The Passage

16 07 2008

I awoke this morning to a muted reflection of the sun off of a calm sea
surface. My bunk has a small porthole near where one’s feet should be
and, naturally, I’ve been sleeping with my head at this end so that I can
peak out and see the mood of the ocean, the color of the sky, or the
brightness of the stars. I felt well rested, indicating that the swells
had subsided during the night, and I surely hadn’t had to wedge a leg and
an arm tightly between the mattress and the cold wall in order to keep me
from rolling around. The sea surface was covered with a thin layer of
pancake ice: dinner-plate sized, flat disks with upturned edges resulting
from constant collisions with their neighbors.  I dressed and stepped out
of a hatch. The air, at about -1°C bit my cheeks a little bit. The cape
petrel, our airborne companions throughout the past two days in warmer
waters, with plumage to match the brown and snow-capped mountains of
South America’s southern extremes had been mostly replaced with the
suitably-disguised, pure white Antarctic snow petrel, ever flying in
irregular spirals around the ship. I felt a little exhilaration, and
smiled inside and out. I’m back in the Antarctic.

As crossings of the Drake Passage go, ours was relatively tame. The
ninety-six hour voyage from Punta Arenas to Palmer Station is about 85%
finished now, and if the seas stay calm we’ll be in Palmer Station
tomorrow morning. We’ve had two days of rocking and rolling in four to
six-foot swells, but nothing broke, water never came above the main deck,
and only a small fraction of the population  aboard (2-3 of about 30) got
sea-sick. We’ve been making our maximum speed, about 10.5 knots, nearly
the entire time. As such, there’s not all that much to report. I’ve been
keeping busy alternating between spending time on the bridge (the
“cockpit” of a ship) talking about ships and sailing with the crew, and
computer work—though this is relatively difficult to maintain for long
periods because of the constant motion of the ship.

This voyage to the Antarctic has already been very different that my last
two. Flying from New Zealand to McMurdo station is merely five hours of
moderate discomfort in the back of a military cargo jet, a sack lunch, and
a touchdown into a bitter chill; I would generally sleep through the whole
thing. A shipboard crossing is different in that you feel every wave,
current, and wind separating Antarctica from the rest of the warmer world.
On the data monitors scattered throughout the ship I’ve watched as the air
temperature and sea surface temperature dropped slowly at first, and then,
this time around 57° South latitude, the water abruptly dropped about 2°C.
This transition marked our crossing of the Antarctic Convergence
(Antarctic Polar Front): the oceanographers’ and ecologists definition of
the northern boundary to this polar region.  About midnight last night we
passed south of 60°S, the northern limit to the political boundary
of the Antarctic designated by the international Antarctic Treaty, and we
turned on our searchlights as per the rules.

This afternoon we saw Smith Island, the first of the Antarctic islands on
our route and the most western of the South Shetland Islands. Although
this 6,000-foot glacier-covered island was sixty miles away when we first
spotted it, the clarity of the air and the featurelessness of the horizon
led me to guess that it was no more than 5 miles distant. Distances are
always deceiving in the Antarctic. A fog rolled in and daylight faded
around 3pm. In the dark tonight we sail through steep and narrow channels,
near glaciers, and alongside whales for sure. If ice conditions permit it
we’ll be at Palmer station in the morning.


Aboard R/V LM Gould

63° 14.519S, 61° 40.146W




2 responses

17 07 2008

Please give the penguins a high five from me when you get there. I miss them and probably they miss me.

20 07 2008

You might try to say you’re not a writer but your description of the water, the ice, the birds – I think it’s wonderful. I look forward to reading more.

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