Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Antarctica Day 2: Drake Passage

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


The first full day at sea began with a 7:30 AM wakeup call over the intercom
above my head…"Goooooooooooooooooood morning!"

I rolled out of my top bunk and wandered out in my pajamas, walking like a
drunk because of the rocking of the ship, to the wrong side of the ship to
try to see Cape Horn which had been announced to be on the Starboard side of
the ship (facing the front, that's right), and squinted to try to see the
foggy outline of land in the distance. Then it was off to the womens' shower
room, where I took an awkward but hot shower while braced against the wall
of the rocking boat.

Breakfast was a generous buffet that I took full advantage of, later getting
the hilarious comment from a British woman on board, "I must say, I am very
impressed by your capacity to eat. You are so little, but you just eat and
eat and eat!"

I was feeling a little bit on the edge of queasy from the rocking breakfast,
so went and laid down for half an hour until the Intercom called Deck 3 to
the Mudroom for getting fitted for our Wetskins and Gumboots: waterproof
overalls, jackets, and rubber boots which would be our armor for the
upcoming Antarctic shore excursions. The mudroom was a cavernous room
furnished with racks of plastic overalls and jackets, including one swaying
wildly as it dangled from the ceiling, life vests, kayak oars, shelves full
of boots, and tubs full of radios and dry bags and other miscellaneous
equipment. I had also rented a waterproof backpack and binoculars for the
trip, and was given those to take back to my cabin.

Shortly after that we were treated to an excellent lecture on whales of the
Antarctic by Oregon State University professor Ari Friedlaender, who
specializes in the feeding patterns of humpbacked whales. I learned that
many of the whales get covered, partially or fully, in layers of orange
diatoms which they periodically shed with a skin layer in warmer waters.
Also, whale poop is particulate, and apparently they are major nutrient
transporters by harvesting krill or fish or whatever it is they feed on in
the Antarctic and then head up to warmer, less-productive waters.

Then came a rambling lecture that was presumably on seabirds but ended
up consisting, at least by volume, mostly of random quips about how
quantum physicists have uncovered the secrets to the heart's energy and
the universe is chaos and WTF?

And, shortly thereafter, lunchtime. This was starting to feel like one of
the intensive immersive summer courses I've taken and taught where the
activities start first thing in the morning and run straight through with
brief breaks for regular food pellets until you collapse in exhaustion
sometime in the late hours of the night, rinse, wash, and repeat for weeks
on end. But lunch—a lamb stew—was excellent, and I again enjoyed great
conversations with a new set of tablemates.

After lunch came more lectures: one on the history and impact of the tourism
industry in Antarctica, which according to our expert—who has spent his
career as a professor studying tourism in Antarctica—has been minimal and
has, interestingly, in some ways led to the more careful monitoring of
environmental practices of the government and scientific bases there. But he
danced around something that probably wasn't far from many of our minds:
while the things we will be doing in Antarctica—hiking and kayaking and
respectfully observing wildlife, may qualify as "eco-tourism", the
environmental cost of getting to and from Antarctica is not minimal. At the
same time that we will be enjoying vistas of ice and the wildlife that
depends on the productive cold waters for their survival, we will be
contributing to the melting of the ice and slow loss of ice cover and
warming and acidification of the ocean. A part of me wished he had made a
stronger point that we, as the incredibly fortunate few able to visit and
bear witness to the place, we incur an obligation to, at the very least,
share the specialness of it with others, work to minimize our footprint in
other ways, and become ambassadors of environmental measures to try to
protect sensitive and unique ecosystems like this one.

Then came a briefing for the dozen of us who would be kayaking once we got
to Antarctica, afternoon tea (the food didn't stop coming), and a final
lecture on the history of photography in the Arctic. The speaker started
with an anecdote about the first talk he ever gave, and a woman who
approached him and said, "Look, Huw, it doesn't matter what you talk about.
We couldn't give a flying fig what you talk about. All we care about is that
you show pretty pictures," and then gave a brilliantly-delivered talk on the
obscure topic of the history of photography in arctic regions packed full of
pretty pictures.

It's been a beautiful day with shining sun and water so calm that it is hard
to believe that this is the legendary Drake Passage. But I didn't go outside
until after 6 PM, when we finally got a brief break for some fresh air. The
air was cold, but not frigid, and I was alone on the upper deck, with
nothing but blue water to see in all directions. I played with my borrowed
binoculars, but there were no whales or birds to be seen. But it was
beautiful, a wavy blue desert. It occurred to me that I had never been this
far out in the open ocean before, and it was an eerie and humbling feeling.

And then, over the intercom, happy hour was announced. A special happy hour,
with gin & tonics served on the back deck of the ship, a first-ever for a
Drake Passage happy hour. The seas were almost quiet, the sun golden and low
on the horizon, and spirits were high.

It's a friendly group on board here. I enjoyed a very entertaining dinner
seated with a British couple, at least one of whom seemed quite hilariously
drunk, and her spoutings-off were so priceless I wish I had my video camera
at dinner. At one point she did a Monty Python coconut scene re-enactment
while straddling her chair. At dinner. The Russian waitresses looked on in
horrified bemusement.

To wind up the evening we were invited to the "presentation room" (a very
functional lecture hall in the comfortably quiet bowels of the ship) to
watch Episode 1 of the BBC's Frozen Planet. While staff members who had been
involved in the filming, some of whom were featured in the "filming of"
part, were seated behind me. Pretty special.
Tonight we cross into Antarctic waters! There's a bet going onboard to guess
when—and at which latitude—we'll see the first icebergs. Any cheating tips
appreciated from my NASA friends. ;-)


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