Our ship cut through the twelve-foot waves and fifty-knot winds of the midnight Drake Passage, bucking hard, first to the right and then the left, coupling these sideways motions with wave-generated surges of movement up and down. The cumulative effect was a rocking and jarring that managed to free the most recalcitrant of seemingly solid objects, sending them rolling or tossing about.
I extricated myself twice from my claustrophobic bunk, once to locate a pounding noise caused by an overturned, but thankfully, sealed, bottle of ammonia in our small bathroom closet, and then once again to wedge a large water bottle against my suitcase to keep it from slamming back and forth into our cabin desk.
Our National Science Foundation representative, Dr. Deneb Karentz, who had made the trip to Palmer Station several weeks ago and was returning aboard our ship, recounted her tales of the rough seas to me over breakfast. She and Katrin, our UAB Postdoctoral Fellow, were being housed in a large cargo container in the depths of the ship. To accommodate extra personnel aboard ship, several large cargo containers had been fashioned into makeshift sleeping quarters lined with bunk beds I was housed in the male equivalent.
Halfway through the night, Deneb and Katrin had been awaked by what they described as a “semi-truck impaling itself into the side of their sleeping quarters.” They crept out into the darkened cargo hold to discover not even the slightest clue as to what could have impacted their home. Back once again in their bunks the deafening crash occurred again, and then again. Finally a desperation phone call to the ship’s bridge produced a seaman who was able after some time to discern that the cargo container itself was creating the noise, as it was not attached securely to the rails upon which it sat.
“Not to worry,” he said, “it may rock a bit, but we can secure it in the morning.” Such are the travails of ocean travel in the Drake Passage.
But the Drake has its softer moments too. One morning during the crossing we awoke to calming seas and hues of pastel colors cast upon the sea by reflections of an early sky. Off the stern of our ship, following, as they have done for centuries, sailed a lone albatross. Its huge wings outstretched, it boldly glided from one side of the ship’s stern to the other, sometimes riding the winds like a roller coaster, streaking past me in descending flight, screaming with speed past the bow and then, momentarily, out in front, in anticipation of the ship, only to abruptly bank and return to its aerodynamically empowered position just above the surface of the ship’s wake.
A few minutes later I noticed another had joined our sole black-browed albatross. And then, yet another. By mid afternoon, when I returned once again to the stern of the ship, at least fifteen albatross were in tow.
In response to rumors of an albatross-chumming session (using aged and fragrant mackerel), orchestrated by a group of ornithologists aboard ship, we loaded our cameras with fresh rolls of slide film and empty files for our digital cameras. Soon the ship’s deck was crowded with scientists and crew all wearing bright orange “float coats.” A white plastic bucket was produced bearing the smelly fish filets, and as the captain responded to the radioed call for reduced engine speed, the fish were thrown methodically off the stern and into the sea. The “av-e-tory” response was a sight to behold.
Our fifteen or so albatross were soon joined by yet another fifteen, and then ten more. Within minutes the rear of the ship was engulfed by a flock of albatross (if there is such a thing). They soared and swooped and dove on the bits of fish. They graced our skies for over an hour and, airborne, posed for our cameras. It was an albatross extravaganza, a feast for even the non-birders among us.
Later that evening the Drake began to buck and roll once again. The albatross respite it had dished up was well worth the ride.