Eaaaaaasy, Stomach. Here comes the Drake!
The Drake Passage, which separates Argentina and Chile from Antarctica, is one of the most active watery convergences on earth. Strong back and forth currents are created by the meeting of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, coupled with the strong winds and weather swings in the polar region. The result is that the current in the passage will be either strong, stronger, really strong on unGodly strong. Crossing the Drake Passage is something that is both anticipated and feared for those sailing to Antarctica - especially those who are on smaller "expedition ships".
OK, we crossed the Drake, both going and coming. We did not get sick, didn't lose any lunches. There were times that we felt somewhat nauseous, and we were a little more careful about what and how much we ate during the crossings. (careful what you swallow, it may be coming back up) And in complete and honest candor, we were lucky - the crew tells us that we got two very smooth crossings. That being said, the motion was strong and constant, especially freaky at night. IF we'd had wall bunks, as they did in some of the lower deck cabins, it might have been a challenge to physically stay in the bed. No wonder a lot of the C and D deck folks chose to just lay down on the couches and floors in the bar/observation room on the nights of the crossing. (two days to cross each way) We were fortunate to have nice double beds in our cabin. As an example of how much motion we were having, I remember waking up in the middle of our first night and being unable to get back to sleep for a couple of hours. The whole time, I was literally humming (in my mind anyway) that sailor tune "blow the man down", and I based the rhythm entirely on the motion back and forth. I'd feel like I'd move maybe 2 feet to the left and 1 foot forward, and then the alternate move would come.....2 feet back to the right and 1 foot back toward the stern of the ship.
You knew what was coming when the night before entering the Drake, the crew goes around and scotch-tapes "vomit bags" every few feet all over the ship. Their goal is that if anyone suddenly gets ill and can't make a bathroom, they'll have a bag nearby. The accompanying photo shows one of the bags taped up outside our cabin hall. And while the crossings we had were "smooth" according to the crew, consider this.... you only see one bag in the photo. The photo was taken in the morning, and the night before, there had been dozens out there. Figure it out.
Making plans for motion sickness remedies ahead of the cruise is strongly recommended. We used scopolamine patches. (Trans-Derm) Other good choices are phenergan tables or dramamine. It's important to take something before you get ill, because after you do get seasick, it's a lot tougher to get better. The good news is that it's only two days and once you get to protected waters off Antarctica, things calm down nicely.
Oh and one more thing.... when you finally finish your cruise, you DO continue to feel the affects of the motion, particularly the two Drake crossings. You'll find yourself being a little dizzy as you're walking. It affected me off and on for about two weeks after we got home.
Caution - sea ice moves!
Walking on sea ice is very enjoyable. But be warned that it does move around. Even "fast" sea ice at the shore has tide cracks at the edges.
The result is that, if you go for a walk somewhere, you may have to take a different route back. And, in the worst case, you could find yourself having to make a leap from one floe to another! So think carefully about where you go and watch that ice.
Look closely at the photo and you'll see many footsteps going toward a crack in the ice - but the matching footsteps on the other side have been displaced by quite a few metres: the ice has moved that far over a relatively short period.Related to:
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Antarctica can have very severe winds. Some of these arise from weather patterns, in the same way as elsewhere, but some are a form of wind created by the downhill drainage of very cold air. These latter winds are called katabatic winds.
"The katabatic" as it is generally known in East Antarctica where it is extremely common, usually develops at night and blows through the next morning into the afternoon. It frequently develops to wind speeds of 40-50 knots (80-100km/hr) from totally calm conditions in under ten minutes, and may be accompanied by drifting snow. Winds generated by weather patterns can be boosted by the katabatic, leading to intense blizzards of over 150 knots (300km/hr), though this is more common in the winter months.
If you are ashore in the late afternoon or evening in calm conditions and notice that a breeze is beginning and freshening, it would be prudent to assume that a katabatic may be commencing. In these circumstances, I would suggest promptly making your way back to your transport.Related to:
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Crevasses are 'interesting'
Ice has a limited degree of plasticity, so when it moves over uneven bedrock it cannot distort much without cracking. The end result is called a crevasse. On the average glacier they are everywhere and usually large and visible, because the ice is subject to a lot of movement. When on something like the antarctic plateau though, they can pop up where you least expect them and, to make things interesting, they tend to be capped and hidden by a bridge of snow.
It used to be said jokingly that the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions provided excellent crevasse detectors - better known as D4 bulldozers. On our Spring Trip (see "off the beaten track" tips) we had some 'interesting' moments with crevasses . This particular incident happened late one night and we managed to 'slot' two D4s! Luckily it was not very far from where we had depoted the third, which we used to help get these out. But first we had to do quite a bit of digging (second photo) to prepare the second bulldozer for extraction, in part because another blizzard for several days heaped snow everywhere.
