Antarctica Journal – Day One

December 29, 2010

54° 48.5′ South, 066° 17.9′ West
Wind speed/direction Force 3 east southeast

It’s been at least 72 hours since I’ve had more than an hour’s sleep at a time.  From bribing a cabbie to take me through the snow heavy streets of NYC to JFK, to the begging and pleading in order to get rebooked on flights, to the hour standing outside at 1 in the morning waiting for yet another cab to take me from JFK to LaGuardia, to waiting at LGA till 8am to fly to Atlanta, flying on to Dallas, then flying to Buenos Aires, then flying to Ushuaia…

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Oh, and… American Airlines lost my luggage so yeah, shopping was how I spent the 45 minutes I had in Ushuaia (a lovely resort town that begged for exploration which alas I couldn’t do).   A quick drop into a half a dozen shops provided me with two sets of fleece pants, long johns (pants & shirts), fleece pullovers, a fleece jacket, hat, cowl, scarf, mittens, sock liners and socks, some basic toiletries, and a tube of serious sunblock.  While this only represented a small portion of what I believed needed for a comfortable 10 days in the Antarctic, I knew it would be enough if I stayed on top of nightly hand washing in the sink.

Of course, my struggles were nothing compared to the Herculean efforts of Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, and the many others who braved Antarctica in the early 20th century.

The idea that you can just hop on a few planes to get down to Ushuaia, the gate city to Antarctica (in a sense, the actual last city), or that you can easily replace high-tech polar gear at the last second (did I mention the airline lost my luggage?), is astounding.   Hey, they didn’t even have micro-fiber fleece and hand warming packs back then. (Not that I was able to replace the packs – those seemed unattainable in the region and must be more a Northern Hemisphere luxury).

But enough of how the travel here pushed me beyond what I thought were my limits… except for one thing – a small lesson from the universe I received along the way (the first of many, I hope).  A few days back – while camping out with a good thousand other souls at JFK Airport, I happened to run into TJ Thyne.  While most will know him as Hodgins on Bones, he’s also the lead in Validation, an award-winning short I show in my screenwriting course each semester.  In a nutshell, the film is about a man who validates parking tickets for a living, but what he really does is go out of his way to generously say something positive – to validate – those around him.

This has been a tough year.  Not just for me, but pretty much everyone I know.  We’re all worn out, pushing ourselves just to keep going forward.  I’m as guilty as anyone for not taking the two seconds to express recognition of others when we interact.  We are each individuals with something unique to bring to the table.  Letting someone know that you recognize their distinctiveness, by validating their existence — it’s remarkable how a tough day, a tough year, a tough life, becomes softened just a bit.

OK – going past the epiphany for the day, I’m now aboard the Polar Star

The ship is a sturdy ice breaker.  It’s red hull, green painted decks, and white washed cabins evoke a cheery assurance that whatever may come, the Polar Star will endure.  Unlike that top-heavy ship which went awry in the notorious Drake in December, I had no doubts we’d be fine.  Best part about the ship?  The bridge is open to anyone, day or night.   Up on the 6th deck, the bridge carries the latest in satellite navigation coupled with a few well-kept naval traditions.  Brass and wood blend with the high-tech, capped off by surrounding windows which looked out in all directions.

We met the expedition leader, a woman by the name of Hannah Lawson.  Part zoologist, part artist (she spends the Antarctic winters in her studio in the English Pennines.   Any penguin or whale sighting is cause to celebrate for Hannah – even if that sighting comes at 6 in the morning when you’d rather be warmly ensconced in your bunk.  Her cheery announcements over the PA system beat any alarm clock on the face of the planet.  There’s a sense of absolute calm and joie de vivre in the woman’s every choice of action.  Her enthusiasm is contagious as she details what lies ahead.  Her love of the penguins is particularly evident when reading through the daily “call sheets” for what each day’s landings will entail.  Seeing the iconic black and white birds is more an afterthought to my reasons for coming, but I’m more than willing to enjoy the penguins – considered by superstitious seamen to be the lost souls of former sailors.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re cute, but as my kid recently pointed out, the penguin is the pigeon of the Antarctic.


It’s 11:22pm ship-time and we’re clearing the Beagle Channel as I write this.  A pilot tug escorted the icebreaker through the channel, past Magellan penguins diving in and out of the chilly black waters, past a few porpoises dashing around the boat, and into the wide open waters of the notorious Drake Passage.  The ship is rocking back and forth, very much like a giant cradle lulling me into a comatose state.  I’ve much to share from the first few hours onboard about the crew, the expedition leaders, and a few other interesting passengers I’ve been fortunate to meet in addition to the researchers who’ve dedicated their lives to travelling down to the bottom of the world.

But that will all have to come tomorrow.  I’m toast.  Happy toast (being out on open waters does that to this overgrown kid), but still… toast.