Stacy in Antarctica

An adventure to the frozen continent

Nov 10th – Drake Passage

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Sometime in the early hours of the morning I was awoken by the more pronounced pitching of the boat. We were out of the safety of land and had entered the notoriously unreliable waters of the Drake Passage.

The Drake Passage is the body of water that separates Cape Horn from the South Shetland Islands at the top of the Antarctic Peninsula. At around 1000 km in width, it is the shortest crossing to Antarctica from the rest of the world. This feature also means it acts as a funnel through which the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (the massive oceanic current that runs, relatively uninhibited, from west to east around Antarctica) must pass. In these seas the cold, dry air rises off the Antarctic continent and mixes with the warm, wet air from the equator, resulting in a constant progression of wild storms.

For the rest of the night I was rocked in and out of sleep, not yet used to the rolling waves of the sea. The rising sun finally woke me at around 4:30am and, sick of tossing and turning in the pitching seas, I sat at my window and watched the sea birds following us in the morning light. At 7:30am Boris’ wake up call roused those people not already disturbed by the sea. Despite the waves, there was a decent turn out to breakfast and those who hadn’t made it were attended to by the staff, with crackers and water on hand and Dr Hugo’s big rusty needle at the waiting.

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After breakfast, Daisy and David gave us an introduction to photography presentation, which helped those of us who were less skilled with our equipment to understand a little more about our camera settings and how they affected the shots we would be taking. It was the first time I had ever had F stops, exposure times and ISOs explained to me where it actually made sense. Probably the most beneficial new discovery from the session was the high-speed (or sports) shutter setting, which became invaluable for photographing birds and other scenery later on when we were in a moving zodiac. I’ve never been an expert with my photographic equipment and it actually never really occurred to me that the “sports” setting would be useful for any other situation. Turns out it is.

At the conclusion of Daisy’s session we took a quick break to make a cup of coffee and settled back into the dining room for Michael’s presentation on the South Georgia Heritage Trust and the work that they are doing to eradicate the entire population of non-native rats from South Georgia Island (brought there by the whaling ships in times past). The discussion about the diversity of wildlife on the island reinforced my desire to one day visit such an interesting place.

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After lunch we were briefed on zodiac etiquette and how to safely enter and exit them. They would be our primary mode of transport off the boat once we arrived in Antarctica, so it was imperative we knew the rules for our own safety while on the water. By now the skies had cleared up and a number of sea birds were cruising along with the ship. I went up to the Bridge and listened to Simon as he pointed out all of the different species circling around us and tried my best to get some photos of the Albatross and the Cape Petrels as they cruised past us in the wind. I have always been fascinated with Albatrosses and the other sea birds that spend years of their life at sea. They are truly magnificent creatures that glide through the sky with effortless ability. They followed us all the way from the Beagle Channel, hoping for the ship to stir up something for them to eat and probably just enjoying the ride in our slip stream.

We enjoyed an afternoon tea of fresh biscuits and coffee in the lounge before we were called to gather in the presentation room at the bottom of the ship, where Boris talked us through the IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) guidelines for all of our shore excursions. As an isolated and protected environment, all efforts would be made to leave each place we visited as we found it. These included keeping a safe and respectful distance from all wildlife, respecting the environment and not taking any souvenirs from the shore.

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Later that evening we passed what is known as the Antarctic Convergence. This is the place where the cold waters of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current meet the warmer waters to the north. The mixing of these two waters results in an area of abundant sea life, such as Antarctic krill, which in turn brings other larger marine creatures like whales who feed on them. Unfortunately for us, we were a little early in the season for whales so we passed the convergence with little to report. The only indication of our crossing was the water temperature, which had dropped to 2°C.

After dinner we gathered again in the presentation room and Dave played us the documentary “The Last Husky”, which chronicles his journey with the last remaining husky dog team from Mawson Base in Antarctica to their new home in Ely, Minnesota. A few laughs were had at his expense at the depiction of a much younger Dave, with a much more outrageous hair style. He took it all in good fun, having no doubt heard the same comments from every group fortunate enough to have watched the film with him.

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When the film was over, I went outside with Brent and David and took some photos of the sunset and then warmed up in the bar for a while before venturing out again to see the full moon rising over the water. I went to bed excited, knowing that tomorrow we would be entering the South Shetland Islands and enjoying our first taste of Antarctica.

Today’s Set: Antarctica – Day 3

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