Valentine’s Day, a Sunday, dawned gray and foggy as we steamed into the Drake Passage and I hoped my 34th (!) crossing of these waters would be smooth. Spin an upside globe around at the latitude lines south of the continents South America, Africa, Australia and all that your finger will trace over is ocean. The lack of land masses to buffer wind and waves at these latitudes gives rise to the nickname ‘furious fifties’ for these waters. Hence, I have experienced a full range of Drake temperaments from its benign lake-lapping mode to its full on rage of fury slamming steel blue crests at and over the three storied ships on which I have sailed. We all must have sufficiently rubbed that statue’s toe in Punta Arenas as our sail through these notorious waters were in general quite tolerable – the Drake was a real sweetheart!
The Gould was rocking and rolling a tad above gently so decks were closed to promenading and sightseeing. Not that there was much to see as the majority of the time the LMG teetered port to starboard (left to right in landlubber terms) in a dense fog. Neither fog nor seas deterred the ship’s cook from the traditional Sunday barbeque. Out on one of the decks in a protected spot, Ramsey flipped burgers and grilled steaks, chicken and lamb. The ship smelled like a summer cookout! The barbequed booty was transferred to the small cafeteria style lunch line where hungry sailors selected their favorites plus sides. A slight uphill or downhill walk depending upon the ship roll of the moment led to one of several long tables where diners plopped into swivel stools that are bolted in place. Rubbery placemats acted as skid mats to keep laden plates from sliding to and fro as the ship merrily rolled along in the Drake.
Unlike previous trips, this year we had no science gear to prepare during the crossing. I divided my time between watching the fog on the bridge, knitting, reading and doing work on the computer. Kate and Ruth read, played board games and cards. Chuck and Jim tapped busily away on their laptops. Highlights of each day were our meals in the galley and I preceded each with either a walk on the ship’s treadmill or a ride on the stationary bike since the decks are closed. I like to think over the years of doing this I have walked across the Drake.
Monday night following (a yummy!) dinner I noticed the monitor that records sea surface temperature dramatically dropped from the day’s unwavering 4° C to 1.8° C. We have arrived in Antarctica!! This continent is surrounded by ocean which is essentially the border. No passport check or immigration control at the Polar Front – just colder, deep blue water as the welcome sign. Cool- I am back “on the ice” though still on water.
After (another great) dinner Tuesday I was on the bridge as the fog started to lift and a rare small break in the clouds brought light to a glimpse of terrestrial Antarctica – Smith Island. We were cheated the full glory of this impressive island’s sheer cliffed edges soaring up to the sky but Ruth and Kate were awed with this Antarctic teaser and the reality of where they were started to sink in. Fog again soon shrouded the ship and just as I was about to leave the bridge a humpback whale sounded immediately along the starboard bridge wing, slipping back into its polar den before anyone else saw my personal greeter.
Brighter than normal reflections striking the porthole (my alarm clock) over my bunk signaled Wednesday morning, the brightest so far of our voyage. In fact for a short time we were able to marvel at the dramatic vista of the broad Gerlache Strait that runs between the mountain/glacier studded Peninsula to the east and the similarly adorned island chain to the west. We cruised by numerous icebergs, spyed whale spouts in the distance and delighted in gymnastics of porpoising penguins. As we approached the Neumayer Channel and its acclaimed stunning scenery heightened by its narrowness, clouds again foiled our viewing.
Curiously, our most notable observations in this stretch of water was how many other ships were plying the waters around us. The Dutch triple masted Europa, a smaller double masted vessel plus the large tourist vessel MV Lyubov were anchored at Port Lockroy on Wiencke Island where the British Antarctic Survey maintains a small station. Perhaps the Russian research vessel Professor Multanovskiy that we encountered earlier in the Gerlache was heading there. Additionally, the LMG shared radio communications with nearby USAP sister ship Nathaniel B. Palmer. Busy place for such a remote location!
The Neumayer Channel intersects with the Bismarck Strait, the watery road to Palmer Station. As if leading the way at that moment an Antarctic tern flew across our bow port to starboard. The mate on the bridge changed course at the intersection about 90 degrees to starboard following that seabird. Would you agree that it’s a right tern?
Soon Palmer Station was in view and another season at my deep south home was about to begin. Life is sweet………