I’ve been on the boat heading south for about 4 days now and we still have about 16 hours to go until we reach Palmer Station. We are now officially in Antarctica because sometime midday yesterday we entered the area covered by the Antarctic Conservation Treaty. This is very exciting, especially since we just passed Smith Island, one of the South Shetland Islands and the first land we’ve seen in about 3 days.
This afternoon our first few penguins appeared, darting alongside the ship, and two whales were spouting in the distance. Up until today the dark, cave-like lounge, with its comfy reclining chairs, widescreen TV, and abundance of eager Scrabble and Cribbage players was the place to be. Now that there is something to see besides the vast expanse of the Southern Ocean people are congregating on the bridge instead. Folks are armed with cameras and binoculars and eagerly await the next wildlife sighting. In fact I am probably missing something exciting right now! Here is a photo of the Cape Petrels that have been merrily circling the ship for the last few hours.
Let me fill you in on what life has been like so far on the ship...
Back in Punta Arenas we were scheduled to move into the boat Tuesday at 7pm, but were delayed because two giant cruise ships were monopolizing the pier. In the meantime those of us who would be sailing south together went out for dinner and then waited in the NSF/AGUNSA office. Here, conversation inevitably turned to the topic du jour- seasickness. We discussed who had and hadn’t gotten sick in the past, and debated the efficacy of the available remedies: Scopolamine- aka “the patch,” pressure point wrist-bands, and Dramamine. Old-timers spouted tales of terrifying Drake crossings where the seas were 60-feet high and folks were imprisoned in their bunks for days, afraid to leave lest they suffer major trauma. I also learned that you should never put on more than one patch at a time because this could cause you to go temporarily insane. Apparently one woman who put on multiple patches decided to run around the ship naked eating people’s dirty socks- or so they say. It’s hard to know which of these stories are true and which we were told simply because we were such an eager and gullible audience. Anyhow, eventually the behemoth cruise ships left, the Gould pulled in and docked, and at around 1AM we were given the go ahead to board the ship. Having not had a decent night’s sleep in about 5 days, I went straight to bed in my cozy little top bunk in cabin 203.
Wednesday morning, I awoke just in time for lunch in the ship’s mess hall. Actually I haven’t made it to breakfast any of these days on board the ship, which is too bad, because I am told it is the best meal of the day here. At lunch we are informed that port operations have been shut down due to high winds (making it dangerous to load and unload cargo with cranes). People speculate on whether or not our departure will be delayed, and there is, of course, more talk of seasickness. I am still not sure what I should do about it. I have never been seasick before, but I’ve also never traveled on a boat for this long, and I’ve never crossed the Drake Passage (reputed to be the roughest seas in the world). The patch's side effects are nasty: dry mouth, drowsiness, and blurred vision. On the other hand, vomiting for 3-4 days straight sounds doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun either. At this point I am still hopeful I will be able to survive the crossing au natural.
The Gould was not supposed to depart until midnight, so it could catch the ebbing tide, thus we had one more day to wander around Punta Arenas. But first, there was a ship orientation and security meeting. We (the passengers) all gather in the lounge. Jaimee, our MPC (Marine Projects Coordinator) and Rick, the first mate, explain the rules of the boat. Some of these are: don’t enter restricted areas without permission, if you see anything dangerous call the bridge immediately, and, perhaps most importantly, don’t stop up the toilets (this can cause catastrophic failure of the ship’s entire sewage system)! We learn how to don a survival suit and life jacket, where our muster stations are, the emergency alarm signals, and what to do in case of a fire, man overboard, or the command to abandon ship. Next we head upstairs for a look at the life rafts (there are 6) and lifeboats (two). We practice climbing into one of the lifeboats and learn that they are designed to be self-righting. Yep, that means they are expecting that the lifeboat will be doing 360s in the waves.
That evening at shortly before 9pm I take my last few dockside photos and walk across the gangplank, bound for Antarctica. By midnight we are underway, heading out the Straight of Magellan. Sometime Thursday in the early morning, still snuggled in my bunk I notice the seas become a bit rougher. We have reached the open Pacific Ocean and are now headed down the eastern side of Tierra del Fuego towards Cape Horn. So far the waves are still pretty mellow and I’m doing OK with no seasickness remedies. Tawna (a penguin researcher and my roommate on the ship) and I manage to get out of bed in time for lunch again, and then there is a practice fire drill. As instructed, we all gather at our muster station holding our survival suits and lifejackets. A few passengers are already looking kind of green. Then Jaimee gives us the weather forecast: winds are supposed to rise and 45-foot swells are predicted in the Drake. That is when I decided that I should just use the patch.
The rest of Thursday was uneventful. I spent some time outside on the decks in the stern, watching a lone Royal Albatross gliding back and forth across our wake and trying to take a decent photograph of it. This I failed pretty miserably at. It seems that a more thorough knowledge of my camera's manual functions was required, but my Scopolamine haze was not conducive to learning new technical skills. Sorry. You'll just have to imagine a giant graceful bird skimming the water.
Fortunately the predicted storm never developed. However, large portions of Friday were like living in a rollercoaster. Just making it down to the mess hall and back was a pretty complete workout and at times I thought I should probably be wearing a helmet while attempting to go up and down the ship's staircases. Thankfully today is calmer and people we havn't seen in a few days are appearing at meals again. This bodes well, and tomorrow we will be at Palmer Station.