Tag Archives: Drake Passage

Nearly There…final preparations!

Thursday 22 February 2024 – We headed for bed having crossed the Circumpolar Current which delineates the Antarctic Ocean and provides the cut-off mechanism which effectively isolates it from other oceans it touches. This normally means a change in the weather – usually colder and often foggier. For us, not so much.

We really have been sensationally lucky with the weather enabling a calm crossing of the Drake Passage.  (Mind you, we have to head north again on the return journey, so the weather gods probably haven’t finished toying with us yet.)

We’re nearly there…

The food selection for breakfast was a little less to my liking than yesterday’s – frankfurter and hard-boiled rather than bacon and scrambled – but I did make one discovery that brought Oceanwide Adventures even closer to my heart.

We were promised a busy day, full of lectures and final preparations for actually leaving the boat at some stage, maybe even tomorrow. And so it proved.

The lecture programme started with a very engaging presentation from Sasha, a Russian Antarctic Scientist, who provided us with the first actual joke in all the lectures we’ve had so far.

He pointed out many arcane facts about Antarctica, which is, of course, a continent – but you knew that, didn’t you?:

  • At over 13 million square kilometres, it’s not the smallest continent. You can fit Australia or North America within Antarctica’s land mass
  • Its ice sheet contains 70% of the world’s fresh water, is up to 4km thick and is so heavy that it distorts the earth’s crust
  • If you were to remove the ice, before the crust sprang back into shape (at a sort of geological pace), this is what the continent would actually look like:

Yes, the Antarctic Peninsula (top left above) would be an island!

Sacha’s joke was based on comparing Antarctica and Russia. Antarctica is nearly 14 million square kilometres in area; Russia is just over 15 million square kilometres.  Antarctica is cold, 99% covered in ice. Russia is cold, 65% covered in permafrost.  Antarctica has Emperor Penguins. “And Russia”, he said, deadpan, “used to have an Emperor”.

The other lecture, from Ursula, a Swiss scientist, covered Pinnipeds.  She talked about five varieties in the Antarctic region, many of them concentrated around South Georgia.  There are true ones, there are eared ones, there are toothed ones. There are some which walk, some which can only waddle. They are seals – fur, leopard, Weddell, elephant and crabeater.

Humans are much more interested these days in conserving the various seal species than they used to be; fur seals, for example, were once hunted to near extinction because of the effectiveness of their pelts as warm clothing. The population has since recovered nicely and is thriving. This is not so much from human conservation, as from human predation on another species, principally the blue whale. Because of the effectiveness of human whaling, the  number of whales around to eat the krill that is such a key element in the food chain of the local fauna plummeted, thus leaving more krill for the fur seals, enabling the population to recover quickly. Unintended consequences litter the world of human hunting and conservation.

The preparations bit of the day was quite intense, mainly because there was quite a lot of it to be done and it had to be done to for any passenger who wanted to leave the boat on an expedition, i.e. all 170 of us.

Firstly, we all had to collect waterproof boots, which had been referred to as muck boots and which were a non-negotiable piece of clothing for any Zodiac-based landing.  Having collected ours, we discovered why they’re called muck boots.

The next, and particularly chaotic, process was the Biosecurity Session, to get all of our outerwear inspected, cleaned and disinfected, to ensure we don’t carry unwanted life forms to, from or between Antarctic locations.  So we carried our coats, waterproof trousers, backpacks, poles, gloves, hats, scarves, lifejackets, and boots down the four flights of stairs to a scene of barely controlled pandemonium.

The expedition staff were really earning their keep, dashing from one person to the next and helping them check their gear over – little bits of grit stuck in boot treads, fragments of seed caught in Velcro, splashes of mud anywhere, all had to be cleaned up and anything that would contact the ground, meaning boots and poles, disinfected.  It might have been somewhat chaotic, but it was done with charm and energy and we were soon checked over, signed off and free to lug our stuff back up the four flights of stairs to our cabin.

Evidence that we’re getting closer to the Antarctic landmass came in the form of sighting of the first iceberg.

The wonderful visibility that enabled us to see the iceberg at such a distance didn’t last. We suddenly found ourselves fogged in.  It looked very dense fog from our cabin window, but I thought I saw a fogbow forming so popped up to the top deck.

I wondered at the time whether the fog had come about because we were now near the South Shetland Islands (we had been told earlier that we might be able to see them as we went by). It turns out that our proximity to the islands was through a change of course which, in turn, had been necessitated by the need for a medical evacuation of a passenger.  Pippa gathered everyone together to brief us: the Plan B we’d been on was to become a Plan C whilst we took the boat close to where there was an airstrip via which the evacuation could take place – King George Island.

In a relative way, we were lucky – particularly the passenger who had to be evacuated – because the calm weather and our consequent good progress meant that we could likely combine the diverted route and evacuation procedure with an expedition to somewhere on the South Shetlands before heading south of the Antarctic Circle. The Plan B itinerary had had these components in the reverse order.

This was the plan, then, as we went into Dinner. During dinner, our slightly eccentric dining pattern drew the attention of Aleks, the restaurant manager, and Marvin, the senior steward, who are beginning to get used to the two odd English people who never have a main course at dinner.  The food on the boat is great, but, as with all cruises, there’s too much of it; also, we don’t like taking on a big dinner – at home we typically have just two meals a day.  So we have been having just a soup and starter.  Of course, the ship’s restaurant is geared up to whizzing out 170 full meals as efficiently as possible, and they do it very well – hordes of waiters scurrying back and forth dispensing plates of food with good cheer. The odd couple who don’t want one of the courses is thus a bit non-standard; but they’re beginning to cotton on, bless them.

