I had it easy.
Or so I’m told.
I got sick anyway; In the vomiting sense. Three times total in 4 days is not a bad thing. I’ve been on three and a half hour ferry crossings in the fog with only 3 foot swells and spent every last minute of that trip dry heaving, after the first 2 heaves I couldn’t even produce anything to finish filling my sick bag. But I was one of HUNDREDS of folk so afflicted. I’ve been on trawlers in the Atlantic riding out the edge of a hurricane with higher seas, and felt just a little queasy.
The R/V Lawrence M. Gould (LMG) is not a kind ship. It does not ride the waters–even with a mishmash of only 8 foot swells–nicely. It corkscrews. It wobbles atop waves and shudders in the troughs, it has more wiggle in it than an earthworm. It’s an exceedingly unpleasant ride.
We left Punta Arenas, Chile, on the afternoon of September 18th, full of support contractors, cargo and a few grantees (scientists) destined to replace the winterover crew at Palmer Station and start the science-heavy Summer season.
It was a day before we hit the Drake. We had to move through the end of the Straits of Magellan between Argentine and Chile first. And that took almost a day.
The Drake Passage is a sea passage between the southernmost tip of South America, Cape Horn, and the South Shetland Islands just at the top of the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s a tight squeeze for a lot of sea–with a lot of attitude–to get through. The Atlantic meets the Pacific there. Weather systems are funneled through the narrow area with great frequency.
My crossing was mild.
But I was in such a state of excitement that I’d be approaching Antarctica BY SEA for my first time ever, I wouldn’t have given a rat’s arse if we’d hit a really bad storm.
Indeed, this was not something I admitted while aboard the ship; I was vaguely HOPING we’d hit something excitingly nasty. I’d seen pictures of the LMG’s prow hit by steel grey waves spitting foam over the deck with a wall of water ahead that it couldn’t possibly climb back up. I wanted to see that, feel that. I wanted to be vomiting for a legitimate reason.
But 8 foot swells coming from opposing directions at the same time were enough to make eating optional for a few days, and sleeping something that came over me with great frequency at great length. That sleep was more in response to the meclazine I was taking to prevent the seasickness from making me miserable. I managed one 14 hour length of sleep, after which I was awake for maybe 3 hours before catching another chunk of 8. I haven’t slept that long since I was an adolescent.
I was only able to sleep that long because I was dehydrated. If you are feeling queasy, it’s awfully hard to do anything but remain prone in your bunk, not drinking, not eating. Not peeing comes naturally after that.
I wouldn’t say that I was even truly seasick. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what misery is, and that wasn’t it. My policy has been, if my tummy is upset, I vomit. I feel better afterwards. I have no great fear of vomiting.
My bunk was aligned port to starboard, not bow to stern. And the LMG pitches and rolls side to side rather a lot. The mattress in my bunk was just a few inches smaller than the bunk. Enough shorter so that when we got up to 15-18 foot swells I ended up mattress surfing, instead of rocking gently up and down in my bed. The mattress moved within the bunk, sending me chunk thunk chunk thunk loudly back & forth until I stuffed some books in the crack to stop it.
I sleep very well at sea, even when I’m not drugged. I love the rolling and lifting and swaying. I find it incredibly relaxing no matter the cacophony of engine noises, the hum and thrum and vibration through every space aboard ship, the chirp chirp of the radar passing down the walls of the ship to the sea. I love being lifted weightlessly out of my bunk or up the stairs when we ride a swell hard, and the heaviness that follows when we descend and my body feels pressed comfortingly by heavy blankets, or I can’t climb the stairs with all the excess gravity. Wait a moment and it’ll change and launch you upwards. There’s something about it that sings to the very blood in my body, to the water of which I am so much. I don’t care if I vomit to make myself feel better, because I’m at sea and I’m happy.
I was at sea. Crossing the Drake passage to ANTARCTICA. How is that not an incredible experience, an adventure in and of itself? How do you watch the casting off of the ships lines from the pier and not have cheeks aching from smiling and hop up and down in place with the energy of that feeling?
