Tag Archives: Oceans

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….