
Upon landing in Santiago, Chile is where the real circus began. I thought I would be coming in alone, but the group from the Northeast arrived at the same time. The “science crew” as we called the 25 people crazy enough to come down here to study, was marshalled through immigration by a little agent named Jimmy. I happily collected my first “real” stamp on my passport, finally (sorry guys I can’t even count our cruise as a first foreign country experience, being herded like cattle through a tourist fronted place and eating at Margaritaville is not travelling).
I am thankful that this leg of the trip went well because I was the most worried about getting lost in the Santiago airport.
Santiago, Chile (SCL) –> Puerto Montt, Chile (PMC)
Luggage had to be recollected and checked again for our now domestic flights. Our customs forms were snapped up by Jimmy and we passed through with no issue at all (don’t worry family, I was well taken care of). The drug dogs were particularly cute and not as serious as their American counterparts.
Mounds of luggage and the “science crew” were then transported to Jimmy’s office where we would wait between the two flights. With so much spare time I got my first taste of Chilean food and dose of culture shock. We decided to dine at a place called Gatsby’s but first had to go to the ATM to get pesos. I really should have taken the time to figure out what the conversion rate was. I got 150,000 from the ATM which was equivalent to about $220 USD. My first foreign meal was “Ave con palta” which translate roughly to sandwich with avocado, chicken, and mayonnaise. Chileans LOVE mayonnaise. I was able to figure this out on the first day after receiving a sandwich with about half a year’s portion worth of mayonnaise. Also once you venture into Chile water is no longer just “agua” like my ignorance had hoped. You must order either “aqua sin gas” or “aqua con gas”. Do you want water with no bubbles or sparkling water? Thankfully someone with better Spanish could tell me what the waitress was rattling off furiously trying to explain to me. In order to pay the bill, you must as for “la cuenta” which is something I remembered from my first basic Spanish class (gracias senora Bailey). Unlike the states, when you sit down to eat a meal as a group you enjoy one another’s company and the waitress/waiter will not burden you with a check in hopes to get rid of you.
After eating lunch, it was time to begin the process of re-checking bags, going through security, and then waiting at the gate for the next round of flights. The flight to Puerto Montt was particularly gorgeous. We passed over many mountain ranges, rolling hills, and even a couple of volcanoes from what I could understand. I was told by seasoned veterans that the best scenery would come on the next flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas. While waiting at the gate in Santiago for the last small stretch of flights, all I could think about how was in my life I had never wanted to lay horizontal and drink a beer so bad in my life.
Puerto Montt, Chile (PMC) –> Punta Arenas, Chile (PUQ)
Once we arrived at Puerto Montt, we were lucky enough to stay seated on the same plane (which had an AWESOME amount of leg room). I was thankful to not have to do the airport shuffle again but this would have been the easiest navigable airport of all that we visited. Puerto Montt has exactly one runway and five gates. You can see the entire airport from your window just sitting on the tarmac.
After picking up another round of passengers, we were ready for the last flight of the journey down South, from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, Chile. As the others had indicated, the scenery was even more beautiful before as some type of foreshadowing that the further south we went, the prettier it got. I spent most of this plane ride trying to sleep for a few minutes then waking up to snap a picture, sleep, snap, sleep, snap.
Finally flying over the blue waters of this port town, we had arrived in Punta Arenas. From my airplane window I immediately recognized the bright orange hull of the ship that I’d call home for the next 45 days. My heart fluttered a bit thinking I was also a little bit closer to being reunited again with David after almost two months of being apart. I am very thankful that we’re getting to cheat the system and win more time together. I was also thankful that once we arrived in Punta Arenas, I’d have my own tour guide who had spent a couple years down here.
The first night in Punta Arenas
From the airport the “science crew” was ushered out with bags in hand (or cart in our cases which are FREE at airports down here) to vans where we loaded up and headed for a hotel for a night stay on the town. Once we arrived at Diego del Almagro we were issued key cards to our rooms. If you have never traveled to and stayed in another foreign country let me bestow a bit of advice upon you: apparently you have to “activate” the lights before they will actually come on. I decided to use the bathroom, change, and freshen up for dinner a la phone flashlight because I could NOT figure out how to get the lights on in my room. Apparently you have to insert your key card into a port near the door to activate the lights. I was able to figure it out as others had also shared my same struggle. I was thankful that I was not looked upon as the dumb redneck child “Hey y’all, how do you get these fancy lights to come on?”