Before dinner, Pippa had emphasised that the auguries for Plan C were good, but that, of course, we were still dependent upon the weather gods, and the times of the critical flight into and out of King George Island.

Which changed at least once, in what is clearly becoming very much business as usual for expedition-style trips such as this one.  Pippa’s original Plan C – let’s call it plan C1 – had involved everyone going out on a Zodiac cruise (i.e. no landings) tomorrow morning.  As we were dining, Plan C2 was announced, meaning that there would after all be a split expedition – one set of people going out for a landing, the other on a Zodiac cruise, with the two groups swapping over during the expedition timeslot. That’s the plan as we head to bed.

Let’s see if Plan C2 prevails, or whether a C3, or even C4, is needed.

Ducking the Drake

Wednesday 21 February 2024 – There was a certain frisson in the air as we went to bed yesterday evening, as we had no idea how rough the passage was going to be across the Drake Passage (which you know is infamous, ‘cos you read my last post, didn’t you?).  Thus far, the conditions were, in the laconic assessment of the ship’s captain, “not too bad”; what, we wondered, awaited us.

Before we turned the lights out, I looked around our cabin and tried to make sure that things had been placed where they were least likely to leap off and either self-immolate or take one of us with them as they went. Given my lack of experience in Antarctic cruising, I can’t say I was hugely confident that everything was competently stowed. And in the end it didn’t matter.

At some stage during the night the boat’s rolling motion increased, but only by enough to signify that we’d moved out from relatively sheltered waters. That the rolling was not at all severe was soothing, but the motion was not actually as soporific as I’d imagined it might be.  I didn’t sleep badly, but equally there seemed to be several periods when I just lay awake awaiting the return of Morpheus.

The net of it is that we were lucky – our first 12 hours in the Drake Passage were uneventful. There was enough rolling motion to make walking about something that had to be undertaken with care and a firm grasp on any nearby railing; but no worse.

This cruise is testing some of the calm certainties that underpin normal life as we know it in the decadent west.  For example, one normally expects the ground underneath one’s feet not to be moving in unpredictable ways. One also expects there to be an unlimited amount of internet on tap via our phones, and our lives have evolved to the point where its presence is of great importance. Neither of these things is true on this boat. And, given the current calm conditions, dealing with internet-less life is a greater challenge than having to concentrate when trying to walk.

It is possible to get internet access. But it’s strictly metered.  Each guest is given 200MB of free data, after which further access costs money. We’ve done our best to make sure that the right people know we’re away and so not to contact us; but there’s still the nagging voice in the back of the mind suggesting that one should at least check that there are no urgent messages. The trouble is that the simple act of turning one’s phone on will, by default, suck in enough data to wipe out that 200MB within a second or two as e-mails, app updates, social media and news flood in. So we’re reduced to scrolling through the hundreds of apps on our mobile devices, anxiously seeking out and turning off all those unexpected sources of data usage. Should we be ashamed that we can’t switch off so easily?  Perhaps, as the cruise progresses, we’ll be able to wrench our attention away from such (we hope) irrelevant distractions.

Today might have been a “sea day” (rather than a “see day”?), but there was plenty to do after breakfast, starting with a mandatory briefing on (a) behaving as safely as possible getting in and out of the Zodiac RIBs that will be used to take us on whatever expeditions are planned and (b) behaving responsibly should we actually land somewhere.  There was a firm emphasis on the unspoilt nature of Antarctica and the importance of not fucking it up by being irresponsible – not touching anything, giving any wildlife a decently wide berth and cleaning and disinfecting our boots and anything else which touched the ground in order not to transport microorganisms from one place to another. An especially noteworthy one such is the avian flu virus, which is gradually making its way southwards from the northern hemisphere and decimating bird populations as it goes (as well as killing marine mammals such as elephant seals, seal lions and, in rare cases, humans).

As well as attending lectures, people had different ways of watching what was going on in the world outside the boat.

The answer was “not very much”. As we found out in the next lecture, one of the reasons we saw so few seabirds was that there was very little wind.

Today’s lectures told us about the likely types of birds and cetaceans we might see. There are many different sorts of, for example, albatrosses, and it can be quite difficult to tell one type from another, as their distinguishing features are not often unambiguous – some have a black tip to the tail – but actually it might not be all that black, or even there at all.  Similarly, there are over 40 different types of dolphin, about half a dozen of which we might be able to see over the next weeks; but since their colouring is pretty much always black and white, it’s a matter of some expertise to be certain about exactly which variety of dolphin one is looking at. Whales are more helpful to people trying to identify them, since they also come in shades of blue and grey. I suspect that trying to get photos of birds and whales is going to try my patience, but at the very least it should increase my skill (actually a pretty low bar, there).

The final lecture in a busy day was about the ocean currents and their considerable effect on how the world runs. Antarctica is, according to one of the more scientific definitions, delineated by a circumpolar current which effectively cuts it off from the other oceans which it borders. The waters in it the Antarctic Ocean may contain only 1/20th of the world’s water, but they contain 1/5th of the world’s biomass.  The weight of all the krill that underpin the food chain here is greater than the entire weight of humanity on the planet.

For the moment, our brains are full, and it’s Time For The Bar, I think….