A Sweet Crossing

Photos from UAB in Antarctica group on Flickr, related to this post
By Maggie Amsler
Posted on 02/21/10

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………



  1. Re: A Sweet Crossing
    Posted by Cathleen Cavin on 02/22/10

    Welcome "home," Maggie. Sounds like you all had a very tolerable, even pleasant, crossing. My best to you and your new season on the ice. Cheers! Cathleen

    1. Posted by Maggie on 02/22/10
      Thanks for the welcoming words Cathleen! Palmer in many ways has not changed since you and I shared it years ago but as evidenced by this very activity much has changed. Although I know you are here in spirit, do check on our polar antics regularly to experience vicariously the current Palmer Station! All the best to you in the PNW!
  2. Re: A Sweet Crossing
    Posted by Kevin on 02/22/10

    Glad to hear the crossing was smooth. Too bad on the poor visibility though. I know the viewing the first time can be quite spectacular! It sounds like you got into Palmer just in time for "house mouse" as well. I hope to get some of my students to follow along with the crew this semester. By the way, have you been up the glacier yet?

    1. Posted by Maggie on 02/22/10
      Wonderful to hear from a stateside member of the UAB/Palmer family! Please do, Dr. Peters, encourage your students to follow our site. You guessed it - even before housemouse (I drew kitchen, as usual and preferred) Chuck, Jim, Alan and I were up the glacier to meet, greet and help haul cargo for a twin otter delivered science group. Action never ends at Palmer so check on us often! Teach happy!
  3. Re: A Sweet Crossing
    Posted by Terri Schoenrock on 02/27/10

    Maggie - I have a question for you that has been bugging me for days. You said this is your 34th crossing, which means back and forth. I have made an assumption that this is there and back, which would mean 17 trips. If I am understanding this right, this means that one time you didn't come back. Can you let us know how you got there that time? Or get me straightened out?

    I love this blog by the way. Our whole family, young and old, connected by genetics or not, are following your trip.

    1. Posted by Maggie on 02/28/10
      <p>Ahoy Terri!&nbsp; You and your daughter Kate have inquiring minds!&nbsp; Yes indeed, in 1985 I only crossed the Drake to get home.&nbsp; That year I flew down.&nbsp; It was truly spectacular to look down on Antarctica from&nbsp; the cockpit of a large C130 transport plane operated by the New York Air Guard four hours after leaving Punta Arenas.&nbsp;&nbsp; No clouds obscured views of the South Shetland Islands, including towering Smith Island!&nbsp; While circling the landing strip at the Chilean base on King George Island and before getting kicked out of the 'rumble seat' and taking my proper seat in the cargo bay,&nbsp; I spied the USAP programs new vessel, the R/V Polar Duke in the bay.&nbsp;&nbsp; A day cruise down through familiar peninsular waters in this ship I would come to make many Drake crossings on brought me to Palmer Station.</p>

Recent Posts