Should you find yourself in the Antarctic as a tourist, it is unlikely the tour operators will have you anywhere near crevasses. You might care to note in the main photo, though, that the unbroken part of the snow surface gives no visible indication of the hidden crevasse.Related to:
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Watch your hide!
The high levels of ultra-violet light in the Antarctic mean that sunburn is a risk. The answer is simple: use a good quality high UV rating sunscreen on exposed skin.
Equally important, though not always considered, is that your lips need good protection from sun, wind, and low humidity. The best answer is a protective lipstick containing lanoline and sunblock. Cracked and peeling lips are not pleasant.Related to:
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Becoming wet, or even damp, is one of the major risks in a cold climate, as moisture conducts heat away from your body more effectively than dry air. Dress for the cold, but without overdressing as that could lead to sweating. Layers of clothing which can be removed as necessary are the best approach.
In zodiacs, where there is a risk of spray, wear a layer of outer clothing which is waterproof from the outside and which does not trap moisture. Goretex fabrics are good, because they 'breathe'. This also is particularly relevant on the sub-Antarctic islands, where rain and sleet are a real possibility.
It goes without saying that it is a very serious problem if anyone actually falls into cold water. It is necessary to get the person into warm dry clothes as soon as possible and medical attention may be required: hypothermia can cause death in minutes.Related to:
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Penguin Poo - stay out of the line of fire. :)
OK, penguins are birds. We are all familiar with the nuances of bird poo. They just kind of "let go" and if it's your wonderful fortune to be under them, well..... a trip to the dry cleaners for your new linen suit, right?
The good news is that penguins are rarely ABOVE you, they generally stand on the ground, down around your feet. The bad news is that like other birds, they just let fire when they have to go. And judging from the array of fecal vectors evident on the ground around the penguin areas, it was obvious to us that they also let go with "some force" so to speak.
Well, we finally got that rarest of shots, a penguin pooping. This little baby gentoo just had to go, and the fact that they had visitors just didn't matter. The adult gentoo to his side doesn't seem overly concerned. But looking at the photo, you can imagine what a mess it might be if you were unfortunate enough to be behind this little guy and within say a meter when he decided it was time to go.
Brings a new meaning to the battle phrase "fire in the hole", doesn't it?
Glacial calving could cause a mini-tsunami
Calving is the word to describe large pieces of a glacier falling into adjacent water. It makes a monument sounds.... increased creaking, like the hold of an ancient ship, followed by what sounds like thunder's roar, and finally a huge splash into the water. It's incredible, a true show of nature's power, but can also be very dangerous.
IF the glacial "calf" is large enough and the body of water that it falls into is small and pretty much surrounded by shoreline, a mini-tsumani can actually happen. At one point on our journey, this was pointed out to us with a severe warning. We were told that IF we chose to explore a particular shore area and IF we heard or saw a large chunk of glacier fall into the small sound on the other shore, then we should RUN not walk as high up onto the hill/slope beside the shore as possible. We were told that waves of 25-35 feet suddenly hitting the shore after such an occurrence were not at all uncommon, and anyone ON the beach at that point risked being swept into quite frigid waters.
A lot of folks did go ahead and walk the shoreline. As for us, we decided the view from a hill overlooking the shore was more to our liking.
Protecting the Antarctic environment
Antarctica is a pristine, fragile and unique environment - like nowhere else on earth. Unlike almost every other place, it is pretty much untouched and unspoiled by mankind and "progress". In deference to its unique and delicate nature and by unanimous treaty agreement, all ships traveling to Antarctica and facilitating human "landings" take necessary steps to safeguard the continent from any harmful introduced plants, seeds, soils, etc. One step in all of this is that you must disinfect and scrub your landing boots both before and after landing on its shore.
In the photo below, we are walking through the cleaning station before descending the gangway to board the zodiacs.
Anyone who has seen the movie Titanic - or perhaps actually read the history of the disaster learning of it sans Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio - knows all too well the hazards posed to ships in an iceberg-laden area. Icebergs range from small to massive, and you can never really - with your naked eye - know how big or how an iceberg is shaped, because 2/3 of it is usually under the surface of the water. So, that means that maybe 50 feet away from a moderate iceberg, the actual 'depth' of the water might be about 5 feet, due to iceberg beneath the surface. VERY dangerous for larger ships. And, icebergs are "active". They are not "attached" to the earth, but are rather floating with the current. SOMETIMES, they'll melt enough or change in shape such that the balance is wrong, leading them to suddenly flip over - maybe putting some of the underwater portions of the 'berg above the water. Needless to say, being right next to an iceberg that chooses to do this flip manuever is perhaps the end of the line for a ship.