We were welcome to visit the bridge. And I did, frequently. What a marvellous view from that high up. I saw so many new and wondrous things.
Albatrosses. They have it made. A world of glorious winds and air currents atop blue steel water welling and swelling topped with whitecaps blowing water horizontally off the tops with the winds. And they just coast and glide and float and swoop and loop, one wing lower than the other almost if not touching the water, up walls of swells and down slopes of sea, measuring in centimeters the distance from water to wing. Never a single bead of sweat or a flap of wings to right themselves. Built perfectly to sail the winds over the seas. Black ones, grey ones, white and grey and black ones. I couldn’t even find them in the bird book on the bridge.
Petrels sharp dressed in black and white. Small but just as adept and beautiful to watch. I watched one snow petrel (that was easy, pure white) glide down the waves smoothed of ripples and ruffles by packs of grease ice, and put her feet down and run at speed at the same time as she glided. Just for fun? I do not know, but the behaviour was so new after hours of watching every bird with utter intensity through the windows of the bridge that I barked with astonished laughter, startling the First Mate on watch.
Grease ice. What an odd and wonderful creep up to colder waters that was. Acres and hectares and streaks of this flexible whitish mat of ice crystals forming on top of this stirred up sea. I do not know why they call it grease ice, because to my eyes it looked more like that moment when a white candle melts and puddles at its base, just starting to cool and lose clarity, becoming still yet transparent but cloudy. Waxy ice I’d call it. Mats of ice crystals floating on top of the sea, tearing open to reveal blue rippled water in patches. Gigantic streaks of it of different thicknesses, the thicker the whiter, unto the foggy horizon. It gentled the waters some, but rode the waves and swells up and down utterly flexible.
I watched a team of tiny black and white penguins in the high swells of the ruffled dark seas darting from swell to swell as if they were bullets aimed straight and true moving from air to water to air to water in this effortless straight line. Let no one tell you that penguins cannot fly, for they do, through water and air, sleek and stylish and fast. We were going over 10 knots and they kept up with us for a spell, maybe doing their own 7 knots.
Every now and then in the grease ice it was easy to spot the curious dark head of a seal, probably Weddell but tiny from so high up and hard to identify. A glance and then a curved dive back under the waters as if our looming red mass and thunderous engined assault on the seas were nothing much at all of interest. I could almost tell they were sniffing dismissively as they dove again, sideways and rounded away from us.
Pancake ice. I have wanted to see pancake ice for years. The idea of it, how it forms, why it looks like it does. Well, there we were going through mile after mile of this grease ice, with it thickening as we went further south, when suddenly in mere minutes it seemed, the ice was thick enough and the seas calm enough that the thick grease ice was clinging to itself in huge plates with ruffled edges caused by their running up against each other. I understood pancake ice for having seen grease ice. I watched the transition happen.
This is a wonderful page showing the transition of ice forms on the sea.
I went to bed in grease ice forming pancake ice, and woke with mountains and glaciers outside my porthole, the LMG surrounded by pancake ice in huge flat white shapes, moving slowly through this flat icy sea. And a small iceberg.
I shot out of my upper bunk, climbed into my clothes, hung my camera by strap around my neck, gloves on, and was outside faster than you could imagine.
The sun was coming up. We were there.
Or just about. There was some finagling with extra bumpers as we glided slowly slowly through the soft pancake ice to just off the pier. We stared down at Palmer Station from on high, threw a few snowballs back and forth across the void and watched some winterovers in their bright red “float coats” use a zodiac to place the smaller Yokohamas up against the pier. It was lunch by the time we were released across the gangway.
All to the most amazing sunrise and glorious weather to be found.
Palmer Station, Antarctica.
64.7742° S, 64.0531° W
It ain’t 90° south, but my mind is sufficiently boggled by the landscape of mountains, sea, wildlife and glaciers that I’m not minding too much.