Tuesday, February 23, 2016


The deep waterway that separates the cool and humid sub-polar regions of Tierra del Fuego and the frigid polar regions of Antarctica is known as the Drake Passage.  It connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands.  Even though it is named after Sir Francis Drake, the famed global circumnavigator, he was not the first to cross this waterway.  That honor belongs to Willem Schouten, a Flemish seaman, in 1616.

Before the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, the Drake Passage served as the main waterborne avenue for trade.  Rounding Cape Horn was not for the faint of heart, especially for the sailing vessels of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Clearly, the best time to cross the Drake Passage and round Cape Horn is in the summer months.  Hence, cruise ships sail only during this time - December through February/early March.  Both times that I have passed around the Cape, the seas have been just a little rough, and the weather a mixed bag of clouds and sun.  But nothing overly scary or dangerous.

We left Ushuaia at 8 PM on Monday, the 8th.  Early the next morning, Cape Horn was in sight and everyone was out on the decks to view "rounding".

It was a picture perfect morning, in the beginning.

Then it got a little windy and cloudy.

Around noontime, the Captain advised us that the weather forecast for our trip to the Antarctic Peninsula via the Drake Passage was not looking too rosy, so he said that we were going to hang out in a wind-protected area for about 12-20 hours and make our way south tomorrow.  Apparently they plan on these kinds of weather delays, so he was not concerned, and he said we would still have our pre-planned time in Antarctica.  Everyone relaxed.  Then, later that day, he advised us that we were going back to Port Williams (where the Chilean pilot is usually off-loaded after leaving Ushuaia) because we had a very ill passenger that needed medical evacuation.  But then, before we knew it, we were arriving back in Ushuaia!  Apparently the winds were too strong at Port Williams to tender a boat, so off we went back to the port.  Now I can say I've been to Ushuaia 3 times!  Our prayers were with the passenger and their family.

Our voyage across the Drake was pretty bumpy well into the night and in the early hours of the morning, the bumpiness turned into more of a rolling back and forth movement.  A lot of passengers stayed close to their cabins this day, and I noticed a lot of seasickness patches behind people's ears.  I've sailed enough, I guess, that the rocking and rolling doesn't really bother me.  Occasionally, if it gets really rough, I get a tad queasy, but then I just take a couple of ginger capsules and I'm good as new right away.  Having big fat feet also probably helps a lot, I have a better balance that way.  Just sayin...

Anyway, around midday on Thursday, we arrived into the general area of the Peninsula.  Magic Land.  We rendezvoused with a crew from Palmer Station.  They were coming on board for a few hours to give a presentation on their current activities and research projects, as well as answer questions for us about what life is like living in Antarctica.  Palmer Stations is a U.S. research station, and has been around since 1968.  

Here they come!

Watching them maneuver alongside the ship to climb aboard is very interesting.

Not sure who is more excited to come aboard, them or us!

In addition to these hardy young folk, we had 3 expedition members with us for the whole cruise.  All had spent a considerable amount of time during their lives and careers on Antarctica.  Dave Bresnahan, the team leader has retired after 40 years with the National Science Foundation.  His first trip and job in Antarctica was while he was a sophomore at college back in the 60's.  One of his professors was looking for a student who could scuba dive, to do an internship there.  Guy Gutheridge, also with the NSF, joined in 1970 to edit the Antarctic Journal of the U.S. and managed foundation programs for field participation by people of many varied backgrounds.  Scott Drieschman and his wife, Cory Laughlin, have worked with wildlife and zoos for over 40 years.  They have made numerous expeditions to both the Antarctic and Arctic to study seabirds, including penguins.  

Our expedition team members gave presentations nearly every day, sometimes two or three times a day, if we were at sea and not in port somewhere.  We learned about the early days of exploration of this continent, the first stations being built, the development and passage of the Antarctica Treaty in the late 1950's, daily life here, summers, winters, the ozone hole, just to name a few topics.  I have to say, I attended all but one presentation, and all were excellent.  You know they have to be pretty good if you don't fall asleep during one.  Sitting in a theatre of sorts while cruising along on the open sea, can lull almost anyone to nod off, so the fact that most people were upright with eyes wide open, tells you something about the caliber of these people and their ability to keep us attentive.

Palmer Station is named for Nathaniel Palmer, who is generally recognized as the first American to see Antarctica.  This station can hold up to 46 people.  While it is staffed year-round, the population drops to about 23 people during the winter months.  The majority of research conducted at Palmer revolves around marine biology.