So I should begin by explaining that this “science crew” is divided up into a few separate labs. The purpose of this LTER cruise is for scientists of many, specific disciplines to come together to look at the overall health of the Antarctic ecosystem. Most of the scientists here are veterans, who come every year to continue with their research. Much like explaining the cafeteria in the movie Mean Girls, you have your “cliques” or as we like to call them, labs.
First you have your phytoplankton crew, commonly called the “Ducklings” led by a man with the last name Ducklow. This group works closely with our second group, the oceanographers. Their work is definitely fascinating and makes me wish I would have paid more attention to Mr. Coleman as a super senior in oceanography at A&M. The third group is us, the zooplankton group, or as we’ve been calling ourselves the “Steinburglers” (our principle investigator’s (PI) last name is Steinberg) or “The Copepod Crew” or “The Krillers”. I like to think that we are definitely the most fun. At our first dinner, the question our PI had asked was, “Do you all like to dance?” and I knew immediately that this was probably the lab I belonged in. The fourth group are the birders who come along to study the penguin colonies and spend some time camping out with them to observe their behavior. The final group are the mammal folks, which much like the birders are doing some really cool science. But Katie, you definitely don’t like marine mammals most of you would say. These guys are probably doing the most bad ass form of science on this ship, and have changed my opinion of mammal people (sorry but most of the barbies we’re forced to be with in the MARB program at TAMUG are NOT cut out for this work). So here it is….these guys go out in zodiacs (smaller boats) to shoot at whales with cross bows. WHAT?! These are really special crossbows that actually take out a plug of tissue and blubber that these guys will be using to study populations and individuals on a molecular level. The arrows are designed to float after the plug of tissue has been removed, at which the mammal guys retrieve from the water and store samples from. And in case you’re wondering, you have to be part of the lab to actually shoot one of the whales (I am saddened by this). I have to say that overall this is a VERY fun crew full of knowledgeable people. I am honored to be here and even to be considered a part of this crew because what these folks do is truly amazing. The spirit here is very collaborative. Each group works together for the greater good of the cause and this really makes for an amazing learning environment for the couple of undergrads who were lucky enough to tag along.
If you want to see exactly what we are doing out here, please watch the documentary about the LTER program and crew that is on Netflix: The Antarctic Edge: 70 degrees South. You’ll get to see all the characters I work with and the type of science we will be conducting.
So back to venturing around in Punta Arenas, the science crew began splitting into labs for dinner and the night out on the town. Our lab chose to eat at a restaurant called “El Broccolino” which actually had no broccoli on the menu.
Most of the main dishes here are seafood based since the town is built around a small port. I settled on some conger and king crab drizzled in scallop sauce. Conger is a very flaky, white meat fish with a wonderful texture and somewhat sweet taste. Paired with a nice white Chilean wine….I was in heaven. I was also able to eat a thai spiced octopus tentacle which was delicious! My best advice for those visiting another country is to just immerse yourself in the culture and TRY EVERYTHING! I even tried the local drink of choice, a pisco sour (a liquor tasting like tequila and wine mixed with some sweet and sour mix and sometimes a blend of spices). El Broccolino did not make me a fan of this as they spiked the drink with some type of weird spices, like a mix of nutmeg and cayenne pepper. I decided that I’d have to try my second pisco sour somewhere else. After spending a fair amount of time socializing and getting to know one another, we asked for “la cuenta”. It was approximately 10:30 PM when we left. It does not get dark down here until about 11:00 PM and becomes light around 5:30 AM. It is VERY weird getting used to but the increased light really gives you more energy.
Our next stop of the night was to the local watering hole, a real hole in the wall type of bar called “Colonial”. For all my Galveston friends, this place reminds me of Murphy’s except for instead of pizza they serve a dish with French fries, mayonnaise, and hot dog wieners to their drunken clientele. I got my first taste of being ripped off as I did not speak very much Spanish. I order a “Jack Daniels numero siete y Coke” and was given about half a pint glass’ worth of whiskey and a diet coke. For some reason I was charged 19,000 pesos when most drinks are around 4,000-9,000. I really didn’t know any better so I figured I’d just continue on with my buzz and shut up.
