A journey to Antarctica from Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost point of South America requires crossing the Drake Passage, an infamous body of water that serves as a rite of passage for those who seek the seventh continent. The seas are notoriously some of the roughest in the world.
As a teacup and breakfast plate sailed by Wednesday morning, followed by a fellow passenger or two, it again occurred to me that no story of a destination is complete without recounting the process of getting there.
To wit, one reader pointed out before we departed: “The Drake Passage can be brutal. I was bed-ridden for 4 days.”
Hard to believe, perhaps, until you experience it first-hand.
Although we left Ushuaia, Argentina on Tuesday evening with the calm of a beautiful sunset, by the end of our first breakfast the next morning, circumstances had changed dramatically. Much of the service went upside-down. Chain-anchored chairs tipped, coffees once adhered to the non-slip table mats tipped over. Passengers held on to railings and tables to stable themselves as the boat swayed. A few bodies stumbled by in our peripheral vision; they hadn't grabbed hold quickly enough.
Where did this suddenly come from?
The reality is that conditions can change instantly in the Drake Passage. That’s why Antarctica isn’t simply a walk-up, an ordinary luxury cruise. Our tour leader put Antarctica circumstances and planning in perspective: “You can’t really get weather reports down here. We get wind reports and some low resolution ice reports.” Despite all the commercialization and professionalism of Antarctic tours, this is still a serious venture prone to the unpredictable.
In fact, this adds to the excitement. You can't just purchase a trip to Antarctica — you must earn it.
Of the 120 passengers aboard, only about 30 made it to the lecture after that first breakfast. Most were huddled in their cabins. Sea swells continued from the west. Passengers traversing the ship walked precariously, their ankles pivoting almost absurdly at an angle.
Our ship continued to rock violently. A look out the windows of the main lounge was a mixed blessing: while a visual of the horizon helped mitigate seasickness, we found ourselves penned in by white-capped waves approaching on the starboard side and the ship kissing the water’s surface on port side. Swells reached 30-35 feet.
Despite all the “take a tour with a small ship” recommendations we had received, we are very thankful that this vessel is not one foot smaller than it is. We were both grateful for a serious crew of professionals and curious as to what it might take for a boat of this size (100+ meters) to capsize.
If you've never really appreciated the might of nature, take this trip. It will convince you. Even in this large mass of reinforced steel, it’s easy to feel tiny — if not entirely powerless — compared to the surrounding forces of nature.
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
Because of bad weather on the first day, our approach to Antarctica has been slowed down a bit; we expect to arrive below the Antarctic Circle tonight (something most Antarctic tours don't do). In the meantime, everyone has been on the lookout on deck and on the bridge (the captain’s control room) for sea birds, whales – and now icebergs.
In the vastness of the sea, an hour or two can pass without a sight of anything.
Then, all of sudden, you can be rewarded by an albatross or a storm petrel — or much more dramatically, a visit from a pod of 6-10 killer whales breaching right next to the boat. We are told by the cetacean expert (i.e., whale and dolphin guy) on board that they are a rare and newly identified sub-species D. We were excited to see whales – killer whales! — regardless of their type.
Weather permitting, we take our first zodiac rides and land expeditions tomorrow morning (Saturday) around the Crystal Sound and Detaille Island just below the Antarctic Circle.
Something tells me we are in for much more.