Thursday, 30th December
At Sea – Drake Passage
Position at 8am 90 nautical miles southeast of Cape Horn
Position at Noon 57° 18.1´ S, 064º 07.7´ W
Wind speed/direction Force 4, westerly
‘I now belong to the higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the Albatross’
– Robert Cushman Murphy-
Last night the softer rock and roll of the Beagle Channel wooed me to sleep around 11:30 before I could give any details about the crew or expedition staff. Today the thrill of the Drake Passage serves me better than as a double-espresso. The swell of the ship, the churn of the waves, all far more exhilarating than any resource on land could ever provide.
The M/V Polar Star weighs in at 4998 tons, 86.5 meters long with a beam of 21.2 meters. It’s a sturdy former icebreaker which pitches gently against the strong currents of the Drake Passage. Captained by Jacek Majer, the crew is a mix of Eastern European and South Americans, the ship’s average speed is 11 knots. I spent a few minutes on the bridge today, a bit surprised to find the ship on auto-pilot. Chief Officer Bartek Majdask was stationed at the far port side reviewing charts and one of the Expedition team was on standby for whale spotting. None yet, but we all remain hopeful that we’ll be blessed with a sighting of the humpback or blue soon.
There seems to be an unwritten pact between the ships as they sail down to the Antarctic and the birds of the Drake Passage. Look out a window at any point and you were welcomed by Giant Petrel, Wilson’s Storm Petrel and Pintado Petrel, and most importantly, the impressive Albatross.
These birds have a wingspan of up to 11 feet and can, with wing in full extension, glide the air currents faster than the ship. They’re over 1,000 feet from “home” – where they nest their young – though really, the deep sea is their home. There’s something allegorical in this creature, its ever traveling nature, never resting, always flying. Only returning home to lay their eggs and then returning to the open sea to fly.
It’s been a challenge with the lost luggage, but I’ll share more about that when I get home except to give one example of my clothing choices here…
I needed something to sleep in and my only option was to buy a giant t-shirt which is the Antarctic version of a loud Hawaiian shirt. Think big-assed penguins skating on an iceberg against a blue background. You wouldn’t catch me dead at home in the thing, but it works for here so I’m glad to have it.
THE DRAKE PASSAGE
The swell is at 15 to 20 feet today with winds at about 5 feet, the ship rocking and rolling in grand fashion. Green water sprays up over the bow and sides in large spouts, making for a thrilling rollercoaster ride on the choppy waters of the Drake Passage. Pretty much 50% of the passengers are locked in their cabins combating seasickness. The rest of us are in seventh heaven, loving every moment of the soothing connection with the sea.
The staff and crew are extraordinary. Generous of heart and mind. Their compassion for my situation (no luggage) has been way beyond what I would have expected. I was given $100 credit to use in the ship store to buy a few things I couldn’t get on land (only had 45 minutes to buy gear in Ushuaia). Most importantly, they have chocolate in the gift shop so that makes me happy.
On the flip side, my camera charger was in that suitcase and my camera is an unusual make/model so there’s a chance I’m going to end up taking pictures on my iPhone (which is not a happy thought, but I remain optimistic that someone onboard might have a similar charger). Fingers crossed!
Food is exceptional. Lunch today was a spring vegetable soup in a delicate pea broth, a broiled tomato stuffed with pesto and sundried tomatoes. There’s an ample cheese board which made me very happy – at least 3 different types of stilton, brie, several hard cheeses and a buttery young swiss.
The science lectures are fascinating (and giving me much more fodder for the book). Every passenger is extraordinary – a fellow philosopher in the belief that life is too short to not experience the world’s wonders. From folks committed to motor biking across the globe, to former Peace Corps participants, to fashion designers, researchers, photographers, a pair of women marines, a USAF pilot, and plenty of other very exceptional folks ranging in age from 8 to 80 (yep, there were two young gals on board w/their parents and grandparents).
In the late part of the morning, an ornithologist gave a talk on the albatross, sharing some of his most stunning photos. Simon (Cook) carries one of the most massive telephoto lenses I’ve ever seen – good up to 300 ft easily. He still shoots on film, refusing to go digital, and I repeatedly kicked myself during the lecture because I should have done the same for this trip. I have a great zoom lens for my old camera – a 70 to 180. Dumb me.
Heading up now for a lecture on the misnomers and myths surrounding early expeditions (Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton). Should be interesting. More later…
Missed most of the myths lecture, but was able to sit in on Mike Beedell’s discussion. A photographer extraordinaire, Mike’s photographs have been commissioned for a variety of magazines and books and with good reason. He captures wildlife in unimaginable ways. Two photos that really stood out for me were one of him on the Galapagos Islands wearing swimming trunks, lying in the sand, with literally a harem of seals lying down around him. Those girls had a crush on him big time! The other photo was of a Gentoo penguin launching off an iceberg, its legs stretched out in mid-sprint like a marathon jumper.
Dinner: Cod w/lemon sauce, broccoli soup, chocolate torte w/marmalade layer. Yum.
Ended up in the bar with most of the staff – drinking and comparing stories about all the different places we’ve traveled and lived. I felt extremely privileged to sit with these explorers whose collective wisdom of how the world really works was invigorating. They don’t care about the news, or the latest gadgets, or who’s won a cricket game or football match. What they care about is the planet and sharing its extraordinary virtues with fellow travelers. The evening was rich with conversation to the point that I stayed up way past when I should have gone to sleep.
Speaking of which, it is now 11:43 ship time and the sun has just set. Technically, it’s what I’d refer to as a “soft night” – a dark grey, not an absolute black (the sun doesn’t really set down here this time of year), but even without a moon, visibility still extends out a good few miles around the ship as it continues through the passage.
Before turning in, I took one last stroll around the ship, soaking in the salt air and sound of waves crashing against the hull. Though I’m in the middle of the ocean, I feel more grounded than I have for many years.
A remarkable day – albeit much busier than I had expected. Tomorrow afternoon we make our first landing at a Polish research station in the Shetland Islands. I need to get some serious rest between now and then if I hope to have the energy to really enjoy the activity involved.
Off to bed.
Tomorrow: Bergs & Penguins!
Gentoo penguins at Port Lockrey
Day One – December 29, 2010
Ushuia, The Beagle Channel
Day Two – December 30, 2010
The Drake Passage & Its Avian Escorts
Day Three – December 31, 2010
Arctowksi Station – Icebergs, Penguins, Seals
Day Four – January 1, 2011
Aitcho & Deception Island – Chinstrap Penguins and Volcanoes
Day Five – January 2, 2011
The Antarctic Peninsula: The Errera Channel, Alimante Brown Station, Port Lockroy
(Blue Bergs & Glaciers. Penguin Squabbles. Crabeater, Weddell & Leopard Seals.)
Day Six – January 3, 2011
Part I: LeMaire Channel, Vernadsky Research Base, Wordie House
(Breaking Ice, Ozone Research and Vodka!)
Day Seven – January 4, 2011
Part I: Humpback Whales Ahoy!
Part II: We Almost Became Leopard Seal Bait
Day Eight – January 5, 2011
More to come…