At the stroke of midnight, a short bearded man with a huge smile entered the bar. Much like the redneck version of Cinderella, prince charming and I had a couple more whiskey drinks before he walked me back to my hotel. Punta Arenas is full of huge, stray dogs. These strays are very friendly and after a couple pats, will follow you anywhere. There are many husky, lab, and German shepherd mixes. If I had all the money in the world, I’d open a shelter and possibly adopt all of the Punta Arenas dogs. Unfortunately, since they are strays, there’s no telling what kind of diseases they may actually carry. I was scolded by David as I ran through the streets wanting to love all the dogs. After we parted ways, I settled into bed to ready myself for the busy day that would lie ahead.
The last day in port
After a good night’s sleep, we began our third day of the journey. Our busy schedule included wellness checks, receiving cold weather gear, boarding the ship, and unloading our large shipping container of gear and organizing it into a lab.
A short, ten minute walk from our hotel to the port brought us to the USAP warehouse where we were broken into small groups and led into a room, much interrogation style, and asked a few questions mostly to make sure that we did not have Ebola. After answering questions, a freaking laser beam was pointed at your forehead to make sure that you were not running a fever. I’m not entirely sure how accurate this was since my sweaty forehead was probably hotter than the rest of my body. I was told I was “okay”.
After making sure everyone had a flu shot (I got mine in the states and not in the creepy warehouse!) we were ushered into a small room for gear pick up. Duffel bags with what was supposed to be our size gear (we mail in a sheet with our measurements) were distributed. Short doesn’t always equal skinny and everything in my bag was an extra small. I had the joy of exchanging everything and being questioned. Sorry folks, my cornbread fed body isn’t squeezing into a pair of bibs (rubber pants with suspenders) that is a size extra small. Talk about a busted can of biscuit dough looking body. I don’t even think I could fit a leg into those damn things.
Gear was VERY limited due to the fact that the other Antarctic R/V (research vessel) had raided their stocks. I was lucky enough to receive my waterproof deck suit, steel toe deck boots, classic red parka with USAP patch, hiking boots, face mask, goggles, fleece pants, gloves of every type, neck gaiter, and a couple of hats. It was much of a scene of chaos as everyone struggled to get gear in their size, switching between each other, trying on, etc.
Once I arrived on the ship (our luggage and gear was to be delivered) we began unloading a shipping container full of our lab gear. We spent the morning until lunchtime unloading this container which contained our nets, glassware, incubators, and everything we needed to do science with. We made a brisk walk across the town square after leaving the port to a small sandwich shop where we ate maybe pork? sandwiches and returned back to the ship. I am going to hope that this weird meat was in fact pork and not Punta Arenas stray dog or something of the sort (as I’m writing this I’m on day four and still not sick so no worries).
We had a short safety meeting and got some general info about the house rules on the ship. We then broke back into our groups and began setting up our lab. Organizing glassware, tools, and materials into drawers and labeling. At the end of the day we cleaned up and ventured back out on the town for some comida y cervezas (food and beer all of my non Spanish speaking friends).
Round two of pisco sours went much better at a little restaurant called “La Luna”. I had another version of the pisco sour called the pisco calafate. Calfate refers to these tiny little black berries that are crushed and emulsified into a syrup. The sweetness of the calafate berries definitely balanced the drink out and I was very impressed. Food once again was delicious, portions are absolutely loaded with seafood here. I order a spicy baked shrimp (which actually came in more of a soup form) each spoonful of the soupy mixture yielded at least 2-3 shrimp. Once again, I was in heaven.
From here we took some time to explore the square which contained a very large statue of Magellan in the center. The bronze statue had age, but its foot was shiny. It is good luck when crossing the Drake Passage (the area of the ocean that divides Antarctica from South American) to actually rub the foot of the statue. Looking at the statue you’ll see that it is an honored tradition that many folks still participate in. It reminded me much of rubbing the anchor at TAMUG before exam day. I grabbed the entire foot of the statue like a maniac with a fetish because having a rough Drake crossing was not something I was ready for yet.