Our ship was captained by a fine fellow, an Argentine named Alejandro Font. But, I also noticed another officer on board, Sergio Osiroff. Officer Osifoff's job was listed as "ice pilot". Basically, he was an expert and reading and navigating sonar involving ice and shifting icebergs. So, having safely returned from dangerous waters, let me say a special muchos gracias to Officer Osiroff and his skill.
Look at the main photo below - and hopefully the others, too. In the lead shot, that is our ship, dwarfed by an iceberg to her side. I took this shot from one of the zodiac crafts, during a landing excursion.
HOLD ON, while onboard
OK, it goes without saying, but I say it anyway.... ships are in constant motion. Sometimes they are in contant heavy motion, crossing the Drake Passage for example. HOLD ON. Always keep one hand free for holding on. We were told early on to "reserve one hand for the ship" to hold on to rails and such. And to be quite honest, sometimes TWO hands didn't seem like enough to hold on when climbing or descending some of the steep staircases. That being said, to my knowledge, nobody was injured during the cruise. ::I:: had an annoying habit of forgetting to duck my head when descending the steeper staircases and I always would whack my forehead. I'm only 5'10", so I can only imagine the trouble my Dutch friend Marc-Peter (6'7") had.
Another item we had to consider.... all doors had latches so that they could be latched in the open position. The problem is that sometimes if someone were to put their hand in the door frame and the ship were to move, an unlatched door can slam hard onto the hand and fingers. Given that the door frames are all steel and quite heavy, you can see the danger.
Taking a show in heavy seas was also a challenge. God help you if you dropped the shampoo or your shower brush and had to lean over to pick it up.
No Polar Bears
I'm adding this tip to dispel a myth that can be a source of disappointment among travellers. Contrary to popular belief, penguins and polar bears don't belong together. The only time you will see them together in real life is in a zoo. Polar bears are native to the arctic and penguins are native to the southern hemisphere. If your mission is to see polar bears, head in the opposite direction.
P.S. In the arctic there used to be a species of bird very much like penguins, but they are now extinct. But that's another story...Related to:
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Maniacs driving your ZODIACs
This 'warning' is really just in jest. The drivers who captained our zodiac landing craft were experts, true professionals. They knew what they were doing.
Early in our trip, we were remarking about how fast Phil (one of the guides and also a zodiac driver) liked to go. Since he was an Austrian, we christened him NIKI LAUDA in honor of the Austrian formula one race driver. However later in the trip, we road with another fellow (Ariel "Flaco" Crujeiras) who made Phil seem like a school bus driver. One of our group remarked that "this guy should be Niki Lauda, he makes Phil seem like Niki Lauda's grandmother" with an outboard engine in his hand. Sooooooooo, we transferred the Niki Lauda tag to the real hot rod of the bunch.
That being said, most of them - except Veselka (the lone female driver and also coincidentally Mrs Phil - see the great guides tip) who was much more mild-mannered - were really keen to show you how FAST a zodiac could go. They do seem to enjoy the bucking as you skip over the waves and little chunks of ice. These things can fly.
Two bits of advice. Enjoy the ride and for God's sake, DO hold on tight.
Skuas - flying skunks with attitude
The ship's birding expert, Cece Ratto, summed it up this way...
"I hate skuas, they are awful awful birds. Nasty, unfriendly. They are awful."
OK, I'm sure that mother skuas love their little skuas, but these birds are not really popular among both other birds and humans in the area. Some call them flying skunks because they will literally bomb you with a horribly smelly defecation if you do something to anger them - such as getting too close to their nests. They'll dive bomb you and peck the daylights out of you, too. And sometimes, like some horrible Hitchcockian flashback, they'll fly right at your face with their claws outstretched. They do the same thing to any unfortunate penguin who gets anywhere around their nests as well.
Biologically, these birds are closely related to other members of the gull family. And in more scientific terms, their behavior is referred to as "fiercely territorial". Emphasis on FIERCELY.
But awful? Gee, that's kind of tough. Maybe they are avian versions of "helicopter parents".
We took Cece at her word and generally stayed the hell away from these little lovebirds. The photos below were most definitely taken with telephoto lenses.
Small ice floes can quickly close in and trap you on a landing site. Stories were told of previous cruise passengers who were stranded on an island for 12 hours..... (for each zodiac landing, first aid, provisions and emergency flares werw brought ashore for our safety).
Larger bergs can become top heavy and roll, causing huge and sudden waves. Very spectacular when watched from the deck of a large ship (as we did), not so much fun if you're in a small Zodiac.Related to:
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