Our ice captain expert was also aboard to assist the ship's captain with routing and the icebergs that are "in residence" in and along the peninsula.  We had the very fortunate opportunity to be able to get into the Lemaire Channel on Thursday afternoon  Oh my gosh.  What a wonderland!  Check out some of the photos I captured:

Snow on deck, snow on deck!!!!  We must be getting close to Antarctica!!!  I came upon this during my daily early morning 5k around the promenade deck.  No wonder I was so cold!

First sighting of an iceberg

Ooh, it's bigger than I thought.

Lemaire Channel.  The cloudy (and oh so cold) day lent a real otherworldly ambience to the voyage through this channel.  I have enlarged the pictures because it was just too beautiful not to.

Me and my famous hat from Iceland.  This things keeps my head and ears quite warm, thank you very much!

This is one of my favorite shots.  I remember cruising slowly by this and it was so quiet outside.. eerily comforting.  Just look how calm the water is.

Icebergs everywhere, small to super large.  I called them floaties!


And that was our first day......

Some general notes about Antarctica ---

It is the highest, driest and windiest place on Earth.  It is 1.5 times the size of the United States.  

While the Arctic is ocean surrounded by land, the Antarctic is land surrounded by oceans.

Who is Frosty the Snowman's favorite relative????   "Aunt" Arctica!!!!   bahahahahahahahaha

Cargo ships come to the stations once per year to bring all sorts of supplies - food, petrol, machines, vehicles, etc.  The ships leave with more than 5 million pounds of waste.

While the U.S. on average recycles 19% of it's goods, Antarctica stations recycle nearly 70%.

Antarctica holds 9/10ths of the world's ice.  When you live and work there, ice is indispensible for purposes ranging from runways to refrigerators.  If all the ice melted, it would raise sea levels 191 feet - everywhere.  Antarctica contains 80% of the worlds surface fresh water.

The South Pole is colder than the North Pole because of the higher elevation and no warming ocean beneath it.

The Southern Hemisphere is 81% ocean and 19% land.  The Northern Hemisphere is 61% ocean and 39% land.  

The Antarctic sea ice is growing and the Arctic's is receding.

Russia built a beautiful Trinity Church on King George Island at the Russian station.

The highest peak in Antarctica is 16,050 feet.  Mt. Vinson.  Antarctica covers 5.3 million square miles.

The best place to find meteorites is in Antarctica.  

The largest land animal in Antarctica is an insect, a wingless midge called Belgica antarctica.  It is less than 1/2 inch long.  There are no flying insects.

Scientists drill ice cores to get samples of ice to study.  The cores are long cylinders of ice that can give scientists indications of the past as far back as tens of thousands of years.  The properties of the ice, dust and air bubbles trapped there, give valuable information about our planet's climate at various times in the past.

You can get a drink of water that was frozen during the time of the Roman Empire. 

Krill is at the bottom of the food chain.  It is vital to have it available.  We are told that pet food companies are putting it in pet food now, as added protein, etc.  Please don't buy pet food (or capsules for human consumption) that has krill in it.  And by the way, krill oil?  Don't trust it if you buy it - it is not regulated and it goes rancid VERY fast.  Stick to eating fish the old-fashioned way to get your necessary doses of omegas.

There is no permanent population on Antarctica.  Only about 4,000 people live there during the summer season and 1,000 in winter.  Each year, there are about 35,000 tourists that drop in to say hello....  There has never been a native population.

The first time Antarctica was seen was 1820 and set foot on in 1821.  The South Pole was first reached in 1911.

The lowest temperature recorded on earth was at the Vostok station:  -128.6 degrees F.  Yes, MINUS.
Average summer temperature at South Pole is -17.5 degrees F.  Average winter temp:  -76 degrees F.

Solar panels work the best at the South Pole, because you never have to point them in any particular direction.

I would not be too happy living in Antarctica because it never rains there.  It's too cold to rain.  And it doesn't snow much either, for the same reason.

If you go to live and work in Antarctica you must take a survival course called Happy Camper the first week you are there.  

No non-native species (dogs, cats, etc.) are allowed to be taken to Antarctica anymore.  Not since 1994.

As of 2009, there were only 11 children ever born in Antarctica.  There aren't many kids that go there.

Here are some more pictures of our days 2 and 3 in this beautiful place:

This iceberg was as big as our ship!

Close up.

Put in perspective - next to the ship as we passed.

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