From the square, we ventured into a very elegant hotel bar where we indulged in a glass or two of “vino blanco”. For all my wine drinking friends, the Chilean white wines are EXCELLENT!
A short walk to Colonial was next. We all debated whether toxifying our livers or sleep was in order. You can probably guess what a bunch of scientists stuck on a ship for 45 days would have picked. There is absolutely no drinking allowed on the ship because A) we are at work and B) it is VERY dangerous. The ship alone is dangerous enough with having to step over door frames, handle the world’s steepest stairs, and navigate through large water tight doors (which can easily take a finger off if they close on it).
After several Jack Daniels y Cokes we all stumbled back to the ship celebrating our last night of freedom. David had met up with us after he got off work and I was glad he was there to baby sit me. I thought it was a wonderful idea to climb into an abandoned shopping cart on the sidewalk and he thought it was an even better idea to push me back to the ship in said cart. So here I was drunkenly rolling through the streets of a small, South American port city with the love of my life in a grocery cart. If you asked me a year ago if I would have participated in such shenanigans, I would have thought you were crazy.
After stumbling back up into the ship (David, thanks for all of your sober help) we all parted ways into our respective quarters and thus was the end of our last night in port.
After a light snooze David and I were able to venture out on the town for breakfast and a stroll before departing from Punta Arenas. The Unimarc is a super market a few blocks away from the ship. We picked up some last minute items and went to a small empanada shop for breakfast. After strolling back onto the ship they began loading a large crate of what we call “freshies”. This is the code word for fruits and vegetables which people run to the galley for at meal time to enjoy since they only last for the first couple of weeks. Avocadoes go very quickly.
After loading freshies, picking up a few more scientists, and getting some gear on board we were ready to depart. Working in the lab, I could feel the rumble of the main engines beneath my feet and knew that David was hard at work getting us out of port!
I hope everyone enjoyed the post – in a couple days I’m hoping to get some pictures and stories up about sailing through the Drake Passage and Neumayer Channel. I’ve also had some requests to share what it’s like to be on board! As soon as I clean my bunk up I’d love to share with you guys.
One of the main reasons why I’ve chosen to finally start this blog is because I was lucky enough to receive an internship with the National Science Foundation (NSF) aboard a research vessel bound for…ANTARCTICA.
Many of you have had a lot of questions about the process and what I’ll be doing so I thought I would take the chance to answer my most frequently asked questions and give a little insight on the process of getting cleared to go, etc.
1. Katie…isn’t it cold there? You’ll freeze to death!
It’s actually summer time down there so average temperatures (for this week) have been in the 30’s so it won’t be too cold. But yes, much colder than my inner Texan agrees with. Long underwear, check. You can check the weather here if you’re interested: https://www.wunderground.com/aq/palmer-station
2. Can you bring me a penguin back?
Yeah. This is a solid no. If I can’t have one you can’t either, but I promise to post plenty of pictures. Comment if you want to be added to my email list for whenever I won’t be able to update this blog!
3. What exactly will you be doing on the boat?
I am part of a cruise called LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) and we are doing a lot of things! My primary goal is to handle oceanographic moorings (retrieval and deployment) but since that is such a small portion of the actual research cruise, I’ll be acting as a intern in a couple different labs. I’ll be working with a phytoplankton and zooplankton lab. Most of my job will involve sorting out fish and inverts from trawls and recording data. We work in 12 hour shifts.
4. So are you and David going to be bunk mates?
I get this one a lot. David happens to work on the same ship – but we are both at work, therefore we will not be bunk mates. While we are happy to share this life event together, there’s a certain level of professionalism we both hope to maintain.
5. What do you do in your spare time while on the boat?
I haven’t figured out what exactly I’ll be doing but I love sleep, reading books, and watching movies. I’ll probably be catching up on some shows and a huge list of books that I’d actually like to read (that aren’t scientific). I’ll probably be grudgingly working on my thesis as well.
So these are the five questions I generally get asked the most, besides “When are you leaving/coming back?”